I love Non-Fiction really …

Updating my books read list yesterday, I suddenly realised that The Luck Factor (reviewed here), was the first non-fiction book that I’ve read this year! Last year I read a dozen non-fic books, and the year before 18 out of over a hundred. This year, it just seems to have bypassed me, or maybe I bypassed it until now…

I do genuinely love reading non-fiction titles, especially popular science ones, and good showbiz/music biographies.  I have several shelves of biographies and other non-fiction titles sitting there patiently waiting to be read.  The two pictured are now on my bedside pile for reading soon.

Do you read non-fiction?
What are your favourite sub-genres?
What percentage of your reading does it make up?


I should be so lucky ….

The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind by Dr Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman’s speciality is a fascination with the quirkier side of psychology, (his website and blog are here).  A magician and psychologist based at the University of Hertfordshire, (which is still Hatfield Poly in my mind), he and his team investigate the science behind the paranormal, luck, belief, self-help, deception and much more. He regularly pops up on TV to explain quirky behaviours, and pleasantly and wittily debunks liars and cheats.

In these turbulent days of recession, and all round insecurity, who wouldn’t hope for a bit of luck – winning the Euromillions would do nicely!!!  Few will get that lucky of course – but luck is more than just having pots of money. According to Wiseman, there are lots of little things that we can do to improve our Luck Profile, and from years of research and interviews, he has distilled it down into four principles – which I’ll explain in a mo.  However, one really important thing to realise is that we’re not born lucky – we make our own luck through our mental attitudes and behaviour, and optimism plays a large part in this.

The Luck Factor is not just a popular science book though, it’s also a self-help manual.  After the introduction, the first thing we’re asked to do is to make an initial Luck Profile, grading our responses to a range of questions – from talking to strangers in a queue, to degrees of optimism, and learning from mistakes.  The twelve questions in the Luck Profile between them subdivide into Wiseman’s four principles, and form the bases of the following chapters.  This profile will be referred to throughout the book, and your scores will indicate the main areas you need to work on to improve your luck.  Without further ado, they are:

  1. Maximise your chance opportunities.
  2. Listen to your lucky hunches.
  3. Expect good fortune.
  4. Turn your bad luck into good.

Simples!  However, of course it’s more complex than that, and may require some hard work, especially if, like me, you’re more of an introvert than extrovert. You’ll never know if you’re in the right place at the right time unless you make the most of each experience.  We’re encouraged to build a ‘network of luck’, to talk to people and be open to new experiences, but also to try to be relaxed about life. Lucky people make the most of intuition and learn when to trust their gut feelings – not just in love, but all areas of life.  According to Wiseman, one of the ways of boosting your intuition is meditation – something I’ve never done – maybe I should start now… I’ve always been broadly optimistic, never being Eeyoreish for long periods. Having had a few hard knocks over the past year and a half, I am trying to look forward to a positive future.  Banishing negative expectations is a key, and being optimistic about goals and people. Turning luck around is harder – finding the up side in bad experiences, learning from our mistakes, but not dwelling on it even if you have to take the long view – it’ll all end up alright in the end.

Each chapter of the four principles has loads of examples, interviews, quizzes and exercises and has illustrative charts and statistics. The final chapters show how implement what you’ve found out about your luck profile and how to put it into use – but one step at a time.

It’s all common sense really, but it’s always good to be reminded about things and this was a revealing read. Yes, I have a lot to work on – but I’m looking forward to it.  More a self-help manual than a pure popular science book, the rules do tend to become a bit repetitive like a mantra, but it was a quite interesting look into just one facet of the huge science of psychology.  (6.5/10)

Apparently lucky people are more likely to find coins on the street, unlucky people just don’t see them.  I found 5p last week, so maybe my luck is changing!

I’ll close with a memorable quote on luck from Dirty Harry, as uttered by the inimitable Clint …

 I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mindby Dr Richard Wiseman, pub Arrow, 2003, 240 pages.

Portrait of a middle-class family before & after WWI

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple.

Not considering myself a typical Persephone Books reader – Tsk! I hear you say, there is no such thing, I have loved the handful of the beautiful dove grey covered books that I’ve read so far, (the last of which was The Hopkins Manuscript earlier this year).  If there is no such thing as a typical Persephone reader, there is such a thing as a quintessential Persephone book – and Greenbanks is such a one.  I was delighted to be offered a review copy, and thus to be introduced to my first Dorothy Whipple…

Greenbanks was Whipple’s third novel, first published in 1932.  The title is the name of a house in a small northern town, the residence of the Ashton family for generations. The book spans the years around the first world war.

