The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

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The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Howards End by E. M. Forster

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I decided that it was time to re-read one of my old favourites, so picked E. M. Forster’s Howards End off the bookshelf.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

I first read this wonderful novel eight year ago and it had a big impact on me. I also saw and loved the 1992 film adaptation, staring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter, which to my mind is one of the very best literary novel film adaptations.

Now, as about a million people have no doubt already written lengthy and detailed reviews of this novel, I shall not attempt anything of the sort here. What I’ll do instead is just mention some of the things that I love about this novel.

A sensitive and intelligent exploration of a theme. Turn over the front cover of this novel and on the title page you see Forster’s memorable epigraph: “Only connect…” and the whole of the novel can indeed be seen as an exploration of our deep desire to truly connect with others, as well as the myriad ways in which this desire can get frustrated.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

There are also many other important themes intelligently explored in the novel, including those of sex and of class and of our quest for meaning in life.

Brilliant characters. Two of the principal characters are the half-German Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who are so vividly alive in their exploration of culture, beauty, and the arts. Their financial and intellectual independence lead them to explore many of life’s questions in bold and original ways. Contrasted with the Schlegels, are the wealthy Wilcoxes, who are almost entirely focused on practical matters and business and maintaining conventional values. Then there is the poor Leonard Bast who yearns for more out of life than his poverty allows him. The interplay between these and other characters in the novel is really what makes it so memorable.

They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.

For despite all of the many misunderstandings and strongly held opposing views, we also see these characters do come together and truly connect – at least some of the time.

A finely written plot. E. M. Forster is such a great novelist. In this, as in his other novels, he clearly has his whole story mapped out precisely in his mind from the beginning and uses every scene, every piece of dialogue, indeed every word to layer up his themes and move forward his plot. The way that the different characters move from initial acquaintance with one another to friendship then to greater or lesser degrees of trauma and separation, and then finally to closure is also superbly handled.

Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

Beautiful, passionate writing. This is a joy to read. There are many, many sections that could be quoted from this novel. Here is just one typical exchange, which exemplifies the lively exploration of life and the human condition contained within this novel:

If we lived for ever, what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love death – not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. . . . Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.

If you enjoyed this, you might also E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, or A Passage to India (which I now definitely want to re-read!)

I’ll finish with one final quote:

Science explained people, but could not understand them.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

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As time is short and my brain somewhat frazzled, instead of a full review today I offer a short acrostic. Enjoy!

Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford is a novel that I read recently.
Anticipation was pretty high, as I really love Ford’s The Good Soldier.
Reading this took a while, as Parade’s End is actually a series of four novels (836 pages).
According to one critic, the “best fictional treatment of war in the history of the novel”.
Dramatis personae: Our hero, Christopher Tietjens, who is noble, brilliant, and principled;
Enter next his cruel wife, Sylvia, who spends her days trying to torment our hero; then
Suffragette and pacifist, Valentine Wannop, who is Christopher’s soul mate and true love.

Excellent in parts, this novel is well worth a read, but loses its way towards the end.*
Nevertheless, I shall remember Tietjens – “the last Tory” and last of a dying breed;
Dead but not forgotten, as the saying goes…

 

*Graham Greene controversially omitted Last Post (the fourth and final novel in the series) from his Bodley Head edition of Ford’s writing, calling it “an afterthought which he (Ford) had not intended to write and later regretted having written.” I have to confess that I tend to agree with Graham Greene; I think the series would have been stronger had it been left to stand after the end of the third novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (which is a bit of an acquired taste, but definitely one of my personal favourites).

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

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Around the time that I finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, it happened to start getting gloriously warm and sunny. It was staying light until gone half past nine, and then, when the sun did eventually start to sink towards the horizon, there were often stunning red sunsets. As I was considering what to read next, I saw my old copy of Brideshead Revisited sat on the bookshelf, and thought to myself: What could be more fitting than to read Brideshead on such beautiful, long English summer evenings?

