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.

Here we go again…

With apologies to new followers, and those who may justly be expecting comments and replies from me, it seems that for the umpteenth time, WordPress has decided to make me ‘persona non grata’, and they are not allowing any of the recent comments and replies (on other blogs) that I have typed and posted.

I am still here, and have tried to comment and reply, believe me. Check your Spam folders, as I might be in there. It seems that I can still reply on my own blog, so I suppose I should be thankful for that at least.

As much as I love blogging, these constant WordPress ‘glitches’ do make me wonder if it is worth continuing. I am once again royally pissed-off this evening, and I have just about had enough of it, to be honest. Hopefully, I will be back soon, freed from the WordPress ‘jail’.

If not, it has been nice knowing you.

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…)

A Literary A-Z: Q

Ah, the always awkward ‘Q’. Feel free to add your own choices. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it starts with this troublesome letter. I had to do some research for ‘Q’. Although I discovered a surprising number of titles, I also realised that I had read hardly any of them. I have already used what would have been my top choice, ‘And Quiet Flows The Don’, so I am limited to just one book title in this letter. As a consequence, this is a very short post!

‘The Quiet American’ was written by Graham Greene, and published in 1956. It is about an inexperienced young American arriving in Vietnam during the years of upheaval against French Colonial rule, sent by the US government with a secret mission to carry out. He meets a world-weary reporter, Englishman Thomas Fowler, who has settled in Saigon with an attractive local girlfriend, running the field office of The Times newspaper. Fowler’s cynicism contrasts well with the commitment and enthusiasm of Pyle, the American, a young man who believes he has the answer to the problems of that war-torn country.

Greene based this novel on his own experiences in Vietnam, where he worked as a war correspondent for western newspapers. He could see the growing influence of America there, and the involvement of the CIA seeking to establish a puppet government, under the influence of the US. He foretells the Vietnam War that followed the defeat of the French, and highlights the cultural differences that Pyle cannot understand. This was an important novel, and attracted criticism at the time, being labelled ‘Anti-American’. It has been filmed twice, most recently in 2002, starring Michael Caine as Fowler. But the book is much better than either film.

That’s it. Just the one. Good luck with ‘Q’.

Very sad news

I received a notification of a blog post today, from one of the blogs that I have followed since I started out, in 2012. I hadn’t seen much from that blog lately, so I was keen to open the post.
Then I read this.

August 12, 2017

Nandia Vlachou (1975-2017)

“Nandia has passed away on the sunrise of the 8th of June 2017. This blog will no longer be updated, although its contents will remain available in memoriam.

Her husband.”

I can’t tell you how sad this made me feel. Nandia was a married woman, with children who are not that old. She lived in Portugal with her family, and worked as an art historian, and writer. Her articles were always fascinating, and written to a high standard. We shared many blog conversations about films, and she was a great supporter of my blog too. Although we never met, I considered her a real friend, and I was always humbled by her intelligence and experience.

Her blog will remain open for posterity, for all who want to read her work, or enjoy the many images she posted there. I will miss her a lot, and miss her comments on posts, and her opinions on anything. There will be no further posts, and no replies to comments. But if you ever want to have a look at a very classy blog, then follow this link.

Rest in peace, dear Nandia.

A Literary A-Z: P

Finally up to ‘P’. Feel free to add your choices of any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with a ‘P’.

I have to start ‘P’ with an appreciation of the life and work of the English author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter. Her wonderful tales of animals have enchanted generations of children and adults alike, ever since they were first published. She wrote and illustrated 24 in all, from 1902, until 1930. Benjamin Bunny, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, Peter Rabbit, and so many more. Enduring characters that never fail to delight, and are still just as popular today. Potter moved from London to The Lake District, where she was inspired to preserve the natural surroundings, raising sheep, and buying land. Her conservation ideas led to this area being made into a National Park. She was also one of the first writers to ‘cash in’ on the merchandising of her characters, creating dolls as a spin-off from the success of her books. Even today, her association with the area provides an industry for parts of the Lake District, with many gift shops selling her books, and other merchandise based on the many characters. There have been animated films too, and a biographical film about Beatrix, starring Renee Zellweger, was released in 2006.

