Posts Tagged The Handmaid’s Tale
It was a good year for superheroes. Most specially because of Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge. I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family. There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok, as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows). And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype. As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way. Spiderman: Homecoming was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart. Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart. With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.
Star Wars is not so much my thing. I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to). But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.
War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.
My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk. That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches. There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces. I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable. But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation. They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers. But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind. I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them. I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,
and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story. Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?
Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:
not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.
Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
La La Land inspired me to write about musicals. It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself. I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.
Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle. However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.
On to the smaller screen.
As always a good deal of crime fiction. The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched. There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them. I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.
Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché. What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain. The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:
One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.
It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.
Line of Duty series 4 was just superb. Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly. It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.
The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always. The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.
Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea). The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense. Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.
Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.
I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive. The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case. They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.
Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument. The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.
Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier. This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently. Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).
Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers. One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time. That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along. Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.
Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.
Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts. Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.
Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running. The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others. It’s dazzlingly done. It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.
We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked. Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs. Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly. It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch. It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.
I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic. The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery. Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it. I have to see how this plays out – and there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.
Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale. I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge. So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.
And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman. Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion. PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor
Three docs worth mentioning. Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression. She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.
Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of 2016, a year of losses. Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums, and the stage musical Lazarus. We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit. And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.
Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers. Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.
We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.
The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.
And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.
We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me. Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.
Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.
And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.
It wasn’t all screen based culture. I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture (see the Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar). I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.
So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me. Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…
Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. This is the second instalment of my reading diary, with the third to follow on 10 September. I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.
Rules? To summarise:
- No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
- Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
- Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
- I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author. That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge. So, sixty books, by sixty writers.
The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.
14 August. Day 15 – reading Kate Atkinson is, as always, a delight. My 2016 books blog said:
And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling. I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again. Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.
Case Histories is obviously different, it’s crime fiction if one has to pin a genre on it, featuring Jackson Brodie (PI) who was played by Jason Isaacs in a TV version a few years back. Not sure why I’ve never read Atkinson’s detective fiction since I’ve loved her other books and – as must be fairly obvious – I love crime/detective fiction. OK, it wasn’t strictly necessary to illustrate this with the DVD cover but, well, Jason Isaacs.
The Le Carré memoir is fascinating. It’s years since I read any of his books, but I have read a lot of them (and watched the recent adaptation of The Night Manager). Le Carré introduces The Pigeon Tunnel with a caveat:
These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?
But he says that nothing is consciously falsified – merely disguised where necessary.
His account of his friendship with Yvette Pierpaoli (the inspiration for Tessa in The Constant Gardener) is a highlight – an extraordinary woman who lived and died in the pursuit of a mission to help people who needed it, in particular refugees, in war zones around the world. Coincidentally, le Carré’s (or more accurately Cornwell’s) world overlapped with Alan Bennett’s (anecdotes about Alec Guinness, and Lindsay Anderson, for example). And another coincidence – Cornwell senior was a fairly monstrous (if sometimes pathetic) figure, a crook and a swindler, and monstrous fathers have cropped up a number of times in the books I’ve read so far.
Now reading Jane Casey’s The Last Girl, her third Maeve Kerrigan thriller.
I’ve read the previous two, and Casey’s stand-alone novel, The Missing, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much. I might have slipped up, however, in reading two crime novels concurrently – will try to avoid that in future, so I don’t get my corpses mixed up…
15 August. Day 16 – I think the occasional sense of familiarity I’m getting from Case Histories must be déjà vu rather than déjà lu. There are multiple narrative threads – too early to see if/how they come together – but not all of them evoke that feeling, which is probably because the TV series simplified things and some story-lines and/or characters were excised. As always, I revel in Atkinson’s writing. She can set you up to find a character ridiculous or unlikeable and then suddenly, wham, you’re weeping or cheering for them.
The Last Girl was thoroughly enjoyable. Maeve Kerrigan is a convincing and intriguing protagonist, and there is a host of persuasive characters – colleagues, suspects, victims – with whom she interacts. Her two key relationships – with her partner, Derwent, and her boyfriend, Rob – have layers of ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty which make them interesting. This wasn’t my favourite Casey – it’s a wee bit talky, and a bit baggy in the middle, perhaps. Nothing that stopped it being a grand read, nor will it deter me from devouring the rest of the Maeve Kerrigan series.
Something a bit different now, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air.
Finished Case Studies. Right to the end, it was funny, and terribly sad and utterly engaging. Did I mention I love Kate Atkinson?
