Tag Archives: ian mcewan

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity US coverI have spent a good portion of my life avoiding all literature and movies that take place during World War II. I’m an emotional and empathetic person, and I just can’t deal with it!  I was forced to read Night in middle school, and to watch Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan before I was out of school.  I can’t take it! It’s too much abject and terrible misery happening all at once, all over the world. So I’ve actively avoided anything set in the period. Until recently. I realized as I began this novel that it was the 4th WWII era novel I’ve read in as many years.  It seems I can tolerate the time period if the war is in the periphery rather than the main event.  First, there was Atonement, which pretty much ruined my life while I was reading it.  Fuck You, Ian McEwan.  You kill me every time you cruel, heartless bastard.

In the last two years, I’ve read The Book Thief (amazing, amazing book.  READ IT!) and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (also very good), and now this.  These books were about women, which might be why the bulk of the violence is on the outskirts of the story.

Code Name Verity is the story of two girls.  Maddie and Julie.  Maddie is from the North of England, and she starts the war working in her grandfather’s motorcycle shop.  But she gets the itch to be a pilot, and as war efforts continue to require more and more people, she gets her chance.  She ferries broken planes and healthy pilots around the airbases of England in the Air Transport Auxiliary.  Her friend Julie is Scottish, well-bred, and is involved in Secret Ops.  Forgive me if I get some of these military names wrong; I have no capacity for remembering the difference between Special Forces and Secret Operations, etc.

The girls encounter each other several times throughout their work on airfields.  Their first meeting is when Julie and Maddie help an injured German pilot land his plane on their runway–by pretending he’s safely made it back to France.  Two things are really striking about these characters, given their time and place. 1-They are girls who are capable, skilled, and efficient at jobs almost exclusively reserved for men.  Maddie is a mechanic and a pilot; Julie becomes a spy.  2-They are incredibly close and good friends.  There are a lot of female friendships represented in literature as catty and jealous.  I know a lot of women who feel more comfortable with men than with other women.  Consider a character like Bella Swan from Twilight. She has almost zero female friends, and 99% of her life is caught up between two dudes.  Of course, there are a lot of problems with Twilight; I won’t go into all that.  The point is, seeing a strong and loyal female friendship is rarer than you might think.

This book is a little bit of a ‘mind game’, as the NYT blurb on the cover indicates.  The first 1/3 of the book is Julie’s narrative.  She is writing on borrowed scraps of paper after being caught in occupied France. She has been tortured by the Gestapo, and she is writing her story to delay her upcoming transfer to a concentration camp.  It’s bleak and manic, describing in detail her ill-treatment and her guilt over giving up information to the Nazi’s.  She tells the whole story of her relationship with Maddie, from its inception.  From Maddie’s point of view.  Maddie is on her mind constantly, because the Gestapo have showed her pictures of Maddie’s crashed plane and the charred body in the cockpit. The UK cover shows a more accurate depiction of the book, but I wonder if I would have read the book if it had had this cover?

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But there are twists and turns once we reach the middle of the book.  Both girls are so capable and so honest with their written accounts, that you start to believe that things might work out.  But this is Nazi-occupied France, and I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that it doesn’t all work out.  As much as I was hoping for a miracle at the end, there wasn’t one.  But the bittersweet ending makes you appreciate even more the truly bad-ass nature of these two girls, and of everyone just fighting for survival at that time.  People surviving the Blitz, the French resistance living in constant fear, the beleaguered and eternally-ruined souls of everyone who took part in the Nazi party and in the Gestapo.  Everyone was just…surviving, if they were lucky.  I really am not someone capable of dealing with this level of misery! If I think about it too much, I can’t get out of bed in the morning.

Before you have me committed for manic depression, I’ll snap myself out of it.  I had mixed feelings about the end, because the girls were so honorable and so easy to look up to, but anyone born in that time was just going to experience their fair share of misery.  Now that I’ve calmed down about the ending, I can look back and say that I really enjoyed the book. It was worth dealing with the pain to see such capable, smart, emotional, and brave women as main characters in a story.  No man to save the day; they rely on themselves.  The book also makes sure to make every character–even the Gestapo interrogator– a real human, with flaws and doubts and pleasures and pains.  Books that portray Nazi’s as superhuman monsters aren’t helping us avoid making the same mistakes in future. I think this book was really successful at taking a totally inhuman, alien concept like being a P.o.W. in a Nazi stronghold, or like hiding with a family in the French Resistance, and makes it seem real and comprehensible.  It gives life to an era I (fortunately) didn’t see.  I really enjoyed it, even though it required a lot of chocolate to recover from.

