Movies into books

Usually when the subject is books + films, it involves an argument of whether the cinematic adaptations did justice to the text or why a film hasn’t been made yet. I belong to ‘the book was better’ school of thought and there are very few examples which, for me, disprove that theory but I don’t want to discuss that today, instead I want to highlight the films I wish were books too.

Amélie

This is one of my favourite films of all time; it’s funny, clever, touching and charming. I even think if it had originally been an English language production, I wouldn’t love it as much as I do now.

amelie

She enjoys all sorts of little pleasures… piercing the crust of a crème brûlée with the tip of a spoon

Who wouldn’t want to read about Amelie and her quest to enrich the lives of others? The small pleasures of each of the characters? The beautiful Parisian streets through which she and Nino chase each other? This story and the colourful characters in it would transfer so easily to text. (And am I the only one who wants her apartment?)

In Bruge

A shift in gear now, from the light-hearted French to the black comedic British. This film took me completely by surprise, with a beautiful Belgian setting and wonderfully sharp script. (And I know Callum particularly likes this one, as it stars the very attractive Clemence Poesy.)

It's a fairytale town, isn't it? How's a fairytale town not somebody's fucking thing?

It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing?

Based around two hired guns, their boss and an assassination gone wrong, the trio of Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes give great performances and this film is endlessly quotable – perfect starter material for a novel, in my opinion.

The Royal Tenenbaums

A Wes Anderson film this time, which may seem an odd choice, as his works are always so exploitative of their visual medium, that maybe you think a transfer to the written page wouldn’t be wise. However, I think the collection of odd personalities which make up this fictional family are big enough to straddle such a gap.

You are invited to a remarkable family gathering

You are invited to a remarkable family gathering

This is one of the few Ben Stiller titles which I think is actually any good – and if you haven’t seen it, don’t let his presence on the cast list put you off. Gwyneth Paltrow is particularly effective as one of the three gifted siblings who excel in childhood and find disappointment in later life. Dealing with familial problems has always been prime focus for writers, so there’s definitely an audience for this book.

I’m sure there are others I’ve watched and wished I could read, but these are my top contenders. If anyone read this and is feeling very literary today, please feel free to get started knowing you already have at least one reader waiting for your books…

 

Paramount Perspectives: Part 1

Let's be honest. if there's one narrator you want for your life, it's this guy.

Let’s be honest. if there’s one narrator you want for your life, it’s this guy.

Narrators are our avenue into the fictitious worlds mapped out by authors. Their choice of words, phrases and imagery; their take on events; their prejudices and opinions skew everything we see, feel, smell, experience. Therefore, I think there’s a pretty decent case for arguing that the narrator is the most important element of a book.  And that’s what I want to discuss in these posts: good narrators, bad narrators and the down right irritating.

What started me on this path was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which, as many of you will know, is narrated by death. I’m only 28% of the way through so I don’t know how the choice of narrator will impact the story further on, but so far, after the initial focus on death and its role in the world, there has been little. In fact, it seems superfluous to bother mentioning that death is the narrator; once the main plot takes over, the voice could be anyone’s, meaning that when the odd reference does appear, it almost seems jarring and ill-fitting.

bookthiefYet, I like the idea as a concept and understand why it would appeal to a writer; your choice is omnipotent, does not need to match existing accounts or facts, thus allowing for full creative licence. I just wish that Zusak had actually exploited his choice a little more. However, I cannot dwell on this too long – I am yet to finish the book.

So which narrators in fiction do I find effective? The first that springs to mind is Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. This may surprise some readers as there are many who find her to be the crucial flaw in this best-selling book because she is a child – six years old, to be exact. But I wonder if many of these critics have missed a crucial aspect? Scout is actually looking back at the events in the novel and in the second paragraph we have this line:

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

This instantly changes how we should judge and interpret what is to follow because now we know that not only has a significant amount of time passed, but Scout’s scoutown remembrances have been mixed with those of others who were there. This distance will have had two significant – and seemingly contradictory – effects. The first is that certain parts will have been dulled and others will have been highlighted, thus altering how the story is presented to the reader. One cannot help but suspect that Jem filled in many of the spaces for Scout, as he was present for most of her experiences and being that little bit older, would have much fuller recollections. This interval will also have created fuller perspectives for the protagonists. Who is capable of objectively judging their actions six seconds after the event? Everyone needs time to gain that ability and rationally understand what happened, and why.