Very few historical novelists have achieved the output of Jean Plaidy. (Pen name) This English writer published fourteen series of books covering periods from the Norman era, through to the Medicis, Tudors, and Stuarts. Alongside these, she also wrote romantic fiction, historical non-fiction, and children’s stories too. Using fictional characters in actual historical settings and events, Plaidy brought those periods alive to the reader. As well as providing an entertaining read, she also managed to teach the reader things about those times that they would have been unlikely to discover otherwise. During the 1970s, I must have read more than twenty of her books, and if you are a fan of historical fiction, I really recommend them. There are far too many titles to list, so here’s a link to her Wikipedia page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Hibbert

It seems that I can never get away from the wonderful writer, E.M. Forster. Every letter in this challenge appears to throw up another of his great books, and ‘P’ is no exception. ‘A Passage to India’ will be known to many, from the superb film adaptation by David Lean, starring Judy Davis, and Alec Guinness. But the book was published in 1924, set around the days of the Raj, the British occupation of India, and the burgeoning independence movement at the time. Forster captures the clash of cultures perfectly, with a cast of characters who are never to be forgotten, and his detailed descriptions of the lifestyle and surroundings. Another superb novel, from one of this country’s greatest writers.

Scottish writer Muriel Spark brought us arguably one of the most fascinating characters in modern literature, with her creation of the school teacher, Miss Jean Brodie. In her 1961 novel, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, we are introduced to the unconventional woman who teaches her girls in a refreshingly different way. Being set in the 1930s makes Miss Brodie’s style even more outrageous, as she tells the small class about her own experiences, her travels, and love affairs. The girls soon identify with her, and become known as her ‘set’. Miss Brodie’s methods are not popular with some, but she is loved by two of the male teachers, who are fascinated by her vitality. The book was adapted into a stage play, which in turn became a faithful and entertaining film, giving Dame Maggie Smith one of the best roles of her career.

I have read a few ‘legal thrillers’ over the years. It is a popular genre, with John Grisham undoubtedly the best-known writer of it. Back in the 1980s, I picked up a book at the airport, wanting something easy to read on holiday. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I became wrapped up in the difficulties surrounding prosecutor Rusty Sabitch, and the case he was involved in. It wasn’t by Grisham though, it was ‘Presumed Innocent’, by Scott Turow. This is one of those ‘did he, didn’t he’ books, but very well done indeed. It is far from being great literature of course, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of book that you enjoy immensely, then all but forget.
A few years later, it was made into a film starring Harrison Ford. It was a decent adaptation, but somehow I never pictured Ford as Rusty.

My top pick today is from one of my favourite writers, and one of the wittiest and most quotable men I can think of. Irish writer Oscar Wilde led a very successful life as a playwright and novelist that ultimately ended in sadness and tragedy, when he was imprisoned because of his homosexuality. Despite his early death at the age of 46, his work endures to this day. His often hilarious plays are frequently staged, and many have been adapted into films. My choice is his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, from 1890. This has a dark heart, as Wilde tells the story of Dorian, a young man who becomes involved in a debauched and hedonistic lifestyle, under the influence of the dastardly Lord Wotton. Dorian owns a full length portrait of himself, showing him in all his youth and beauty. But as his morals decline, and he sinks lower and lower, the portrait begins to reflect that, becoming ugly and hideous to behold. Dorian shuts it away in an attic, but it continues to reflect his corruption. This is a wonderful analogy, and a compelling read too. It has been filmed twice in English, in 1945, and again in 2009. Both versions are well-worth watching.

Ollie in the grass

One of Ollie’s favourite things is to roll in cool long grass, whatever the weather. I am never normally able to get a photo of him doing this, as when he spots the camera, he stops and stands up. With the longer zoom on the new RX 10, I was able to hide some distance away, and he didn’t spot me taking these.

All photos can be enlarged, by clicking on them.

Ollie in mid-roll. The lack of light meant a relatively slow shutter speed, which helped to show some movement.

After a good roll, he needs a fierce shake.

Refreshed, he looks around to see if he can see any dogs, deer, or squirrels.

I am hoping to be able to get more photos of my canine pal in future. With a silent shutter, all confirmation sounds disabled, and a longer lens, I should be able to take them without him realising.