Top Ten Tuesday: Tyrants, despots and dictators

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. 

I had already half decided not to involve myself in the next few Top Ten Tuesdays, at least until I had a bit more time to spare. However, as soon as I realised that this was a freebie week, the idea for a post on tyrannical regimes in literature immediately leapt into my head fully formed. It would have been wasteful to ignore it or to put it off until another week when the subject would be less relevant (although I guess it’ll remain relevant for at least the next four years). But still, it seemed like an apt week.

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, in which a revolutionary extremist Christian movement seizes control of power and strips women of their rights and freedoms, with horrifying consequences. I’ve read this a few times now and it never fails to scare me.

2. 1984 by George Orwell. An obvious choice perhaps but I don’t think this list would be complete without reference to 1984. Winston Smith exists in a nightmarish world where the state controls the truth and every move is watched by Big Brother; there’s no privacy, no freedom, no love.

3. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. I think the dystopian world in V for Vendetta is disturbing because it’s just about recognisable. This is a police-state London in the 1990s, post civil-war and run by the fascist Norsefire party.

4. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The White Witch’s tyranny over Narnia has lasted a hundred years and caused a deep, deep winter to settle over the land.

5. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare. Weird choice maybe but I quite like this play, although it is rather harrowing. Coriolanus’ tyranny over Rome eventually collapses because he is completely unable to compromise.

6. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. A slightly more light hearted entry on the list here although it’s still fairly dark. The action here takes place in Chromatica, where the social hierarchy is determined by ability to see colour.Woe betide you if you’re a Grey caught fraternising with a Violet…

7. Animal Farm by George Orwell. The farmyard setting is used here to comment on the high ideals of the Russian Revolution which had quickly gone astray and been replaced with Stalin’s reign of terror.

8. Harry Potter and the … by J.K. Rowling. In the Deathly Hallows Voldemort seizes power and begins his own renewed terrifying reign over the magical world, but you could argue that Delores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic had been verging on the despotic for some time anyway.

9. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. Another alternative history but in this one the people from the African continent have used centuries of technological advantage to subjugate the Europeans. Now the Crosses (Whites) are at the mercy of the more powerful Noughts (Blacks).

10. The Wave by Todd Strasser. A clever classroom experiment – and an attempt to show what life was really like in Nazi Germany – goes horribly wrong when a new movement sweeps through the school.

I realise that this week would also have been a good week for a TTT list on protests in literature but sadly that proved a little harder to write. I’ll bear it in mind for a future week though – suggestions always welcome!

Shylock is my Name (2016) by Howard Jacobson

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There has been frustratingly little reading time this last week or two and I’m trying very hard not to feel a bit down about it. It’d be horrible if reading were to become some sort of competition where I have to read so many books in a year or I’ll feel like a failure…. But at the moment it seems to be taking me a long, long time to finish any books at all. It’s disappointing. I miss reading. It makes my day (and me) a little bit nicer.

“That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.”

This book was a birthday present from P earlier in the year on the back of a documentary we saw with Jacobson and Alan Yentob in Venice in which they talked about our responses to Shylock. I came away with the impression that this was a sort of retelling of The Merchant of Venice but that’s not quite right; it’s more of a re-plotted, re-imagined tale in which Shylock – not a version of Shylock but the actual Shylock fresh from Venice – strikes up a strange friendship with modern day art dealer Simon Strulovitch in a Manchester cemetery. The two have a lot to talk about and when Strulovitch’s precocious daughter Beatrice becomes entangled with a Nazi saluting footballer, Shylock suggests that Strulovitch exact his ‘pound of flesh’ from the man who has wronged him in a way that will sound eerily familiar.

The conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock form the backbone of this novel. They discuss errant daughters, fatherhood, what it means to be Jewish and how Jews and non-Jews regard each other in the modern world. Their discussions are interesting, funny and challenging enough that they aren’t as tortuous as they would be in the hands of a less clever author. In fact, they’re the perfect mouthpiece for Jacobson to explore Shylock’s place in our world and you get a strange sense that he’s really enjoying doing this. The rest of the novel feels kind of flimsy in comparison and I wondered whether Portia (or Plurabelle as she is here) deserves a bit better than Jacobson is willing to give her; she’s no longer the spirited young woman capable of annihilating Shylock in court but the vapid star of a reality TV show. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Shylock on the other hand is just as disconcerting here as he is in the play; he’s vociferous both in defending his own actions four hundred years previously and in urging Strulovitch towards revenge.

