Book

‘This inhuman place makes human monsters.’ The Shining.

3995322Ok… So you know what I was saying yesterday about Nervous Conditions. Well. That may have sort of come back to bite me a little. The exam that I was talking about? It was horrible. Actually, that should be capital. Horrible. And so, dear friends, I ended up sitting in that very exam hall less than five hours ago on the verge of very nearly dying from panic (honestly, no heart rate should go to 167bpm) when I thought of one thing that could very possibly transport me from that particular sports hall into my happy place. As you may have guessed, that may possibly have been The Shining. I mean, if I’m completely honest, any of those questions which I most certainly could not answer with my own texts would have been infinitely better if referring to The Shining. I mean, at least answerable. Oh God. So, as a homage to my favouritest book of all time (excuse the english, post-traumatic stress) I thought I’d try to do it justice with one of my usually nonsensical reviews.

So yeah, The Shining, is my ultimate happy days novel. The book I go to when I just can’t deal with things. A beaming light (‘scuse the pun) in a dank world of exam drudgery and general angst. I know this sounds strange, especially if you have read the book, but honestly, for all of its gruesome imagery and creepy characters, I have to say I believe it to be an article of perfection. Even though my own personal copy contains at least six typos… Sorry! I also count it as my gateway into the horror world. I’d seen it on the shelf every day for around thirteen (coincidence?) years and every day had walked past thinking, knowing, that there would be something special about it. I don’t know how, I mean it’s not just that it’s revered internationally by horror-lovers and loathers alike. It’s not just that it led to a shockingly executed but highly popular cult film. Not even that the shockingly broken spine gave me some sort of prescient tingle of fear. I’m just not sure, it just looked good. Good enough that I was happy to sneak it from that very shelf and, despite the sleepless nights that followed, devouring it in a matter of days…

Now, it doesn’t start particularly well, but even then, you’re being drawn right into the scene – observing the thoughts of Jack Torrance as he uses his ‘PR grin’, one part that did work in the film, to procure him his fateful job as the hotel caretaker. We’re then transported back to his family waiting at home, Wendy and Danny, eagerly awaiting Jack’s return. We’re introduced very quickly to the problems prevalent in the Torrance family as seconds in, Wendy is already alone, crying upstairs. Back to Jack, being shown around. We are introduced to the boiler (no need for spoilers, but watch this space) and then rapidly back to Danny who shows his first signs of having something special, a force, later known as ‘shining’ which as the name suggests becomes increasingly significant as the story goes on. Jack returns and we are again alerted to his troubled family relationships and given an insight into some other disturbing previous events… And before not too long we’re at part 2 where the whole family have finally arrived at the hotel. There’s freaky images of nuns, but the atmosphere is relatively positive. Until everyone leaves and silence falls over the hotel. It’s not long before things then start to become really really strange.

The Overlook is a world of eternal ghost parties, bleeding clocks and of course REDRUM. Madness, innocence and the shining. Jack descends steadily into complete obsessive madness as the hotel begins to take control and in turn Danny and Wendy become privy to its effects. Which could only make them more nervous, I guess. I mean, I’m not sure, but living with a madman in a blocked off hotel cannot be much fun. Especially if you don’t realise before it’s a little bit too late. As he gets madder and madder, one can’t help but get more and more absorbed. I guess that is Stephen King’s true talent. He is a fabulous storyteller. I guess that’s the point, I suppose he has to be for the day job. But it’s really true. And it’s not just cheap thrills he provides in his stories, but genuine undercurrents of absolute gritty fear. He gets people. No, I can say that better. He understands the human psyche. Can get into the scariest parts of the human brain and relay them back to us in a neatly horrific package. There are sickening moments (see brains on the walls), gore (I always shiver with the story of the previous caretaker) and very real human anxiety (deep seated family issues, child abuse etc). It caters to every sense, and seriously, after reading it I can no longer walk past any topiary animals.

