Book Clubs, Blurbs and the Booker

The book club I belong to works like this: We aim to have 12 members. Each member selects a book they would like the club to read. These books then form a list of 12, one for each month of the year. Everyone buys/borrows their own copies of all the books and when it is your book and your month you host the club, and you conduct the discussion.

Possession by AS Byatt was the book for May – my selection. Good decision, yes? Hmm, I don’t think so. For one thing it was 511 pages long. According to Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) by Mona Chalabi and George Arnett, 374 pages is an average for a Man Booker winner. For another thing, the book was full of poetry. This proved to be a good and a bad thing. One book club member ‘loved’ the poetry, while most of the rest skipped this part in favour of the plot. Gasp, skipped some pages!? Well, since I was conducting the discussion I didn’t skip. I slogged my way through which meant that by the time I’d read the book, prepared the discussion, baked the food and cleaned my house I was exhausted.

But wasn’t Possession an excellent choice because it was a Man Booker winner? Not necessarily. For us anyway. In the ensuing discussion it turned out that most of us (South Africans) didn’t like the works of JM Coetzee, another Man Booker Prize winner. This got me thinking about how books are selected for this prestigious prize (which carries a top winnings of GBP 50,000). Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) says to win: you can’t be too young; you should choose a short title; get a private education; study at Oxford; be a man (if possible); write about death loads and love a fair bit; and get published with Jonathan Cape.

Well there you have it. I must say I hadn’t chosen Possession because I knew its author AS Byatt was a Booker winner. I didn’t (know she was a winner). I chose it because the blurb made it sound so exciting. ‘Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance…. A novel for every taste…. You turn the last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it.’ It wasn’t (exciting). For me, at any rate. Which just goes to show that: 1) It wasn’t a novel for every taste. And,  2) Booker prize recommendations and blurbs don’t necessarily equal books that everyone will enjoy.

Onto the next booker prize winning book for next month: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (this author writes about death loads…).

Advertisements

Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”

Cannon

A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.

 

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 2

Part 2

In Part 1 I reviewed two books: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy. Perhaps it’s a matter of classification. A reader will know that when he/she is reading an historical novel that it is part-fact, part-fiction. He/she will accept the ‘suspension of disbelief’ (a theatre term) and enter willingly into the story. Author notes or history books may confirm which parts of the story are factual. If movies were categorised like books are (that is, for example, non-fiction, fiction, historical fiction) would the viewer approach movies with a similar acceptance of their levels of historical truth, as readers do books? Would they enter the ‘suspension of disbelief’ with discernment, knowing that what they are watching is a mixture of fact and fiction? At current modes of film classification (action, thriller, drama and so on), perhaps the viewer doesn’t have sufficient guidelines that what they are watching is part creation, part historical fact. But I’m being generous. Perhaps the bottom line is that we as moviegoers are so dumb that we gullibly accept as truth whatever is simply flashed across the screen at us. And we need experts like Von Tunzelmann to put us straight.

Certainly in the current climate in which ‘fake news’ is, well, making the news, learning to be discerning viewers is an important skill. And this is the vein in which I think Von Tunzelmann’s Reel History book/column could be taken. A tool to help us see when important aspects of history in movies may be inaccurately portrayed. Becoming overly pedantic about what’s true or false in movies, though, is to take away from this media’s main purpose: that of entertainment. I think Von Tunzelmann’s book inadvertently highlights this as well: that movies are NOT purveyors of truth. They are about entertainment.

 

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 1

Part 1

I listened to a book on Audible recently called Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. It’s a novel set in World War II and beyond and covers the stories of three very different women. One is an American actress-cum-socialite-cum-charity-fundraiser called Caroline. The other is a Polish victim of Hitler’s only concentration camp for women, Ravensbruck. Her name is Kasia. And the third is a German doctor who conducted experiments on Polish prisoners like Kasia at Ravensbruck. Her name is Herta. Kelly’s description of the medical experiments the Polish ‘rabbits’ underwent is gruesome. These particularly unfortunate prisoners were called rabbits because of the experimental nature of the operations that were conducted on them, and because they were forced to hop instead of walk after the procedures that affected their limbs.