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistI’m having terrible luck with books lately.  The last four or five I’ve read were (at best) ‘meh’.  I’ve also read a few lately written by historians-turned-novelists.  I thought perhaps I might do better with someone who has an English degree.

I was wrong.  Despite earning a ‘first’ (British equivalent of Summa Cum Laude) in English Lit at Oxford, Barnes does not make a better novelist than the historians I’ve read of late.  In fact, this book was quite a bit worse.

I don’t like writing about books I dislike, or disliking books in the first place. I feel very ungenerous for being harsh on writers and their work, especially in a medium where they can see my bald criticisms (and several of them have).  I would vastly prefer to only find great books and be able to swoon and flail over them in private, and pontificate over them on this blog. But that is not my fate. And I feel like it’s better to put my thoughts out there and keep other people from wasting their time on books that aren’t worth the effort it takes to read them. So forgive my harshness, but this was not a good book. Not at all.

I picked it up because the cover very clearly says ’19th century England’, from the dark hat and cloak to the gas-lit facade of the Houses of Parliament.  That’s my place and my time period, so I was in.  I wasn’t really drawn in by the jacket copy, focusing on a conjurer/illusionist/magician figure (I dislike magic), or by the title. Somnambulist means sleepwalker, in case you didn’t know.  But the setting is enough for me when it comes to books–a policy I may have to change when I think about the last few books I’ve read.

The story is about a magician, Edward Moon, who also is relatively famous for his skills as a part-time detective, a Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin type character. His sidekick, both in his magical show and in his mystery-solving adventures is the Somnambulist, a mute giant with superhuman strength and an apparent immunity to being stabbed with multiple swords. The Somnamulist reminded me of the mythical Golem of Jewish Folklore.

Other characters include an albino who works for a government agency called the Directorate, his Tiny Tim-esque son on crutches, a bearded prostitute with a deformed third arm emerging from the middle of her chest, two aged men dressed as English schoolboys who happen to be supernatural assassins, fake ‘Chinamen’, the Human Fly, the sewn together and reanimated body of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and an all-powerful cult bent on destroying London. Oh, yes, and a Benjamin-Button character who travels through his life backwards, getting younger by the day. But he’s also living through time backwards and lives for thousands of years, eventually ‘founding’ London in pre-Roman times.

The sad thing is that in that description, I didn’t even include all of the different assassins or crackpots running through this story. I left out the Mongoose, Reverand Tan, the all-knowing Archivist, Moon’s ex-partner and now-nemesis Barabbas, the list goes on.  This book is a mess of absolutely unbelievable crap. And none of it is ever well explained.  Essentially, the plot revolves around Moon trying to solve a murder, and being led slowly into this large conspiracy to destroy London and start a new society in its place.  This is all based on a theory Coleridge actually had, called pantisocracy.  He and some mates were going to leave England and start an agrarian utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in middle-Pennsylvania.  They gave up the idea after only a few months, but Barnes has resurrected it for this novel.

In an attempt to summarize this story, I realize that I don’t truly understand it.  Part of the problem was that I had a hard time reading the book–it was not captivating, not exciting. I had to struggle to finish a few pages at a time.

Another problem is the story makes no sense, the narrator is totally unreliable and admits to telling lies in the story, and no one bothers to explain anything that’s going on.  The plot was a complete clusterfuck. I have no idea how this shit got published. I don’t say that often, but I mean it.