I guess it’s just the way he strikes the balance between thriller and close-to-home psychological horror stories. I mean, the point is, I guess anyone would go mad if left to their own devices in an empty hotel for three months. It would be impossible not to. Add to that the ‘power’ of the hotel, just trying to make things worse, controlling you. Using you. Now, who wouldn’t jump off the sane train? I would only hope that I wouldn’t go so far as to fall in love with a boiler, but you know beggars can’t be choosers. Include the explosive ending (which may plausibly be jumping the shark a little) and the inspirational escape efforts from Danny and Wendy and you have a completely fabulous end product. Not just a haunted house story, but a real horror story. That strikes one to the bone.

Really not bad, especially considering it’s based on a John Lennon song…

*****

‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ Nervous Conditions.

nervous conditionsOk… Now I may be biased about this particular book… So I feel I have to be honest before I really get to grips with it. This is the exact text that I will be using tomorrow in my english literature exam. The very one. I will be in a silent room, under time pressure,  trying to glean all sorts of A* worthy quotes and literary nuggets from one of the very few copies in existence in less than 24 hours. Hang on. Maybe less than 12 hours. Unless I don’t sleep. Oh God. All I’m saying is that there probably are a great deal of valid reasons why I should feel so strongly about this book. I’m just going to say its hideous. Really really bad. Do not go near it with a barge-pole. Unless, like me, you absolutely have to and your english grade depends on it. We’re totally talking in the worst possible of circumstances. Completely and utterly.

Anyway, the thing is, there is probably a very good reason why there are so few copies around… And why I know I’m certainly not the only one who lets out a genuine groan of pain when its name gets mentioned. Ugh. Right. Where to start? First off, we all knew how painful it was going to be pretty much as soon as we had read the blurb. Blurbs are there for a reason – and usually that reason is to try and represent the book in its best light, hopefully with the aim of enticing as many readers as possible into actually buying it. But I can definitely say anyone who takes the time to try and read this one would be seriously put off, or have to be completely mad to ever want to attempt to read it. Honestly. Right… To prove my point, here’s my particular favourite, the first line of criticism:

‘The introspective function of the novel as a genre emerges clearly in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work, a Bildungsroman that offers us a moving narrative of the developing consciousness of her young, female characters.’

I mean, oh my crikey, what does that even mean? The only reason that I have any clue of what a Bildungsroman actually is (and yes have started using it as a tag) is due that that genuine piece of literary nonsense. Nobody speaks like that. Nobody reads a book and thinks ‘hmm how introspective that was’ or that totally ‘[mapped] at once the tortured routes to female subjectivity and the path to gender egalitarianism’ (another genuine favourite). Blimey. Really, would you?

But anyhow, it’s not the blurb I’m meant to be criticising, however difficult it is to avoid, but the content of the book itself. Just going to say now. It really doesn’t get much better. At all. Set in 1960s Rhodesia, just prior to it becoming Zimbabwe, the novel follows the life of Tambu, an impoverished young woman, through first person narrative. Tambu lives in a world where women are accepted as nothing more than a means to an end by men – they produce children, cook and clean, and most important, remain silent. The book itself does not in fact have a linear narrative, but is written in such a way as to echo other African literature, through episodes or moments, completely circular – you have no idea what moment in her life she is discussing until she’s moved on to the next. In its style, I suppose, the book can be forgiven. There are instances of purely delightful description and clever imagery. But they are too few and far between, spaced apart by a hideously dull narrative of something that has a great deal of potential. Now I know I could not write it any better, but God, Dangarembga was very much onto something here.