It helps if you have at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice beforehand. I haven’t read the play but I’ve seen it performed on stage and on film so I was fairly confident that I’d get to grips with this in no time. Within a few chapters, however, I was flicking through The Complete Works of Shakespeare trying to remind myself what the hell the monkey had to do with anything (and then kicking myself for having forgotten that the monkey is the final twist of the knife in Jessica’s attempt to hurt her father; it’s kind of a big deal). I think I kept up with this novel but maybe I’d have appreciated some of the nuances a bit more if I’d had a deeper knowledge of the play. It’s something I’ll have to bear in mind for a future reread. Even armed with a bit of knowledge, I imagine this isn’t always easy going, partly because the conversations between the two main characters require some concentration but also because, while there’s a certain amount of dark humour here, there’s also some bewildering anti-Semitism on the part of some of the other characters. Much like The Merchant of Venice, this isn’t a comfortable experience and although it doesn’t have the same power to devastate I admire the way it’s told.

A Shakespearean Anniversary

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Procession of characters from Shakespeare’s plays, unknown artist (courtesy of Wikimedia)

The 23rd April will mark four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. I’ve been toying with the idea of a related post this month to mark the occasion but wasn’t sure how to approach it until I saw Juliet’s post at Girl, Reading (which I highly recommend you check out). She kindly gave me permission to pinch her idea and I’m very grateful, especially because none of my own ideas where half as well put together! Thank you Juliet.

In recent years I’ve rediscovered my love of Shakespeare, a love that shone briefly in my teenage years but was all too quickly extinguished by As You Like It at A’Level. The rediscovery is almost entirely down to seeing my first Royal Shakespeare Company live screening in my local cinema back in 2014. It was a revelation. Since then I’ve seen more performances (in theatres or in my own living room) than I would care to shake a stick at. I’m a girl obsessed.

Juliet set herself some probing questions in her original post. Here are my responses to those same questions:

Favourite Shakespeare play: Hamlet. It has everything you could possibly want: grief, despair, betrayal, revenge, the ghost of a dead father, some of the most quotable lines in all of literature…. and it’s still surprisingly funny at times. Seeing Hamlet for the first time was proof to me, if it was needed, of the great man’s genius.

Favourite character: Richard II. I don’t know why everyone’s so surprised when you say you like this play. It’s great and I love Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard. He’s a young king who’s been manipulated and flattered all his young life into believing in his own divine importance. It’s made him vain, cruel and thoroughly unlikeable and yet for some reason my heart always breaks for him (and for Bolingbroke) at the end. Honorary mention also goes to Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. I love those guys.

Favourite film adaptation: I realise now that although I’ve seen quite a few theatre productions I’ve not seen many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Like Juliet, though, I’m ridiculously fond of 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern High School retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. When it comes to theatre productions, one of my current favourites is the 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate. It’s hilarious but sadly not available on DVD so I downloaded it from here.

Favourite factual Shakespeare book: The last Shakespeare related book I really enjoyed was Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, a study of Ann Hathaway. Ann’s life is a bit of a mystery to historians as very few reliable records relating to her life survive but I think Greer does a really convincing job of showing what Ann’s life was like and how women in the sixteenth century lived.

Shakespeare in fiction: I’ve had Howard Jacobson’s book, Shylock is my Name, lined up on my library reserve list for a few weeks now but I appear to be at the back end of a very long queue. I don’t think it’s an updated retelling of The Merchant of Venice exactly but I was intrigued to hear that the character was being given a new voice.

Favourite Shakespeare quote: Oh my, this is very hard. The first line to pop into my head was from Richard II when Richard, full of regret and knowing the end is near, says:

            I wasted time and now doth time waste me

I know that feeling all too well. Pretty much everything Richard says in the final third of the play is my favourite.

