Tag Archives: Joseph Heller

The Best Books for … changing my life

So us book-bloggers, we are always saying that books are very significant. So are librarians, publishers and writers. And that’s because books change lives. This post is stuffed full of books that have changed lives (with links to Bookword reviews). Which books changed your life? 

This is the first in an ad hoc series of posts which will all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … presents for my birthday; … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on.

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

Back in November 2014 I found a list of  books that had ‘impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’ organised by Bailey’s (who at that time sponsored the Women’s Prize for Fiction). I doubt whether it would be much different if they surveyed readers again today.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Harry Potter by JK Rowling

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

Life-changing political books by women 

And in February last year the Guardian Review asked several influential women for their choices of life-changing political books by women. 

Harriet Harman and Mary Beard: The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Nicola Sturgeon: The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark and The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir

Diane Abbott: Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Gina Miller: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Jess Phillips: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caroline Lucas: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Natasha Walter: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Best Books for … changing my life

I have chosen just three books, or I would have had to mention 300. Each of these I think about a great deal still.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976): a novel that suggested it was possible not to organised society around gender. (See also, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): when asked why he had  never written another book as good as Catch-22 , Joseph Heller replied ‘Who has?’ That story may not be true, but it is good. This book told me you cannot expect rational behaviour in policy, politics or war. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954): in which the author showed that history has real meaning when understood through people’s lives. It is the source of my enduring love of history and the reason history was the focus of my first degree.

What would be on your list of influential or life-changing books? What I like about framing the topic in this way is that it bypasses any notion of favourites. Writing this post has made me think about some books I would like to reread. I’ll get on to that.

A related post

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

You might also look at A Book that Changed my Life by Ursula Le Guin, a post in June 2015 on Book View Café Blog. It is only fair that the writer who has the most references in this post gets to say something herself. And basically she says it’s an impossible task, but here is one list. It’s a good one. I was pleased to see it includes Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man. Our hero tells a great story the punchline of which is ‘it’s a great day to die!’ Go visit Ursula Le Guin’s list!

Over to you

So what would you add to the unlimitable list of best books for changing your life?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, The Best Books for ...

A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?

 

How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?

 

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Let slip the novels of war

War novels have their own ‘best of’ lists on the internet. Frequently these lists have too many testosterone-fuelled novels and horror for me. The five novels I pick out in this post have something else. They use the best of the novel to reflect on something beyond the experiences of most readers. They show the bigger picture – bigger geographically, in scope and in meaning – through individual stories. They use the power of story to explore the urge to survive, the horror of what man does to men, women and children, and how humans react when faced with the vastness of war.

Here are my five (plus two) to think about.

72 all q

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques

The First World War will be the subject of much remembrance as we reach the centenary of its outbreak. In Britain literary merit seems to be the preserve of the poets. The novel of choice is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques, written, of course, in German. I did not read it until 2012, having been presented with extracts on a writing course. It was published in 1929, eleven years after the Armistice.

Paul Baumer tells the story in the first person. He and his school friends enlisted in the German army in 1916 as 18 year olds, on the encouragement of their schoolteacher. The story opens on the battlefield and hardly leaves it, except to go home on leave and for a spell in a military hospital. The narrator is killed in October 1918, feeling he has nothing left in his life, that the young person he was has been destroyed in the war. It has killed his friends one by one, and his country has been reduced to sending inadequately prepared raw recruits into battle to die. There are vividly descriptions of battle, but also some lighter scenes such as the theft of the goose, or the canal swim to be with some girls one evening.

72 3 books

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

My choice for a novel set in the homefront in the Second World War has to be The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen – the subject of a Readalong on my blog earlier in 2013. You can find my review here. One of the best novels of the twentieth century I believe.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The fate of the author (in Auschwitz in 1942) and the location in war-time France meant I was initially reluctant to read this book. But I was charmed and thrilled by it.

Part 1, Storm in June, concerns the flight from Paris in June 1940. The story follows several families as panic hit the capital and they scrambled out as the German army advanced. It’s an amazing exploration of what people do in a crisis, how some have great generosity and others think only of themselves. There is lovely humour, black in places, great tenderness and overall an affectionate look at people through the details of their lives.

Part 2 called Douce concerns life in a village in occupied France a year later, when German troops are billeted on the population. Here the story picks up some of the characters from Storm, but mostly concerns the relationship between a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the young cavalry officer, Bruno. The development of the relationships between victors and conquered, between occupiers and residents is beautifully observed, as are the accommodations that people make to this situation in order to preserve their own values and lives.

The manuscript was carried by Irene Nemirovsky’s daughters, taken in haste to remind them of their mother. It was only produced for publication recently.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

For a novel from the battlefield (or the air battle in this case) in the Second World War I must nominate Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book is one of my desert island choices because it is so inventive, so rich in detail, so brilliant at showing the absurd in absurd situations. The title and some of the characters have entered our culture.