Louisa Ashton is the matriarch of the family, with daughters Letty and Laura, sons Jim and Charles.  Her children are now grown up and beginning to make their way in the world.  Letty has married the solid Ambrose, and given Louisa a delightful granddaughter in Rachel, and twin grandsons; Laura is courting a nice young man, Cyril; Jim is now helping to manage the family business; and Charles, her beloved youngest, has yet to find his métier.

With her family around her you would think she’d be content, but Louisa, a kind woman worries about others constantly including Kate Barlow – a young woman of the town who’s rumoured to have got herself into trouble. Then Laura breaks it off with Cecil, and marries George, an older man, in a fit of pique. When Louisa’s husband Robert dies, Ambrose takes on looking at fter the family finances, and Jim takes on the factory. We all wonder how Letty puts up with the stifling Ambrose, and how long Charles will take Jim’s bullying. Louisa is grateful for the steadying presence of her granddaughter Rachel, who is fast growing up and developing a mind of her own, much to her father’s annoyance.

War intervenes, and everything changes. We will follow the Ashton family closely with all its ups and downs over the next years into the 1920s.  The pressures on the family continue to mount, and with them will come moments of sublime happiness, but also pain and tragedy, and many hard decisions to be made.

Being a middle-class family drama set in a small northern town, my immediate first impression was that this novel could be a successor to my namesake’s Cranford. Small town gossip and politicking abound, and there is snobbishness aplenty; but the domesticity of the opening peels back to reveal a novel of morals and social comment hiding beneath the genteel veneer and ever-present embroidery.

If, before the Great war, you became a fallen woman – there was no chance for you to redeem yourself, something poor Kate Barlow had to cope with.  But afterwards, with so many young men gone, and women having been empowered to work, there was less chance of your past catching up with you – there might be a chance at a happy ending for some. This empowerment also extended to family roles, as Ambrose, who had visions of being an old-fashioned patriarch, finds out being attacked on all sides by three generations of Ashton women now standing up for themselves.

Alongside the slight changes in moral stance with the time, we see the march of technology and changes in the style of living. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the demise of the horse and cart which is highlighted in the manner of Robert’s death. Later in the novel the advent of the telephone provides for a lovely scene where Louisa cuts Ambrose off mid-flow. The novel covers part of the same period of course as the TV series of Downton Abbey. Although the two families may share some concerns, there is little in common between them, and Greenbanks manages to have high drama without over-egging it like Downton tends to, although I do adore it.

Although this is an emotional novel, that’s not to say there is no room for humour – most of which is at Ambrose’s expense.  When Letty and he go to London to stay with Laura, there are countless vignettes which show off his pomposity…

Ambrose’s appointment was not until two-thirty the following day. He therefore accompanied Letty in the morning. They walked about Regent Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street and Piccadilly, but without pausing to look in the shop windows, except the silversmiths in which Ambrose was interested. The most tantalizing bargains kept occurring in Letty’s eyes: a sweet, cheap little frock for Rachel, and a marvellous line of sandshoes for the boys at half the price she had to pay in Elton. If only Ambrose would see that he could save by spending a little money in advance! But she knew he would not; his budget rules were rigid. She repressed the bargain-hunting fervour and followed him wherever he led. But what a waste of good shop windows and places where you could have coffee and a rest! If only she had been with someone else, or even by herself!

Men and shopping!

At 374 pages (plus afterword), there is plenty of space for character development, but the book never drags. We really get to know the women of the Ashton family particularly well, as we do Kate whom Louisa keeps trying to rescue.  Of the sons, Jim is present by his absence – a workaholic, and Charles flits from one thing to another, popping back to cheer his mother up now and then.  The real star of the male characters, and arguably the most fun of all is Ambrose.  He’s a real Captain Mainwearing (from TV’s Dad’s Army) type – puffed up with his own self-importance and operating way beyond his level of achievement.