But then I remembered the furious eloquence of Shylock’s tirade to the court in The Merchant of Venice. It’s one of my favourite scenes, I always get goosebumps, but it’s uncomfortable to watch at times:

            Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,

            dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with

            the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

            to the same diseases, healed by the same means,

            warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer

            as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

            If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,

            do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

In the end, though, I think if you want words to live your life by, then it’s best left to Polonius in Hamlet who gives some pretty sage advice to his son:

            This above all: to thine own self be true

Thanks again to Juliet for allowing me to steal her idea!

September round-up

September

Evenin’ all.

The big news of the month is that we officially ran out of book space. In fact, I think we probably ran out some time ago but it was only as I running the hoover round one afternoon that I noticed the full extent of the problem: books on the floor, books on the sofa, books on the kitchen table, books in the washing basket…. I’ve consolidated the mess onto the sofa for now while I come up with a plan (probably one that involves a clear out and a trip to the charity shop) but in the meantime I had to put a halt to the shopping. This month’s purchases have been pretty sparse as a result:

84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff (already blogged here)

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

All in all I had a pretty productive month. I finished The Count of Monte Cristo on the 10th and since then I’ve read 84 Charing Cross Road, The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie, The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah and Emma by Jane Austen. Not bad I reckon. We also saw Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston when it was broadcast live to our local cinema from the National Theatre. It was intense and bloody and pretty grim in places but awesome too.

The Sot Weed Factor continues slowly and I’m finding it a bit of a chore at the mo. I’m liking the writing but nothing much has happened to grab my interest yet. While I wait for that to happen I seem subconsciously to be avoiding reading. I will force myself to read more this weekend. I’m sure that’ll work.

July round up

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Oh it’s been a busy month! Full of work and more work and not enough reading or sleeping. I’m not really sure what happened to my weekends. Did they happen? Thankfully I’m off work for most of next week so I’m looking forward to a few relaxing days at home.

These are the books I purchased in July:

Persuasion by Jane Austen (blogged here)

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee (blogged here)

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope (blogged here)

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee (blogged here)

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Funnily enough the first four of these were purchased at the same time, on an impromptu trip to the Oxfam shop one lunchtime when I fancied something nice and modern to read. There is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about any of the four books I came away with, the newest of which was published in the 1950s! Fail. I’ve got a bit of a backlog of TBR books at the moment so I’m going to try to go a bit easier in August.

In other literary news, I also saw two Shakespeare plays this month. The first was our local ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ performance of King Lear, performed out in the open as Shakespeare intended, in between the tennis courts and the pavilion. The second was a live broadcast of The Merchant of Venice from the RSC at Stratford. We’ve seen a couple of these live screenings and they’re always excellent. Next month we’re hoping to see Othello.

That’s it for this month! Good bye July. Hello August!

The Liebster Award

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The Creative Counsellor very kindly nominated me for this award. It’s the first time I’ve been nominated and I’m chuffed to bits. Thanks!

Here are the rules:

  • Each nominee must have under 200 followers
  • Thank and link to the nominated blog
  • Answer their 10 questions and propose 10 new ones for your nominees
  • Nominate 10 blogs and tell them that they have been nominated
  • Write a post containing the questions
  • Include these rules in the post

And these are my answers to the questions posed:

1. What made you want to start blogging?

It was a spontaneous decision. I’d been reading Daniel Deronda and was desperate to discuss it with someone but sadly not one of my friends, relatives or colleagues seemed to have read it! I turned to Goodreads which, in turn, led me to some great book blogs. I realised that blogging might be a fun way of connecting with other readers with the same interests.

2. What was your favourite book as a child?

I’ve talked before about some of my favourite childhood books. I’m not sure I could whittle it down to just one but I think Cruel Kings And Mean Queens deserves a special mention. I work in the heritage sector and am surrounded by history (and books!) every day. I like to think that if it hadn’t been for Terry Deary’s book then I’d never have looked for other books about history and I’d never have been set on this path! So yeah… thanks Terry.