And so I did just that. I sat in the evening sun, and delighted in rereading this wonderful novel: Brideshead Revisited: The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Indeed, summertime really is the time to read this classic. Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of privileged, slightly naive, hugely romantic young adults, just starting out in the world is beautifully written. The prose is sublime, the scenes well crafted, the settings evocative, and the characters brilliantly crafted. Waugh captures not only their enthusiasm and joy in exploring everything about the world around them, but also provides a snapshot of an aristocratic, feudal system that was very soon to be lost forever. It is partly this combination of youthful exhilaration coupled with a subtle underlying nostalgia that makes this tale so poignant.

The early chapters see our young protagonist, Charles Ryder, approaching the end of his first year at Oxford, when he makes the acquaintance of the charming, aristocratic, and entirely singular Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, and enjoy an intense period of pleasure and discovery as they drink champagne, eat quails eggs, party and philosophise – all against the backdrop of the ancient spires of Oxford during a glorious English summer.

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Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

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For my next book, I decided to tackle the final instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: the wonderfully named novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

And so, nearly five years after beginning this series, and having read 12 novels, each typically around 250-300 pages (totalling over one million words), I have now finished this vast and impressive work.

In keeping with one of the themes of the series – namely how chance encounters can end up having a profound impact on one’s life – I have been reflecting on how I came to read these books in the first place. It was the summer of 2010, and I was on holiday in Cornwall with my wife and some good friends. One day we decided to visit Truro, and whilst there I wandered past a second-hand book shop, and decided to have a nose around. Whilst browsing the shelves, and I spotted this series, and having heard of it and knowing that it chronicled the lives of a set of English characters from their school days right through to old age, I decided that I’d like to read it for myself.

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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After enjoying Wolf Hall so much back in January / February, it was never going to be very long before I dived into the second instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell: Bring Up the Bodies.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This is another dense and fairly lengthy novel, but, like Wolf Hall, it is also another very compelling one. In fact, like Wolf Hall before it, this novel also won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published. A pretty impressive feat by Hilary Mantel.

Much of Wolf Hall revolved around King Henry VIII desiring, scheming, and eventually achieving his aim of divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. A few years have since passed, and Anne has failed to bear Henry a son and heir, and their relationship is increasingly rocky. So, despite the fact that Henry had to overcome huge obstacles and even break with the Catholic church in order to marry Anne Boleyn, it seems that he has soon tired of her, and his eyes are beginning to wander.

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

At the start of this sequel, we find Thomas Cromwell and the King staying with the Seymour family at their family home, Wolf Hall. During this visit, King Henry spends time with young Jane Seymour and begins to fall in love with her. In fact, this fierce and revered king, seems rather like more like an infatuated school boy at times. He dotes, he composes love poetry, and he pines for his love when she is not around.

Henry is middle ages at this point, and still without a son. As he needs a legitimate heir, this obviously means marriage, and this, of course, puts him in rather a tricky position. Or, at least, it puts Thomas Cromwell in rather a tricky position, as it is he who is tasked with somehow helping to bring about this feat.

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Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

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Next up in my pile of novels that people had kindly given me, was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. A couple of years back I had noticed that this book featured in both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list and the TIME Magazine 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 list, which piqued my interest. I then looked up some information about the novel, and decided it definitely sounded like my kind of read.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Fellow book blogger Robert Bruce (over at 101books.net) mentioned in his review of the novel last year that some have referred to Appointment in Samarra as a “poor man’s Gatsby”, and having now read the novel, I can see why. Within the world of this novel we meet not only the rich and the elite, but also bootleggers and gangsters, mistresses and, ultimately, Death.The setting of the book is 1930s America and the main character is a privileged young man named Julian English, who is part of the social elite of his home town.

However, despite everything that he has going for him, including a good job (the owner of a Cadillac dealership, no less), a lovely home, a beautiful wife, society friends, and a certain amount of natural charm, Julian English is somehow dissatisfied with his lot. Yes, as with The Great Gatsby, here too, it seems that the great American Dream is not quite able to deliver all that it promises.

Be in no doubt: this is a cynical and darkly comic exposé of the reality behind the façade of 1930s respectability and outward success.

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