16 August. Day 17 – alongside the Michelle Paver (which is gripping stuff), I’m about to start Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Here I anticipate incredulity and outrage – what do I mean, I’ve never read this? How can I possibly claim any credibility as a feminist and a booklover and a leftie and, well, anything else, if I haven’t read it? Well, I don’t know, I just somehow never got round to it. I did read a couple of hers many years back, The Edible Woman, for sure, and possibly Cat’s Eye. But not this one. I have seen the TV series, which was outstanding, powerful, extraordinary and harrowing. Time I read the book then.
17 August. Day 18 – if I was concerned that having seen the TV adaptation so recently, reading The Handmaid’s Tale would be a let down, I need not have been. The TV series does, I know, depart significantly from the book in plot terms later on (there are already aspects which are interestingly different and I will be fascinated to see how they pan out). But the book can do things that the TV series cannot, even with June/Offred’s narration to help us out, in the description of places and things that go so far beyond the literal and the visual. It’s been said that the best books make the worst screen adaptations, and there are many I’ve seen that would bear that out, although plenty also to disprove it – in this case both the book and the TV adaptation are immense, and horrifyingly pertinent, and will stay in the mind and the heart long after they have been read or watched.
Thin Air is an excellent read – it’s about an ascent, some time between the two world wars, of Kanchenjunga. I don’t know the historical basis for it, and will (by a considerable and commendable effort of will) not Wikipedia it. It’s billed as a ghost story, and so far, so atmospheric.
Finished Thin Air. It’s an old-fashioned sort of ghost story – partly that’s created by the narrator’s voice, he’s very much a man of his time and class, partly because there is always a degree of ambiguity about the haunting, whether it is the product of fear, guilt, altitude sickness – or whether there really is something terribly wrong on Kanchenjunga’s south-west face. There’s a chill in the air, in every sense.
Now reading Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, the true story of Second World War double agent Eddie Chapman. A fascinating character, Eddie. And the story is told with a dry humour that promises well:
Which is how Eddie Chapman came to be pounding down a Jersey beach, leaving in his wake two plain-clothes policemen, a distraught young woman, and half a sherry trifle.
18 August. Day 19 – The Handmaid’s Tale is astonishing. I am trying not to focus too much on the differences between the book and the TV series, just to take in the book for what it is. What strikes me is the sense of time stretching out for these women, whose lives have been essentially reduced to one function, waiting for the moments when they have to perform, waiting each month to see whether they will be able to fulfil that function, or whether some other, worse, future threatens. The other thing is the sheer physicality of the descriptions. As the Handmaids have been reduced to their biological function their bodies become paramount, the sensations of their (modest and hygienic) clothing on their skin, their memories of desire and of a loved person’s arms around them, or a child in their arms. The other thing of course is that the book is entirely from June/Offred’s point of view – we know only what she knows, whereas the TV series tells the stories of some of the other characters, showing events which June did not witness or learn about. This makes the book even more brutal and gives huge power to her statement about why she is setting down her account, why she is bearing witness, without knowing that that there is anyone to bear witness to:
It hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
Just finished The Handmaid. I fear I’ve rushed it, which was always going to be a risk with this exercise, but I will look forward to a re-read at some later point, when I can savour it properly.
Agent Zigzag often seems a less plausible tale than Atwood’s dystopian fantasy. As with so many books I’ve read about espionage and counter-espionage in WWII, what strikes one quite often is that the Allies’ success is due to a mix of brilliance (breaking codes, turning German agents), the incompetence of the Abwehr (sending agents who could barely speak English and/or were utterly unfamiliar with the culture – for example the one who tried to pay for a pint with £10 and 6 shillings, when he’d been charged 10 & 6 ….), and sheer luck.
On now to M L Stedman’s The Light between Oceans. I haven’t seen the film (the trailer looked a bit maudlin for my taste), but the book got some good reviews, and has been recommended by my daughter.
19 August. Day 20 – Finished the extraordinary story of Agent Zigzag. Brilliantly told by Ben Macintyre, who sees his subject clearly and without sentimentality, but with justifiable respect and warmth.
About to start Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth. Billed as an ‘apocalyptic chiller’ – I haven’t yet read anything by Sarah Moss but seem to have several stored up on the Kindle so will be interested to try this one.
20 August. Day 21 – Cold Earth gets off to a thoroughly intriguing start. Set in Greenland on an archaeological dig, Moss juxtaposes the narrator’s voice (Nina, who travels a lot but hates being anywhere she’s not within walking distance of bookshops and good fairtrade coffee, and who worries about everything) and another darker voice from a distant past, along with hints of something bad happening back at home … No idea how this will play out but can’t wait to read on.