Reading this gripping, well-crafted and satisfying novel has made me into an instant Dorothy Whipple fan, and I will look forward to reading as many of her books as I can (all Persephone editions of course!). (9.5/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, pub Oct 2011, 392 pages)
Cranfordby Elizabeth Gaskell
Downton Abbey – Series 1 & 2 Box Set [DVD]

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

Had to write a short post on the BBC4 drama Holy Flying Circus which aired this week, it was a mostly marvellous 90 minutes of real Pythonesque homage. It followed the life of the Pythons around the time that Life of Brian was released in the cinema (1979), the TV ‘debate’ between Cleese and Palin v Muggeridge and a bishop that made TV history for its time, and the battle to get the film off the screen.

Life of Brian is forever etched in my mind in rose-tinted memories…

I was a student at Imperial College in South Kensington in 1979. Wandering into the Union Bar one lunchtime, there were tickets being waved around to go and see a free screening of a new film.  I went with my then boyfriend.

The screening was in the basement cinema of one of the film distributors in Soho. There were beanbags all over the floor for the student audience to sit on, and a row of comfy armchairs further back.

So we all slobbed around in the beanbags, and waited for the film to start. Within seconds we sat up to attention, then fell about laughing for the next hour and a half or so.  The film we saw was the uncut and not quite finished version of Life of Brian – it was hilarious – scandalously funny. All Python fans to start off with, we couldn’t believe our luck, especially when we glanced behind and saw that the row of armchairs were now occupied by the entire Python team (Cleese excepted).  Palin documents the screening in the first volume of his diaries – making me almost feel that I’m in there!

There were a few changes in the final film.  The title animation hadn’t been added – instead the titles read ‘A title’, ‘Another Title’ Another F***ing title’ – echoing the short film about Gondolas that had accompanied Holy Grail.  This got us off to a good start.  A couple of scenes were cut; the soundtrack hadn’t been finished, but it was so fresh and funny.  What a great evening!

Now of course, with some maturity behind me,  I can see the serious points beyond the comedy about freedom of speech and individuality. This was the key theme of the TV drama too.   Holy Flying Circus was very cleverly done, using all of the Python’s tricks, surreal tricks and full of references to the film itself, but in an updated sort of way that if the Pythons were still together they would do themselves, including animations and fantasy sequences.

The best scenes by far were between Michael Palin and his wife, who was played by Terry Jones, played by actor Rufus Jones.  Slightly uncomfortable, but bloody brilliant!

Not all of the jokes worked – much like the original Python shows, but it was very engaging, chucklesome and wonderfully nostalgic.  I’m sure they’ll show it again (and again, and again) if you missed it.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Monty Python’s Life of Brian – The Immaculate Edition [Blu-ray] [2007][Region Free]

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years 1969-1979 by Michael Palin


I haven’t told you about my latest book acquisitions for simply ages.  I went to a book sale today at a local church hall, and came away with a bagful, so I thought it was an ideal time to share what’s new on the bookshelves at Gaskell Towers …

Pile, the first – my haul from the booksale…

Pile, the second – mostly bought plus a couple of review copies…
  • A Rich Full Death by Michael Dibdin – not an Aurelio Zen novel, this one is set in 19th C Florence and features poet Robert Browning.
  • Crippen by John Boyne, a fictional account of the notorious murderer, my next book to review for the Transworld book club.
  • Brideshead Abbreviated: The Digested Read of the Twentieth Century by John Crace – a collection of his wonderfully funny ‘Digested Read’ columns from the Guardian.
  • Greybeard (S.F. Masterworks) by Brian Aldiss – he was at the Kennington (nr Oxford) Literary Festival last week. I couldn’t go, but got a signed book from the bookshop later.
  • The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Heard a lot about this one, and it sounds my kind of book!
  • Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick – a new book from him is always a treat to look forward to. A love story across the centuries, for teens and upwards.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. This novel which combines text with vintage photographs could be a gimmick, but it was intriguing enough to pick up…
  • Death Comes to Pemberleyby P D James. It’s rare that I pluck up courage to ask a publisher for a review copy of a book, but the minute I heard about the Baroness’s latest, I couldn’t resist. Set after P&P, Lizzie and D’Arcy are married and when a distraught Lydia arrives at the ball saying that Wickham has been murdered, they have to solve the crime. Thanks to Faber. This will be the next book I read!

Have you read any of the above?
What have you added to your TBR piles lately?
Do tell…

A Dark tale of twins: American – in Paris

Comes the Night by Hollis Hampton-Jones

Meade and Ben Ho are nineteen year old twins; they are Americans in Paris, rich kids.  They have one of those incredibly close, empathic and near telepathic twin relationships.  Ben Ho is at art school, Meade plays at cookery classes to occupy her days, but walks out on to become a model.

