As you will probably have gathered if you have read more than a few of my posts, I really do love books. There is nothing better than curling up with a good book anywhere, on a bus or train, in a chair, on a sun lounger, anywhere in fact. Books are a tonic for the brain. An education and a cerebral treat, both at the same time. Books enable the reader to travel not only geographically but in time too. Take one of my interests for instance. Classic cinema. Books like David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses has taken me on a journey to Hollywood and back to the golden years of classic cinema, the 1930s and 40s. Niven has told me about the Brown Derby, Romanov’s, Schwab’s drug store and Summit drive and a hundred other places I have never visited. But lets not stop there, let’s go even further. Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations was written by a great emperor of Rome who died in the year 180AD, so his book is at least 1837 years old. Just imagine, the thoughts of a man who lived nearly 2000 years ago, travelling intact to me, the reader, in the year 2017.
Such is the power of books.
The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans.
I’m not even sure why I picked this book; it’s not anything I would normally be interested in. I bought it for a few pence at a church table top sale and I think I bought it one, because I wanted to give something, a few pence to the church fund and two, I faintly remembered the book had been made into a film with Robert Redford, although I have never seen it. The reviews on the back of the book said things like ‘a page turner’ and ‘the hottest book of the year’. Anyway, I bought it, ages ago, and on a whim threw it into my book bag. I really hate having a book and not reading it.
From the beginning the book was a page turner giving a hint that something exciting and interesting was coming. I liked the idea of a horse whisperer, someone who could train a horse without hurt or pain, merely by whispering. I envisaged a native American Indian perhaps or some mystic horse guru. The fact is the story of the horse is nothing but the background to a love story, involving a New York magazine editor and a Montana cowboy. Written in a sort of matter of fact magazine style, it turns out that writer Nicholas Evans is a screen writer and much of the novel reads rather like that, a screenplay and each character comes with extensive background notes like the writer’s character notes on a screenplay. At the half way point this novel lost steam for me. I read it to the end but the ending was so contrived I just was glad to have finished it. Somewhat disappointing. Wonder what the movie is like?
More or Less by Kenneth More.
I do love a good autobiography, especially one from a cinema background. Kenneth More was a big movie star on the British screen in the post war years, particularly the 1950’s. He came from a privileged background but his father, who came into a lot of money, squandered two successive inheritances and the book only really gets going, for me at any rate, when a young Kenneth More wanders the streets of London with no money, no job and no prospects and sees that an old friend of his late father runs the Windmill theatre in London. The Windmill, as you may know, was a theatre that specialised in a review composed of naked ladies. There was a catch however, the ladies were obliged to stand completely still to comply with the law of the land at the time and any movement would infringe the theatre’s licence. More started as a stage hand rising to stage manager and learning all about the theatre business from the ground up. He also began helping the comedians who came on stage in between the naked women and found himself doing walk on parts and acting as a straight man to feed gags to the comics. When he started the job the manager told him not to get the acting bug and try to become an actor but as we all know, that is exactly what Kenneth More did. Not the most brilliant movie book I have ever read but it gives a good idea of life in the theatre in the 1950s but the author tells us little about film-making or cinema. It’s a very self focussed book, and More tells an interesting story.
Lion by Seroo Brierley
I read this book sometime after seeing the movie and surprisingly, the movie was much better. The movie is an exceptional piece of film-making while the book is good, in fact incredible even, given what the author’s story is, but it is surprisingly unemotional, especially when the strength of the film is its intense emotion. In case you don’t know, Seru is a small Indian boy, aged about five who travels with his brother to a local railway station in India. While the brother is away working, the young boy waiting on a platform gets bored, strays onto a waiting train, falls asleep and ends up in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. Lost and lonely, the boy ends up in a home for lost and orphaned children, is adopted by an Australian couple and begins a new life in Hobart. Later, using his childhood memories and google earth, he tracks down his long-lost home and family.
Well worth a read but if you see the movie on DVD, make sure you get a copy!
The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy.
