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September 2018 Reading Round Up

September was fairly good for reading. The weather has changed but the hours around noon, when there is sun, are hot enough to read outside. Otherwise planning is afoot, for both Christmas and autumn in general. In terms of reading, in keeping with my plans I’ve got a couple of Christmas books from the library; I found Dilly Court’s The Christmas Card and so loaned it out, and they had Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop so I got that too. I’ve no idea what the Colgan is about or whether I need to read any previous books first, but the title sounds suitably warm and fuzzy. I like the idea of reading them now – well, I kind of have to, having loaned them! – and thus having reviews ready for early December. Interestingly, according to the issue slip, the copy of the Court has been issued out in the spring and summer months but never any later.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – A Nigerian student leaves behind the love of her life to study in America, where she discovers that she is now ‘black’. This book is fairly complex, summing it up difficult, but it’s incredible, albeit that the heroine isn’t particularly great (the hero’s fine).

Book cover

Özgür Mumcu: The Peace Machine – A Turkish writer of erotic fiction comes to know about a theoretical ‘peace machine’ that would eliminate hate in the world, and joins the highly political faction that is spending time with those working to assassinate the Serbian monarchs whilst working on their machine. Yep – it’s confusing all right.

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Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar – A high-achiever moves to New York but starts to fall into a deep depression over various social ideals; she had had periods of mental illness before. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, it’s one to read and a good literary text.

I’m just over halfway through Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn which is quite enjoyable and features department store work in 50s America which I’m loving – I enjoyed reading about and watching the following TV series on Mr Selfridge, as well as the glimpses of historical department stores in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Tóibín has included the social change wherein black Americans were finally invited in to shop, too, which is both fascinating and awful – lots of staring, and only 70 years ago! After this, I’ll be picking up those Christmas books.

I’m hesitant about the next few months as I’ll miss the weather. I also can’t get my head around the fact that it’ll soon enough be time to decorate for Christmas. We’ve got a new family member this year so more planning to do.

What did you read in September?

 
Film Review: Fallen Stars

A screenshot from the film

Screen shots copyright © 2017 El Camino Entertainment/Thousand Miles Entertainment.

I have an interest in small independent films, and whilst the trailer for Fallen Stars didn’t grab me, I thought I’d give it a go because it stars Michelle Ang whose work I like a lot. (She’s most well-known for playing Lori Lee in Neighbours, Akemi in Xena: Warrior Princess, and Kimmie in Top Of The Lake.) It turned out to be an incredibly good, bookish, watch.

The plot is as follows: A thirty-something year old man (Ryan O’Nan) who has a very mundane, routine life, starts to feel stifled by the bartender job he’s been doing for 10 years. When a new customer, Daisy (Ang) walks in with her book, few words, and sullen manner, he’s intrigued, but her mood remains. Meanwhile, Daisy is facing a monotonous life of her own. On her walks she goes to the dog shelter but although she becomes fond of one of the dogs, she won’t let herself adopt it.

A screenshot from the film

The film shows us the progression of the pair’s friendship day by day. It’s as slow as the blurb sounds but that is the point of it. It’s obvious that every little thing in this film has been thought through, from the same old takeaway menu that gets dropped through Cooper’s letterbox every day, to the plot that carries on with little change for quite some time. Cooper wakes up at 7, gets coffee, naps, goes to work, and returns home with little difference for days, the story unapologetically portraying aspects of regular life at the same time it shows how unexciting this particular one is.

As the film continues little changes start to be added and mount up – Cooper rises at 9 one day (you notice the alarm clock), he starts to meet up with Daisy, he sits in his garden to read the book she was reading at the bar. And along with this, the plot ekes out what Cooper and Daisy’s backgrounds are; ashamed of their lives, it takes events like bumping into old friends for their history to be revealed to the film-goer. The eking out also applies to the friendship, as the characters hold back their emotions from one another and mistakes are made.