The book essentially covers the struggles of the women around Tambu, each fighting against their men and their circumstances to try and survive as best they can. You have Nyasha, a westerinised, intelligent and fragile girl; Tambu’s mother, a demon-obsessed, bitter old woman; Lucia, the one piece of comic relief in the whole text… And then you have Tambu. Who goes and ruins it all by being so blooming sensible all the time. She claims throughout to be calm, demure – the model of the perfect African woman. Except her one issue is that she is too intelligent. She strives to be educated, even to the point of being ‘vindicated’ on her brother’s death as it means she can go to school. Reading Tambu’s narrative, I could not help but feel one thing. Unlike she actually claims in the beginning, she is cold. She is callous. She, to me, is just a nasty piece of work. And I’m sorry, but I really struggle to sympathise with her. Empathise, yes. She has an incredibly hard life and has to go through some awful experiences to become recognised. She has to deal with her ignorant father, her limited circumstances and Babamakuru, the ‘saint’ who is actually just a man with a messiah-complex. And herself. Basically, she just didn’t feel real. So therefore I have no sympathy – and usually I’m a soft touch.

And this may become a bit of a running theme but I really do struggle with people who are not real. Ok, that sounds completely bizarre. But it’s true. I’m sure we’ve all read works of people who you just think, nobody, absolutely nobody would deal with this scenario like this. It just isn’t feasable. Yes, some of the feelings she conveys are deep and highly telling, but there is no point in the novel where I would go as far as to say they were moving. Because that wouldn’t be true. Tambu fundamentally innoculates us against everything, good and bad, in the novel. The happiest moments are muted by self-loathing and annoying and non-sensical asides. The bad bits are covered up by Tambu claiming it’s in her personality to ignore them. Quite honestly, this does not work for me. I mean if that is Tambu’s genuine stance, how is she ever going to get anywhere? To illustrate, her personality continues to diminish as her relationship with Nyasha develops. There is, at one point, a truly very gritty scene where Nyasha ends up being beaten for her insubordination. Tambu herself is also beaten later on by the same man. But these events do not seem to categorize as anything else to Tambu than part of normality. She carries on and merely mentions it in passing, before continuing to lament about her lack of feminine normality.

While this, as a literary technique, is sometimes effective, it does just become a little grating when used gratuitously. It seems Tambu is unable to completely engage with and relate to her own life. That’s the reason why I chose my key quote, I guess. Even when her brother, Nhamo, who yes is not the most pleasant of people, dies from an unknown mumps-like disease, Tambu seemingly makes no effort to do anything about it. I’m not saying that she should be outwardly shouting and crying like her mother, because that might get a bit tiresome in this format, but seriously, if she is so ‘vindicated’, could we have a little more chirpiness? Ok. That sounds completely wrong considering we are discussing his death – more than a little morbid – but she says it, not me.

I’m guessing that that’s my main point though. We expect through the narrative that she would be willing to be more open with the reader. I guess the point is that we don’t even have to like her to enjoy the story. But when a narrator’s character becomes distractingly and constantly bleak and bland, the book can’t help but feel more than a little beige. And that is so an understatement. It is dull as hell. And yet it shouldn’t be – it really does have something to say…

But it is. And my exam is in less than ten waking hours.

**

 

‘It was beautiful because it was natural.’ Ritual.

ritualAnd now for something ever so slightly different. Well. I say that. Review technique is likely to be ever so slightly similar, and all the more saddening due to that… Possibly. Maybe. For which I apologise in advance, but hey, needs to be done and I want to do justice to Ritual. So yeah. Shall we get started on some background? Right ho, here we go.

Right, so Ritual is commonly accepted amongst classic horror buffs as the original inspiration behind The Wicker Man, which may just have been the primary reason why I ended up reading it. Of course, being me, all it took was three seconds on wikipedia and then whoosh, I was off and £3.50 on amazon later was a very happy bunny. Which diminished rather soon due to the delivery time. But hope was on the horizon! And I don’t know where I am… But anyway, Ritual was written as the first novel of RADA trained playwright David Pinner in 1967, but following its fleeting popularity long since disappeared. According to my own copy, it was so unheard of that if you wanted to get your hands on a copy, you’d have to be happy to part with around £300-600. Which, you know, it’s a good book, but it’s not that good. Sorry.

