100 Novels: Midnight’s Children

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Midnight’s Children


I actually read Midnight’s Children last year, so I didn’t need to re-read it. I was glad to see it pop up on the 100 novels list, however, because it was one of those books I absolutely loved.

First some background. Midnight’s Children falls into that genre known as magic realism. The novel is set against an historical background, which is India’s move away from British Colonialism towards independence. However, the writing is full of fancy, with supernatural acts and the whole novel really symbolism layered over symbolism.

The narrative is complex, being an story of his life that the central character, Saleem, is telling to his wife-to-be Padma. His story is unreliable, based on his memory and full of digressions, foreshadowings, flashbacks and commentary with the result that much of the book is left open to interpretation.

To me, the book is about how people and history are one and the same thing. That where and when a person lives will impact on who they are, but equally they shape history and become a part of the changing face of our world. Saleem considers himself a chosen child ‘handcuffed to history’, but in truth there are a thousand and one others like him — the ‘midnight’s children’ of the title, all born at the exact moment that India became independent — and in truth his story does not climax in an act of any great significance; Saleem finishes his life as a chutney maker and prophesies that he will fall into dust in the very near future. In some respects, Saleem is India, he represents her, but in other respects he no more represents india than any of the other characters he comes into contact with. India is more than one person, far greater in depth and complexity than even the most significant and noteworthy of human lives. Yet equally, India is only the sum of all the human experiences that make her up, without human perspectives and human lives there would be no such thing as a country or history.

The book is a masterful creation; with details within details. You could discuss the meaning of the characters and the scenes endlessly, and it would be a brilliant book for a book club because of the controversial themes and ideas that run through the novel.

But unlike many ‘classics’ this one is joyful. There is a sheer love for storytelling that comes through, and the nod towards an oral storytelling tradition only deepens the enjoyment. I can easily see myself coming back to this novel again and again, thanks to the beautiful writing, and the complex themes that run through it. It’s the kind of big, bold book that make you love reading and shows you what a masterful writer can really do.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Sex scenes which were actually essential for the story

Recently, over on Tunblr, I have been engaged in a discussion about George R.R. Martin’s inclusion of the rape/de-virginisation scene of a 13 year old girl, and whether it was, you know, actually necessary. I sit in the camp that the whole thing is creepy and gross, and completely unneeded. However, usually what happens after I state that a sex scene is creepy and gross is that people assume I think ALL sex scenes are creepy and gross.

Which I don’t. And in that spirit, I’ve decided to compile a short list of sex scenes that I think actually served a purpose within a story, rather than just being there as a sort of ‘oh look they are having sex!’ type scene.

1. All erotica ever

Well, yes. Because the point of erotica is to be titillating and to get you off. So pretty much if you’re reading erotica you are hoping for sex scenes in their dozens, if not hundreds. I’ll also include ‘racy romance’ in this category, since the pay-off is the characters getting together and sex/marriage is pretty much the way that gets signalled to the reader.

Why it works: Because the sex is the point.
Shop for erotica

2. The sex scenes from Choke

Choke is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about a sex addict, who goes to a sex addicts 12-step program. So it kind of figures there’s going to be some sex in this book. You’ll either love Palahniuk, or you’ll hate him. But given half the point of his books is to push right to the edges of what is acceptible and to try and make you feel uncomfortable; the sex in these books is pretty fundamental (and not really written to turn you on or make you think of sex in a positive way)

Why it works: It’s part of the nihilistic, taboo pushing backdrop to the book and an essential part of the character
Shop for Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

3. The rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first Earth’s Children novel, and whilst the novels very quickly go downhill, and even the first is filled with rambling purple prose that you can easily skip, it’s also one of the best explored and logically thought out ‘alien’ cultures. Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl who ends up growing up with a group of Neanderthals. There is a point where she is repeatedly raped, but because of the society she lives in, the rapist can carry out his crime pretty much in the open wherever he wants. The consequences of the act have a massive impact on Ayla, from a character development point of view, but also lead to her child.