3. If you could recommend only one book for me to read, what would it be?

As a lifelong Dickens fan I recommend Dickens to everyone. I know he’s not always everyone’s cup of tea but when he’s at his best he’s brilliant. I love Great Expectations and it’s fairly short so I think it’s a good one to start with. But if you want something you can really sink your teeth into then you can’t beat a bit of Bleak House!

4. What and where is your favourite book store and why?

I buy many of my books from the Oxfam second hand bookshop just round the corner from where I work. It’s teeny tiny but always busy and the stock is usually pretty good. I often pop in on my lunch break and I can usually find something I fancy. The staff also play a pretty eclectic mix of music (loudly) which I always enjoy: today it was the ‘War of the Worlds’ soundtrack, on Friday it was Jacques Brel. I’m sure I once heard them play something that sounded a lot like Mongolian throat singing.

5. What hobbies do you have other than reading?

Very few, I am really quite a boring sort of a person. I like museums, walking, baking (although I’m not good at it), old churches (although I’m not religious), Scrabble, Ikea, seeing my family, Dr Who, birds, curry, sewing, Miss Marple, wine, Shakespeare, complaining about the weather, QI, cups of tea, chocolate, Christmas, Billie Holliday, castles, old black and white films, pizza, holidays…. oh loads of things. I’m not sure if any of these really count as hobbies though.

I should point out that this is not a list of my favourite things in order. If that were the case I would obviously not place ‘seeing my family’ in between ‘Ikea’ and ‘Dr Who’!

6. If you could have one magical/mythical animal as a pet, what would it be?

Good question. I’m quite attached to our local legend of Black Shuck but I’m not sure he would make a good pet (although probably an excellent guard dog) and I don’t know that he’s been seen in these parts recently.

7. How do you decide if you want to read a book or not?

There are certain genres that I tend to avoid – mainly romance and horror – but anything else is fair game. If I’m really stuck for something to read I’ll turn to a classic.

8. You inherited a bookstore (Congratulations!) but you have to change the name. What do you call it?

When I was reading Cold Comfort Farm a few weeks ago I came across a character called Agony Beetle and I immediately wished I’d used that name for this blog. ‘The Agony Beetle’ has a good ring to it; it’d be a great name for a bookshop too.

9. What was your least favourite book to read in school and why?

That’s easy. As You Like It. It was my set Shakespeare text for A’ Level English and I hated every last second of it. I mean, really, what is the point of it all? It’s just silly. After this I seemed to forget that there were Shakespeare plays I’d studied and enjoyed and I became absolutely convinced that they were all like this. It wasn’t until four years later that I actually watched a live performance of a Shakespeare play (The Tempest at the Globe, in case you were wondering) and realised what a genius the man was.

Incidentally, I saw an open air performance of As You Like It last summer and it was no better than I remembered which, in a weird way, made me feel vindicated!

10. If you could visit Hogwarts (the fictional version) or Narnia, but not both, which would you choose and why?

Oh, this is hard! As much as I like the Narnia idea it’d have to be Hogwarts. I’m not ashamed of being 32 years old and still liking a bit of Potter and there’s something about all those secret passages, invisible doors, moving staircases and dungeons that appeal to my inner child!

And here are my ten questions for the nominees:

  1. What do you think are the best and worst things about blogging?
  2. On an average day where and when do you read?
  3. Do you ever borrow books from a library or do you prefer bookshops?
  4. Which fictional place would you most like to visit?
  5. Are there any real literary locations you’d like to visit? (The birthplace of your favourite author or the setting of a particular novel, for example). 
  6. You’re going on a long, long journey but you only have room for the collective works of one author in your bag (don’t ask me why!). Who will it be?
  7. How do you treat your books? For example, do you flex the spine? Do you fold the corners down to mark your page? (This will settle a years old argument between my friend and I. She’s much kinder to her books than I am).
  8. What are your favourite literary TV/film adaptations?
  9. Do you prefer to read the book or watch the adaptation first?
  10. Of all the books you own, which has your favourite cover?

And I nominate these bloggers:

Good luck!