A Literary A-Z: W

Oh no! ‘X’ is next…
Please continue to add your own choices and suggestions. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with ‘W’.

I am starting with a look at the work of the English writer H.G. Wells. Another author who displayed a great talent for prescience, his writing predicted the advent of bombing from the air, genetic manipulation, and even space travel. Most English speakers will have read at least one of his books in their lifetime, or seen one of the numerous film adaptations. Even if they have not, they will surely have heard of this famous writer, and his influence on the genre of Science Fiction. He also wrote tales of everyday life, and the adventures of ordinary people, as in ‘The History of Mr Polly’. But he will be best known for his vision of an alien invasion, in ‘War of The Worlds’, space travel in ‘The First Men on The Moon’, or the bleak dystopian future of ‘The Shape of Things To Come’. If you have never read any of his books, I urge you to do so. And if you do, keep reminding yourself how long ago they were published.

As I have covered a novel by Oscar Wilde previously, I will only mention him here in passing. I couldn’t let ‘W’ pass, without saying once again what a wonderful writer he was.

‘The Wind In The Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame was published in 1908. This delightful children’s book is still as popular today as it was at the time, and will no doubt endure for centuries to come. Later editions benefited from the wonderful illustrations by Arthur Rackham, and it was such a volume I owned as a child. (I wish I still had that.) The unforgettable characters in this book include Mr Toad, a wealthy amphibian who lives in the grand Toad Hall and drives his own car, as well as Rat, Mole, and Badger. They get up to all sorts of adventures in the somewhat idyllic countryside of Edwardian England, and they even have baddies to deal with, in the shape of The Weasels. These stories never age, and remain a joy to read.

I have only read one novel in ‘The Wimbledon Trilogy’ by Nigel Williams. As I once lived in that district, I was attracted by the title, ‘The Wimbledon Poisoner’ (1990). I discovered an entertaining and amusing book, telling the story of the unfortunate Henry Farr, a man unhappy with his life, and especially with his wife, who he decides to poison. His effort misfires, and sets in motion a chain of events he was totally unprepared for. In case anyone wants to read it, I will not add any more details of the plot, but can recommend this as a worthwhile read.

Around the same time, I was aware of an award-winning book, about the story of a Chinese woman, her mother, and her grandmother. As I had rarely read so many positive reviews of a book, I decided to get a copy, and see what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t disappointed. ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang looks at the life of one family over the span of one hundred years from a female perspective, and is both biographical, and autobiographical. It is also unforgettable. From the life in China at the time of the Warlords and concubines, through the war and civil war that led to the rise of Mao and the communists, this story weaves the fate of one family alongside the events that formed a modern nation. It comes up to date with the writer’s own experiences; The Cultural Revolution, The Red Guards, banishment to the countryside, and her eventual move to England. Moving, fascinating, and a personal view of turbulent times in modern history.

My top pick today is an uncomfortable but unforgettable novel by Iain Banks, ‘The Wasp factory’, published in 1984. This was his first published book, and what a way to start. It is the disturbing tale of the psychopathic teenager, Frank, who lives on a remote Scottish island. He tells his own story as events unfold, and this perspective makes it all the more chilling to read. As a young child, Frank spends his time making weapons. Catapults, flame-throwers, even rudimentary bombs. He also begins to live by a set of compulsive rituals and habits, and uses his weapons to kill a variety of small animals. But Frank also tells the reader that he has killed small children when still very young himself, and exposes the even darker side of the story to come.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult book to read. There are depictions of violence to animals, unpleasant experiments, and some gruesome details on the pages. But it is never less than fascinating, and alongside Frank, there are other memorable characters to explore as the story progresses.

Just been watching…(44)

The Body (2012)
(Original Spanish language, English subtitles)

***No spoilers***

I make no secret of my love for foreign language films. I really like to discover new ones, those where the actors are unknown to me, and the story has an unusual slant. On first sight, this modern Spanish thriller takes a theme we have seen before, the theft of a woman’s body from the morgue. Then we see some events in flashback, setting the scene for how the body arrived in the first place. The detective in charge of the case has many familiar traits. He lost his wife in an accident, went off the rails, and has recently returned to work after therapy. Starting to sound depressingly familiar, I know.