Why it works: It isn’t romanticised, it’s written from the female character’s perspective, and it permanently changes both her character, and the nature of her relationship with the rapist (not to mention the rest of the clan)
Shop for The Clan of the Cave Bear: Earth’s Children 1 by Jean M. Auel.

4. The sex in all of Robin Hobb’s books

Robin Hobb writes Fantasy, but she writes grown-up, incredibly well thought out fantasy with complex characters. Sex turns up often, but it always feeds into our understanding of character, advances or complicates the plot, helps the character come to terms with or understand aspects of themselves, and generally is realistic and often beautiful. Did I mention I love Robin Hobb? I love Robin Hobb.

Why it works: Robin Hobb is a genius for character
Shop for books by Robin Hobb

5. The sex in Earthly Powers

Earthly Powers is an Anthony Burgess novel that opens with a fairly infamous line that references sex. It is a giant novel that explores morality, humanity and religion and you can’t really talk about any of those things without talking about sex. Read the book, it’s great.

Why it works: It’s irreverent and playful, and underscores the main themes.
Shop for Earthly Powers

6. The sex in The Illuminatus Trilogy

A book by Robert Anton Wilson, whose stated goal is pretty much to get you to trip the fuck out. There is a rather memorable sex/death scene involving an apple (I won’t tell you more than that).

Why it works: It’s part of the whole magical mind-bending sixties sexual freedom vibe.
Shop for The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Suggestions from others

  • Rochefort and Dariole from 1610
  • Woman on the edge of time
  • Anything in Diceman
  • Swastika Night
  • Lolita
  • The Time Travellers Wife

There are many more examples, and it would be great for people to share any that they think worked particularly well – using sex to develop character, illuminate a main theme, or for some other reason that you think makes it work.

To Kill a Mockingbird

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

To Kill a Mockingbird


It’s hard to know what to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. It is, probably, the closest thing to a perfect book that I can imagine. When I saw that To Kill a Mockingbird was on the list, I instantly knew I had to re-read it. Like Lord of the Rings, I first read this book in my mid-teens. Unlike Lord of the Rings, I loved it from the start.

The book is about many things: growing up in the deep south, rape, racial and gender inequality, and what it means to be heroic. Despite the heavy-hitting themes, the book itself is filled with warmth and good humour. The character of Scout is incredibly sympathetic, and we see her transition from a childish world of bogeymen and fairy-tales to a nuanced grasp of the world around her.

Despite almost universal praise, there have been a few criticism of the book. One of the central problems is that the issues on show are so cut-and-dried there is almost no scope for discussion. It is incredible clear that Atticus is the only sane one, that Tom Robinson is innocent, that Mayella is lying – but that it is not her fault, for she has so clearly been threatened and damaged through her life circumstances.

(In fact, Mayella jumped out at me as a character on this read-through. She damns an innocent man, but her life is so utterly hopeless; it is insinuated that her father rapes her, that she is beaten regularly, that she is almost solely responsible for raising a houseful of children… when I first read this book, I was not very interested in her, except in so far as her story impacted Tom. On the second read-through I found myself horrified at the thought of what this young woman endured, and the contrast of her life to that of Scout’s.)

There is one other issue that has been highlighted. Despite racial inequality being at the heart of the book, the black characters themselves are not as complex or deeply written as even the most auxiliary of white characters. Tom is a victim, through and through, he seems to have given up on his own life without even the spark of defiance. Calpurnia has been described as a ‘contented slave’, and it is true that, despite having effectively replaced the role of Scout’s dead mother, she still fits firmly into the ‘hired help’ mould.

That, more than anything, dates the book. Today, a book about racism that did not contain several strong non-white characters would be rightly condemned. There is too much niceness in this book; Atticus says it is not right to hate Hitler, there is a strange attempt to help his children ‘understand’ Bob Ewell after Tom Robinson is killed, and there is no real attempt to break the institutional issues that have given rise to such circumstances. The rabid dog is rabid because of a disease; the town is racist because schools prevent intelligent children from reading. Because the government will not tackle generational ignorance. Because Mayella is left to live in unspeakable conditions. Because everyone turns a blind eye to the neglect and abuse of Bob Ewell, not to mention the strange behaviour of the older Radley and Nathan Radley. Because black people have their own church and their own seats in the jury room. Because of the way Mrs Grace Merriweather talks about the ‘poor Mrunas’ in front of children.

