Q&A: Books

I spotted this Q&A on Stephanie Pomfrett’s lovely blog here, and very much enjoyed reading it. I love having a voyeuristic peer into the bookshelves of others, and I decided that I’d fill in my own, so here you go…

What are you reading right now?

I picked up On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan earlier this morning and finished it today (it’s only a novella, I’m not some wunderkind), and I’m rereading Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. I’ve also just scooped Other People by Martin Amis from the bookshelf, because the cover is hilariously tacky. And I love Martin Amis.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read after you’ve finished this book?

I’d quite like to read something a little more recent. I rarely buy new releases, instead turning to the very well-stocked bookshelves belonging to my parents which are crammed full of dusty classics. That being said, I’ve promised to read Seth Rodin’s Purple Cow, about marketing strategies. I’m keen also to read The Dud Avocado, which is in a similar vein to Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith. Oh, and I’ve just spotted Death and the Penguin, which a friend gave me to read years ago, and which I think it might finally be time for.

Five books you’ve always wanted to read but have never got round to?

Pretty much every book on my reading list for my English degree. I KID. Of course I read those. Most of them. Ok, here goes:

  1. Anything heavy duty and Russian
  2. Sophie’s World, which I have on my bookshelf but made me wildly depressed when I attempted to read it aged 12.
  3. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I bought it last year but it just perches on my shelf looking so…worthy, and I’m never in the mood for it
  4. The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, all about the first convicts being taken over to Australia and what their experience was like.
  5. Ulysses by James Joyce. I tried, OH GOD, I tried. But I couldn’t hack it. It’s a feat of endurance that I want to achieve one day.

crime-and-punishment

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?

Facetious answer: I don’t keep magazines in either of those rooms. Normal answer: plenty of Vogues, a Lula, probably a Dash, a bumper issue of Pop, various Sunday Times Style magazines, the Royal Society of Literature magazine which I haven’t even taken out of the wrapper yet.

What’s the worst book you ever read?

Tough question. I’ve read some Tom Wolfe which I found utterly repulsive and completely fascinating in equal measure. I’m sure I’ve read some abominations, probably in the ‘chick lit’ category which I tend to steer clear of. OH! Bridget Jones. I hated it with every fibre of my being and yet read the whole thing in a matter of hours at a friend’s house. Ghastly book.

What book is really popular but you really hated?

Oh man. I don’t know, I went through this stage of despising Jane Austen and breaking the heart of my English teacher when I loudly declared my hatred during class. I think Bridget Jones, from above, can also be added to this list. I’m getting cross just thinking about it. Grr, JONES *shakes fist*.

Bridget Jones

What’s the one book you recommend to everybody?

Ah, god, there’s no way I can choose just one. If you need to sort your life out, read Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy. If you need to FEEL, read One Day. If you want to be an actor, read What’s My Motivation by Michael Simkins, and hopefully it’ll put you off. And for the love of literature, please read Atonement, which is an entirely perfect book.

What are your three favourite poems?

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, i like your body by e.e.cummings, Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning.

Where do you usually get your books?

I steal many from my dad. I also get them from the library, often charity shops or second hand bookshops. I rarely ever get them full price in ‘normal’ shops, and I never, EVER buy them for my iPhone. Kindles are an abomination.

Hall's-bookshop

Where do you usually read your books?

Mostly in bed, late at night or early in the morning. Often in the bath, because I like how crinkly it makes the pages. On the train, when I’m feeling smug about what I’m reading.

When you were little, did you have any reading habits?

We used to live in Ascot during the week and travel back to our house in Sussex at the weekends, so I used to read on journeys home. Inevitably this was near the end of the day when the light was fading, so needless to say I thoroughly wrecked my eyes. I also liked to devour books in one go.

What’s the last book you stayed up half the night to read?

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It’s a fairly hefty chunk of book, and there’s quite a dramatic turn around the halfway point. I tried putting it down but my brain was in shock, desperately trying to decipher what was going on. I lasted around fifteen minutes before I picked it up again and read through til about 4 or 5 am.

Have you ever ‘faked’ reading a book?

Of course! I did this far, far too much during my English degree. ‘Duh, it’s like a famous quote’ ‘Where from?’ ‘Cliff’s Notes’.

th

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?

