Thursday, 3 November 2016

26 Books: A Book that Everyone Else Has Read

(finally another 26 books! Enjoy)

This would have been number 20 in Bringing Up Burns 2015

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
(read April 2015)

Well I probably missed the point. I chose Catch 22 as one of my '26 books to read in 2015' and it was the ' book from my shelves that I haven't read' until I realised I don't have it (where did it go; whose shelves am I familiar with seeing it on?) so I got a very cheap Kindle edition (notable for its typos). I read about a hundred pages, and then decided that my life's too short to waste on something I just didn't want to come back to. Reading is for fun (in some sense, it can be gruelling, but if I don't want to know what happened
next or am annoyed and after a good chunk of the book this hasn't worn off, then STOP!).

A little rant.

Back to the book.

I think I understood that it is highly ironic. Every sentence is tortuous and contradictory. It illustrates the life of members of a USAF bomber group in 1944/5 Italy, and the essential conundrum of their lives, which is that they all don't want to be there, they don't want to continue to risk their lives, they are waiting to serve their time and go home, and the central character is trying to get out of further bombing missions by pretending to be 'crazy' but this doesn't work: If you are willing to fly missions, you are crazy. If you don't want to fly missions you are not crazy because that's common sense. You would get signed off having to fly if you are crazy but to declare yourself crazy is self cancelling (see beginning of sentence). This is Catch 22.

Last year I read Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. It's about the same period, it has a similarly cynical attitude to war and to WW2 in particular, which is especially interesting because this is the war that is generally given as being sainted, almost a holy war because the Nazis were so evil, and because of the holocaust. What we all miss in that long after the event interpretation, is that this was accidental. WW2 was actually just like most other European wars, about territory and alliances. Yes the Nazis were spectacularly horrible in a way that Western civilIsation needs to continue to learn from, but that wasn't why Britain and the US fought them. So it's interesting to read contemporary accounts that weren't pro-establishment. I found Evelyn Waugh much more interesting (if a little turgid) than Heller's really dated comedy method. It was just tedious!


'The Other Boleyn Girl' by Phillipa Gregory (E):
(read January 2015)

** spoiler alert **
 Now, I really really enjoyed 'The Other Boleyn Girl,' but I feel curiously guilty for doing so.

Let's examine this. I feel like I shouldn't enjoy Gregory's books because you often hear about the plethora of historical inaccuracies that she has, and that she writes the 'worst type of historical fiction.' Almost like soaps or something, but just set in a different era. I have mostly steered clear of her books after reading 'A Respectable Trade,' which I thought was abysmally written, and I really didn't enjoy.

This? Loved it.

There was, as others have criticised, a tendency towards one dimensional characters - but not entirely. Many characters had a singular predominant trait - Anne was ruthless and ambitious, Henry was arrogant and hedonistic, singularly fixated on producing a male heir - but they had other traits too, and their prevailing traits were very understandable. Mary Boleyn herself was not, as others have suggested, presented as an innocent amongst the debauched immorality of the court; she was fickle and inconstant from the start.

It was very compelling. Strange to read a book where you know the outcome, and yet can't put it down because you want to know what happens!

In the interests of looking at this fairly, I decided to try and discover what the actual historical inaccuracies were. This is what I have managed to find by trawling the internet.

1) There is no proof of incest between George and Anne Boleyn, where it is heavily implied in the novel.
There is no proof of George Boleyn's homosexuality. There is no proof as to the paternity of Mary Boleyn's children, although it is speculated that one or more may have been fathered by the king. These, to me, are not an inaccuracies - it is building on something that may have been truth. At the end of the day, this is a novel, not a history book.

Philippa Gregory herself!
2) Mary Boleyn was generally thought to be the eldest of the three siblings. I'm curious as to why Gregory decided to change this, because the dynamic between the three of them would have been significantly different if she had been the elder. This inaccuracy is the most curious to me - why? And the plot does hinge rather on Mary being the youngest. Maybe Gregory should have stuck to the generally perceived facts and we would have had a very different novel.

3) Anne Boleyn takes Henry (Mary's son) on as a ward when his father William Carey dies of sweating sickness, rather than much later as in the novel.

4) Mary Boleyn in the novel is sexually inexperienced before she beds Henry VIII, but it is thought that her time in the French court had her reputation sealed as very promiscuous. This is argued between scholars, so who knows?

5) And, of course, the characterisation of Anne Boleyn herself. She is portrayed as pretty ruthless and cruel in the novel, although not wholly so, whereas many historians believe her to have been a sweet girl. Who knows? This is an alternative perspective, and, truthfully, we will never know what she was like.

To me, these inaccuracies are not enough to take away from the enjoyment of the book. If some say it is trashy historical fiction - so what? I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone who likes historical books. I'd like to read more of Phillipa Gregory, now that I can forgive her for 'A Respectable Trade.'