These are problems that may start to be solved by giving a black man a fair trial, and certainly Atticus appeared to risk his life. However, the deeper, knottier problems are not so easily resolved, and this book does not even attempt to answer them except with a sort of ‘everyone should be more like Atticus’ mentality. Perhaps the questions are too big and too far-ranging to be answered in a single children’s book, but nonetheless, we should be on guard against the idea that simply being nice will unpick those generational problems; the consequences of which we still live with today.

Having said that, this book has done a great deal of good and in its own way has attempted to challenge those deeper institutional issues simply by being published and read so widely. The key is to think of it as a starting place, and then to go forth and do better.

(Photo credit: Hart Curt)

X is for… eXcuses

I’m slightly disappointed I didn’t manage the last four posts of the A-Z Challenge in time. The only thing worse would be to not complete the challenge at all. So here are three of my last four posts (happily condensed into one post for ease). I’m missing W – but look for it turning up tomorrow. (I’ll give you a hint, it will be some lovely wallpapers for your computer).

X is for Excuses

Success
Original image by swissmiss.

It only seems right that a late and limping almost-final entry into the Challenge should be about excuses. And I’ll be honest; I have a lot. My second novel is still not finished. I haven’t done a pull-up for almost four months. My low-sugar challenge went off the rails spectacularly (who knew it would be so hard to quit the demon sweetener?) I missed a project deadline at work — actually it went flying by at the speed of light about four weeks ago!

For all of these things I have reasons. Excuses. I moved house twice in the last five months. My commute now takes anywhere from an hour to two hours. Other projects got dumped on me. I just want to relax for one night and I’ll get back on it tomorrow.

Difficult. The problem is, of course, I want to finish that novel (and a third, and a fourth). I want to be fit, and able to crank out twenty pull-ups with ease. I want my job to go well, and my career to be a success. I want to enjoy health and a long life.

There are lots of productivity tips out there, and I’ve applied some of them already. Productivity isn’t the issue. I strongly believe working hours are too long across most of the world. With unemployment so high and wages so unequal? There is no reason two people could not do the job that one person does now; and both would get better quality of life.

Exhaustion, stress, depression. These have become almost default positions for so many people.

But these are the parameters we work with. Changing the way the world works is out of my control, for the most part. So what can I do?

I think a little bit of forgiveness to ourselves is allowed. A celebration of what we do get done, rather than reflecting on what we don’t. One project at work fell by the wayside — because I got pulled off onto another, highly critical and more important project. I worked (and am working) my ass off on that project!

I haven’t finished my second novel, but I’m halfway through the second draft and I keep on keeping on. Progress is made, and I know now that I will keep plugging away, at weekends and on holidays and eventually at least a handful of these stories will get written down and released to the world.

I can’t do a pull-up yet, but my fitness is light years away from where it was two years ago. It’s a part of my life now, and even though I’m not as fit as I want to be, it’s still nice to feel so much stronger than I used to be. The other day I even managed a feat of strength after someone else had failed — something that would never have happened before. (I used to be the weediest person you can imagine, with arms like tiny soggy spaghetti strands).

Excuses? Is often another word for reason.

If I’m making progress, I’m doing okay. It might be inching and slow, it might be blazing fast (it won’t last!) but as long as I keep heading towards the things that I want, it’s fine.

Every journey is made up of thousands of steps; but also rest-stops, conversations, detours, meeting strangers, getting pissed off, being attacked by a horde of orcs, having your brain taken over by the Borg — okay, you get my point.

Life would be boring if we just walked in a straight line to our destination without pause.

Y is for… yesterday and yankee.

