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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?

 
‘[Book title] + summary’ And The Likelihood The Book Will Not Be Read

A photograph of a pile of books

Looking through my stats, I’ve noticed a lot of people searching for ‘[book title] summary’ in Google. (They rarely reach my site, presumably because I don’t provide full summaries, but I see them all the same.)

My first thought was that these people would mainly be students, secondary school age, looking to do what my classmates and me did and get away without reading the book, but increasingly the searches involve modern books. Some of these books I can see being placed on a syllabus but many wouldn’t be. And we’re not talking books that have necessarily been turned into films, either (which might have suggested people wanted to know the differences between the mediums).

I worry because it strikes me as likely that it’s just that people don’t want to read the book. If you get the summary, and thus know the main features of the plot, you can potentially hold your own in a conversation, but you likely wouldn’t get characterisation aspects without a different search and it can often take reading the book to know whether it’s character-driven and so forth. And is pretending really worth it? What happens when the person or people to whom you’re pretending ask about something that isn’t related to the plot? (I know this situation is similar to those times you’ve read the book but forgotten it and therefore can’t talk about it much, but it’s easier there, and likely comes across as honest, if you say as much.) I may be biased – I’d prefer to say I’ve not read a book or not yet read it; then again, I’m used to talking to bloggers and similarly-minded readers who know that the number of books out there is limitless.

Of course another possibility is that of a reader who reaches the end but doesn’t quite understand what they read. Usually those are apparent through more specific questions, but not always. Sometimes it can be hard to find what you’re after with specific questions because you have to get the words correct in terms of how the internet has referred to the subject. I looked up The Bell Jar‘s summary after reading the book to see if there were more clues about Joan’s role than I’ve noted. But when that didn’t work I added ‘Joan’ to my search, which made my intent obvious.

Lastly, if you’re studying another book and that book references another you feel it’d be good to have context for, I can see that being another reason to opt for a summary rather than a full read.

What do you think of summaries online and the use of them? There are quite a few study-sort of sites, but not all of them include commentary – I’d say commentary alongside the summary adds a real reason for it.

 
Planning For Christmas 2018

Book cover

Over the last month I’ve been musing over the end month of the year. Every year I say I’m going to add some seasonal books to my reading list but it doesn’t happen as well as I hope. This is partly because I leave it too late – I’m making up for it here – but it’s also because it can be difficult to find Christmas books that aren’t romance.

Finding Christmas romances are easy, they are everywhere and it makes sense that Christmas would be a priority because of the cosiness, mistletoe, and just general seasonal mood. Most of what I’ve read so far at Christmas have been romances. I like settling down beside my tree with such books but I also want to read in other genres too.

Book cover

And that is difficult. I suppose with literary fiction it’s the case that most books set at Christmas may sport some good cheer but at some point in order for the literary-ness to be included, the character’s lives will be upended… and that’s not really what you want at Christmas. It’s also just hard to find such books; most often those with ‘winter’ or ‘Christmas’ in the title move swiftly on.

Historical fiction is a possibly good bet but you have to accept that any Christmas time will likely be fleeting, and quite possibly unlike the season we know. Then there are classics. A Christmas Carol, which I’ve read; The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe which I’ve also read and is somewhat fleeting unless you include the endless winter into the Christmas time… which wouldn’t be right because as Mr Tumnus says, it is “always winter, but never Christmas”; and finally Little Women which I’ve added.

Then there are these: L Frank Baum’s The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus; E T A Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker And The Mouse King (which, something I didn’t know, was first re-written by Dumas before being turned into a ballet – Dumas’ re-write informed Tchaikovsky); Nikolai Gogol’s The Night Before Christmas; O Henry’s The Gift Of The Magi; Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. I believe the Henry is an adult short story; I’d not heard of it before but it sounds famous.

Book cover

I’ve seen a Dilly Court’s The Christmas Card looks like a possibility, but I’ve read a couple of books in that Victorian-to-early-1900s-historical-sort-of-romance-always-with-similar-set-ups-in-terms-of-family and not liked them. (Is there a specific term for books like hers? They’re a particular sort of historical but are generally placed away from ‘regular’ historical fiction, and are instantly recognisable. I’ve noticed supermarkets here have tons of them but they are rarely on display in bookshops. Historical chick-lit perhaps?) I’ll probably give the Court a go for variety’s sake.

So that’s where I am in my planning at present: Dilly Court, Alcott, a contemporary romance or two (likely by Shannon Stacey because whilst I find her work hit and miss it’s always got the escapism factor) and a few children’s fiction options. When I looked for Dilly Court’s book cover I found this list of Christmas books on GoodReads that’ll be worth looking into, especially as it’s a list of other lists.

Do you have any Christmas book favourites? And have you anything I could add to my list of classics?

 
Analyses Of First Lines #5

I’ve found myself becoming incredibly picky. I started composing this post quite a few weeks ago but didn’t complete it because I didn’t have enough first lines to make it worthwhile – there were many I could choose from within the limits I set myself for this series (books that are currently in my reading life whether already read and being looked at again, in progress, or recently finished) but none struck a chord. Sometimes it was because working out exactly what the first line was could be tricky, with books sporting those sort of prologue pages that might not actually be prologue pages, and others that just didn’t intrigue in any way. Usually this sort of pickiness takes a while – my thoughts on referencing… eight years late – but in this case it’s only taken 5 posts. I suppose I’m getting used to thinking about what I want to do earlier rather than later.