But don’t be fooled. This is a taut thriller with superb pacing, and little is as it seems to be on the surface. The young husband of the dead woman is brought in for questioning, as the police seek some background as a reason why the body may have been stolen. He’s not a likable man, and the detective distrusts him immediately. Add to that the viewer is privy to many details seen in those flashbacks, and we have a cat and mouse game on our hands as the husband and the cop lock in a battle of wits.

More backstory is thrown into the mix. The detective’s daughter is now living in Berlin, and he hardly sees her. The husband has a young lover, one of his university students. And a mysterious unseen person seems to know everything that happened, leaving tantalising clues around the police station, much to the consternation of the increasingly worried husband. During a night of torrential rain, storms, and power cuts, the story unfolds in just the right way, never revealing too much or too little. The viewer is left in no doubt what has really happened. Or are they?

The final scene is a twist that is simply masterful. I certainly didn’t get it, and the way it unfolds is beautifully done. I haven’t seen a better ending since ‘The Usual Suspects’, so that’s high praise indeed. One of the best mystery thrillers I have seen in years, and highly recommended, if you can tolerate the subtitles. Here’s a trailer.

A Literary A-Z: V

For me, ‘V’ is going to once again prove difficult. I hope that those of you who play along have read enough books starting with that letter, or the work of authors whose surnames begin with it. Because I haven’t.

Knowing about books or writers isn’t enough, when it comes to challenges like these. Of course I have heard of Kurt Vonnegut, but never got around to reading any of his books. I could readily add the name of Voltaire, the famous French writer, but I know that I have never read anything he wrote. So this will be another short post, with no top choice for ‘V’.

On the recommendation of my cousin, I read the graphic novel ‘V for Vendetta’, sometime after 2001. This is a well-illustrated dystopian novel, predicting a bleak future for a Britain dominated by an oppressive government, and telling the story of the Anarchist revolutionary determined to bring down the state. It began life as a comic strip in the 1980s, and was later published in full as a book. There was a 2006 film adaptation that was hugely successful too, starring Natalie Portman.

I loved the novel set in the Cro-Magnon era, ‘Clan of The Cave Bear’. Reading this in 1980, I was transported back to the time of the Neanderthals, a different landscape, and mankind’s earliest attempts at society and civilisation. So when the sequel was published, I bought it immediately. ‘The Valley of The Horses’ by Jean M. Auel continues where the first book left off, and is the second in the ‘Earth’s Children’ series. Characters from the first novel are developed, and it is left with room for the next title to follow. Unless you have read ‘Clan of The Cave Bear’ first, I don’t suggest reading this one until you have.

For my last offering, I turn to the French writer, Jules Verne. Although he wrote a great many books, I have only ever read two of them. ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ tells the story of the attempt to travel the globe in a given time period, using any form of transport available. The hero, Phileas Fogg, makes a bet of £20,000 that he and his servant can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. As a child, I loved this exciting tale of world travel, and all the adventures and misfortunes that befall the pair as they arrive in exotic countries that I had never been to. This book was published in 1872, and despite the fact that we can now travel across continents in a matter of hours, it has never lost its appeal. Like the other Verne novel I have read, ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’, it has been made into popular films too.

A Literary A-Z: U

After the luxury of ‘S’ and ‘T’, we come to the rather awkward ‘U’. I cannot find much I have read in this letter, so I am counting on those better read out there to help me out with suggestions. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with ‘U’.