My other problems with the book revolved around character.  Moon is described as a great detective, but we never see any evidence.  Unlike the Holmes stories, where we see snippets of his abilities in deduction, Moon is just described as a great detective by others.There is talk of past cases, successful and not so much, but in this mystery he is shockingly passive.   He waits for others to tell him what is going on, give him clues and point him in the right direction. And they do, time and time again.  He even has a man on his side who has traveled from the future and knows how the story goes–and yet Moon bumbles from one place to another until he wanders into a trap and is nearly killed.  His one proactive moment is putting ads in the papers for someone who might have information he needs, but the gentleman who answers the ad is sent directly from Moon’s enemies.  It’s all a trap, and he has no capacity for seeing that.  He is an incredibly disappointing detective.  And a disappointing character all around, with very little depth or back story.

I should have put this book down when I read the first paragraph:

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. 

This is the most truthful and realistic part of the novel. I had an intense and immediate dislike of the book and the author as soon as I read this.  I dislike narrative ‘tricks’ for the sake of trickery, and this one seemed to also be apologizing for sub-par writing which did not engender confidence in me as a reader.  Barnes continues with the narrative tricks with confusing lies by the narrator, and with the final reveal of the narrator’s identity.  I don’t want narrative tricks; I want an actual story.  There are a few books where these tricks work–because you’ve believed a story to a certain point, and you are thrown completely from the narrative saddle by a revelation halfway.  The example for me is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I both adore and hate. I absolutely detest that book for how horrible it made me feel, like a friend had walked beside me for a while, then turned around and stabbed me in the gut.  That is a narrative trick that works. It left me weeping for a good hour. These narrative tricks that Barnes employs are just annoying, a nuisance.

I’m afraid to say I don’t think anything was redeeming about this book.  None of the characters were particularly likeable or whole.  A lot of them seemed like rip-offs of other characters–Moon was meant to be like Holmes, The Prefects seemed to be Croup and Vandemar light, there was also Tiny Tim, the Golem, and Benjamin Button.  An original, or fully fleshed-out character would have been nice.

The plot was nonsensical and unsatisfying. The writing wasn’t engaging, nor was it stylistically pleasant.  I think the phrase ‘ersatz Chinaman’ was used at least 4 times. The narrator was annoying at best.  It was a really terrible book. Normally, when I don’t like a book very much I try to say ‘if you really like X time period, or X genre then this might be worth reading’. I cannot think of a single type of person who would enjoy this book. It’s not satisfying as a mystery, it’s not satisfying as a part of the time period, it’s useless if you value complicated characters or beautiful prose.  I guess if you enjoy being jerked around by a narrator and like to leave a book with less comprehension of the plot than during the first few pages, then this one’s for you!

My Top 5 British Everything! part one

My monetary situation continues to not be conducive to buying new movies or books.  That means it’s time for another list–a long one this time! Part one will cover Books, Movies, and my favorite places in the British Isles.

My Top 5 British Everything*

*not comprehensive.

First off, books! This is very hard for me, obviously, as a quick inventory of my bookshelf will prove that about 60% of all the books I own are British.  To pick only 5 is like picking one meal to eat every night for the rest of your life.  But, nevertheless, here are my favorites!

1.The Harry Potter Series

Of course this is number one.  And, don’t gripe about this being 7 books, not one.  This list is only my top five, and it would be pretty boring if all five were HP books, as they most assuredly would be.  The bottom line is these are my desert island books, the only books I would truly need to be fulfilled for the rest of my life, if, god forbid, it came to that sort of choice.  These books absolutely and tangibly changed my life–cured my depression, inspired me to go back and finish my degree, inspired me to read again, to write again, to enjoy and love my time on earth.  When I am sad or weary, I pull out these books and, like some sort of black market European antidepressants, they make things better. Not only do I own the original 7 novels in their American versions, but also several foreign editions as well.  I picked up the British (children’s) copy of Deathly Hallows, plus an Italian Prisoner of Azkaban (which it took me 3 months to read), a Greek Half-Blood Prince, a Croatian Chamber of Secrets, and even a copy of Philosopher’s Stone that has been translated into Latin!

These books are largely responsible for my love of British culture, and you could draw a pretty direct line from my first experience reading HP books to me creating this blog.  They are the end all be all of my reading life.

2. Pride and Prejudice

See my earlier entry for why this is such a lovely book.  I can’t say it had the same impact on me as Harry Potter, but I just finished a reread last week and even after so many times reading it and watching the miniseries, I still find new and lovely bits that are delightful.

