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This (if you hadn't guessed by now) is a page all about reading. My favourite author is, rather predictably I suppose, Shakespeare, and if I could only keep one book it would be the Riverside edition of the complete works. Even more predictably, Hamlet is my favourite play. I first read it at A-level, and have been pretty much obsessed ever since. Some film productions of it worth seeing are Ken Branagh's full text version (brilliant), Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (beautiful and only slightly surpassed by Kens), and although not strictly a film of the play, In the Bleak Midwinter, directed by (yes, that man again) Ken Branagh. The worst production of Hamlet I ever saw was by a student company called (I think) the European Touring Group at the ADC theatre, Cambridge. It was a bit of an insult to a great play and made me wonder if student 'actors', particularly those in Cambridge, should try to play Hamlet, a play which demands such subtlety from its actors. This particular production had scaffolding on the stage which didn't seem to serve much purpose, other than 'shock' value. Hmmmmmm..... You can read my favourite speech from Hamlet below:
I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custon of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire - why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
One of the most beautiful performances I've heard of that speech is by Richard E. Grant at the end of the film 'Withnail and I'.
Other books which I think are definitely worth recommending:
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe - Tom Wolfe is one of my top twentieth-century authors. He has mainly written non-fiction, being a journalist by 'trade', but I came to this after reading Bonfire of the Vanities
(one of the best novels I've ever read) and A Man in Full (also excellent), his two novels. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicles the adventures and lifestyle of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest) and the Merry Pranksters as they travel around the US in their bus 'Furthur' and take lots of LSD. It is written in a style which tries to capture their subjective experiences and it really does succeed. As always with Tom Wolfe, politics remains a strong undertone and the book adds up to a subtly analytical, never reductive, study of a totally unique group of people.
- The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee - a short but gruelling novel which draws heavily on Kafka's writing both in style and content. (Read Kafka's short story The Fasting Artist, if you want to see what I mean). Michael K is a young man who gets caught up in a civil war in his home country of South Africa, and who deals with the conflict by going on a hunger strike. The novel deals with the politics of war, the meaning (and possibility) of protest and contains strong psychoanalytical overtones. Not one for the faint-hearted!
- Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey - dense prose, but so rewarding it's worth persevering. This is the first Booker-winner I ever read, and it is one of only three novels which have made me cry. It is a beautiful love story, an emotionally-involving tragedy, and a fantastic (in the strict sense of the word) meditation on Christian belief. I can't recommend it highly enough.
- Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee - a short(ish) novel for a change, and it is partly its punchiness which makes it so successful. A very powerful story set in modern South Africa where an academic is 'disgraced' by a revelation of his affair with a student and exiles himself in the country, where he goes to stay with his daughter. While he is there, a terrible attack takes place which forces him to re-assess his role as a father, as a man, and as a citizen of post-apartheid South Africa.
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky - a long and complicated book, but with the most intriguing and challenging plot I've ever encountered. Raskolnikov, a young, poor and miserable student, is desperate for money and recognition. His desperation leads him to commit a terrible crime, a crime which leads to a battle of minds between himself and the police-chief who is determined to prove his guilt. His future seems bleak, until he enounters a young prostitute called Sonya.... Crime and Punishment manages to be a thriller, a romance, and a philosophical polemic all at once - it'll keep you on the edge of your seat right until the twist at the end!
- The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler - a very different kind of thriller, but just a strong on the suspense. Philip Marlow, Chandler's enigmatic and hard-nosed Californian detective, is called to investigate the discovery of the body of a beautiful woman at the bottom of a lake. As ever for Marlow, things are not how they first appear... If you've never read Raymond Chandler before, read this first!
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - certainly a challenging book in many ways! This novel constantly upsets the reader's assumptions of good and evil, truth, and trust, as well as how the narrative voice interacts with the reader. In many ways this is a very upsetting read, but since Nabokov is a master of subtlety and linguistic ingenuity the novel's 'message' remains sufficiently clear for it to be a thought-provoking, rather than simply stomach-turning, read. I'd recommend it for open minds.
- Gill by Philip Larkin - those coming to this book having read Larkin's poetry will feel very at home. The novel follows John Kemp through his first term at Oxford in 1940. Having won a scholarship, John leaves his Northern home of Huddlesford and enters an alien and exclusive world of social climbing, London society and burgeoning adulthood. Deeply unhappy, he finds refuge in art, far away from both the past and present - but it proves a fragile hiding place.
- The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer - just as provocative as The Female Eunuch, The Whole Woman throws a robust challenge at the feet of Natasha Walter et al. A very inspiring and indeed angry polemic against so-called new feminism, and the ongoing oppressions of patriarchy. Shows women's and men's struggle for liberation to be a live-topic for the coming century.
DON'T EVER READ:
© Sue Thomas :
Cambridge, September 2000
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - if anyone can tell me why this is commonly held to be so fantastic, please do! I found it annoyingly pompous throughout and the plot seemed to alternate between veiled homoeroticism and a sentimentalised view of heterosexuality. I also found the narration worryingly autobiographical...and I thought the reference to the narrator's perineum was totally unnecessary...!
- London Fields by Martin Amis - misogyny, paper-thin characters, utterly class-bound unimaginative prose, a total let-down (AND it's widely held to be his best novel...).