21 August. Day 22 – Finished Cold Earth. Interesting how it links in with two of the other books I’ve read as part of this challenge – All the Little Children, and Thin Air. I can’t think of any way of fully explaining what I mean by this, without risking major spoilers, so will limit myself to saying that there are elements of (possible/threatened) apocalypse in common with the first, and of hauntings (possible/imagined) with the second. And they share a prickly unease, a sense of the uncanny, and of growing dread. I mentioned the narrator as being Nina, who gets the first section of the book to herself, but in fact each of the protagonists is given their own voice, so each sets the events, and the other people, in a different light.
Also finished The Light between Oceans. This was emotionally gripping, not so much the story of a moral dilemma, but of a moment when a choice was made – the wrong choice – and events unfolded inexorably such that ‘putting things right’ meant making everything wrong. This could have been a specious exercise in manipulation – it is much better than that, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and the setting too. We are drawn in to the life on the island and the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper, so that we understand how that terribly wrong choice was made. Yes, it’s melodramatic, at points, and yes it is a weepie. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s well written. It sounds as though the film may tip things over into an excess of heart and tear-duct wringing, though….
22 August. Day 23 – on to a sci-fi classic now, H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. It’s of particular interest since this 1896 novel inspired the brilliant TV series, Orphan Black (whose final series we are currently watching). This edition has an intro by Margaret Atwood which is heralded with spoiler warnings so I will read it after rather than before I read the story.
In parallel with H G, I’m reading a thriller which is very much of the moment. Startlingly so. Sam Bourne’s To Kill the President is not about past conspiracy theories (no grassy knolls here). It’s about what happens when the unthinkable happens, and the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger is a ‘volatile demagogue’, an ‘increasingly crazed would-be tyrant’:
When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.
Obviously any resemblance to real persons or situations is entirely uncoincidental… It was written, presumably, during the election campaign, but must have been finished by or very shortly after the inauguration. It’s right now, in other words. Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who’s always worth reading anyway, and this thriller really does thrill.
The Island of Dr Moreau is fascinating – it sits in a way with Frankenstein as a study of man taking on the role of god, in the context of Darwinian theory and with elements of social satire. It’s uncomfortable, in its depiction of white men manipulating and dominating the humanoid creatures who are in the main black or brown, and are described as brutes and savages (however, this is not simplistically a reflection of the racial views of the time, but is justified – to a degree – within the narrative in terms of what defines humanity.
Crikey, To Kill the President was a cracking read. If I’d read it before last November, I would have dismissed it as implausible, but now…. Some of what it talks about has certainly happened, some has nearly happened, and some, well, who knows but it seems an awful lot less fanciful than a few months ago. The crucial thing is that the ethos of the current White House comes across so powerfully – the very question that causes us libtard /snowflake/antifa/alt-lefties so much puzzlement, which is how this administration, this President, can lie, and lie, and lie, without its supporters losing faith, feeling betrayed and fooled, how anyone can look at him and his cronies and not feel revulsion and fear at what they may be capable of. I can’t say reading this made me feel better about what’s happening over there and its potential implications for not only the US but the rest of us, but it was exhilarating nonetheless and we have to believe that there are people like the good guys in the book still working for peace and democracy within the institutions of the State, as well as on the streets of Charlottesville and Boston and so forth.
From a (slightly) fictionalised portrayal of a politician without political convictions or a moral compass, to the autobiography of one of the few Tory politicians I can stand (and not only because he’s a Forest supporter), Ken Clarke.
Finished off the day with a few poems from Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection, Contraflow, published by the estimable Longbarrow Press, whose books are always things of beauty and whose customer service is second to none. These poems are all inspired by the Rivelin Valley, which we can see from our dining room windows, and have often walked in over the years.
The tales that rivers tell have tangled with our own for millennia: before, through, and after the industrial age. Humans’ rapid migration to towns, often along the course of these waterways, has left many of us bewildered and ill-equipped in an environment at odds with the natural world we depend on. Rivers, bringing the relief of nature to the centres of cities they grew, confront us with forces bare-faced and ancient, seemingly unmoved by our regard. Malleable in their youth, prone to messing about before finding their groove, many were harnessed for mill-work as they matured, and then, like us, after centuries of valuable industry, were abandoned, left to lick their wounds.