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3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy’

The first time I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it was sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe. I laughed so hard and so loud that I made an idiot of myself. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the story, Arthur Dent is whisked off Earth minutes before its irrevocable destruction by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who reveals himself to be an alien.  But this isn’t science fiction; it never takes itself particularly seriously. What it is, in my opinion, is just funny and silly and wonderfully imaginative. The wordplay alone is enough to furnish me with great quotes for the rest of my life.  Here’s just a few to choose from:

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

And my favorite (not technically from the series, but wonderful anyway):

I like deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

There is something very British (in my American mind at least) about this love of and playfulness with words and phrases.  Compare it, for a second, to something by Hemingway, whose prose has never even bordered on playful (at least, in my experience).  If you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide,you should.

4.Hamlet

I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my life. I think I’ve taken 3 or 4 Shakespeare courses in college, plus the plays I read in high school.  I’ve read all of his sonnets and most of his other poems.  Of his 37 plays, I have read 20, so far.  I think Hamlet may have been the first one I read, back in middle school.  It has always been my favorite.  Some people think that Hamlet is indecisive and incapable of action. I just don’t see it.  He’s overcome with grief, with anger, with a questioning of the purpose of life and of revenge.  He feels trapped by circumstances and he talks his way through his feelings.  And he talks so beautifully.  I think it is, by far, the most poetic of Shakespeare’s works, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been depressed or suffered tragedy can read his famous soliloquy without finding echoing questions and statements in their own hearts. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, and encourage everyone to read it.  If you don’t think you can stand reading the play, please do not go get the Mel Gibson DVD.  At least invest the time in the Kenneth Branagh version, or at the very least the new David Tennant.

5. North and South

Please do not confuse this with that civil war miniseries with Patrick Swayze.  Though Elizabeth Gaskell is not that well known in America, she is considered just as popular as Jane Austen in England.  This is the story of a family who is forced to uproot from their life in the South (i.e. London and the counties surrounding it, which were agricultural, were old money, and were considered the most civilized) to the industrialized North (full of factories, the working class, unions, and pollution).  This dichotomy is a huge factor in England, even today someone with a Northern accent can be (unfairly) assumed to be less civilized than his/her Southern counterpart.  The book has the same plot as an Austen novel, and does have a truly scrumptious male love interest, but all of that is against an entirely different background. Gaskell weaves in poverty, unions, strikes, factory conditions, changing social norms, religious disparities, etc. etc. etc.  It’s a great way to get to know some of the background of the time, but to still get a fulfilling love story.  I also highly recommend the miniseries with Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton.

Honorable Mention: Jane Eyre

now, on to Movies.
Please keep in mind that I am not a cinema expert and haven’t seen a lot of what are considered the British ‘classics’. These are mostly mainstream films that were also very successful in the US.

1. A Hard Day’s Night

My love for the Beatles from an early age meant that, at the age of 9 or 10, I dragged my father to the video store every weekend to rent the same two movies: this one, and Help!.  Help! doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as this one, but A Hard Day’s Night is a brilliant film. It captures the madness of the Beatles’ schedules and touring demands, the ridiculousness of press junkets, and the cheeky humor of the Fab Four.  It features great music, cute British boys, and lots of genuinely funny bits.

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2. Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz

I am listing these two together because, recently, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg revealed that they will be making a third in what they are calling the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. Shaun of the Dead can be described as a romantic comedy with zombies, while Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop action comedy.  But not action comedy as in Rush Hour; it’s more funny than it is action. Also, it’s not terrible, so that’s another key difference.  These movies are both hilarious, have cemented my eternal love for Simon Pegg, and spoof other genres so well that they manage to be both great parodies and great examples of the genres they are spoofing.

3. Snatch

 

This movie is just…unique.  Or, it’s unique if you haven’t seen Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels. But seriously, Guy Ritchie made this movie and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.  Vinnie Jones is amazing, Jason Statham is in his first big role (at least in the US), and Brad Pitt plays an absolutely incomprehensible gypsy/boxer.  It’s a stylish, interesting, funny film.  It also provides one with endless quotes. This movie contains both my least favorite moment in perhaps any movie (Brick Top–aka the foulest man on earth–talking about feeding corpses to his pigs) and one of my favorites (Tyrone backs into a van and claims it was at a funny angle. Vinny says It’s behind you Tyrone. Whenever you reverse, things come from behind you.).