A screenshot from the film

The whole is about how life is when you haven’t reached your potential and feel it keenly, as well as how life is when you’re overwhelmed by your work to the point of avoiding it. As the film continues it becomes particularly poignant and there is a big reveal about 2/3 of the way through that completely changes everything, not in a major shock-tactic manner, more in the way you’ve been viewing these people and their lives. It’s a surprise that will be welcomed by readers, in fact the film’s atmosphere as a whole is a sort of Groundhog Day/literary fiction mash up; Daisy uses books to halt conversation and Cooper to try and improve it; and then there’s the surprise.

When it comes to the dog shelter there’s an early punch, and this feeling extends for a while before reaching a better place, this is to say that if you’re an animal lover you’re potentially going to find it very emotional.

Restrained acting, storytelling, a dull pastel palette to work with – by description it’s boring. But if you’re prepared to give it time, it comes into its own, the character development, the acting, and the whole concept planned and executed to perfection. It’s available to watch on Amazon and iTunes and in some countries available to purchase on DVD.

 
Özgür Mumcu – The Peace Machine

Book Cover

The mechanical dove.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 215
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27394-3
First Published: 2016; 31st May 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 24th September 2018
Rating: 2.5/5

Original language: Turkish
Original title: Bariş Makinesi (Peace Machine)
Translated by: Mark David Wyers

In the very early 1900s, Celal, an orphan living in Turkey, saves the life of a wealthy man, and the wealthy man adopts him. When Celal grows up he becomes an erotic novelist, sending chapters one by one in secret to Paris where they are printed in a basement and distributed. On a trip to France, Celal is questioned by a policeman who doesn’t want to arrest him, in fact he wants to give him a script by a friend to look over. The script includes the name of Celal’s adopted father and discusses the idea of a machine that would wipe out hatred by disposing of free will.

The Peace Machine is a historical novel about the politics in early 20th century Serbia (public anger that led to the May Coup when the king and his commoner queen were assassinated) and the countries allied with the opposing side. Involving slight magical realism, the book sports an interesting premise but quickly becomes confusing.

The basics of this novel are good. The setting is intriguing – the history’s interesting anyway, but the way in which Mumcu describes it is great, pulling you in from the start. The way Celal’s writing career goes on and the spots of magical realism around are fantastic. And the look into the revolt against the Serbian monarchy is good, too.

But a lot is missed out – the narrative jumps from one situation to another, with Celal moving around for vague reasons; the politics isn’t explained particularly well – unless you’ve a lot of knowledge you have to research it to understand, and even then it’s confusing. The machine itself is barely included, only at the tail end of the narrative, and not described in much detail. It’s ironic, perhaps, that no one in the book is likeable; when they are all looking to make the world peaceful by altering people’s souls with an electrical device one can’t but look askance of the extreme violence that they show to each other, and to others.

A more detailed plot, more developed characters, and more reasoning beyond philosophical concepts, would have made The Peace Machine a better book. As it is, it’s very difficult to get into for more than a few pages at a time, the narrative putting scene changes before information.

I received this book for review.

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Film Review: This Beautiful Fantastic

A screenshot from the film

Screen shots copyright © 2016 Ipso Facto Productions/Smudge Films.

This Beautiful Fantastic is only a couple of years old, a British production shot and released in 2016. I had never heard of it until I stumbled upon it on a catch-up service (it’s on iplayer for the next month). I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d write about it.

A screenshot from the film

The story centres on Bella (Jessica Brown Findley), a young woman with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – timing and organisation rituals, mostly – who lives in a basement flat in a nice area. As a baby she was left in a box in a park, found by an elderly gentleman who had gone for a swim in the lake. She went to a convent school. (The details here are vague, presumably to add to the fairy tale nature of it.) Now grown up, she lives an old-fashioned life, dressing in clothes from decades past and wearing an old digital watch, and works in a library that fits her lifestyle. The only thing about her world that isn’t tidy is her garden, a wild patch of ground that scares her. One day she injures herself; her curmudgeonly neighbour, Alfie (Tom Wilkinson) takes her in, where he proceeds to rant about dinner to his cook, Vernon (Andrew Scott), which leads to Bella offering Vernon a job with her. Annoyed, and with Vernon refusing to return, Alfie tells Bella’s letting agent about her garden, and the agent gives her one month to clear it up or leave her flat.