Caroline’s involvement with the prisoners came into effect largely after the war ended. She helped secure medical treatment in America for these ‘rabbits’ and also helped to have Herta’s medical licence revoked. After the war Herta had initially been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for war crimes, but served only five years. After her release she began practising medicine again until a former Polish prisoner recognised her (in the book this is Kasia) and brought this fact into public knowledge.

Kelly’s account is deeply personal and riveting. And I highly recommend the book for its gripping nature and its important contribution to making certain historical accounts known. The author explains in a lengthy Autor’s Note how she composed the story, and which parts are fact and which a work of her creative imagination. For instance, Caroline’s romance with a French actor is fiction. And Kasia is a composite character of a number of like women at Ravensbruck.

Another book I’ve read recently, this time on Kindle, is Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann. Von Tunzelmann wrote a regular column for The Guardian entitled Reel History. In it she reviewed movies, commenting mainly on their historical accuracy. This book is a compilation of many of those reviews. In her reviews the author was at pains to separate fact from fiction and rated the films according to their historical accuracy and entertainment value. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, for instance, is given an entertainment grade of C- and a history grade of: fail. Yes, that surprised me. I’m no historian and I must bow to the superior knowledge of Von Tunzelmann, an historian. When it comes to entertainment, apart from Von Tunzelmann’s grading, her writing style itself is witty and very entertaining. She says of Braveheart, ‘Tremendously lauded at the time of its release and showered with five Oscars – including Best Picture – it is, historically speaking, one of the daftest films ever made.’ I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it, especially to people interested in the historical accuracy of films. Pointing out historical inaccuracies, particularly in a film that won Oscars, is valuable.

Part 2 to follow on 7 April 2017: When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy…

John Wick: Chapter 2 is an Absurd Catch 22

Image: supplied by Ster Kinekor

When I looked up John Wick: Chapter 2 on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) the rating for this film was 8.2. ‘Ooh,’ I thought, ‘it must be good.’

After seeing this ‘action, crime, thriller’ I was less enthusiastic and thought I’d investigate how the IMDb rating system works. This is a statement on their website:

Weighted Average Ratings

IMDb publishes weighted vote averages rather than raw data averages. Various filters are applied to the raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at vote stuffing by people more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it.

The exact methods we use will not be disclosed. This should ensure that the policy remains effective. The result is a more accurate vote average.

 Votes are posted to IMDb by viewers and quite detailed viewer demographics are listed on the site. And when I looked it up the critic reviews’ metascore was listed as 75 for John Wick: Chapter 2 (compared at the same time to, for instance, Trainspotting T2’s rating at 7.8 and metascore at 62).

I was pleased to see that the critic reviews ranged from as low as 40 (Trainspotting’s lowest was 50). Pleased because I loathed this movie. Knowing now how the IMDb system works I feel free to state with a clear conscience that I am not trying to ‘stuff’ up the votes. I am simply adding my own (very low) vote to the others’.

In this film John Wick (played by a toneless Keanu Reeves) has exited a criminal organisation (something like the Italian mob) but is handed a ‘marker’ that forces him to re-enter it. He is tasked with killing one person, and slays a whole lot of others in his getaway attempt. He does this using stashed arms and fighting off baddies who conveniently attack him one at a time. Wick’s killing of the target enacts a ‘marker’ on his head in return and so this catch 22 cycle (unfortunately) continues. I was very sad to see that Chapter 2 may easily give way to Chapter 3.

JW2_D43_3034.cr2

Image: supplied by Ster Kinekor

The phrase ‘Catch 22’, incidentally, was created by Joseph Heller who published a book by the same name in 1961. Catch 22 means ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’, something Heller’s American army characters experience over and over again in his story. Shortly before watching John Wick: Chapter 2 I listened to Catch 22 on Audible. The narration was brilliant and the story was cleverly written in a style that resembled catch 22 itself. It was ridiculously funny in parts and this humour belied the atrocities – and pointlessness – of war. So, entertainment and food for thought there. I found the style so frustrating, however, that it was hard to keep going (I don’t know how the author did). But then again, that may be what Heller was trying to achieve.