The American writer John Updike was a prolific novelist, as well as a short story writer of some renown. He also published many non-fiction titles, and collections of poems too. So I suppose I am a little embarrassed to admit that I have only ever read one of his books, ‘The Witches of Eastwick’. This is the story of three powerful women, who discover their supernatural powers after meeting in a fictional Rhode Island town. One day, their world is overturned by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger, Daryl Van Horn, who buys an old mansion in the town. As Daryl pursues and seduces each of the witches, their powers become stronger, and strange things begin to happen around them. It eventually becomes clear that Daryl is something other than he appears to be, and the women have a fight on their hands.
This was later made into a successful film, starring Jack Nicholson as Daryl.

Jewish-American writer Leon Uris was a successful novelist, until his death in 2003. I have read two of his books, the first being ‘Battle Cry’, published in 1953. This is a tale of Marines in action during WW2, populated by an interesting if familiar mix of characters who we are introduced to as they get to know each other before becoming heavily involved in the fighting of battles like Guadalcanal, and Saipan. I really enjoyed this book in my teens, and the fact that is is based in part on Uris’ own army service makes it all the more convincing. It was later made into a stirring film, starring Van Heflin, and Aldo Ray. The second book of his that I have read is the better-known ‘Exodus’, from 1958. This novel set around the formation of the state of Israel was a massive international success, and made into a very popular film too. I didn’t like it that much, to be honest.

The only other book title in this letter that I have read is ‘Ulysses’, by James Joyce. This famous book has been mentioned before in this series, though not by me. This novel looks at the events of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a man living in Dublin. I read it in my early teens at school, and I am sure that its humour and subtlety was lost on me at the time. It was very controversial in 1924, and its style of presentation is also a matter of taste. It is considered to be a very important work of literature though, so maybe the age of 14 was not the right time to read it. Others will be better qualified to comment on its merits.

So, no top choice today. ‘U’ left me floundering, obviously. Over to you.

A Literary A-Z: T

On the home stretch now, with ‘T’. Thanks to everyone who has contributed, and please continue to do so. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with a ‘T’.

As a teenager, I bought a book about WW2, by the Australian writer, Eric Lambert. It was ‘The Twenty Thousand Thieves’, a novel about Australian soldiers serving in the desert campaign, published in 1951. This was one of the most convincing and impressive books I had ever read about what it felt like to be a soldier at war, and I read it again, some years later. I can still remember parts of it now, and it has rested at the back of my mind for all those years. It tells the story of the Australian Imperial Force, from the training camps thorough to the fighting at Tobruk. It is a ‘warts and all story’, with no detail spared, however harsh or unpleasant. Tough soldiers, doing a difficult job, and living hard as they did so. Unforgettable.

When I was still very young, I was captivated by Mark Twain’s book, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’. This introduced me to the fictional life of young people in 19th century America, with their adventures and antics wonderfully detailed. The characters of Tom, his friend Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Sawyer, the girl Tom loves, are all lovingly fleshed out by Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) and the reader is swept along with their everyday lives, and simple pleasures.

Patricia Highsmith once again, and a cracking thriller, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’. This 1955 novel is full of delightful twists and turns, as well as exploring the inner darkness of the title character, Tom Ripley. The avaricious and insanely jealous Ripley will stop at nothing to assume the privileged lifestyle of his supposed friend, Dickie Greenleaf. The details of the deception and double life of Ripley are expertly handled by Highsmith, and the pace is just right too. One criticism is that it may be hard to really warm to any of the shallow characters involved, but that does not detract from the sense that you are reading a novel of superb construction, inhabited by people who are all-too believable.
There is a very good film adaptation too, starring Matt Damon and Jude Law.

American writer Robin Cook is well known for writing compelling thrillers that mostly have medical themes. His 1993 novel, ‘Terminal’, is no exception, examining the progress in the science of biotechnology, set around the arrival of a new doctor seeking to work on research at a famous institute. Cook throws much into the mix. Someone is killing off patients, unscrupulous doctors are seeking to protect their investments at all costs, and there are settings around the world, as well as the theft of organs. It’s a real whirlwind of a book, that may require you to suspend belief at times. But it is as enjoyable as many of Cook’s other novels, and makes a great holiday read.

