“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Brighton Rock” by Graham Greene (1938)

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brighton-rock“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Ah, the classics. I like to keep my hand in and, maybe it’s my age, but I’m becoming convinced that I should read more of them. With this one down now too, it means I’ve already read two of them since the year began, which is pretty good going as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, while I really enjoyed The Diary of a Nobody, I wasn’t so keen on Brighton Rock.

Journalist Charles Hale is on a job in Brighton, mingling with the crowds as part of a newspaper treasure hunt. If someone finds him and says the magic words, they’ll win a cash prize. He is found, however, by Pinkie Brown, a seventeen-year-old gangster who has a bone to pick with Hale and isn’t content with a bit of a moan. After trying to seek company all afternoon with the buxom, brash Ida, Hale eventually finds himself alone again and Pinkie and his cronies strike.

With Hale dead, Ida is convinced that the police have been wrong in their assessment that the death was natural causes, and sets about playing detective to prove that Pinkie had a hand in the nice man’s murder. Pinkie, meanwhile, is trying to erase any evidence that Hale was even in Brighton, and soon realises that his alibi could be blown by a waitress who knows too much. Despite both being too young, Pinkie decides that he needs to marry Rose, as a wife can’t testify against her own husband, and that could be the only thing that’s going to save him…

This is one of those books that I could actually, happily, have cast aside quite early on, but I don’t like giving up on books unless absolutely necessary, so I pressed on solely for Ida Arnold. A colourful, brilliantly moral and unafraid character, Ida is the real hero of the story as far as I’m concerned, she displays no fear in going after Pinkie and his gang, simply because she believes in the right thing being done. I know that Pinkie has entered the canon of great antiheroes of English literature, but I found him ridiculous and unbelievable.

At only seventeen, he’s leading a gang of much older men who seem to hang on his every word, and he’s a sociopath, apparently unable to experience emotions the way other people do. Again, maybe this comes down to my age. I’m nearly twenty-nine, and I look at seventeen-year-old’s now and see how they think they know everything. I’m not saying that I’m much wiser, but I’m old enough to know that at seventeen you know nothing. He plays the big man, but I find him pathetic, nonthreatening and stupid. He is obsessed with sex, but also apparently phobic of it, and is cruel to his wife, Rose, who he marries merely for convenience. Caught up in girlish desires to be married, she remains convinced that he loves her, when in reality he is disgusted by her and is thinking of himself the whole time. Rose is but a child, only sixteen, and I feel a great deal of pity for her. She is easily duped and almost ends up committing suicide over Pinkie’s selfishness.

Primarily, the themes are those of good and evil, with Pinkie and Rose both being Catholic, they are preoccupied with the notion of sin, with the murder and their marriage both being wrong in the eyes of God. The only character with any real sense of morality though seems to be Ida. She does what is right, while everyone else seems to be trying to save themselves. It’s rather a tiresome book, and I never totally felt gripped, although most of that is Pinkie and the rest is my current need to check Twitter every five minutes to make sure a war hasn’t started.

Anyway, I’m off to embark on another classic; one I’ve read before and one that seems terrifyingly appropriate…

“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

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nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“Murder In The Museum” by John Rowland (1938)

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murder-in-the-museum“Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him.”

The British Library is responsible for many great things, but lately I am simply grateful for their Crime Classics series. I’ve read five of these beauties now, so regular readers of my blog will probably have seen me gush about them before. In short, however, they are republishing crime novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that, for whatever reason, have not survived to be worshipped into our age. In fact, the book being discussed today, Murder in the Museum, hasn’t been republished since it was released in the late 1930s. And it was completely overdue.

It’s 1937, and in the Reading Room at the British Museum, visitor Henry Fairhurst takes an interest in a man who isn’t looking too well. By the time Henry is at the side of Professor Julius Arnell, the academic is dead, apparently having died quite suddenly of natural causes. However, the police are called and soon discover that things are not that simple. Arnell was killed after eating a sugared almond – his favourite treat – that had been laced with poison.