Oh, I’m positive I have. Fairly recently, I organised my bookshelves into colour order, so that now plays a part in my choice of new books. ‘That looks interesting’, I’ll think, ‘but I’m really looking for something more in a green colour.’ I’m a philistine. There are some fantastic covers of Lolita which I’d like to get my hands on (appropriate turn of phrase?!), and I recently repurchased a newer version of American Psycho to fit with my other neon hued Easton Ellis books.

lolita4

What was your favourite book as a child?

The standards, Roald Dahl, Ballet Shoes, anything about boarding schools. Oh, and I adored Horrible Histories. OH, and Just William, far and beyond anything else. Just William was my bible. I also liked reading all the Blandings stories, because Lord Emsworth was a hero, and I found the constant talk of ‘fat pig contests’ endlessly charming and hilarious. Kingdom by the Sea was a brilliant war-era novel. And finally, on a different note, there was a book I liked called No Roses for Harry about a little dog in a jumper. Quality stuff.

Which book changed your life?

Lolita, which I read far too early, but which taught me so much about the art of novel writing. Nabokov writes in a way that makes the reader almost begin to encourage Humbert Humbert in his awful plans. He’s a thoroughly compelling villain. It changed my concept of what a good book should be, stuck in my brain and reverberated there long after I’d put it down.
I also read Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ at the age of around 11-12, which changed my life in the sense that it made me a precocious little twit. And it probably also caused me to develop some deep rooted psychoses which I’ll no doubt uncover later in life

Who are your top five favourite authors?

You can probably already gather most from my answers, but these, in no particular order:

  1. Ian McEwan
  2. Bret Easton Ellis
  3. P.G. Wodehouse
  4. Jonathan Coe
  5. Evelyn Waugh

What is your favourite classic book?

I actually love Frankenstein, even though I know it’s not what some might be considered to be a classic book. Despite the Boris Karloff associations many have, the story highlights some eternally relevant themes about what it means to be different, an ‘other’, as well as issues about paternity, responsibility, and what happens if the concept of God is replaced in society. Oh, and it’s got some pretty decent horror too.

Five notable mentions?

  1. Thinks…by David Lodge
  2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  3. My Booky Wook by Russell Brand – don’t judge until you’ve read it
  4. Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series
  5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Book Review #2: Imperial Bedrooms

“They had made a movie about us.”

I can’t quite remember at what age I first became aware of Bret Easton Ellis. What I can remember is reading American Psycho on a train late at night, then standing in a near-empty station and squinting suspiciously at every around me. I was completely on edge, paranoid, jittery, and somewhat terrified. Something about that book, and Bateman’s character, manages to leach into your soul. Reading it in public made me feel like it was me having those psychotic thoughts, that I myself was dangerous, and dark. It was a peculiar feeling. And even though there are passages of American Psycho that I can barely make it through, it’s one of my favourite books.

I’d always meant to read more of Ellis, but put it out of my mind until I started seeing the most remarkably well read boyfriend I’ve probably ever had. He’d read (and enjoyed) infinitely more books than I had, despite my English degree, and he lent me a copy of Glamorama. I have to say, I found it harder to plough through, but his sheer enthusiasm for Ellis and the surreal, spinning worlds he creates made me keep trying. Glamorama was long and winding (like some sort of road that the Beatles would have sung about), and I eventually admitted defeat.

I’d just been reading that they’re doing a remake of American Psycho, and I suppose that lodged in my brain when I took myself down to the bookshop, where I swiftly nabbed the neon bright Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis’s comeback novel. I had purposefully not read any reviews, and therefore I managed to overlook the fact that this is a sequel to Less Than Zero. I muddled on all the same. It was typical Ellis – no chapters, just ‘passages’. Marathon sentences that made the reader feel slightly manic, due to the sheer volume of words. His writing is a fascinating study on the effect structure alone has on the reader. Simply by writing these endless sentences, one becomes drawn in to the narrator’s fragile state of mind, just as paranoid and sweating as the protagonist themselves.

Less Than Zero

The novel starts with the line ‘They had made a movie about us.’ And in one fell swoop, Ellis manages to dislodge the sticky remnants of the Hollywood film of Less Than Zero, an adaptation which notoriously strayed from the original novel and plonked some heavy duty moral lessons onto Ellis’s emotional wasteland. Thusly, Ellis can explain away the death of Julian neatly in a masterstroke of meta-narrative.

I knew what to expect from reading his previous works, and the style in Bedrooms was not, largely, different. Unflinching, unemotional descriptions of the most brutal violence punctuated with song titles, liquor brands, ‘hot’ restaurants. Obviously the constant references to ‘culture’ and ‘things’ are one of the keystones to Ellis’s work, and help not only to contextualize the work, but to construct the lens through which his characters view the world.