If I say ‘Long John Silver’, most people will immediately know that I am talking about the book ‘Treasure Island’. Such is the enduring nature of this novel from Robert Louis Stevenson, that just a mention of one of the characters can conjure up a vision of the whole book. This stirring tale of pirates, buried treasure, parrots on shoulders, and exotic far-off islands has become the definitive tale of the pirates of old. Rich in period detail and with masterful characterisation, Stevenson’s 1881 book transports the reader back to the dangerous seas of the early 18th century, the adventures of Jim Hawkins, and the people he encounters on his travels. Wonderful stuff, and it never ages.

Leaving you with much to explore, my top choice today is the unusual historical novel from Gunter Grass, ‘The Tin Drum’. Published in 1959, it looks back to the rise of the Nazis before WW2, and on through that war, to the aftermath. In the city of Danzig, young Oskar is born. But he is born with the immediate talent to think and understand as an adult. As a consequence, he decides that he will never grow up, preferring to stay as a child. He has another talent too. His voice has the ability to manage a piercing shriek, one that can shatter glass, in all directions. On his third birthday, he receives a tin drum, and becomes obsessed with it, carrying it everywhere. As each drum is worn out by his drumming, it is replaced with an identical one, and this carries on throughout his life. Despite retaining his child-like stature, Oskar develops mentally, and soon has love affairs, eventually becoming involved with the Nazis too. This novel is simply unique, and because of that it is hard to categorise, or to fully explain the long and detailed events. It is considered to be an allegory by some, but I would just recommend it as a fascinating literary experience that has few equals.
In 1979 it was made into an excellent film which perfectly captured the spirit of the book, as well as most of the events. I recommend that too, without reservation.

A Literary A-Z: S

My usual invitation to you to play along. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with ‘S’.

I have to give due credit to William Shakespeare in the letter ‘S’. Though he was not a novelist, his plays have undoubtedly been the basis of much of our education in English literature, as well as providing a fascinating look at different periods in history. Some of his interpretations have been challenged over details of historical facts, and others, such as his portrayal of Richard III, continue to be controversial to this day. There can be few people who have never seen one of his plays, whether on stage, in a TV adaptation, or as one of the many films adaptations. Anyone living in Britain has undoubtedly studied one or more of his works, just to be able to sit exams. He left us with many wonderful characters, including one my own enduring favourites, Falstaff, and a wealth of wit and humour in an unequalled body of work. Some academics argue that he didn’t even write them.
But it hardly matters any more who did.

Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish historical novelist who published most of his books in the early 19th century. As a child, I was given a copy of his novel ‘Ivanhoe’, and became lost in the tale of the brave Knights, and the chivalrous acts of derring-do. It also dealt with issues such as the persecution of the Jews in 12th century England, and the rigid class system at the time. I looked for more of his books in the local library, and found a copy of ‘Rob Roy’. This tale of combat, betrayal, and cruelty set during the 18th century occupation of Scotland by an English army, introduced me to the period of social deprivation imposed on the Scottish people, and the harsh living conditions they endured too. Both novels have been filmed, not always with an eye for accuracy, or faithful adaptation.

It is well known on this blog that I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be an overrated film-maker. However, I do love some of his films, including ‘Strangers on a Train’, made in 1951. It took me many years to discover that this was based on a novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, published a year earlier. Although I had seen the film, I got a copy of the book, and even knowing how it would end, I still enjoyed it immensely. If you don’t know the story, it is a marvellous psychological thriller, based on an unusual premise. Two men meet on a train, and share stories of how they are unhappy with the women in their lives. One suggests the idea of ‘mutual murder’. Each will kill the other’s troublesome female, establishing alibis by doing so. I can recommend both the book, and the film adaptation.

The hothouse atmosphere of the early Puritan settlements in America is the setting for ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and published in 1850. Convicted of adultery and of bearing an illegitimate child, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothing, so that everyone will be aware of her shame. This is a tale of lost love, morals, religion, and persecution. Although it is in essence a romantic novel, the historical detail and accurate descriptions of the everyday lives of the settlers raises the book far above many offerings in the genre.