Me and my other half
Me and my other half

Yesterday was a Saturday, and one of the first I have spent at home and relaxing. It was nice, and here’s why:

My partner is American. Of the four+ years we’ve been married, we’ve been apart for probably half of that time. Even when he finally moved back to the UK, we had some housing issues that stopped us from living together. We have not had what you might call a straightforward courtship and marriage.

It doesn’t matter, however, because all the chaos and craziness has just gelled us together stronger and harder than ever before. Yesterday we hung out, we watched a movie, we snuggled and every second of it was precious. 🙂

Z is for… endings (and new beginnings)

Book shelves filled with books
Original image by brewbooks

So much for the A-Z Challenge. I hope you enjoyed this rather frantic ride. I’ve decided to do another challenge (one that doesn’t involve blogging quite so often). If you are also looking for a blog challenge, here’s one you might want to try:

May Blogging Challenge

However, I am thinking of doing something a little more rounded and ticking off another life goal – namely, to read the Telegraph’s ‘100 novels everyone should read‘ list, and writing a review for each one.

Right this minute, however, I’m off to do some writing.

Have a great day xxx

T is for… travel

The letter TThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Travelling is a great thing to do, and I encourage everybody young-and-old, rich-and-poor, to travel as much as they can.

Luckily, travel is one of those things that you can do in many different ways.

  • You can hike or cycle your way across continents, wild camping or staying in cheap B&Bs.
  • You can buy or rent a caravan and do long road-trips for the cost of your camp site.
  • You can choose to avoid tourist traps and instead seek out local treasures.
  • You can go on cruises, stopping in at various places for a quick experience of a new culture.
  • You can volunteer for organisations such as Raleigh International.
  • You can find a job  in another country (camp sites, nanny positions and bar work are often all good for temporary visas)
  • You can become a caretaker for houses when the owners are away on holiday.
  • You can become a digital nomad.
  • You can practise travel hacking to get cheap flights.
  • You can go on organised tours and safaris.
  • You can rent an apartment or villa in another country.
  • You can stay in a luxury hotel.

Statue in the city of York, EnglandIf I’m going far away, staying for a long time is the easiest way to make up for the cost of the plane ticket. When in University I took advantage of our student exchange program to spend six months in Ohio – one of the best experiences of my life.

Once you have a job (with limited holiday time) travel becomes a huge luxury. Seeking out jobs that give sabbaticals is good (my current one gives a sabbatical every five years) or you can ask for unpaid leave. Sadly, many people are not in a position to do this. It irritates me that, whilst on the one hand we have two and a half million unemployed people, on the other hand we have people working incredibly long hours with very few breaks. It seems obvious to me that a solution is to provide more flexible/shorter working hours… and hire more people!

Oh well.

How do you manage to travel — even with other commitments? And what are the best places you’ve visited?

My travelling plans

Towards the end of 2013 I’ll be starting the process of emigrating to the United States (my partner is a US Citizen).

Before then I am hoping to visit Holland for one final european trip.

Once firmly established in the states I’ll be visiting lots of different people (I hope!) and also taking some time to explore Canada. My grandparents lived in Canada for about four years, and my Uncle was born there so I have a (slightly tenuous) connection with the country. We’ll also be spending some time in the Bahamas as my partner’s parents have a time-share that we are allowed to use occasionally. That should probably keep my happy for 2014 at least 😉

I have held a long burning ambition to visit Japan since I was around 15 years old. I even started learning Japanese at one point, and had about a dozen Japanese pen-friends. This is one of my ‘bucket-list’ goals, but when I do go… I want to go properly. Spend a good month there at least, and visit many places.

F is for… fitness

The letter FThis post is part of the A-Z Blog Challenge.

First: some history. When I was a foolish teenager I hated sports. PE (physical education) remains the only class I ever truanted from (to go and play Dungeons & Dragons – what can I say, I was your typical rebel). I always walked a lot, so stayed relatively fit by walking to work etc but sport, running, getting fit… these were all things I had no interest in.