So yes. The plot sort of roughly follows the same line as the spawned film, but without the actual legendary wicker man himself ever making an appearance. Shame, really. Anyhow, to avoid spoilers, I’m going to make things as deliriously simple as such a murky plot can be made. So, slightly less than crystal clear, if that’s ok. The novel opens to a rather disturbing scene: a girl lies apparently asleep under a giant oak tree with the emblems of a dead monkey’s head and some garlic flowers lying next to her. But, on looking closer, she is, of course, dead. Mystery and suspense from the beginning – love it! As we move out from this initial tableau we are introduced to the secretive child protagonist of the peace, Gilly Rowbottom, who races away from the dead girl to tell the latter’s parents of what has happened. What follows is a brief interrogation with the Sparks (Dian’s parents) before we are completely swept from the scene to meet a mysterious police officer at the station. Cue a mystery story surrounding the occult, sexuality, insanity and other general shady small village shenanigans. Fab.

And if that hasn’t hooked you already, no matter how poor a synopsis that was, there are so so many reasons why you too should read this. Seriously. Firstly, it has an insanely rapid story line – you’re drawn in completely and it’s so engaging you can hardly escape, but that doesn’t matter… It’s all over so soon! Honestly, I read at what I assume to be the average speed, but this book was done in less than five hours tops. So yeah, if you have no time, this is perfect for you – you’ll be absorbed from the beginning and stay that way throughout. Furthermore, not only is it completely absorbing, but also the storyline is very smart. Very smart. There are twists, turns and everything in between as the reader too is drawn into trying to solve the mystery. Who knows who could have murdered (or not…) Dian, but as the story progresses, the less clear cut the crime becomes. It seems both everyone, from the highly verbose and irritating priest to the Sparks themselves, is responsible, but also that no one is. Simultaneously. And if I remember correctly, I believe you never get told the true answer in the first place. Which I know annoys a fair few people, but personally I think it’s fantastic. So, it’s quick, it’s a book that will make you think, what else?

Well, purely as a time capsule it serves us extremely well. I doubt that there are many writers who could write like this today. I mean, for a start, the density of exclamation marks (I’m saying average 60+ a page) is definitlely of another time. A time when authors like Pinner really were classically trained recluses working on polished oak desks in musty terraced houses. Ok, making that up, but you get my metaphor. While not truly historical, yet, it does serve as an excellent work of another time, the characters themselves live and breath ancient rural tradition, but are represented as being like that at the time of writing (the late 60s). There’s a distinct realism in their fantasy – their rather backwards nature hails itself not as a fully medieval celebration but as more of a developing and morphing part of the villagers’ modern lives. Which only goes to make it more strange, in a way.

Yet, as we reach the end, I can’t help but be a little mean on some points. In general, this was excellent, but there are moments where it does fall short. For one, I resent some of the character’s ridiculous verbosity. I accept that this is a matter of taste, and as I thought was wonderful before, is completely a sign of the times it was written in. However, when certain dialogues become less of a conversation than a verbal jousting match, I did find myself skimming. Maybe I’m wrong, it is highly possible that there are some hidden nuances inside the gratuitous dialogue, but I’m just not sure. Also, blooming exclamation marks. Invented for a purpose, and that is not to be placed at the end of every single sentence. If the verbosity is gratuitous, then the exclamation marks are almost certainly towing the line also. Which is a shame – I feel there is a lack of sincerity and genuine feeling in all the lines that end thus! Honestly, some don’t even require the mark! God, now I’m doing it!

But, all things considered, I find Ritual highly refreshing – but also feel that maybe I should mention that for those looking for a direct copy of the film in writing, it is not the book for you. At all. Besides the crazy moon-worshipping ceremonies, there aren’t many points where the film represents the book. Which I hold as a positive thing… Anyhoo. As a quick read that leaves you pondering and also expounds some of the lesser loved qualities of crazy Cornish villages, this book is brill. Enough said, I feel.