I ordered this book after reading My Dark Places by the same author and enjoying it so much. My Dark Places is about the murder of Ellroy’s mother when he was only ten years old. He works with a private detective to try to solve the murder and along the way examines himself and gives us some flashes of his personal life too. The Hilliker Curse goes a step further, it’s an autobiography but not like anything you will have read before. The author explores deep inside himself and tells us about his mother (her maiden name was Hilliker) and his love of women. In fact it’s more about the women in his life than his life. It’s written in a fast-moving LA jive speak that is difficult to get the hang of but gets easier as you read on. Ellroy could easily have turned out to be a petty criminal of some sort except for his love of words and his desire to write. The book left me gasping for more and sorry that I didn’t bring The Black Dahlia, which I ordered at the same time, on holiday with me.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne.
As I am on holiday in France it seems only fitting I should take a French book with me, and a classic at that. This is apparently a ‘new’ translation by William Butcher and my first impression is that it doesn’t read like a nineteenth century book at all; it has a very modern feel to the language, but whether that is due to the translator rather than the author, I cannot say. The author does dwell a little too much on the statistics of the incredible submarine the Nautilus and its measurements, its displacements, atmospheric pressure and other technical bits and pieces. However, it is still a wonderful classic adventure story.
The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius by Mark Forstater.
Here’s the problem with ordering second-hand books online. My first attempt at buying the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius resulted in the Chinese version. Helpful if you are learning Chinese perhaps but not so good for me. I returned the book and ordered this one. Not as it turned out, Marcus’ original Meditations but a new interpretation by Mark Forstater. Actually, not a bad book. The author introduces Marcus and his background then goes on to introduce the Greek philosophers and some Zen Buddhist ones. Actually a great introduction to Marcus Aurelius’ actual ideas. It is still hard to get over, the thoughts of a man who died in the year 180AD, coming to me in 2017 and not only that but having a true relevance to me, a British guy living nearly 2000 years after Marcus wrote these ideas down. Wonderful.
Ulysses by James Joyce.
Now, I have always wanted to read this book. Every list of classic books or ‘read before you die’ lists has this book on its listings. So, I ordered it online and added it to my book bag. Let me introduce the book by telling you a story. Bear with me, please.
Many years ago at my comprehensive school, English was my top subject. Yes, in English, I was the man. One year, I think it was second or third form, we had a new English teacher, a lady and for the life of me I cannot remember her name. I do so wish I could. We had her as our teacher for one term and then she left. Maybe she was a student teacher, I don’t know, I can’t remember. Anyway, this one time we had read The Pearl by John Steinbeck and had to review it and I was feeling very giddy and flippant for some reason and, disappointed with the book, I wrote a review subtitled ‘How to Commit Suicide by Boredom.’ Feeling very pleased with myself I submitted my review.
Next English lesson I happened to be the book monitor and it was my job to hand out our exercise books. I handed them out but soon realised my book was missing. ‘Please Miss,’ I said. ‘My book isn’t here.’ ‘Sit Down’ said the teacher. ‘But Miss,’ I beseeched her, ‘My book isn’t here.’ Just then I looked down and saw she had my book in her hands. ‘Sit down Stephen’ she said firmly. Then she changed her mind. ‘No’ she said, ‘Stay here. Just stay there, where you are.’
I was stood at the head of the class, just by the teacher’s desk. Then she opened my book and began to read out my review to the whole class. She admonished everyone to keep quiet, then began.
‘How to commit suicide by reading,’ she said. The class howled with laughter and I stood just by her, red with embarrassment. When she had finished she laid into me with a vengeance. Then, just prior to releasing me from total humiliation, she said this. ‘What is so sad Stephen, is that you have so much talent. If you wanted to, you could be a really great writer. Now take your book and sit down.’
The room went quiet and I was devastated. yes, I had just suffered the slagging off of a lifetime but then, just when I was really finished, just at the apogee of my torment she had given me the most wonderful compliment. I had talent, she had said. That was my lowest moment in that English class, and yet, at the same time, my best. The class was stunned into silence as I walked the walk of shame back to my desk.
OK, bear with me. We are getting to Ulysses, I assure you. Later, I wrote another review of The Pearl. A much more studied and thoughtful review. This time the theme was however wonderful a classic book might be, or supposed to be, there will always be some who just couldn’t get it. That my friends is Ulysses for me. I know it is brilliant. I know it is one of the most influential novels ever, but I just couldn’t get going with it. Maybe it just isn’t a poolside read.
I think I’ll put it down for another day.
As usual, you can watch the video version of this blog below: