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June 04, 2006

The Ten Best Books in the History of the World Ever…. (Part One)

Well maybe this won't be a list of the best books in the world ever 'cause i can only read very well in English and never really have the patience for books from more than a hundred and fifty years ago because they take so much concentration to understand, but here's a list of some of my favourite books.

10. Captain Corelli's Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

I really can't find enough superlatives to describe this book, the characters and places are exquisitely painted and the story is told beautifully. "So why does it only appear at number ten on your list?" I hear you ask. I was disappointed with the end, without wanting to give anything away I just did not believe the end of this book, De Bernieres aims for poignancy but he goes over the top and as a reader who'd thought he'd grown to know the characters so well I just did not believe their actions at the end, clearly the makers of the film agreed with me as they toned the finish down and improved it greatly. Still this is an excellent book, certainly one of the most beautifully written on my list and definitely worth a read.

9. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

While many books are brilliant because they describe the interaction of events in a well woven plot line, very little happens in this book. In fact, when pushed to describe it i'm forced to conclude that all it contains is the reflections of a very reserved man upon his life in which not a lot happened. The Independent described it as 'A remarkable, strange and moving book', I really think that to attempt to describe it any further would be foolhardy, just read it its brilliant.

8. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh is not a man i greatly admire, I've read four or five of his books and generally they've been entertaining enough but none other than Brideshead have really captured me and the fact that he's quite right wing comes across unpleasantly in some of them. George Orwell described Waugh as "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." Waugh also married someone called Evelyn which must have been very confusing.

Brideshead is a fantastic book. It is narrated by Charles Ryder recalling his relationship with the aristocratic Flyte family over several years. In the first half, which is largely set in oxford, the imagery is quite wonderful and the main characters Sebastian and Charles are very well portrayed. The second half is a little more serious and perhaps not quite as brilliant but the book as a whole should definitely be read by everybody.

7. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel – Susanna Clarke

I think this is the only book on my list that doesn't really have any sad bits, but also one of the most enjoyable books i've read in a long time. It tells the (fictional) history of English magic during the 19th Century and of two great magicians who restore magic to its former glory. It took a while for me to let down my guard and become truly excited about a book which says so little about emotion or humanity, but once I'd settled in and allowed myself to enjoy it it was absolutely brilliant.

6. The House at Pooh Corner –A. A. Milne

I've just skimmed through the book again looking for a short quote or paragraph to sum up the brilliance of A. A. Milne and to be honest there isn't one. Each story is made great by the characters of Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Roo and particularly Eyeore, to break off a chunk here would not do justice to its genius in context. If you've read the earlier Pooh books or seen the Disney adaptation and been disappointed you should definitely read this, I think its the only one of A. A. Milnes books that translates well for adults, I read it to my friend Kady when she gets sad.

Anyway it's taken me about twenty minutes to write this and so I'm going to stop here and do part two later. Sorry it's so long, I hope at least one person read it all the way to the end.


May 20, 2006

Man Books

I've just finished reading Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller which I picked up for two quid from Oxfam the other day. To be honest when reading the back and looking at the front cover I thought the themes probably wouldn't appeal to me, but I saw it had been nominated for the Man Booker Prize so gave it a go. I had assumed that the Man Booker Prize is a varient on the normal Booker Prize for fiction that chooses novels designed for men, either to encourage more men into reading fiction or to get them to read books that aren't stereotypical "mens books". I didn't enjoy the book and I thought it was definitely written for women, and when my mum told me today that the Man Booker Prize is what the Booker Prize has been called since the company Man got involved that explained this books nomination.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about in this entry is "man books". I've read several books that are often called "woman books", a term which i think can be used without demeaning a book nor saying that it will be enjoyed exclusively by women, without meaning the slightest offence to men who do enjoy them, but which describes a book which on the whole will be more enjoyed by women than by men. Some of these I have found to be very well written, such as Notes On A Scandal or The Fortunes Of War, yet I have not enjoyed them where many of my female friends have. I can recognise similar traits in them, for example they often describe peoples clothing and appearance in far more detail than I find interesting and they may have a narrator who is well described and likeable but who I find it hard to relate to. I can see that these are examples of "woman books" that are also very good books.

I find it much harder to recognise good "man books". There are authors like Tom Clancy who write books about guns and violence that I find quite entertaining but I wouldn't for a second suggest that they are excellent books, while I enjoy them enough they lack character development or adequate scene setting. Presumably there are excellent books that have limited appeal for women but I really can't think of any examples and can't see what traits they would have, does anyone care to enlighten me as to what makes a good "man book"? Is there an active ingredient of a good "man book" rather than just the absence of ingredients that appeal to women?


November 26, 2005

Shakespeare

It is a travesty that the study of Shakespeare remains compulsory for all GCSE English students. Shakespeare’s plays are probably among the most respected works in the English language, and the number of extremely popular plays that he has produced is impressive, but he does not have a monopoly on good literature. Obviously GCSE English is designed to teach and examine pupils, but further to this is an opportunity to inspire young people about books and enthuse in them a passion for literature.

I went to a private school (that’s an argument for another time) and my teacher, Mr Wilkinson, was an absolute legend who was extremely well liked. He chose Henry V for our play, in my opinion the best choice for a class of 16 year old boys because of its theme and because there are some awesome speeches. However the class of generally quite literate and intelligent people were largely uninspired, partly because of the language barrier and partly because of the big sections where nothing much seemed to happen. I found myself sometimes roused by a good speech, but more often bored by a few poor pages.

Were Shakespeare’s plays an undeniable cut above the rest then I would concede that the language barrier is an obstacle we must force our young people to overcome in order to appreciate the best writing in the English language. As it is there are other works of the same quality and depth but which have a more instant appeal, for example Arthur Miller’s ‘A View From The Bridge’ covers in some detail the issues of guilt, shame and betrayal while maintaining a light and accessible feel. If we are serious about inspiring in everybody a passion for literature then we should use the GCSE to show people that books can be stimulating and pose tough moral questions without needing three reads before they are understood. While Shakespeare is brilliant, he is not appropriate for every pupil, and so while his works should remain an option on the syllabus they should no longer be compulsory.

On a related theme, did anyone see 'The Taming Of The Shrew' on Monday? I only saw the last twenty minutes but was quite impressed by how the BBC seemed to have shifted the focus. Rather than requiring the woman to submit to the dominance of her man, the BBC required both the man and the woman to submit to a mutually loving relationship.


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