Six Degrees of Separation – From Hornby to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

fever-pitch

This month’s starting book is Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Nick Hornby has been a football fan since the moment he was conceived. Call it predestiny. Or call it preschool. Fever Pitch is his tribute to a lifelong obsession. Part autobiography, part comedy, part incisive analysis of insanity, Hornby’s award-winning memoir captures the fever pitch of fandom — its agony and ecstasy, its community, its defining role in thousands of young mens’ coming-of-age stories.

Ugh! Football!! No, thanks! Though at least proper football is played with the feet, unlike American Football. Which reminds me of…

the perfect pass

SC Gwynne’s The Perfect Pass. SC Gwynne was the winner of my FF Book of the Year Award in 2014 and the “prize” is that I will read the author’s next book. Imagine my delight when his next book turned out to be about American Football! This is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed the “unstoppable” Air Raid offense, changing the very nature of the game.

Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.

Amazingly, this book was a surprise hit with me, proving that a great writer can make any subject fascinating! Plus it was the cause of me finding one of my favourite pics to ever appear on the blog…

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

Gwynne’s award-winning previous book was Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson, one of the great US Civil War generals. This reminded me of…

king solomons mines

King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard, which culminates in the great civil war amongst the Kukuanas. A book I consider to be the best adventure story I’ve ever read, this tells the tale of Allan Quatermain and his companions setting out on a journey across Africa to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon…

“It is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross; save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or to lose it as Providence may order.”

adventurers

Another book that involves climbing mountains is…

thin air

Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. This chilly ghost story takes place in 1935 during an expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. Although it starts and ends rather slowly, the bit in the middle where the horror actually happens is excellent. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. A good one for a dark evening.

kangchenjunga south-eest face

I couldn’t visit the Himalayas without thinking of…

black narcissus

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. This is the story of a group of nuns who make their way to a palace high in the Himalayas to set up a convent and school there. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

This GIF from the movie gives me vertigo each time I look at it…

black narcissus bell

Nuns and convents made me think of…

eleven days

Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days. When a fire engulfs a convent in London, the ten nuns who make up the Order are all killed. But there is another body too, and it’s up to Detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller to find out who she was and why she was there. This is a complex, somewhat sprawling thriller that looks not just at the underbelly of crime in London but also at politics within the Roman Catholic church, and across the world to the impact of big business on the peasants of Peru.

Stav Sherez
Stav Sherez

An “Eleven” is the traditional name for a cricket team, which made me think of…

selection-day-2

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. Back to sport to end on, but a decent sport this time! (Though not as good as tennis obviously.)

Gratuitous Rafa GIF
Gratuitous Rafa GIF

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai. He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but he also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

 * * * * *

So Hornby to Adiga, via football, civil war, mountain passes, the Himalayas, nuns and elevens!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Film of the Book: Black Narcissus

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1947)

 

(This is the first in an occasional feature of reviews of the “Film of the Book”, or occasionally the “Book of the Film”, if I happen to have seen and loved the film first. I will start by saying I am not at all knowledgeable about the technical side of cinema – direction, cinematography, etc – so my reviews will be totally subjective, based on the story-telling. I’ll be looking at two things – firstly, how does it compare to the book, in plot, casting, atmosphere, location, etc; and secondly, did I enjoy it, which is after all the most important thing. The rating reflects my enjoyment rather than a quality assessment.)

The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger
The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger

From the book review:

The palace at Mopu was once known as the House of Women, home to the harem of the General, the local overlord of this remote spot high in the Himalayas. That General is now dead, and his son wants to do something to improve the lives of his people. So he has invited the Sisters of Mary to set up a convent there, to provide a school and clinic. Sister Superior Clodagh and her small group of fellow nuns make the long journey, full of enthusiasm to set up the new Convent of St Faith. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, set amidst the mountains, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review of the book, I mentioned three things that really stood out for me – the depth of the characterisation, the wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and the slow build up of tension leading to a gothic climax. So these were the things I was looking for when watching the film.

First off, the major casting is pretty great. Deborah Kerr, as Sister Clodagh, acts as much with her face and her mannerisms as her words, and gives a fine portrayal of Clodagh’s initial over-confidence giving way to uncertainty, growing nervousness and even panic over the course of the film. She is beautiful, of course, but this is kept toned down during the convent sections. We see some of Clodagh’s back-story in Ireland before she became a nun, and the contrast helps to show the passionate personality she still is beneath the veil.

(Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh before and after becoming a nun…)

David Farrar, an actor I don’t know at all, is excellent as Mr Dean – he has an overt masculinity (not altogether aided, I must say, by some of the shortest shorts in history) without being an overly handsome hunk, which is exactly how I saw him in the book. Sister Ruth is played by Kathleen Byron. She isn’t quite as I imagined Ruth – too glamorous and a little too manic – but she fits the role as depicted in the film very well and gives a fine performance, particularly in the latter stages when all of Ruth’s repressions come shrieking to the surface. The relationships between these characters are at the heart of the film and the three actors work well together, none of them dominating the screen to the detriment of the others.

(The very masculine and frequently underdressed Mr Dean – David Farrar)

The other nuns have lesser roles but Briony (Judith Furse) and Honey (Jenny Laird) are both very true to the book, while the magnificent Dame Flora Robson steals every scene she’s in in her small role as Sister Philippa. Sabu is a little too old and not quite beautiful enough to match my idea of the Young General, but he acts the role well, his costumes are appropriately gorgeous, and at least he’s Indian. Which is more than can be said for the rest of the Indian characters! Typical of the era, of course, but a bit strange to modern eyes. A young Jean Simmons is delightfully slinky and manipulative in her role as Kanchi, the beautiful temptress who tries to seduce the Young General. But I fear that May Hallatt turns the role of the housekeeper Angu Ayah into some kind of Cockney charlady, complete with accent! I kept expecting her to say ‘Cuppa tea, ducks?’ every time she appeared…

may hallatt

(The only Cockney charlady in the Himalayas – May Hallatt as Angu Ayah)

The movie is beautifully filmed in stunningly vibrant Technicolor and, despite being made almost entirely in Pinewood Studios, I believe, brings the haunting atmosphere of the remote Himalayan setting to brilliant life. The ever-present wind plays a big part in creating the unsettling tone in the book, and Powell and Pressburger use this to great effect in the film. One of the things that impressed me about the book was how clearly Godden created visual images in my mind – something that doesn’t often happen with me – and I don’t remember ever seeing another film adaptation that matched my own ideas of a place so exactly, palace and mountains both. A tribute both to Godden’s remarkable descriptive skill and to Powell and Pressburger’s faithful and rather gorgeous interpretation.

(Slinky temptress Kanchi – Jean Simmons, and Sabu as the Young General)

And so to the plot. For the vast majority of the film, the screenplay sticks rigidly to the book – somewhat abridged naturally, but getting all the important plot points over, and largely sticking strictly to the dialogue as written. The necessary shortening means that there’s less time available for nuance and the story has to move quicker, so the film doesn’t have quite the same effect of creeping slowly up on you that the book achieves. The high quality of the acting is crucial here in letting us see the changes in the nuns but, even so, the film doesn’t achieve quite the same depth of characterisation. It makes up for it in added drama, though.

sister ruth

(Kathleen Byron already looking a bit scary as Sister Ruth)

There is one fairly significant change towards the end. I don’t know the reason for it, and can’t discuss the detail since it would be a spoiler, but I suspect it may have been that, at that time, film-makers felt there were some things a nun couldn’t be seen to do in a movie. Odd, since it works fine in the book and I didn’t feel the nun aspect actually made the thing any more shocking. Fundamentally both book and film are about women living a life of isolation in an environment they find challenging, physically, emotionally and spiritually, rather than about religion as such. For my money, the change made the overall tone of the film a little more melodramatic and a little less gothic than the book. However, taken purely in the context of the film, it works brilliantly and the high drama of the ending is superb.

black narcissus bell

I do hope that rather oblique paragraph has intrigued you, because if you loved the book, then I highly recommend the film, and if you loved the film, then I’m pretty sure you’ll love the book too. Mostly a very faithful adaptation and hugely enjoyable as a film in its own right.

.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

.

And, finally… by the tiniest of margins…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

narcissus b.

 

THE BOOK!