The trial of Tom Robinson in particular benefits from having a child’s narration, as it is so steeped in the politics of its time. Scout’s lack of full understanding of the politics at play and Jem’s outrage at what he does understand, allow Atticus to explain the world in which they are living and underline what the modern readers see as ludicrous levels of prejudice and racism.

As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.

Adult characters would be conscious of the racial factors which underpinned American society but no one can realistically expect such a young girl to have knowledge of her family history, nor the societal, cultural and political elements of her world. To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of multiple discoveries and understandings, so it is fully fitting it is through a child’s eyes the reader experiences this exploration.

I want to end this post with some Atticus, because, well, Atticus:atticus

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

The Book Exchange

One of my favourite bookshops – favourite places even – is The Book Exchange in Amsterdam (for more pictures and information, see this page). This place is proof that if someone wants to take all my money and not get arrested for it, setting up an independent, used book shop is the best way to go about it. I have recently moved house and am only ~10 minutes walk away from this little literary haven. Therefore I will probably end up going a little too often from now on, which is possible as these places rely on donators/sellers to provide them with new additions for their shelves.

We were sellers ourselves recently and it felt good to not only give something to a local business, but also to add to the life cycle of some of our unwanted books; hopefully they will find nice, new homes. (Although now I wish I’d left a note or two hidden in between some pages.)

On my most recent visit I found two fantastic gems. The first, is a great hard cover, first edition of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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The second was a Penguin edition of The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.

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Both of these I got for Callum; it is almost as nice to give books, as it is to receive them. Almost. So make someone happy today by buying them a book – and maybe you’ll receive one in return…

And Then There Were None

My top 10 locked room mystery challenge has begun. Amsterdam did have other ideas and initially tried to prevent me; I visited three different book shops and only one book on my list could be found: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Ten people, each with something to hide and something to fear, are invited to a lonely mansion on Soldier Island by a host who fails to appear but leaves a recording accusing all of undetected murder. Cut off by his orders, one by one each die according to a nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldiers. A confession in a bottle solves how nobody remains alive.

337px-483535_569779306387966_835526385_nI had read a few of Christie’s books prior to this one, but all, apart from her autobiography, were Poirot mysteries, so I couldn’t help wondering if I would miss the funny little Belgian detective. Turns out, I didn’t.

I feel it necessary to include the author’s note (taken from her autobiography) which is featured in my edition:

I had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact it had to have an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.

Therein lies the reason for this book being considered one of Christie’s best works: the technical achievement. Of course the plot contrivance which brings the cast of characters together is a little, erm, contrived, but once the background is established, it becomes rather irrelevant to your reading experience. Each of the principal players have their individual reasons for assuming the invitation to Soldier Island is genuine; it is only the reader and then murderer to-be who are aware that they are all being pulled into the nexus of a very poisonous spider.

Although the seemingly impossible murder plot has been (pardon the pun) done to death, Christie has upped the ante with this book: it’s not a locked room we’re dealing with, but an island cut off from the mainland. I’m sure some writers would have found this too much of a leap, but Christie handles it deftly. The book is not merely ten deaths which happen to be set on an island, the location is more than the setting; it is built into the fabric of the story.