Meade is obsessed by her weight – she’s a bulimic; her brother thinks she’s too thin. Becoming a model takes that obsession to the next step and she becomes thinner still, surviving on just occasional mouthfuls of proper food which she usually throws up, washed down with booze, and a cocktail of drugs for every mood and occasion.

She gets a new boyfriend – an Iranian photographer. Majid has been tortured and this is reflected in the bondage of their lovemaking. When Ben Ho gets a girlfriend, Meade’s twin-ness is threatened and she begins to lose her sense of indentity and her thoughts get darker and darker…

I’m going to have a heart attack.
I’ll die on white sheets and Majid will wake up and find me. And my soul will be released, and I’ll be back in the womb with Ben Ho. I smooth my hair, fold my hands over my chest and wait to die, but I become so calm at this thought that my heartbeat returns to its normal, sluggish state, and I don’t die. So I get up and have a cigarette.

I wouldn’t be giving anything away to say that Meade’s descent into herself is inevitable. Once Ben Ho is no longer always around to ground her, and with no parents present to hold her in check, it’s just a matter of time.  Majid is no help – he’s going there in his own way too.

The fashion industry depicted is totally glamorous, and utterly corrupted by drugs and the need to be size zero. Friendship is not an issue for the models themselves…

Gathered around the punchbowl are smiling models, not a common sight. In a corner, a DJ is choosing his next record. I sip some punch, and it tastes of fresh strawberries and oranges.
One of the smiling models leans into me and says, ‘s ‘MDMA is the secret ingredient.’ I down my glass.

It’s a bleak, nasty world she’s living in.  Meade’s story is gripping and stunning in its dark intensity. Hampton-Jones’s biog tells that she has some experience in the fashion industry in Europe before moving back to the States, so she’s talking about what she knows – not a world I’d be happy in, but I was drawn into it briefly while reading this novel.  The novel is that dark that even while you’re desperate to get Meade into rehab and away from the world she’s chosen, you walk the path with her for the duration.  It was almost a relief to finish but, boy, it was a great read. (10/10)

Comes the Night is the author’s second novel. Her first Vicious Spring, appears to be similarly dark, although leavened with humour, following the sexual awakening of a school-leaver from a Christian fundamentalist family on an acid trip.  It sounds equally compelling.

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My copy was kindly supplied by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Comes the Night by Hollis Hampton-Jones.  Penguin paperback,  July 2011,  230 pages.
Vicious Spring

Guest reviewer: My Dad on ‘Being Boycie’

I keep on encouraging my Dad to write some reviews for me. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a publicist wondering if I’d like to read a showbiz biography – they said if I didn’t fancy it, maybe my father would. The lure of a free book hooked him! So please welcome Ray, my Dad …

Being Boycie by John Challis

When Annabel rang me recently and asked me if I’d like to review John Challis’s autobiography, my first thought was ‘What? He’s a nobody’. But being a sucker for showbiz auto/biographies and never one to turn down a free book, I reluctantly agreed. Being Boycie arrived a day later and now I’ve read it, so here goes.

My first thought was confirmed. Here is somebody who considers himself to be a pretty good actor but although he has played the odd big part, it’s a fact that most of the parts he played were on the small side with long periods with no work. One of those lasted a year during which he and a couple of pals set up the St Margaret’s Garden Centre. He did however appear in Tom Stoppard plays in the USA, in the Ray Cooney/John Chapman farce Move Over Mrs Markham in South Africa and performed in minor parts at the National but my opinion has not changed. He was however unlucky in that he was picked to play a good part in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour but the BBC would not release him from his contract at that time. So, Boycie he is and Boycie he will remain. Challis had played Detective Inspector Humphreys in one episode of John Sullivan’s Citizen Smith and that led Sullivan to cast him as Boycie in his new series Only Fools and Horses, only once in the first series and not again until the third episode of the second series. Subsequently he has gone on to be a staple character in OFAH as he likes to call it.

Boycie & Marlene

Strangely, this autobiography stops just as Marlene is about to be introduced intoOFAH, but I’ve no doubt that Challis, when he comes to write the follow-up to Being Boycie (perhaps to be called Still Boycie and assuming of course that this one sells – I have my doubts) will point to Boycie being a key character which led to his being given the dire The Green Green Grass. In the book Challis seems to be obsessed with all the women he has been involved with so much so that it could alternatively have been called Being Casanova or The Many Women I Have Loved and Left. I should perhaps balance this by saying that he insists he is now (and has been for the last 20 years) happily married.