4. Atonement

Couldn’t be more different from Snatch.  For all my bitching about Keira Knightley and Joe Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, they do a spectacular job with this movie.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it might be better than the book, and I loved the book.  The book didn’t have James McAvoy though, and the movie has an absolutely amazing score that actually works to help translate it from book to screen.  A word of warning, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it will absolutely fuck you up. I was sobbing for days.  Ian McEwan’s fiction always does that to me, but this is a prime example.  It’s either going to make you depressed or make you very angry, or both. But it’s exceptionally good.

5. Bridget Jones’ Diary

How could I not love this movie? It’s based on Pride & Prejudice, has the real Mr. Darcy playing a man named Mr. Darcy, and features an imperfect heroine who Darcy loves anyway.

I do occasionally have a problem with the fact that Bridget is a bit of an idiot, and compared to Lizzy Bennet she’s a complete moron.  But she does have a sort of wonderful, vivacious, goofy energy that is a good contrast to stuffy, conservative, Mark Darcy.

Honorable Mentions: Notting Hill, Love Actually

Now, on to my favorite Places to visit during a trip to the UK.  Let me preface this by saying I have, by no means, seen the majority of the UK.  These are just the 5 favorite places I visited during my time there.

1. South Bank of London

I spent a lot of time on the South Bank during my time in London, though I didn’t live anywhere near it.  I did go to the theatre there almost every week, and it is among the most beautiful of all the places I spent time in Europe. As the name implies, it’s on the South Bank of the Thames, and features tons of big attractions within about a block or two of the water.  There’s the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the London Eye, the London Aquarium, the Waterloo station, the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, and City Hall (popularly known as Darth Vader’s helmet because of its shape).  It’s a beautiful, vibrant, interesting, artistic part of town.  It should also be avoided during tourist season, but if you go when it’s not packed, it can be absolutely beautiful. A few blocks east are the Globe theatre, the Tate Modern, and the Millennium Bridge.

2. Prince’s Street Gardens and the Castle of Edinburgh

I went to Edinburgh and was blown away by how beautiful this part of town was.  The castle sits at the top of a huge cliff and the gardens sit at its base.  The history of the place goes back thousands of years, you can see the entire town from the top of the cliff, and everywhere you go in the area, you have at least some chance of running into J.K. Rowling.

3. Oxford

Talk about history, beauty, the whole thing.  You can walk around this city in about an hour, but it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  I’m still considering going to Oxford for grad school, because can you imagine having this place for your home? Wandering around the same halls and rooms as so many of the important figures in political and literary history (26 prime ministers, 12 saints, kings, queens, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde…just to name a few. I could go on).  Plus Rowan Atkinson.  I think I could spend the rest of my life inside the Radcliffe Camera (reading room).

4. Bath

A place famous with Roman settlers for its healing waters, home to Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Rupert Giles, and set in a really beautiful part of a really beautiful country.  It’s a small town, but I found it really charming and lovely to walk in.  There are tons of Regency-era museums and houses open for viewing, plus the Jane Austen house, the original Roman baths, and a kickass chocolate shop across from the Cathedral.

5. Hampstead and ‘the Heath’


I lived approximately 1 mile from Hampstead, and ran on the heath most mornings during my time in London. As such, I have a lot of affection for the place.  Plus, it was home to John Keats, my favorite poet ever.  Hampstead is a small village to the northwest of London, rather trendy with celebs and the rich and famous. It’s got nice restaurants, and is surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods on one side and the ‘Heath’ (park) on the other.  The Heath itself has two basic parts, from my recollection, an open park, and a wooded section.  From the top of the hills you can see downtown London landmarks like the BT tower and the ‘Gherkin’ building (so named because it resembles a pickle).  It’s similar, in my eyes, to Central Park, because it is a place that tons of people go when the weather is good and they sit in the grass and just enjoy life.  What’s not to love?

That’s all for this list.  Next time, I’ll tackle my favorite British TV, British music, and my favorite tidbits from British history.