I think viewers are supposed to see John Wick: Chapter 2 as entertaining (and clearly from the IMDb votes many people did) and to admire this clever assassin. I just found the whole thing ridiculous and pointless. No food for thought there.

 

Angst and Entertainment with Audio Books

One of the members in the book club I recently joined regularly listens to audio books. I had never tried audio versions before but was keen for a number of reasons. I could give my eyes a rest. I could listen while doing other things like cooking, travelling and housework. All of this would mean getting through books quicker. I decided to give it a go with the next book on the club’s list: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. I signed up with Audible through Amazon. This service costs around $15 a month. I’m not sure at this stage how many books I can get for that price but will keep a close eye on it. Kindle versions of books, for instance, are always cheaper than the paper version, even when converted to South African rands. So I’ll compare the books on Audible (which I can cancel at any stage) with Kindle as I go along.

the-kind-worth-killingThe Kind Worth Killing, it turns out, is full of sex and murder. The main character, Lilly, a calm and collected psychopath was fairly well drawn as a woman by a male author. At first I didn’t like the story, feeling like I’d entered a Gone Girl type tale narrated in American accents. But then the murder aspect became more intriguing and outdid the sex bits. Things were looking up and I found myself listening at every spare moment. The narration switches between two main characters, a writing technique I have come to enjoy as it adds to the tension. The conclusion to the book is quite satisfying if somewhat of a surprise. Appraisal: good for a first audible book experience.

What was a bit disconcerting about the experience, however, was how much I thought other people could hear of my book. I listened to it while travelling to East London by aeroplane and, despite using earphones, found myself self-consciously turning down the volume when the sex and murder heated up. At home I felt much freer. I removed the earphones, turned up the volume and carried my device from room to room. Even there though I wasn’t spared anxiety. We live in a townhouse just about two metres away from the next-door neighbours. “And then we had sex…” blared out from my bathroom too late for me to quieten the offensive words; goodness, I wonder what they thought of me?

Not to be dissuaded, I am pressing on with the audible experience. I look forward to the next one in my library: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

Add to Your Book List All the Light We Cannot See

In just the first few weeks of January I’ve come across several 2017 “reading challenges”. They’re lists that go from “light” (13 books per year) to “obsessed” (one per week). Some of these lists suggest that the reader try a variety of types, e.g. a book about a hobby, a book about science, Christian living reader, one written in the twentieth century, one about writing, and so on.

I stay away from lists like these as I consider myself definitely on the “light” side of the spectrum. But that’s partly because I have generally discounted in the count anything I don’t read slowly for leisure. By leisure I mean book club reads, favourite genres, the ones you spend hours with at night time, while in bed eating chocolate. But when I counted up everything I’d read (or at least was part-way through) in the first three weeks of this new year, to my surprise, my tally was seven.

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeOne of those was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was a book-club-leisure-in-bed-with-chocolate read. And I loved it. It’ll be a book I remember, not one I simply needed to tick off on an “obsessed” reader list. It was published a couple of years ago and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story is set during WWII and revolves around two young people from enemy sides linked through war and the radio. The radio, of course, was an important medium of both propaganda and rebellion at that time. Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, falls on the side of “rebellion”, while Werner, a German orphan, falls on the side of “propaganda”. Thrown into the mix is a valuable diamond that is secreted out of the Paris museum at which Marie-Laure’s father works. The stone brings into the story themes of desire, and blessing or curse, depending on how the diamond is treasured or viewed. The characters are well-drawn and complex and I came to care deeply about them.

The chapters are very short and alternate between Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s, until right near the end when the two merge. This makes for easy reading, adds to the building tension and draws the reader in with a growing sense of foreboding. The sentences, too, are short and the vocabulary economical (I disagree with one reviewer’s viewpoint that the book was verbose and too full of adjectives). I’ve made a mental note to emulate this writer if I get the chance to write fiction.

So, if you’re a book list person, or want a meaningful story to immerse yourself in, I highly recommend All the Light We Cannot See.