Then I went from walking to work to walking to a bus stop a few feet from my house. At the same time, I started getting tired, lethargic and depressed. It wasn’t just the lack of exercise that did it, but that certainly didn’t help.

Over the next couple of years I dabbled with different things, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I discovered how much impact regular exercise really had. I started a weekly yoga class, and found myself so upbeat and energetic after the class that I began to love going. After a couple of months I added a weekly karate class… then a weekly zumba class… then upped my karate to three times a week, and started cycling to get there. I had never felt better, although the cost made me wince a little.

I started looking for things I could do at home, and discovered youtube videos, bodyweight exercises and ‘fitspiration’. All of a sudden I was hooked.

When I moved to Oxford in January last year I left all my classes behind, but I joined a gym and even paid for a personal trainer. I started doing pull-ups, running 5k, and discovered that the rowing machine was actually… kind of fun.

Keeping things varied definitely helps. Having some outside pressure helps too – classes are great because people expect you to turn up, and comment if you don’t! The particular gym I went to was great, because they give you a free workout plan and every time you go in one of the trainers signs the session off. Motivation!

My life has been a bit chaotic recently, but I’m trying to get back on track next week. Now that I’m back in Towcester (long story!) I’m looking forward to getting back into my old routine which looks like this!

  •  Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: Zumba
  • Wednesday: Hatha Yoga
  • Thursday: Zumba
  • Friday: Karate
  • Saturday: Karate
  • Sunday: Walk

I also wanted to share some great workout/fitness websites that I visit regularly:

  • Zuzka Light’s video channel: Zuzanna posts a workout every week (ZWOW), each one a tough 15 minute or so bodyweight/weights challenge. There are loads of backdated ones, or you can work out each week and become part of the community.
  • Nerdfitness: Motivational blog, plus free exercise videos and workouts. I tend to disregard the food advice (I love bread too much to ever go Paleo) but the emphasis on fresh whole foods is definitely better than many alternatives.
  • The Fitnessista: Regular recipes and workout suggestions, monthly challenges, and a friendly attitude that keeps me coming back for more.

What are your favourite exercises? Are you a gym rat or a long distance runner? Do you prefer to work out alone or with people? And what stops you from exercising?

We rise above

Written for the Shuffle Flash Fiction Challenge at Terrible Minds. When I hit shuffle, I got We Rise Above, by Arcana.

“You are in detention.” The exercise book slapped onto Martin’s desk. Looking at the page it was open to, he saw the big red F at the top of the page, and the littering of angry red comments all the way down. He looked up at his teacher, whose nostrils were flaring. He found himself fascinated by them; their cavernous, fleshy depths.

“An absolutely horrific story! I want to see you after school to discuss this.” His teacher swept away, and Martin heard the giggles of the other students. He shrugged to himself, and pulled the book towards him. He frowned at his story, and then packed the exercise book back into his bag.

The bell sounded, tinny and harsh. Voices rose, giggles turned to laughter, gossip ripped through the ranks of students, chairs screeched across the cheap floor and the students became an amorphous creature that swelled into the corridors of the school. Martin watched them dreamily, the black jumpers and trousers blending into a wave of darkness punctuated by hands and faces. Continue reading We rise above

Journey

if, in the end, it doesn’t matter
we can dance in the road
make love in the afternoons
touch fingertips and then pass
unbroken on, dreams uncurling
smoke ripples, water ripples
light ripples, we ripple on
the moment fading vibrato

into the next
salt and sea, the grit
smoothing the way for next year
though we choke, and eyes sting
on all that flowed through us
and the debris that collects
in salt stained heaps

until a match is struck
green flame takes twisted limbs
and turns them to ash

it comes and goes

it lingers in the twilight
between all that could be,
all that was, all that would be
where dreams take down our names
and no more, the rest is shadow
like the curves of the body
splayed in elegant disposition
and so dispossessed

spasms are the art of poetry and pain
although this retching is ungraceful
and the stomach flexes vibrato
from one regurgitation to the next
the jumbled remains of a wild night
spent dallying with wit and wisdom