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What I’m Reading: A Girl In Winter

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A Girl In Winter is set between a summer in Oxfordshire and a frozen January in somewhere desolate, presumably Hull. I do not mean that Hull is desolate, just that there is library in the story, and Philip Larkin (the author) was a librarian in Hull for many years.

So, as I’ve stated, A Girl in Winter was written by Philip Larkin. Yes, the poet. The one who wrote This Be the Verse. You do know it. “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad”? See, you did know it.

If you didn’t, don’t worry, I have it by heart, or you could just google it.

A Girl In Winter is not like that. It follows the twelve hour day of Katherine Lind, a “foreigner”, whose providence is never explicitly stated. During it, she remembers the summer she shared with a boy called Robin Fennel, a delightfully boring sort of boy who she was in love with for four days many years ago.

Descriptive passages were phenomenal. Of course, it helped that I read the book largely in the precise section of Oxfordshire described in the novel, and at the height of a beautiful summer heatwave too, but even the frosted-up windows of the bus Katherine rides with Miss Green and the darkening library at closing-time were vivid in my imagination.

I do not, as a rule, enjoy extensive description. I chase after the action. Still, I enjoyed the novel thoroughly. Characters were realistic, motives were plain and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sad, it is certainly rarely cheerful.

Anstey strikes me as the sort of man I should like to push down a flight of stairs and hope he hit his head too hard to testify. Miss Green is a spoilt little girl. Robin Fennel is ordinary, Jane Fennel is strange and Katherine is impotent, an outsider always. They all sit neatly upon their little wheel and play out their parts perfectly.

I was going to talk about the ending, but I won’t. I liked it. You may not. It’s an interesting one.

My recommendation is to the curious- many people do not know that Larkin wrote novels, probably because he wrote just two. Then again, many people know Wilde wrote novels, and he only managed one. A Girl in Winter is a slow read, perfect for eating up the hours on a long journey (not if you’re the driver/pilot) or, if you have time for such things, reading on a cold day indoors.

Not one for thrill-seekers or the sentimental.

What I’m Reading: The Night Watch

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Strictly speaking, I’ve finished reading it, but it’s not a review per se.

Sarah Waters is well-known for her historical novels, which all touch, in some way or another, on lesbian themes. They are exciting, well-researched and actually treat women like humans capable of sexual desire, rather than just being objects of it.

So, after reading Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, I was highly curious as to what a Sarah Waters novel was doing on my 14 year old cousin’s bookshelf. A quick look inside established that the book had been acquired from a charity shop, rather than sought out.

I slipped it out and rearranged the bookshelf to make it less obvious I had removed something. I’m not out to my family because I’m a spanner. I’m not ashamed, I just find it difficult rather to explain that I’m not a lesbian, and that there are alternative explanations for my interest in lesbian film and literature.

I liked Tipping the Velvet. I saw the BBC adaptation first, but thoroughly enjoyed the book too, much preferring the book incarnation of the main character, Nan. That’s not to say the TV version isn’t worth a watch, because it very much is. Off the top of my head, it has Keeley Hawes, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Vegas in it.

Fingersmith was less good. It was a riveting, complex plot, filled with duplicitous characters, but felt very much as if lesbianism had just been shoehorned into it. It might just have been me, but the ending left me feeling more than a little awkward.

So, I wasn’t expecting much. Doctor of English Literature Waters may be, but the vast majority only have one good novel in them. As Fingersmith wasn’t half as good as Tipping the Velvet, I was expecting The NIght Watch to be only a quarter as good as Fingersmith.

I am glad to announce that I was wrong.

Set, to begin with, in 1947, it marked a departure from the Victorian novels that I had read, which was a pleasant surprise. There were four central characters, all with enormous secrets, and it was engaging to try and work out the connection between the four of them, and what these secrets might be.

As the novel moves on, it also moves backwards, before climaxing in 1941.

Yes, that does preclude a happy ending, which bothers me only because I haven’t read one for quite some time. But it was really interesting to look at these stories as having a resolution, not for the character, but for the reader.

For example, the character of Duncan is first introduced as an anonymous young man being watched from a window by Kay. So much of his story is told from the perspectives of others, that I felt, as a reader, compelled to make the same assumptions that other characters made of him.

I wouldn’t say I was pleasantly surprised by the climax (read above re: no happy ending), but as a reader, I found it utterly compelling to the last.

In some ways, The Night Watch is better than Tipping the Velvet, because it reads simply as a novel, and not a “lesbian novel”. I would recommend it therefore, to anyone who is not particularly squeamish- set partially during the London Blitz and subsequent offensives. There are also some nastily graphic scenes which I cannot spoil, but just take note that this book is honest and brutal and sad.