 

 

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

black narcissusTill the rains break…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The palace at Mopu was once known as the House of Women, home to the harem of the General, the local overlord of this remote spot high in the Himalayas. That General is now dead, and his son wants to do something to improve the lives of his people. So he has invited the Sisters of Mary to set up a convent there, to provide a school and clinic. Sister Superior Clodagh and her small group of fellow nuns make the long journey, full of enthusiasm to set up the new Convent of St Faith. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, set amidst the mountains, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

Rumer Godden writes in a straightforward style, with little in the way of dramatic or poetical flourishes. But this simplicity is deceptive – she draws her characters with a surprisingly few strokes of her pen, and brings a haunting quality to her descriptions of place that allows her readers to understand the profound effect of it on the nuns. Sister Clodagh is young and inexperienced, but sure of her ability to lead – a confidence that isn’t completely shared by the Mother Superior back at the mother convent. Sister Blanche, known to all as Sister Honey, is sweet and kind, wanting to do her best for the children who attend the school and clinic. Sister Philippa and Sister Briony are the more experienced nuns, sensible and hard-working, Philippa in the gardens, and Briony heading up the clinic. And then there’s Sister Ruth, a troubled woman, full of jealousies and suppressed emotions; the kind of person no-one really wants around.

The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger
The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger

As they begin to settle into life at the convent, each of the nuns finds the isolation working on them in different ways. Sister Clodagh looks back to the events that brought her to a religious life, and for the first time finds herself questioning both her calling and her abilities. Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the garden, creating grandiose plans that the convent could never afford. Sister Honey finds herself becoming emotionally attached to the children to a degree beyond what is either wise or safe. And Sister Ruth struggles with the altitude, constantly complaining of headaches and stomach aches, and feeling that the other nuns don’t value her, especially Sister Clodagh. As time goes by, the Sisters begin to drift, almost dreamlike, away from the routines and religious observances that were once second nature to them, finding that the dramatic beauty and emptiness of the mountains somehow diminishes the things they once held precious.

Into this mix come the catalysts: the General’s heir, a rather beautiful young man, clad in silks and jewels, seeking an education; and Mr Dean, a man with a less than savoury reputation regarding women, but with a blatant masculinity that half-frightens, half-attracts the nuns. Mr Dean is the new General’s man, on whom the nuns must rely to get practical things done around the convent. He is not conventionally religious, constantly challenging Sister Clodagh’s rather glib attempts to create a replica of the mother convent here in a place with a very different culture and spirituality, and pointing out any time he feels she falls short of what she professes to believe. But it is Sister Ruth who reacts most strongly to Mr Dean, years of suppression breaking out into ever wilder longing and jealousy.

rumer_godden
Rumer Godden

The wonderful characterisation and atmospheric descriptions of this starkly unforgiving landscape provide a backdrop to the nuns’ struggle to stay on their religious path in this place they find so hauntingly mystical. For each, the experience will change her forever in ways she never imagined – some will find spiritual growth and a truer kind of faith, some will reach a reconciliation with events in their past, others will find their strength isn’t enough to come through the challenges of the place unscathed. Godden’s prose is flowing and effortless, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story without being distracted by any flamboyancy of style. The story that starts off slowly and rather gently gradually works itself up to the heights of gothic horror, but told with enough restraint to keep it feeling completely authentic and believable. An excellent book – highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Godden’s work in the future.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the book: As an occasional feature throughout the year, I’ll be watching the “film of the book” with a view to seeing how the movie version works as an interpretation of a novel, or occasionally the reverse, when I’ll be reading the book of a film I love. Black Narcissus will be the first – to see the film review, click here…

TBR Thursday 70… plus #Woolfalong!

Episode 70

 

The new resolutions are well under way – which makes it surprising, if not baffling, why the TBR has actually gone up 1, to 161! Mind you, I’m writing this on Sunday – by the time your read it on Thursday, I’m sure things will be headed in the right direction… (update – Thursday: 162)

Last year I discovered that I really don’t enjoy challenges – I never succeed and hate to fail! So this year I’ve only signed up for one, so far…

The #Woolfalong

 

This is a read-along set up by Ali at Heavenaliread her post for more details of what’s involved. What I like about it is the relaxed feel – Ali has made it clear she’s happy for people to only do the bits that appeal to them.

I tried Virginia Woolf many years ago and wasn’t overly thrilled by her. However there’s no doubt my tastes have changed a lot since then, so this event is a good incentive to try again. I’ll be joining in with phase 1 – to read either Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse during Jan/Feb 2016 – and then deciding whether to go any further depending on how I get along. And just to start the challenge off with a swing, I was a lucky winner in Ali’s generous giveaway, so am now the proud owner of…

mrs dallowayThe Blurb says “Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-World War I England. It is one of Woolf’s best-known novels.