Best of an island is once you get there – you can’t go any farther…you’ve come to the end of things…

The above quote is a perfect encapsulation of how Christie uses the island setting; once the group realises there is a dangerous assailant on the island, it is searched and revealed to be hiding nothing. The characters can see the physical limits of everything contained on the island; the lack of secrecy and concealment might seem quite at odds with the mystery genre but it only heightens the suspense. Christie steers away from clichés with the mansion on the island:

There were no dark corners – ​no pos­si­ble slid­ing pan­els – it was flood­ed with elec­tric light – every­thing was new and bright and shining. There was noth­ing hid­den in this house, noth­ing con­cealed. It had no at­mo­sphere about it. Some­how, that was the most fright­en­ing thing of all.

This approach is reflected in how the characters interact with each other: just as each of them can be seen as a suspect, they are also a potential victim. If they decide to trust another person, as some of them do, is it because they genuinely trust them? Or are they the perpetrator maneuvering their next victim in to place? The absence of a detective middle-man uncovering clues for the reader means that, like each of the guests on the island, we have to suspect everyone and trust no-one. This drives you a little crazy at times, as you attempt to detect what is a clue and what has no real meaning.

I won’t give away the ultimate ending, I will just say that part of the solution, I guessed correctly. But I wasn’t able to guess who and I didn’t get most of the how. Essentially, no, I was not as smart as Christie demanded me to be. However, I did enjoy trying to be. If you’re a fan of a seemingly impossible murder, this one’s for you.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the book’s characters, An­tho­ny Marston:

‘Ought to fer­ret out the mys­tery be­fore we go. Whole thing’s like a de­tec­tive sto­ry. Pos­itive­ly thrilling.’

Yes, Agatha, it is.

Time for a new challenge

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Not content with our original challenge, I have decided to take on another (much smaller) one for myself. This one only consists of 10 books, all of them locked-room mystery stories. This is the list published on the Guardian website and complied by Adrian McKinty.

I am a big fan of detective fiction and have already read big favourites such as Murder on the Orient Express and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a tale recognised by many as the first detective story, which features C. Auguste Dupin - a character who later became the model for Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. While this list includes writers already known to me, it also has lesser-known authors and some which have been on my reading radar for some time.

The ten is as follows:

10. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The only one on the list I have read and one which also features on our 100 novels everyone should read. Incidentally, this is not my favourite Collins novel, but I have forgotten a large part of the solution, so it definitely warrants a re-read by me.

9. The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

Carr is a very prolific writer in the detective genre, so I have a feeling that if I love his work, it will be another writer I can gorge myself on and then feel devastated when I finish the books. And then re-read them.

8. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

It is inevitable I would have reached this book, as I consider myself a Christie-ite (if that’s not a term, I am willing to claim this moment as the coining and attempt to make it popular) but inclusion in this challenge just bumped it up my reading list by quite a large margin.

7. Suddenly At His Residence by Christianna Brand

I had never heard of this writer before this list and now feeling rather idiotic, as she has 31 titles to her name – most of them crime fiction, but some for children. Perhaps I’ll enjoy her work as much as Christie’s?

6. The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

The one-sentence summary of this on the Guardian’s list makes it sound great: “Mrs Drabdump’s lodger is discovered with his throat cut, no trace of a murder weapon and no way a murderer could have got in or out.” And ‘Drabdump’ – what a fantastic name!

5. The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Apparently this tale comes with floor plans and maps which demonstrate how someone couldn’t have entered or escaped the room of the title. Tactics like this really appeal to me, as the reader becomes less of a bystander and more of a detective, guaranteeing I will feel even more idiotic for missing the clues for the solution.

4. The King Is Dead by Ellery Queen

Another writer previously un-read by me. This plot features two brothers, one who swears to kill the other, the intended victim in a sealed room, an empty gun in a separate room which matches the bullet, but never fired it. Confused? I suggest you read a fur-superior summary. Damn I’m excited about this one…

3. La Septieme hypothese by Paul Halter

Apparently ‘Although strongly influenced by Carr and Christie, [Halter's] style is his own and he can stand comparison with anyone for the originality of his plots and puzzles and his atmospheric writing‘. High praise indeed.