****

‘Don’t give up before the miracle happens.’ Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeSo I finally got round to reading this. And boy was it a quick read, but brilliant nonetheless. You’re probably starting to think that I lack any general ability to think critically of anything in general, but believe me, I feel there might be a rather scathing review of Cider with Rosie coming up. But for now, this will be a rather happifying entree into my first book review. Which is rather nice, isn’t it?

So, for a vague synopsis of FGT (sorry, as plausibly inappopriate as that sounds, too much typing may bring on the RSI – what is with the acronyms today?) it basically follows the relationship of Evelyn Couch and her rather elderly friend Ninny Threadgoode, who seemingly never stops talking about her vibrant past in Whistlestop, Alabama. Throughout the story, Evelyn, who starts out as an extremely unhappy middle-aged housewife, develops into who she wants to be and a friendship grows between the two women. Ninny tells her her life story and Evelyn is keen to listen – it is in the tales of Whistlestop that she finds new inspiration for her to become who she really wants to be. So, from even the blurb, I’m hooked. As ridiculously cliched and fluffy as it sounds… Gotta say, I do love this sort of book, now matter how rose-tinted and cute it may seem. And it is just that. Remarkably cute.

First off then, I’m going to say the only reason I actually even considered reading this book is because of the equally rose-tinted and overly optimistic film version in which a rather delightful Cathy Bates plays a rather disturbing Evelyn Couch. Or should that be the other way ’round? Although she’s possibly only disturbing because I just can’t get Annie Wilkes out of my head. But that’s another review for another time. But anyway, the film version of this, for anyone who’s seen it, actually, rather remarkably, does stick to the original plot of the book. Which is great. In short. And while I’m not usually one to say this, watching the film first may have actually been for the good. It helped me imagine the characters a lot better – not because we aren’t provided with ample discription from Flagg or because she falls flat for any reason on the writing front, but simply because they happened to get the film so perfect. Which I like to see as proof of Flagg’s writing skill – she is able to convey the likeness of her characters so well that they didn’t struggle at all in casting them for the film version. A little tenuous, but definitely makes sense if you look at some of the film adaptations of other novels. Ahem. Second Dumbledore. Bridget Jones. Dr Dolittle (sorry Eddie Murphy).

Sorry about that diversion. Anyhow, continuing on. There are many other, far better, reasons why this book is a good read. For example, there are actually rather fantastically amusing bits. Trying to say its funny but failing miserably. No, seriously, I rarely laugh at books – I often regard with distinct mistrust that person who always sits opposite you on the tube laughing away at what may be a book that amuses them. But no one else. However, FGT genuinely made me laugh. And cry. Which I know is what every reviewer says, but it’s true – I was an emotional wreck reading this book. And that’s a good thing. See, thing is, Fannie Flagg, while possibly not the best known author in the universe, seemingly does know how get hold of your emotions and run with them. Honestly, even though most of the chapters are only three pages long (another fantastic reason why I love this book – fast pace, always good), you’ll find yourself struggling not to giggle one minute and reaching for the box of tissues at the next. Which did make for some confusion with my family when I was reading it. For those two days I was told to seek therapy for my rampant moodswings. Blame it on the book, not the hormones.

Yet, no matter how long I have to sing the praises of this book, there are certain parts I find that are a little too wonderfied. If that can be a word for the purpose of this argument. I’m not, for example, so keen on the casual racism that runs through – I’m not sure if that’s due to the author trying to gauge historical accuracy (a good part is set near Birmingham Alabama in the 1920s) or if the book is written like this on purpose. Yet, if that was the case, I feel she’d leave that theme to the flashback sections and not have it run through alongside Evelyn’s story, which if I’m frank leaves a lot to be desired in the sensitivity area. Now don’t get me wrong, a main theme of this book is also how Idgie and Ruth work to help the black community of Whistlestop, but it’s hardly like they work against the constant racism around them and the prevalence of the  Ku Klux Klan in Whistlestop. I don’t know – I get that the book is about the underdogs of society, women, racial minorities, old people, but I’m not so keen on the way Flagg goes about it. Something just didn’t sit exactly right here with the rest of the novel. Maybe it was just the time, what can I say?