72 Disp

Dispatches by Michael Herr

Some brilliant writing came out of the Vietnamese War. The novel that made the strongest impression on me was Dispatches by Michael Herr. It’s a searing condemnation of what happened to the fighting men. It convinced me that war is never an answer to anything. The damage inflicted upon the participants is as futile in the Vietnamese war as all others, despite individual acts of heroism.

And the first other one:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

On publication it was celebrated as the work of a new voice, creative and strong. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is about US soldiers in the (second) Iraqi war. I read it in preparation for this blogpost. In my reading log I commented, ‘nothing to like here’. Too much of that male stuff here for me. Geoff Dyer was more critical of it in a review of another (non-fiction) book about the Iraq war. You can find his comments here: Thank You For Your Service. He includes these comments:

Kevin Powers served in Iraq but his novel reads as if he were the veteran only of serial deployments in MFA writing programmes. … [His novel is] inadequate as a form of response to the subject matter.

Here’s an example of creative writing class fiction perhaps: ‘while we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’ (p1) There was plenty more like that.

72 YB

The title comes from a US Army marching cadence:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

 

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head …

And the second other one:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This one is on my tbr pile, having been recommended by a friend. Have you read it? Have you an opinion about it?

And a few more recommendations from browsing the web

Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War)

Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Napoleonic invasion of Russia)

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five (Second World War)

D.M Thomas The White Hotel (Second World War)

And there are countless excellent non-fiction books as well.

 

Powerful stuff. What have you read that spoke to you about war? I was disappointed to find nothing outstanding in the twenty-first century. Have you come across anything you would recommend?

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reviews

Desert Island Books

It’s that old scenario, white sandy beach, a single palm tree, gulls shrieking, strings playing Sailing By and Kirsty Young asking you to choose eight books. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are apparently already under the palm tree, thanks to the DIBSTUS (Desert Island Bible and Shakespeare Top Up Society).

What criteria to use? After all, millions of people are not listening to your choices, so you don’t have to answer to them, or make your choices represent important people or events in your life. But DIBSTUS will only deliver 8 more books so you do have to find some criteria or other.

It’s clear that I should choose books I want to read again and again, for all the years I will be stranded, listening to Sinatra singing My Way (also provided by DIBSTUS for all castaways)? I could go for the greatest books list. The Guardian’s 100 greatest novels of all time begins well enough with Don Quixote, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and then at #3 – just the thing on your desert island – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. There are no women writers in the top eight books in the list. Jane Austen’s Emma and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley come in at #9 and #10. They may be the greatest (longest?) novels of all time, but these top eight are worthy, harsh and actually, rather masculine. I expect DIBSTUS would approve. I’ll take a different set to my desert island.

My great-grandfather referred to reading as a conversation with the author, and I find myself asking with whom would I like to converse on my desert island? Not John Bunyan or Daniel Defoe I am sure. John Bunyan would treat every day like Sunday, and Daniel has seen it all before, after all. Been there, done that! Is there a T shirt?

So here is the list of authors with whom I would like to converse, and my pick of their books:

Jane Austen, I think I’d try to persuade Kirsty [see what I did there!] to allow me the complete works, but if she doesn’t agree I’ll take Pride and Prejudice.

Pride & Prej

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 has the kind of humour that exactly appeals to my generation, loads of characters and idiosyncrasy, full of those moments of human stupidity and situations when only laughing at the absurdity will get you through.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves. It’s about time I got to grips with this novel. She’s such an amazing and thoughtful writer, never did anything without great reflection. But I felt mostly relief when I first finished reading it. The island context would seem appropriate for a project related to the sea, and to explore the novel further.

Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time for its vision of a world where gender differences are irrelevant; or Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for a different approach to the same topic. (Help! Can’t decide!)

W.G. Sebald Austerlitz. I don’t believe I would ever tire of the inventiveness and imaginativeness of Sebald’s writing. And the tour de force of the description of Theriesenstadt deserves the familiarity a castaway’s life could provide.

George Eliot Middlemarch. I wouldn’t tire of this book either with its study of people and their relationships and the fixes they get themselves into.

Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did. I want to overthrow the teachings of this childhood favourite, with its awful insistence on self-sacrifice for girls. I might write What Katy did in 2013 to replace it. The date in the title would have to adjust according to when I get rescued.

Bookshelf DSC00106

That leaves one choice. Any suggestions? In the absence of better offers I can always take the Guardian’s #1 because I have never read it all through: Don Quixote.

Oh dear, Kirsty is asking for a last choice: just one of these books and one luxury. Reading glasses perhaps. But which book?

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