The above is about 1/3 of the story – the story is about more than the garden, but gardening and its benefits are what the film revolves around.

A screenshot from the film

Bella’s life story, told at the beginning of the film, includes more than a hint of magical realism, and there’s a strong literary atmosphere throughout that suggests you might be watching an adaptation of a wonderful novel, perhaps by Amy Bender or Frances Hodgson Burnett, the latter not simply because of the garden but because of the magic. There’s also some soft humour that suggests the writer was inspired by Alan Bennett. But the film isn’t an adaptation, it just feels like one, and it is this that makes it a good possibility for a book lover.

There is so much to this film: the look at mental illness and the way support can make a difference; the romance (Bella and Billy, played by Jeremy Irvine) that is very well done both in the script and by the actors. And there is the production itself: a slight bloom effect covers the picture for the entirety of the film; the colours are muted, often dark. The use of history in the eccentricities is weird and wonderful and confusing; you’ll likely continue to ponder on is exactly when the film is set, the story offering a mix of a present day background with people who run the gambit from tracksuits to steampunk.

A screenshot from the film

The literary quality of the film extends to Bella’s occupation – a librarian seeking to become a children’s author and illustrator. And Alfie’s book-like narration rounds it off.

Certainly you have to suspend reality in order to enjoy this film. As this is a book blog I’ll say that I think anyone who likes Austen, the Brontës, Dodie Smith, and magical realism, will at the very least appreciate it. It’s slow, full of feeling and fantasy.

It’s a film that should be a book.

 
How Can We Make Literature Less Intimidating?

A photograph of a copy of Jane Eyre with a lock and chain around it

When I sat down to brainstorm this idea, I found answering the question hard, until I decided to reverse it. Thinking about how could we make literature more intimidating immediately brought to mind that to do so would mean having to keep doing what we’re (general) doing, stick to the status quo rather than continue down the paths a few people and publishes have started to take. Which then answers the first question.

To look on the idea of making it less intimidating, one of those paths that have been created is Quick Reads, the handful of short, easy reads, that are published each year, written by well-known writers. I’ve only read one, but it was enough to see the idea fully in action; I would presume the thought is that after some of these books a person might try something longer and more complex. Might – they don’t have to of course. (A note: Quick Reads is just as much about time constraints as it is making literature less intimidating, I believe.)

The ‘problem’ with the idea of less intimidating literature is that you have to look at specifics rather than the broad picture or it becomes controversial, for example, if ‘literature’ means classics and literary fiction, the argument would be that they ought not be ‘dumbed down’ in any way (and indeed to do so would mean current readers may not like them). But if applied broadly, then we can consider all the genres, which includes fantasy, science fiction, and crime, which often seem the most intriguing and most likely to be read by non-readers. With fantasy there’s less you need to know, in terms of facts, going in because it’s all to do with making things up.

A different point is the importance of letting people read what they want to read and come to their own conclusions. School English lessons, when part of the mandatory curriculum don’t often help with this and if it puts people off that’s a problem. It’s important that someone is allowed to interpret a book through their own experience, no matter how much, or little, or relevant or not, it might seem to others.

I think we do a good job with covers – lots of variety, though obviously trends stay in place for each genre – and in having books that relate to the audience that the shop serves; there are a few specific genres in supermarkets here. You rarely find literary fiction in them but the ‘easier’ books that are stocked must have an audience they wouldn’t be on the shelves. (I know there’s dislike for supermarkets and knocked-down prices, but it’s surely a very good place for fiction if you want to reach those who wouldn’t normally go to a bookshop, whether due to intimidation or price, and it’s easy to find yourself in the aisle whilst looking for something else.)

I do think a lot of it comes down to support and accessibility – accessibility of conversation and a good welcome to it – more than the books themselves. If you feel included in the conversation and able to ask questions and make mistakes, then you’re surely going to be more interested in the idea of picking up something that might be challenging.

How do you think literature could be made less intimidating, and do you have any stories of converting daunted non-readers?

 

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