2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

This one is set in Japan, making me all the more eager to read it, as all of my crime fiction reading so far has been western-based. All the clues for the solution are apparently set before the reader, in a story which spans four decades. I am already certain I’ll miss the important hints…

1. The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

So we come to Carr again, this time with a tale of a murdered Professor in his study and people in the hall outside the room. At the moment this is sounding a lot like an episode of BBC detective drama Jonathan Creek, which I hoped did not borrow from this tale for inspiration or the ending has been ruined for me.

I am going to set limitations on the physical versions of these books:

  • They must be paperback (in my mind crime fiction should be read in smaller, paperback versions)
  • Ideally I will buy them second-hand (again when I picture a crime novel, I see a pre-loved edition)
  • A Penguin edition (as in the picture in this post) would be the ideal one, but I do not know which publishers have the rights to each of these authors.

My precious

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I finished this slim-line novel in a couple of days but didn’t rush straight to review it because I wanted to ruminate for a little while and figure out what my reaction to this book is. I gave this four stars on Goodreads but I still haven’t completely made up my mind.

So firstly, a brief synopsis:

Jeanbrodie.JPGSchoolmistress Jean Brodie’s glamour, freethinking ideas and manipulative charm hold dangerous sway over her girls at the Marcia Blaine Academy – the creme de la creme – who become the Brodie Set, introduced to a privileged world of adult games that they will never forget.

Warning, slight spoilers ahead!

I found Spark’s writing to be quick, clean and sharp. She said quite a lot without the need for seemingly endless sentences and minute description (I’m lookin’ at you McEwan). Much of what human nature is compromised of  is laid out in this book and as Spark allows us to see the world through the eyes of Brodie’s girls, it is often presented without judgment. The girls have not yet finished forming their opinions and characters and I found that Spark was offering us the chance to question our own interpretations about the plot and its principal players. (Perhaps this is why my judgement does still not feel fully set.)

One of the humour highlights for me was the letter Sandy and Jenny (two of the Brodie set) compose on behalf of Jean Brodie. It ended with the phrase:

Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.

I was on a train when I read that sentence and emitted a snigger/splutter which caused the nearest passenger to glance at me with a mixture of puzzlement and disgust. For me, it summed up that stage most children experience with regards to sex. You know it exists, you know it is important to adults and therefore is something they would discuss, but you haven’t quite grasped the politics or social conventions which surround it. And while this particular letter is never delivered to its intended recipient, it made me hope that someone, somewhere has included this phrase in a genuine piece of correspondence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

A shot from the film, featuring Dame Maggie Smith

The introduction of sex and all of its ramifications is something which runs throughout the book; when it begins the Brodie set are only twelve and the main part of the plot ends with them at eighteen. For me, this is a pertinent example of why this book should be read. Sex and its introduction to female teenagers is usually seen as something to be feared, either by the girls themselves (after all, women don’t enjoy sex and only consent to please the man) or by the wider society, as the issue of pregnancy is bound to be uttered in the same sentence. All of the characters seem to approach the question in different ways and thus it has different ramifications for each of them.

I cannot find any confirmation this was Spark’s intention, but for me, the character of Sandy often came across as a psychopath. She frequently observes scenes without exhibiting signs of emotion, and when she does show excitement or involvement, it is in the company of another girl, indicating she is merely copying the behaviour of her friend. Additionally, she engages in reckless or bold behaviour when in the company of adults; these decisions have major ramifications for the plot and particularly Miss Brodie. This made her an interesting read because it was hard to feel any kind of connection to her as a person, instead you were intrigued to see what move she would make next; how she would influence the game Miss Brodie was playing.

Best part: The plot. Although not a long novel, Spark weaves an intricate plot which never feels like it is over-extending itself – apart from the minor instance of…

Worst part: …Joyce Emily. This minor storyline felt a little pointless and unnecessary.

Avoid if: You prefer women without opinions.

Read if: You’re interested in human relationships and sexual politics.