Oh well, that’s done and I’ve now also read Joanne Harris’s blueeyedboy (very contemporary in that it consists of a series of blogs  – it’s weird, confusing but nevertheless entertaining) and am about to start on Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Being Boycie by John Challis
Only Fools and Horses – The Complete Collection [DVD]

Memories are made of this?

The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner is moving up through the ages with her books. She started off with illustrating and writing picture books, then she wrote a series of Magical Children novels for younger readers, before writing several brilliant historical novels for older children (see my review of The Red Necklace here).  Now she has written her first novel for older teens…

The Double Shadow is set during the 1930s, and after an intriguing prologue, starts off conventionally. Amaryllis is in trouble again at her boarding school. She crept out on a dare to go to a grown up party with a man she didn’t know from Adam.  Needless to say it didn’t go well, but she’s not going to tell the headmistress or her father that.  She gets sent home to her family pile, where she will be home educated alongside the son of the family’s cook. Ezra had been hoping to become an apprentice to the local garage owner, and is not overjoyed at this prospect.

Amaryllis, meanwhile, continues to rebel against the control-freakery of her father Arnold whom she doesn’t love.  Her memories of her childhood are hazy at best, and she can’t remember her mother who died at all.  Her father, (who is American and an oil magnate),  is rarely there, leaving his business partner Silas Molde to manage things. When he does appear, it is often with the ageing silent movie star Vervaine Fox who adores him, he has no time for her.

So far, so normal; a tale of the remains of a posh dysfunctional family living in a country house,  the workers who look after them, along with the possibility of a romance between Amaryllis and Ezra.  This is where the author introduces something paranormal which will take the story in a very different direction.

Arnold has long had a dream, and when he met the mysterious Silas he found the man to help him realise it. He has built a picture palace in their grounds, and within is a memory machine with which he intends to let Amaryllis experience all her good memories, erasing the bad, hoping to reclaim his daughter’s love.

Longbone slid open the glass partition. ‘Nearly home now, sir.’
Home, thought Arnold. He hadn’t been home since he was a boy of ten sitting in a picture palace in New York, his mother’s small gloved hand holding his.
Home was in the memory machine.

This machine is somewhat akin to a mechanical equivalent to Dumbledore’s pensieve in Harry Potter, but the reality is much more frightening. The machine makes the picture palace unstable, and it starts oscillating between realities and memories, physically trapping those who enter this most unconventional of home cinemas. Meanwhile WWII is starting, the men from the ministry are aware of Ruben’s machine and Ezra is recruited to find out what’s happening down in the woods where the picture palace hides.

As she has shown with her previous novels, Gardner has a sure touch when introducing magical, or in this case SF, elements into her books. The machine is there, always in the background, sleeping, waiting to switch into action. It’s a menacing presence, lurking in the basement and adding a slight edge of horror to this clever and complex tale. Amaryllis is a fascinating character, a girl with flawed memories searching for the love she’s never known; whereas Ezra is solid and dependable, yet never a bore. The supporting cast are well fleshed out and bring much to the reader, especially the enigmatic Silas.

I really enjoyed the way that memories are almost played out as film clips, and that cinema pervades the story all the way through, from Arnold’s youthful visits, to the Saturday morning cinema clubs that Amaryllis and Ezra go to, and the films of the beautiful Vervaine Fox – whose career foundered with the advent of the talkies. The duality of people’s different memories of the same event, how memories become distorted and a shadow of themselves is a powerful theme.

With some adult content and language and the complexities of the plot, this is definitely a novel for older teens upwards. Sally Gardner has again succeeded in raising her goalposts in this totally original novel which is very different to the usual YA fare, and again proves my strong belief that the best novels for younger audiences can have just as good writing as those for grown-ups and also be satisfying reads for adults too. Thank you Sally! (10/10)

See also Teresa’s review at Lovely Treez Reads

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My copy was supplied through Amazon Vine.
To explore Sally Gardner’s books further on Amazon UK, click below:

The Double Shadow– older teens
The Red Necklace– older children
Magical Children 3 books in 1– confident readers
Fairy Shopping– Lovely picture book

One man against a world of vampires …

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

When I first started reading science fiction in my teens, most of the books came in the distinctive yellow jacket with mauve font of publisher Gollancz. Scouting for the cover pic to put in this post, I saw that Gollancz, now the SF & Fantasy imprint of Orion books had included it in their 50th anniversary editions … It took me right back.