Chapter lengths make it sometimes a tough read, but the prose is easy enough to follow. Just remember to stop when there’s a change in point of view, rather than trying to continue to the end of the chapter, because you will be exhausted.

So, yes. Utterly recommended, to men, women, straight, gay or anywhere in between any of the options. Just not people who faint at the sight of blood or desperately need happy endings.

What I’m Reading: Catch-22

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When you meet your favourite book, or film, or (although I cannot speak from experience on this one) wine, it is said that you know immediately. So it was with me.

Both my favourite book, Catch-22, and my favourite film, The History Boys, were discovered within months of each other. Perhaps it is just coincidence, or perhaps it is because fourteen is such a formative age, that merely consuming something half-way intellectual imprinted on me indelibly. I would rather it was the former, in all honesty, but cannot say for sure.

Unfortunately, I discovered my favourite song by listening to the History Boys soundtrack, which rather suggests that the other theory Is true. I had hoped that my taste would amount to something more than circumstance, but perhaps it is one of those things about human nature that can neither be explained nor understood.

One afternoon, most likely a Friday, we were led away from our usual lesson to the library. We were apparently not reading enough as a form, and were required to take out a book. I had, for most of my childhood, been an avid reader, but had consumed so many stories that I became easily bored. We were given a time limit to find something to read, and as the minutes ticked away, I was the only student left staring blankly at the shelves.

English teachers liked me, because I liked their subject, and had a broad vocabulary and strong grasp on language that made their marking easier. I liked them simply because they liked me. My teacher took pity on me, and handed me a copy of Catch-22.

It did not appeal. My teacher was an ex-army man, and it was understandable that he should recommend a book set in World War II. However, I had no such interest. Admittedly, I was an Air Training Corps cadet, but it was the flying, and not the fighting, which enticed me.

Still, I was obedient, and read.

At the end of the lesson, we were called upon in turn to share what we had read.

I said (and forgive me for paraphrasing, but this was eight years ago):

“I was surprised. The opening sentences are ‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the Chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’ And it’s got nothing to do with the rest of it at all.”

The look on my teacher’s face suggested that he, too, was surprised. I later discovered that he had recommended the book solely on the merits of the film adaptation, shame of an English teacher that he was. In it, apparently, there is no mention of falling madly in love with chaplains, however briefly.

I quickly became lost in the novel, and forgot all about the incongruous opening. Indeed, it was a full twelve chapters before I even got my bearings, and try as I might I can never enjoy again that experience of everything settling finally into place. I tend to resist re-reading it in the hope I will forget, but it does not work.

The second time I read it, at sixteen, I was bothered not at all by the Chaplain, nor why Yossarian should be, for a few pages at least, in love with him. I suppose I had not waited long enough for a re-reading.

However, this third time, it has bothered me immensely.

In good storytelling no word is ever wasted, and if I believe, as I do, that Catch-22 is the greatest story ever told, then no word of it, least of all the two opening sentences, can be discounted.

So, why do we need to know that Yossarian is in love with the chaplain?

I’m afraid I don’t have a dinky little answer to trot out for you. I’ve certainly read a few, but they sounded hollow.

I don’t, for example, believe that Heller sought to delineate the difference between homosociality and homoromanticism. It’s a nice theory, certainly, but not really supported by the rest of the book. The opening sentences can’t just be taken out of context. Other essays suggest that it is merely a humorous device, but I think they forget what it says about Yossarian’s character.

My problem in all this is that I’m not sure what it says about Yossarian’s character, except that I know that something is said. That was the first sentence I read about Yossarian, and first impressions are hard to shake off. Unfortunately, this is all subconscious, and I would quite like to know consciously what I feel about Yossarian.

I have had other epiphanies on this reading. I realised that Yossarian appeals to me because he is a coward of sorts, and so am I. It’s kept me alive thus far and I have no intention of changing my ways. I noticed sentences I do not remember noticing, but maybe that is just my insistence on waiting. It also upsets me to know I will probably not read this book again until I am thirty, because I find that I am having the most fun I have had in reading for a very long time.

I think I know now why the opening two sentences stand as they are. And I am sorry I ever looked to someone else’s opinion for answers. Because all that matters to me is mine, and all that matters to you is yours.

I do not intend on sharing my theory. To do that satisfactorily, I would need to go back, pick out quotes, and in doing so inadvertently memorise a book I have spent six years trying to forget. In reality, my theory is so stunningly simple it would be upsetting if I just come out with it.

So I won’t. Go. Read. Come to your own conclusions.