Leaving you with a vast number of options for this letter, I come to my top choice today. Perhaps not considered to be an important work of fiction, I was nevertheless consumed by the fascinating historical novel ‘Shogun’, in 1975. The first of James Clavell’s Asian trilogy, I never got around to reading the other two books, I confess. But this story of feudal Japan in the 17th century taught me more about the history of that country than I ever knew before, and introduced many interesting characters to explain the clash of cultures when a western sailor is shipwrecked, and imprisoned by a warlord. This book has over 1100 pages, so it’s very long. That length gives Clavell the opportunity to develop the story, as well as following the history of Japan during very turbulent times. It was later made into a faithful TV mini-series, starring Richard Chamberlain, and the superb Toshiro Mifune.

A literary A-Z: R

I think ‘R’ is going to be much easier than ‘Q’. Please play along; with any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with an ‘R’.

Beginning in 1930, Arthur Ransome published a series of novels for children, with ‘Swallows and Amazons’ introducing us to life between the wars, in rural England. This delightful novel tells of two families on holiday, and the boats they use called ‘Swallow’, and Amazon’, as they enjoy adventures sailing around the lakes. These books are a delightful look at a certain time in history, with the carefree children untouched by the war that had been before, or the one soon to begin. The book has been adapted for television, and made into films too. It continues to fascinate readers, young and old alike.

American writer Philip Roth is considered by many to be an important modern novelist. He used his Jewish-American background to good effect, as well as drawing on locations he knew well. I have only read two of his books, the first was ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, in 1969. This was thought to be outrageous at the time, with its use of explicit sexual references, and coarse language. But there is great humour in the book, and rich characterisation too. I later read ‘The Human Stain’ (2000) which is a complex and interesting novel about a college professor accused of racism, and his relationship with one of the college cleaners, a much younger woman. It was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Anthony Hopkins.

Booker-Prize winner in 1989, ‘The Remains of The Day’ by Kazou Ishiguro is a wonderfully detailed look at life in the stately home of a fictional Lord, set in the England of the 1930s. Narrated by the Butler, Stevens, we are told a story in flashback, of a life of domestic service, and dedication to an employer. This theme may sound familiar to anyone who has watched ‘Downton Abbey’, but that does not compare. This is a meticulously researched book, with characters that are completely believable. Not only of great value as an historical novel, this book also draws you in to the fate of all concerned; from Stevens, to Miss Kenton the housekeeper, and Lord Darlington, who makes a very wrong decision about where to pledge his loyalties. I really recommend this book, and also the near-perfect film adaptation, from 1993.

John Le Carre is known for writing excellent spy novels, and ‘The Russia House’ is no exception. Published in 1989, this tells of Scottish Publisher, Barley Blair, and his trip to a book fair in Moscow. He later meets a Russian woman who hands him a manuscript containing military secrets, and Barley becomes embroiled in the complex dealings of the British Secret Service, and their ‘Russia House’, the section that deals with spying against the Soviets. Though not as effectively cold and calculating as his ‘Smiley’ novels, Le Carre keeps the tension wound, and the situations credible.
The following year, a film adaptation was released, starring Sean Connery as Barley.

For my top choice today, I return to the Pat Barker trilogy about WW1, and the wonderful novel, ‘Regeneration’, published in 1991. This fist part of the trilogy looks at the efforts to rehabilitate shell-shocked officers in Craiglockhart Hospital, using psychiatric and medical techniques that were very new at the time. Barker skilfully interweaves real people with fictional characters to bring her anti-war story to life for the reader. This is also convincing historically, and readers may learn much about the period, and the real people involved, from reading this book. Without giving too much away, I cannot say any more. But I would urge you to read it, as it is one of the books that has had the most effect on me, and led me to read the following two parts of the trilogy too. I will also recommend the faithful film adaptation from 1997, with a superb performance by Jonathan Pryce, as Dr. Rivers.

(Yes, I left you Rowling…)