Looking at what I’ve got below, I’ve noticed it’s full of doom, gloom, and hospitals, so I apologise if you’re reading this when you’ve a spring in your step. My reading hasn’t been all angst, I guess it’s just that the books that include it think more about their first lines. There may be something in that.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

The attendants came for him as a pair, as always.

Book cover

He’s been there a long time, and he’s a big problem if two people are needed. We can estimate length of time but the amount of difficulty he’s causing really depends on what this is about. If historical there are a few possibilities – a simple thing of two people arriving; they may need to lift him head and foot; he may be causing them a lot of issues whether truly or in that depraved asylum fashion. If contemporary, it’s most likely to be a necessary thing but hopefully practiced with the comfort of the patient in mind in the context of a much better idea of what he is suffering from. It could be a hospital or a prison, a care home or in-home care, perhaps. Of course the cover gives you a hint as to what time we’re talking about, but on its own the line could be set in any time.

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in.

Book cover

Surprising open, everything is set up, and there’s something quite literary about the way this is a short sentence – the end is possibly near, and so there is little to say on that exact front. Looking at ‘they’, either ‘they’ are wrong and this will be a story in which the narrator gets better, or we’re going to be looking at the past.

The Theatre Of Dreams by Rosie Travers

I met the man who orchestrated my downfall in a Soho nightclub.

Book cover

The use of alliteration, and ‘orchestrated’ when another might use a different word – the start of this story, if not the whole, is going to have quite a lot of drama in it and not necessarily anything involving acting. The use of ‘Soho’ alone, without ‘nightclub’, sets the scene: a downfall – which may well have happened in London if the narrator is there to go clubbing – and the likelihood of their residence there, points to the title – fame.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Book cover

I love this line. I completely looked it over when I first read it, because nothing particularly jumps out at you during a regular read unless the Rosenbergs are a new story to you. But this line is absolutely perfect – everything is provided. You’ve got the season, mood, exact time and year, place, and even the state of mind, shown by what she chooses to focus on. You’ve also got repetition there to draw the reader to the sunny days, and the use of ‘queer’ (as a synonym for ‘odd’), and the way Plath chooses to highlight an electrocution, says straight away that the book may be a strange and/or difficult one. Of course difficult is what The Bell Jar is, but Plath’s bluntness, warning, lets you know straight away what you need to know if you’re just flicking through books and looking for something to read – unlike many books that take a while to show what they are about, Plath’s is immediate. And you’ve got to be thankful for that – her tale is morbid, dark, but she’s giving you an out if you wish to take it.

Whistle In The Dark by Emma Healey

‘This has been the worst week of my life,’ Jen said.

Book cover

Interesting is the chapter heading, ‘the end’ – are we going to be reading the book back to front? And with this first line Healey shows us we’re going to look into the near past, and something that has been bad or gone wrong. Whether or not ‘of my life’ is dramatising things is something we don’t yet know, and we don’t yet know. We also don’t know how old the person is and thus whether or not it is indeed likely to be dramatic or not.

Missing Pieces by Laura Pearson

The coffin was too small.

Book cover

This is rather like the flash fiction piece, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”1 – Pearson sets a very similar scene. Though what is left out that the famous fiction piece included is a reference to time; we don’t yet know how long the child lived for, and thus we don’t know how much, if any, pages moving forward will include references to a life lived. The title of this book and certainly the cover give an idea as to what the book is about, but if you were in any doubt, there’s the first line.

Reading these through again I think there’s definitely something to be said about darker books more often (potentially more often?) having strong first lines. I suppose that when you’re writing about a difficult subject in long form and wanting to get details across to the reader, it’s second nature to start as you mean to go on.

Then there is the fact that sometimes it takes a few lines for the stage to be set, and often these are short sentences where you look at a first line like Christina Stead’s – ‘One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.’ – and wonder if they couldn’t have just created a long sentence, no matter how old-fashioned they seem to now be considered. But then of course short sentences have merits of their own.

With The Bell Jar soon to be behind me I’m thinking again of the idea of close reading ending lines. I think I’d want to retrace my steps and include the books that I’d used in these first lines posts. I’ll have to ponder that undertaking for a bit!

Footnotes

1 I was intrigued to discover that this six-word story is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although there is no hard evidence to suggest it was his. O’Toole (2013) says, ‘a literary agent named Peter Miller stated that he was told the anecdote about Hemingway and baby shoes by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974.’ He quotes Miller’s book: ‘Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end!’ (Miller 1991, p.27, cited in O’Toole 2013)

But O’Toole also cites other variations on the tale, other potential writers. Miller’s anecdote is unsubstantiated. (I think it’s also worth noting that the time scale between Hemingway’s supposed claim and his completing it, sounds incredibly far-fetched unless he had already prepared the story in advance. This surely suggests he’d seen the story elsewhere.) His article, linked to below, is worth a read.

Online References

O’Toole, Garson (2013) For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn, Quote Investigator, accessed 7th September 2018.

 

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