All these tales converge in the Rivelin, which rises from peat moorland north-west of Sheffield, and descends 80 metres as it approaches the city. This fast-flowing river, and the valley it etched out, is the setting for many of the poems in Fay Musselwhite’s first collection. Contraflow harnesses these energies to carve its own rugged course, with its bottlenecks, bends and counter-currents: tales that slant, swell and spill.
23 August. Day 24 – also reading T C Boyle’s Talk Talk, a thriller about identity theft. It’s intense, all the more so because one of the three main protagonists is deaf, and her struggles with both hearing and speaking, in her attempts to find out who has appropriated her identity and to set things right, are compelling. Very hard also not to feel a twinge of paranoia and the need to check and re-check one’s bank statements rather carefully, whilst reading about this sort of crime.
Ken Clarke’s memoir is packed with detail (perhaps a tad too packed) but fascinating to read his insights into the Heath and Thatcher governments, the EU referendum (the 70s one, though I think I know where he stands on the recent one too), and many of the political controversies and upheavals with which I am familiar but not from a Tory POV. (One does gain the distinct impression that most MPs were at least mildly pissed most of the time during the 60s and 70s.) Also fascinating to read of his Nottinghamshire childhood and education (he was a Nottingham High School boy, as was my husband a few years later). Every chapter borrows its title from a jazz number, another reason for my fondness for Ken.
24 August. Day 25 – Talk Talk was excellent. It’s billed as a thriller but there’s no neat resolution, and it’s about – obviously – identity, but even more than that, about communication and the gaps and dislocations on which relationships and one’s sense of who one is can founder. Another writer who’s new to me but who I will read more of anon.
Ken continues to entertain. I’m up to the John Major government now, Black Wednesday looming. Fascinating to read his perspective on Thatcher: as a longstanding ‘wet’, ‘not one of us’, and a passionate European, he was never an uncritical supporter but he portrays her, not so much sympathetically on a personal level, but somewhat positively in some respects on a political one, at least until her hubris and the sycophancy of her inner circle brought her down.
25 August. Day 26 – Just about to start Patrick Gale’s The Whole Day Through. I’ve read several of Gale’s novels, and loved them, so I’m looking forward to this one.
Very little progress today. Mother in law in hospital after a fall at home, all is reasonably ok but a day spent waiting around (for consultants, paperwork etc) without access to reading matter.
26 August. Day 27 – The Patrick Gale is every bit as engaging as I hoped it would be. I was interested to note that amongst his top ten books, along with Proust (yes!), Middlemarch (obv) and Persuasion (my favourite Austen, as it happens), was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – there’s something in common I think between Gale and Tyler, who I’ve always loved (I think my favourite Tyler would be Saint Maybe, or Breathing Lessons, but Homesick Restaurant is fab too).
Managed to read a few pages of the Ken Clarke autobiog whilst doing hospital visiting (Mum had nodded off, so I wasn’t really neglecting my duties…).
27 August. Day 28 – Finished The Whole Day Through. Gale’s protagonists are both engaging and infuriating, they want and try to do the right thing, but they’re flawed and awkward and muddled. One of his other novels is called A Perfectly Good Man, which is a brilliant title because the man in question is quite explicitly not perfect, not in the Aristotelian sense that his goodness is complete, could not be better, and has attained its purpose. These perfectly good people could always be better, and their goodness often fails to attain its purpose, thwarted by their own flaws. In a way the title reminds me of the way we say ‘its perfectly OK’ which is an odd phrase, but is used to reassure, where ‘OK’ alone could seem grudging.
Also finished Ken Clarke’s autobiography. Of course I disagree profoundly with him about many things, but he does seem to me to be a man of integrity and sense, and his passionate commitment to Europe gives us substantial common ground. One of the really interesting things to emerge is the way in which, from John Major onwards, PMs and Cabinets were in hock to the media, desperately trying to play the (mainly right-wing) press. Ken was persuaded to hold a meeting with Rebekah Brooks at one point and was quite withering about the notion that he, as a lawyer and one of the most experienced government ministers in that Parliament, should listen to and take seriously policy suggestions from an unelected newspaper editor, whose grasp of ethics was decidedly shaky.
About to start Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve read several of her novels, and have enjoyed them all.
So, where am I up to now? I completed 13 books this fortnight, and am midway through 2 (Musselwhite and Beevor). Total completed at the end of the fourth week is 25.5 (allowing the Andrea Levy I read in the first tranche as only 0.5 as it was a short story).
I have been somewhat stymied by events, but am pleased to be as close as this to the target. Allons-y!