When two more academics in the same field as Arnell also die in suspicious circumstances around the museum, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard is called upon to try and make sense of the situation. Accompanied by the efficient Sergeant Cunningham, and eager Henry Fairhurst, who has decided that he’s an amateur detective and can solve the murder, Shelley must now work out who the killer is, whether Arnell’s daughter or nephew, both of whom stand to inherit from the old man’s death, are involved, and just what a certain young Harry Baker was doing at the museum on the occasion of yet another murder…

Quite why this book disappeared from circulation so quickly is beyond me. It’s short and snappy, although breaks a few of “the rules” of detective fiction at the time. However, I can’t complain too much – Agatha Christie broke pretty much all of them – and it leads to more suspense and confusion that keeps the tale going. It’s also pretty funny, with the relationship between the policemen Cunningham and Shelley being well constructed and honest, and everyone’s frustration with Henry Fairhurst who seems to think that because he was on the scene at the time, he should be involved in the police’s work. To have him unknowingly share more information than he knows he has feels like a laboured coincidence, but also you just go with it for fun.

There’s one great surprise about two thirds of the way through, which really does make you sit up and take notice, but otherwise it’s a pretty easy-going read and one for anyone who loves detective fiction, especially from the era when it was at its best. Great characters, fun plot, and generally an entertaining fast read that’ll put you off sugared almonds forever.

“The Year Of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller (2014)

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reading danger“My life is nothing special. It is every bit as dreary as yours.”

Few of us, I suspect, have ever read as many of the classics as we feel we should have done. Maybe we even tell people that we have read them and then hope they don’t ask any difficult questions about theme or character development. I, for one, know that I have not read many of the classics, and I’ve properly enjoyed even less. Thus, while there’s a nagging feeling deep in my brain that tells me I should read Jane Austen at least once (but with the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies film out next month, I’m resigning myself to just watching that instead and letting it count), I don’t feel particularly strongly about having not read Moby-Dick or Middlemarch.

In this book, Andy Miller, editor and journalist, has started feeling guilty about all the books he claims to have read but hasn’t. He writes up a List of Betterment, originally containing twelve – and then later, fifty – books that he should read before he’s forty. Part of this is inspired by his desire to seemingly be a better person, and part of it comes from the fact that the only book he’s read in the last three years was The Da Vinci Code. That says enough.

He embarks on his journey, starting with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and soon rediscovers his joy of reading. He is led on a journey though some of literature’s best and worst, all the while discovering what it is about books and reading that humanity loves so much.

As a tale, it’s a bit disjointed in places. While he does read fifty(-ish) books, only some of them get a focus and there are huge sections of the list that get entirely missed out, including, unfortunately, the few on this list that I’d read (Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies, The Dice Man, etc). The first thirteen, which includes Pride and Prejudice and Moby-Dick, but also The Sea, The Sea and The Unnamable – two I’d never even heard of – are discussed in some detail, but then he seems to look at his watch, decide that time is getting on, and so he hurries through the rest. The epilogue, oddly, is all about his love for Douglas Adams and recalls the few times they met. While I have no qualms about this – Douglas Adams is one of the finest writers who ever lived – it seems a little jarring as he hasn’t put any Adams on this list, and it doesn’t seem to have much relevance to what came before.

There’s also quite a lot of political commentary to start off with. Miller is clearly on the left – one of his first books is The Communist Manifesto – and at times it feels like he’s trying to recall his youth and make a political point about … well, something. But there’s also a lot of talk about the importance of libraries and bookshops, about how booksellers should be passionate about selling books rather than just books themselves, the perils of being in a book club, and also the difference that exists between a love of reading and a love of books. It’s funny, his comments about Dan Brown and his novels are particularly excellent, and Miller often writes with a flippancy or dry humour that is charming. He’s a nice man, I’m sure of that.