However, I feel I have rambled too long and must leave you to try for yourself. In short, I’d recommend it. It’s dinky, it’s hilarious and it’ll get you thinking. And I give you my full permission not to read that last, ever so slightly critical paragraph.

****

‘What have you done with his eyes?’ Rosemary’s Baby.

rosemarys_baby[1]Crikey this is an upsetting film. Ever so slightly. 1968 would see the creation of Roman Polanski’s fifteenth film and would bring Mia Farrow to the top of her game. Now, I wouldn’t say that Rosemary’s Baby necessarily runs in the same sort of ilk as Forrest, I mean, after all, what film could? But I reckon it stands as the first horror film I saw that gave me something to think about. It didn’t have me up all night, but boy did it freak me out. And what more could you want from this kind of thing? If I had to sum this film up in one word it would be… Creepy. In the strongest sense of the word. It honestly made me nervous that there were strange child-abducting-devil-worshipping-generally-freaky cults out there. Which I’m sure there are, but hey, I never thought they’d actually seem so familiar. And cute. Until they turn strange. Ahem.

But if we go all the way back to the beginning. Even the start makes me feel funny. Mia Farrow’s haunting lullaby carries us into what promises to get even more strange and bizarre. We are brought straight into Rosemary’s world as we take our first tour of the Bramford, a Victorian apartment block with its own disturbing story to tell. So, first off, you have to wonder why both Guy and Rosemary are so into getting this place. Besides, apartment 7E is full of plants. Literally. You would have thought something was up. But really it’s when they actually get the place that things go awry. Well. More than that.

I’d have to say that one of my favourite things about this film has to be the mystery of it that runs right on through. You never can be sure that the Castavets are evil and after Rosemary’s child, which only heightens the drama as you are never certain what you are actually watching. Are you really watching them trap Rosemary and her child, thereby fulfilling their master’s wishes, or are we in truth actually just watching a pregnant woman descend into rather perturbing depths of paranoia and madness. I suppose it doesn’t quite fit in with the sort of ‘unreliable narrator’ theme, but it does give you pause to think. Which is scarier? And while you’re thinking, the film progresses, it moves on before you can ever make a full conclusion as to what is happening on screen. Clever, huh.

If I really wanted to get boring though, I could just say that’s what Polanski does. Yet, considering that this was one of his first films produced for a US/UK audience, I feel we must think harder about what he is actually trying to achieve. In truth, as much as I think he’s a creative genius, I think we have to go further back to find the fantastic origins of this tale. Ira Levin, possibly more famous for the Stepford Wives, creator of Rosemary’s Baby has a lot to say for  himself. Because reading the book, it’s almost impossible to tell which one came first. Which can only be a good thing, they are so similar! If only they had managed that with Harry Potter…

But genuinely, I think that is majorly important. At least, to me. Not sure what everyone else thinks. I feel it’s a shame that so many films made have no genuine bearing on the book they are based on. However, in this case, I’m glad it does. It only serves to bring an already quite active story all the more alive having the characters up on screen as you imagined them to be. Which has to be why I have to congratulate Polanski. He played it smartly and if I’m honest, not that I know who else was available, I reckon he could not have got a better troupe. You have Rosemary, youthful, smart yet naive, delicate yet strong. You have Guy, the actor, the liar, the devil in human form. And then the Castavets, the dear old Castavets. Or are they?

So, there you have it, there are so many reasons why this film is a classic. Maybe I’m being overoptimistic and possibly seem like I cannot criticise anything, but that wouldn’t be true. There are a few slight, but important improvements that could be made to this film. And some might even consider it overrated. But for its simplicity and genuine thrilling quality I believe it stands far ahead of countless other films of the same genre. And should thus be remembered for being creative, artistic, realistic and overall really really genuinely quite scary.

****