Created from two short stories, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street and the unfinished The Prime Minister, the novel addresses Clarissa’s preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters’ minds to construct an image of Clarissa’s life and of the inter-war social structure. In October 2005, Mrs. Dalloway was included on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

* * * * *

I must admit to also being severely tempted to join in with the Victorian Bingo Card, which I spotted on Margaret’s blog, BooksPlease, and which is hosted by Becky’s Book Reviews. To achieve this one, you only need to complete one line (horizontal, vertical or diagonal), but there’s nothing to stop you from going for the whole card! (Bwahaha! That’s why I’m psychologically unfitted to do challenges…). However, rather than trying to gear my reading towards it, I think I might do this one as a retrospective at the end of the year and see if I can complete any of the boxes…

2016VictorianBingoNew

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And meantime, here are a few more that are getting close to the top of the pile…

Factual

 

henry ivCourtesy of NetGalley and my favourite publisher of historical biography, Yale University Press. Part of their English Monarchs series, this is a massive tome that should keep me occupied for some weeks to come…

The Blurb says Henry IV (1399–1413), the son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, seized the English throne at the age of thirty-two from his cousin Richard II and held it until his death, aged forty-five, when he was succeeded by his son, Henry V. This comprehensive and nuanced biography restores to his rightful place a king often overlooked in favor of his illustrious progeny.

Henry faced the usual problems of usurpers: foreign wars, rebellions, and plots, as well as the ambitions and demands of the Lancastrian retainers who had helped him win the throne. By 1406 his rule was broadly established, and although he became ill shortly after this and never fully recovered, he retained ultimate power until his death. Using a wide variety of previously untapped archival materials, Chris Given-Wilson reveals a cultured, extravagant, and skeptical monarch who crushed opposition ruthlessly but never quite succeeded in satisfying the expectations of his own supporters.

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

black narcissusCourtesy of Santa Claus, who gave me this and the film because, having enjoyed a few ‘books of the film’ and ‘films of the book’ last year, I’m going to do a little more of that this year. This one looks like fun, since I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film before…

The Blurb says High in the Himalayas, the old mountaintop palace shines like a jewel. Built for the General’s harem, laughter and music once floated out over the gorge. But now it sits abandoned; windswept and haunting.

The General’s son bestows the palace to the Sisters of Mary, and ‘the House of Women’, as it was once known, becomes the Convent of St Faith. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and hospital. But the isolation and emptiness of the mountain become increasingly unsettling, and passions long repressed emerge with tragic consequences…”

* * * * *

Crime

 

even the deadCourtesy of NetGalley. Having loved John Banville’s writing in The Blue Guitar, I’m keen to see how it translates to crime under his pen-name Benjamin Black…

The Blurb says “Two victims – one dead, one missing. Even the Dead is a visceral, gritty and cinematic thriller from Benjamin Black. Every web has a spider sitting at the centre of it.

Pathologist Quirke is back working in the city morgue, watching over Dublin’s dead. When a body is found in a burnt-out car, Quirke is called in to verify the apparent suicide of an up-and-coming civil servant. But Quirke can’t shake a suspicion of foul play. The only witness has vanished, every trace of her wiped away. Piecing together her disappearance, Quirke finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of Dublin’s elite – secret societies and high church politics, corrupt politicians and men with money to lose. When the trail eventually leads to Quirke’s own family, the past and present collide. But crimes of the past are supposed to stay hidden, and Quirke has shaken the web.”

* * * * *

 

the woman in blueCourtesy of NetGalley. It’s make or break time for the Ruth Galloway series. I thought the last one was frankly poor and it may be time to lay the series to rest. But I’ll give it one last chance… plus, isn’t that just such a great cover?

The Blurb saysIn the next Ruth Galloway mystery, a vision of the Virgin Mary foreshadows a string of cold-blooded murders, revealing a dark current of religious fanaticism in an old medieval town.

Known as England’s Nazareth, the medieval town of Little Walsingham is famous for religious apparitions. So when Ruth Galloway’s druid friend Cathbad sees a woman in a white dress and a dark blue cloak standing alone in the local cemetery one night, he takes her as a vision of the Virgin Mary. But then a woman wrapped in blue cloth is found dead the next day, and Ruth’s old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, receives a series of hateful, threatening letters. Could these crimes be connected? When one of Hilary’s fellow female priests is murdered just before Little Walsingham’s annual Good Friday Passion Play, Ruth, Cathbad, and DCI Harry Nelson must team up to find the killer before he strikes again. 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

I think these should start the year off brilliantly!

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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