Saturday, 20 January 2007

Operation Heartbreak - Duff Cooper

Publisher: Persephone Books Ltd London

First Published: 1950

“’Now, if a man’s got a vocation he always makes good. Somehow, sometime, his opportunity comes, and because it’s the one thing he’s been waiting for all his life, he’s ready when it comes and he takes it. Your chance will come all right - and you’ll take it - don’t worry.’”

This paragraph from the book sums up for me what the essence of this book is about. Willie Maryngton’s opportunity never does come and his ambition and dreams slowly slip away, leaving him a broken man.

One of the first comments I saw on this book was “A story of why men go to war”; I have to admit that this made me a bit doubtful as to whether I’d actually enjoy it. I’ve never been that interested in war stories (except of course the story of Violette Szabo, and Leo Marks’ hauntingly beautiful poem “The Life That I have”.) But this book is beautifully written and you easily come to emphasise with Willie’s heartbreaks. The fact that it is about war becomes almost unimportant.

Willie Marynton has made a career in the army but he doesn’t feel like a true soldier as he has never fought in a war. He missed the first world war by a matter of days and when the second world war comes along, he is in his forties and is left behind to train the new recruits.
The theme of tragic under-achievement is also told through Willie’s stilted love affair with the beautiful and intelligent Felicity Osbourne.

There is a very satisfying twist at the end of the story that, although heartbreaking, leaves you with the feeling that maybe Willie did finally get his opportunity. As I don’t want to spoil the story I can’t tell you exactly what happens but the fact that this fictional story is built upon a true event in the second world war makes it even more fascinating.

The link below will explain more about this but don’t read it before you’ve read the book!

Operation Mincemeat: The Man Who Never Was

If you liked this book you might also like:
Love for Lydia H.E. Bates
Of Human Bondage William Somerset Maugham

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Poetry Please

I love poetry but it is something I like to dip into. I rarely read a poetry book in one go from cover to cover. But I do get days when I just have to find and read the perfect poem for my mood. Sometimes when I walk home from work I'll say over and over in my mind the words of one of the poems I memorised as an over dramatic teenager (mostly Byron!) so the walk doesn't seem so long. It's strange how the words of poems I learnt in the lunch hours with my friends over a decade ago are still there in my head.

But I think that poetry is always at its best when it is read out loud and that is why I love listening to Poetry Please on BBC Radio 4 so much. It is perfect Sunday afternoon listening (or anytime listening if you use listen again). Last week they had a lovely poem called Half-past Two by U. A. Fanthorpe, if you get a chance I'd definitely recommend either listening to last Sunday's episode or reading this poem yourself.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Them by Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Modern Library
First Published: 1969
Genre: modern classic

“She drifted down to the library whenever she was free. Growing up and moving away from home was somehow linked in her mind with the library - the library at night, its silence and openness. Anything might happen. Nothing happened but anything might.”

And in this book it does sometimes feel like anything might happen. Reading this opened up a new section of America’s past for me, somewhere very different to the gilt of Hollywood or the wholesome images of a clean-cut working class that I have found in other novels. The story is told in turns from the viewpoint of Loretta Wendall and two of her children, Maureen and Jules, and is set mainly in Detroit covering the period between 1937 and 1966. Joyce Carol Oates writes in a disarmingly simple way, using minimal descriptive passages. This seemed to me to give the novel an increased sense of realism, as if this is how the characters would have described the events themselves. In her afterword (written in 1999), the author relates how she is still approached by readers enquiring after the Wendall family or asking her to forward on mail to them; she even received a letter from a “happily married” woman who was convinced she had fallen in love with the questionable hero Jules. The book, however, is fictional (despite the appearance of a teacher named Miss Oates) but the history is real and the viciousness with which all of the characters are searching for something better than what they have, through love, or money, or drink, is something which seems just as relevant in today’s consumption-obsessed society.

The sudden violent incidents which form interim conclusions to the slow-boiling tales, and often mark a change in key character, kept surprising me - to the point where I had to keep doing the reading equivalent of a double-take and retracing my footsteps to check whether I should have seen this coming. I felt that this reflected what often happens when serious violence enters people's lives - the sudden escalation of a small incident, the flash of someone’s temper and then irreparable damage and no way of going back. It’s this hard edge to the already tough but everyday story of poverty that kept my interest. Through her insight and the detail she gives of her characters’ thoughts and actions, Joyce Carol Oates catches you up in the relatively small lives of the three central characters - at times my frustration with Jules as he made yet another bad decision was almost painful!

I haven’t read any other books by Joyce Carol Oates, but from looking at some of her other works I get the impression that the Wonderland Quartet (A Garden of Earthly Delights, Expensive People, them and Wonderland) may be quite different in style to some of her other books. I’ll let you know at some point as I’m sure I will be reading more of her work.

If you liked this book you might also like:
Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Saturday, 30 December 2006

About this blog

I love to read and am a prolific reader but I know nothing about literature other than what I like and what I don’t. I have started this blog to keep as record of the books I am reading and hopefully share opinions with other readers. Please let me know if you have any comments on the books I read or my thoughts on these books.