I am Legend was first published in 1954; it was Matheson’s third novel. His fourth would go on to make cinematic history – The Shrinking Man would become a huge film hit as The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957.  I remember adoring the film, and applauding the philosophical soliloquy at the end as Scott accepts his place in the universe.  I now read that this speech was not in the novel, but also that several scenes in the novel were not in the film too.

Anyway, back to Legend – which has been filmed four times over the years, most recently starring Will Smith in 2007.  A plague has infected mankind, mutating humans into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures – vampires.  Robert Neville could be the last man alive – he’s had to say sayonara to his wife and child, and despite the awfulness of his situation, something keeps him going on.  By day he goes out scavenging, and killing vampires; by night he boards himself into his house, turns the music up and often drowns his sorrows in whisky.  The vampires keep the pressure up, trying to tempt him out – especially the creature who used to be his workmate and neighbour Ben.

Neville is a practical sort though.  He has a generator, fuel and freezers full of food. He has set up a workshop in his late daughter’s bedroom – and he turns bundles of stakes on his lathe.  He grows garlic in his outhouse – true to form, the creatures appear to loathe it, they can’t live in the light either.  He starts going to the library to learn about blood and diseases, and his diligence appears to be paying off …

This novel has an excellent balance between SF and dystopian horror. The vampires are scientifically explained which makes a change, and they are more zombie-like than traditional vampires too.  The parts of the book in which Neville relives the demise of his family are inevitably sad, but he deals with it in the same dogged way that he deals with everything else.

All through the novel, you are dying to know whether he is  the last man alive, and this sustains the plot through to the end, where I was surprised at the twist in the tail. This gritty tale is another SF masterwork. (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
I Am Legend (Gollancz 50 Top Ten)
The Shrinking Man (S.F. Masterworks)
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

Bookgroup Report – Always look on the bright side of life

Candide by Voltaire

This short novel is another one of those influential classic books that I had always planned to read. I’d bought a copy in preparation, and ten years later it was still sitting on the shelf. I was really pleased that we chose it at book group, and I’m mighty glad to have read it for it was really funny and not a chore at all – a verdict we all shared.

Candide, or Optimism as it is subtitled, is a fast moving romantic adventure published in 1759.  Starting off in Westphalia, young Candide falls in love above his station – with the Baron’s daughter, Miss Cunégonde, but is driven out of the castle, gets press-ganged into the Bulgarian army, flogged, shipwrecked then caught in the Lisbon earthquake (of 1755), tortured by the Inquisition (which wasn’t ‘expected’), he gets separated from his beloved again, goes to El Dorado, gets rich, gets robbed – suffering ever-worse calamities in his journey to get home and find Cunégonde again. Through all of this hardship, Candide fervently believes that he will eventually be reunited with his love.

Along the way he has many companions, the foremost of whom is Doctor Pangloss, the teacher,  philosopher, and believer in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, a personal philosophy he spreads far and wide …

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in the little neighbouring woods, which was called a park, she saw through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects.  She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the deire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficing reason for young Candide, and he for her.

Yes, this is the first of many occasions when Voltaire gets slightly saucy, rather than satirical, and very funny it is too.  I must admit, a lot of the direct satire was lost on me and the rest of the group as we were unfamiliar with the times the story was set in. It appears that the German philosopher Leibniz was a particular target as he believed in a benevolent God – however, we could all get the general themes. This was where an edition with good notes came in rather useful. One of our group who is a linguist read the book in the original French and was amused to find that the novella is billed as ‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph’, Ralph being Voltaire.

In the end Candide’s optimism may have been tempered by the hard reality of life, but there are a lot of laughs along the way. Candide’s travels and encounters may owe a lot to Gulliver’s travels which preceded it, but what struck our book group most was the surreal edge to the humour – where else would you encounter an old woman with one buttock?  This led our book group to decide that Voltaire’s heir is none other than Monty Python, who in The Life of Brian, also simultaneously espoused and satirised optimism – here’s Eric Idle …

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best ….
And … always look on the bright side of life…

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Candideby Voltaire
Gulliver’s Travels (Oxford World’s Classics)by Jonathan Swift
Monty Python’s Life of Brian [DVD] [1979]