One word to sum up this book: Realistic

Should it be on the list?: Yes, a fine example of how to explore a wealth of topics without feeling stretched (unlike Wide Sargasso Sea)

7.5/10

Madame Bovary

Without going back over my Goodreads ‘Read’ shelf, I feel quite certain in saying that I have never read any novel written by a French author before. If I have, I’ve clearly forgotten so it can’t have been that good. Before some of you shrink back in horror at this blatant sacrilege, it hasn’t been a conscious choice, as I know there are numerous authors out there who are considered some of the greatest and are French. Simone de Beauvoire is on my list of authors to get to, I promise.

So it was with almost zero expectation that I began reading Flaubert’s most notorious work and I’m very pleased to say that this expectation was easily surpassed. I loved this book. Loved it. My Kindle version had a very good introduction which I almost wish I had read after the novel as it gave away the ending (damn spoilers!), but it also provided good historical and societal context, which only added to my experience as a reader.

Here’s a plot summary: the wife of a provincial doctor, Emma Bovary embarks on a life of adulterous affairs and reckless spending to escape her narrow and dull country life.

For me, one of the most outstanding features of Flaubert’s novel was the narration. As mentioned in the novel’s introduction, Flaubert wanted to have a narrative style which would slip in and out of the character’s thoughts without disrupting the flow of the story and he achieved it beautifully in this book. Such a tactic circumvents all of the unlikely plot devices which other authors resort to in order to tell their story (Emily Bronte, I’m looking at you, lady).

He manages these seamless changes so well that at some points I wasn’t sure if it was Emma’s voice (Madame Bovary) or the narrator’s I was hearing, which may sound like a negative comment, but I think it opened up a whole other element of the book. As soon as the reader questions who is speaking, the issue of self-awareness on the part of the character (in this case Emma) is raised. Does she know someone is reading her story? For example:

She confided many a thing to her greyhound. She would have done so to the logs in the fireplace or to the pendulum of the clock.

Is this the narrator’s comment on Emma’s frame of mind? Or is this her own confession?

Flaubert famously stated “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” – something which he later went on to contradict by claiming “There’s nothing in Madame Bovary that’s drawn from life”.

Change ‘religion’ and ‘stories’ to ‘celebrity gossip blogs’ and ‘Facebook’ and you will have the situation many young women find themselves in today – dreaming of a richer, more exciting life, with fame and luxury adorning every day. Flaubert may not have intended to write such a timeless tale, but that’s just what he’s done.

Ultimately, she embodies the idea that when people are exposed to a higher life and greater privileges, we all want to be a permanent part of that life:

In its [her heart] friction against wealth something had come over it that could not be effaced

The ending (usually a nerve wrecking element of a book if I’m really enjoying it) was suitably tragic. I’ll try not to give too much away, just explain that I felt the last two chapters were more of an epilogue, rather than a seamless continuation of the action which came before it.

Thank goodness for the highlight function on Kindles; I have too many quotes to include in one post so here are a couple of my favourites…

  • Emma’s acknowledgement of the differences between her and her husband:

But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him

  • One example, which to me, demonstrates how Emma suffers from depression:

Everything seemed to her enveloped in a black atmosphere floating confusedly over the exterior of things, and sorrow was engulfed within her soul with soft shrieks such as the winter wind makes in ruined castles.

Best part: The narrative style

Worst part: Hard to say… I think I would’ve appreciated a little more of Charles point of view to have more sympathy for him and his position. But perhaps this was Flaubert’s intent. Additionally, the ending felt disjointed.

Avoid if: You’re a science fiction fan.

Read if: You like “real” fiction. Flaubert is considered by many to be the Father of Realism and this book exposes the flaws and failures of everyday relationships.

One word to sum up this book: Perceptive

Should it be on the list?: Yes. I am ashamed I had not read this book before now. There’s much more to Madame Bovary which I have not been able to cover in this review – the effectiveness of the plot, other interesting characters, such as Lheureux, the local loan-shark, or Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist.

9/10