Like I said about, it’s a shame that he misses out the few I knew well, but it’s very much a personal list. I think that might make it harder to appeal to a wider audience. He doesn’t at any point, though, declare that this is the list that everyone should read, and acknowledges that some people don’t like reading (although it’s not something he – nor I – can understand). Anyone else is bound to disagree with his list of books, but then again it’s specifically ones that he has said he’s read but he hasn’t. He also only adds them to the list if he wants to read them, which makes more sense to me than people continually listing Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake on these sorts of things and snobbishly insisting that everyone must read them.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not at least a bit of a literary snob. My dislike of Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are documented elsewhere, but at the end of the day I accept that we all have different tastes. I won’t read them in the same way I won’t read Tolstoy – I’m simply not interested. If anything, it’s a book that celebrates our differences, and that’s something I can’t stand against.

An interesting concept and experiment, but not one I’m in a hurry to replicate. I’ve got enough to read as it is.

“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis (1954)

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lucky jim“‘They made a silly mistake, though,’ the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.”

Siiiigh. If I will keep insisting on reading the “classics”, I’m sure I will keep disappointing myself. It’s also a stark reminder of how difficult it is to find books that are genuinely funny, as those that claim loudly that they are, invariably are not. Lucky Jim, for example, is always billed as one of the funniest books – if not the funniest book – of the last century, so with a hopeful expression, I burrowed in and once again, as with The Metamorphosis, found myself at the mercy of a friend with more knowledge, in this case Iryce, a lecturer in literature at the University of Illinois.

So this is the story of Jim Dixon, a history lecturer at an unimpressive university somewhere in the Midlands. He has come from a lower-class background and is now struggling to keep up with the upper classes who dominate this place. He is irritated by everyone, from Professor Welch, the man he has to impress to keep his job to Welch’s artist son Bertram, and the men he shares his digs with. He also has to deal with a sexless relationship with Margaret, his girlfriend who doesn’t let him sleep with her, but he stays with anyway because he feels guilty about leaving her as she is recovering from a failed suicide attempt.

Now burdened with the task of writing a lecture on Merrie England by Welch, a topic he has little interest in, Dixon feels worse than ever, and these feelings are compounded further by a disastrous party at the Welches house in which he sneaks off to the pub to get drunk, then somehow burns holes in the bedsheets that night, and he also meets Bertram’s beautiful girlfriend Christine, a girl that Dixon knows is far out of his league. Struggling to keep his composure, Dixon must keep his nose clean, get his lecture finished, and make sure that he can keep his job.

Iryce, however, informs me that this is a story about the class war, and she should know as she’s taught the book a lot. She said, “He’s oppressed by the burgeoning bourgeois upper middle class trying to mirror the heydey of the pre-War Tories [who] are not going to give him any autonomy if they don’t have to.” True, parts of this are displayed obviously, such as the fact that the bedroom Dixon is given at Professor Welch’s house is only accessible through a bathroom. He’s almost viewed as no better than a servant.

Generally I found Dixon rather a pathetic protagonist, somewhat like the hero of a bad sitcom from the 60s or 70s, for whom nothing ever goes right. When that happens to Basil Fawlty, I laugh, but here, I couldn’t bring myself to care enough. Dixon doesn’t deserve the things that happen to him, not really, but he allows himself to be a doormat. It’s refreshing when he does later start to challenge everybody and starts standing up for himself, eventually doing battle with Bertram for the sake of Christine, discovering the truth about Margaret from an ex-partner of hers, and dismissing the Welch family themselves, who he finds ridiculous. I expected it to have a tragic ending, with Dixon no closer to happiness than he was at the start, but it was pleasing to find that the “lucky” of the title rings true, at least. This is a story where the geek gets the girl.

Dixon’s rally against the upper classes wins through, and some of their pomp is punctured by this silly northern man who has tired of playing their games. Whether it will stick or not, we don’t know, but it takes so long for him to finally fight back that I’d lost a lot of interest.

My biggest issue though remains that it somehow isn’t funny. I can see where it should be funny, and Amis has a great way with words, but at no point did I laugh to any real degree. It’s outdated, I think, and while the class war rages on still, it’s been done so much better in other mediums; see Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and Keeping Up Appearances for perhaps the three ultimate tales of class battles.

So, well done Jim, you got the happy ending, but I was fundamentally underwhelmed by your story. Shame, really.

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