This was done to much better effect in American Psycho, where the infamous lengthy description of Patrick Bateman’s business cards sat alongside passages about the murder of prostitutes. American Psycho worked for me, and many others, due to the sheer volume of description relating to speakers, or exercise regimes, or Bateman’s grooming habits. As the book rattled to a close, these descriptions became increasingly interspersed with the violent passages. This set Bateman as an extraordinarily unhinged character, but also provided comedy. It was ludicrous and obscene how Bateman would involve us in an episode involving some prostitutes, a chainsaw and a rat, before discussing a new restaurant. (That’s a generalisation, forgive me if I’ve remembered incorrectly.)

But back to Bedrooms. The novel is alarmingly slim, which means you ratchet straight into protagonist Clay’s return to LA, and his rapid descent into hell. Ellis draws LA as the Gomorrah of the modern world, full of people disfigured by surgery, drug addicts, prostitutes, and those lacking even the word ‘moral’ from their vocabularies. LA is almost the main character, and while the novel implies Clay had been leading a relatively sane life in New York, his return to the place captures him like a cancer. It isn’t long before he’s embroiled with a young beautiful actress – although this being LA, she’s already over the hill at 22/23, her beauty is a currency that isn’t enough, and ‘actress’ is a byword for prostitute. How refreshingly 17th Century.

Bret Easton Ellis

Rain, as the “young” “beautiful” “actress” has named herself, is an utterly appalling character with no redeeming features whatsoever. I sometimes wonder if Ellis writes his female characters as either saints or whores, in the old tradition. Rain is most definitely the latter, and you can make your mind up about Blair when you read the little coda on the final page. Much of the novel centres on Clay’s “relationship” with Rain, full of power plays, hate, and Patron Tequila. The voracity and desperation with which Rain pursues the part in a movie Clay has written is somewhat nauseating, purely because it’s most likely rather true to life of a certain breed of young women.

Hollywood is a cruel, vile place in Ellis’s eyes. If you’re too old (i.e. 22!), too ugly and unable to afford the plastic surgery you require, you’re sunk. I managed to comfort myself slightly by thinking he was exaggerating the soulless, skewed aspects of the place, but then I happened to thumb through Glamour magazine to an exposé on how many young actresses in Hollywood are leading double lives, as prostitutes. As per usual in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, I finished with a sour distaste for both modern life and people in general. The most marginal bit of comic relief comes in the form of Rain’s instantaneous turnarounds of emotion as Clay dangles the movie role in front of her. Rain is an empty vessel, we never know what she thinks. But we never know what anyone feels, because of Ellis’s adherence to the minimalist style he is famous for.

Characterwise, he tends to go on describe faces not personalities, leaving the reader unsure of how to gauge certain characters. He has come under immense scrutiny from feminist critics for both the portrayal of women in his body of work, but also for the way they are treated. I personally disagree – Ellis has argued that his writing in fact incriminates men, that his novels are all about the terrible actions of men, which I would agree this. He creates characters in a long line of villains you ultimately want to ‘get away with it. I’d read Lolita at a very early age, and had fallen irrevocably in love with Humbert Humbert. As most readers do, I wanted him to get away with it. I wanted him to achieve his ghoulish desires, and there was no question that I was utterly on his side. See also Iago in Othello.

The novel is plot-driven, unlike some of his other works. I didn’t find it as fresh as his other novels – a strange term to use when describing such a jaded style of writing, but it just lacked the power that, say, American Pyscho had. Perhaps I simply knew what to expect? Those long paranoid descriptions of the protagonist being followed, feeling that everyone was looking at him…ultimately, it didn’t bring anything new to his cannon of work. That said, I think any diehard Bret Easton Ellis fan has been longing to see him tackle the modern celebrity culture, and to explore the endless bounds forward in technology. And true enough, in Bedrooms, iPhones, YouTube, the creeping feeling of social media and technology taking over our lives – these things are all present, and ultimately used to control certain elements within the story.

If you’ve read Less Than Zero, then you could read this as a ‘where they are now’ exercise. Clue: there are no happy endings in Bret Easton Ellis. Or you could read it as a comment on the throbbing, nauseating, ever-churning Hollywood star machine. If you like your chick lit or easy reading, you’ll probably want to drive a million miles in the opposite direction.