Into the Wild – A Few Thoughts

Into the Wild is the account of the life of Christopher McCandless as written by Jon Krakauer. Christopher McCandless graduated from university in 1990. After his graduation, he gave away all his money, tore up his credit cards and drove off in his Datsun without telling his parents where he was going. He traveled around for two years, living on the streets mostly, and ended up in Alaska, where he lived off the land for four months before dying of starvation.

This is not a review of the book, or a review of Christopher McCandless actions which led to his death, but more a collection of my thoughts that were provoked in reading the book. Jon Krakauer has done a tremendous job documenting McCandless life after he gave up everything and he has tried hard to keep the book objective. The fact that this book provoked mostly irritation is by no means because of a bad writing style.

I think that Chris McCandless was very resourceful and very brave. I think he was also very selfish and very naive. And he is by no means the only young American man who thought that living on the street would be helping the poor. Giving away all your money (although it is debatable how much of that money was given to him by his parents) in order to know what it is like to be destitute is naive. People on the fringes of society are generally there because of misfortune, not because they choose to be there. Trying to live a non-materialistic lifestyle is admirable, and more of us should do so, but living on the street is taking it a bit too far, in my opinion. If you really are upset about the misdistribution of wealth, and you want to do something about inequality in society, then I don’t think that living on the street, not paying taxes, being dependent on the goodness of other, hard-working people will help much with that. It will only really help you have some sort of soul-searching experience, which may be great for you, but doesn’t really help all the poor and destitute people on the planet.

Most people like McCandless make their decisions based on the fact that they want to live their dream. They have a romanticised idea about the (American) wilderness, about living with very few belongings and next to no money, taking each day as it comes. Apart from being irritated by this book, I also did feel inspired. It is admirable that McCandless just left his cushy life and chose a life of hardship, because that was his dream. Now, I am a cynic. I don’t really believe in living your dreams. At the end of the day, you still need food on the table, a roof over your head and some clothing. And I am not selfish enough to rely on the generosity of other people, who have forsaken their dream in order to be able to afford the basic necessities in life, just so I can live my dream. I also have two young children, who need to be fed, clothed and who need shelter (although I admit they don’t need the playroom full of toys they currently have). So while I certainly admire people who give everything up to live their dream, I also think that if everyone did so, the world would fall down.

One of my favourite movies, Office Space, has a scene where the characters ask each other “If you have a million dollars, what would you do?” The idea is that whatever you would do if you did not have to work for a living is what you should do for your job. One of the characters rightfully points out that this is stupid: if everyone did the job they dreamed of, you would never get garbage collectors, as no one would want to do that job. It was certainly never my dream to be a tax accountant, but I have a good job, nice people to work with and a paycheque at the end of the day that keeps my life comfortable. If you’d ask me what I would do if I didn’t have to work for a living, I would say “write and edit”. I find I like the writing part, but even though I am still plodding through the editing, I do not enjoy it and at the end of the day I wish I had more energy to actually sit down and do a proper job. As it stands now, it is probably going to take a year before my book is properly edited and rewritten, but that is okay. I work full time, so the rest will just have to trail along according to my energy levels.

So…in writing all this I think I have identified the source of my irritation with Into the Wild. I think that there is so much emphasis on following your dreams, and doing the things you want to do irrespective of how that will affect others. I am not saying we should all be stuck in a miserable existence and we should not ever endeavour to rise above it all, but we have responsibilities, and other people to think of. (Unless of course you are absolutely alone in the world, in which case, poor you.) Even Chris McCandless realised in the Alaskan wilderness that happiness is not real unless it’s shared. I couldn’t justify giving up a good paying job and moving into a trailer with my family just so I could follow my dream to become a writer. For one, my dream does emphatically not involve a trailer and two, I couldn’t expect my family to also give everything up just so that I can live my dreams.  But maybe I am too practical and responsible and old, or maybe I am too attached to my comfortable life. Or maybe I am simply not passionate enough about being a writer.

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Book review: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Thud!Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors. In my opinion, he is up there with P.G. Wodehouse (who is my all time favourite). Today I will review the book Thud!, one of many that Terry Pratchett wrote, and one of many in the Sam Vimes series.

I recently celebrated my birthday and one of the books I received for my birthday was Snuff, the Sam Vimes book that comes after Thud!. I really enjoyed it, but I felt it was somewhat lacking, so I decided to read Thud! for comparison. And I was right, Thud! is definitely better.

In Thud! Sam Vimes has a murder on his hands. One of the more famous dwarfs is killed and the dwarfs claim it has been done by a troll. The anniversary of Koom Valley, the famous battle between trolls and dwarfs, is upon the city and tensions are running high. Vimes knows that there is more going on than the murder of one dwarf and he is determined to find out what it is. His search leads him into the bowels of the city and all the way to Koom Valley before he can find the truth. Meanwhile, the dark, the Summoning Dark, is following him and he has to resist it. And every night at six o’ clock on the dot, he has to be home to read to his little boy.

Thud! is a wonderful book. Terry Pratchett is very good at creating a world so different from our own, but with much the same problems. In Thud! Pratchett explores the theme of racial intolerance and astutely dissects the illogical reasons for one race feeling superior to another. The dwarfs and trolls want to remember the battle of Koom Valley, not as a lesson learned, but as an inspiration. They both think of it as the time they were ambushed by the other party and the grudge has been held over generations. When the truth of Koom Valley ultimately comes to light, it is a shock to both sides of the battle.

At the beginning of the story, when very traditional dwarfs arrive in Ankh-Morpork and start digging under the city, Vimes is determined to hold them to the law of Ankh-Morpork, no matter how deep under the ground the dwarfs live. And when the traditional, conservative, one might even say, extremist dwarfs try to tell Vimes that the law of Ankh-Morpork does not apply to them, as they are held to a different law, the dwarf law, Vimes will have none of that. It is all too reminiscent of our society, with a few people successfully fanning the fire of hatred against a group of people based on sheer ignorance and misunderstanding. And the sheep-like behaviour of the crowd just chanting what everyone chants and not thinking things through.

Pratchetts’s books all offer a sartorial comment on certain aspects of society. Vimes is often lost in a world which is rapidly changing around him, and of which he desperately tries to make sense. His keen sense of right and wrong enables him to stand up to men of power and he refuses to be bowled over by politics and power plays. Although I have found that Pratchett’s later works have become more serious and less laugh-out-loud, there are definitely very funny parts in the book. I would like to share one passage with you. It is where Vimes reads to his young son.

It was called Where’s My Cow? 

The unidentified complainant had lost their cow. That was the story, really.
It began promising:

Where is my cow?
Is that my cow?
It goes, ‘Baa!’
It is a sheep!
That’s not my cow!

 Then the author began to get to grips with their material:

Where is my cow?
Is that my cow?
It goes, ‘Neigh!’
It is a horse!
That is not my cow!

At this point the author had reached an agony of creation and was writing from the racked depths of their soul.

Where is  my cow?
Is that my cow?
It goes, ‘Hruuugh!’
It is a hippopotamus!
That is not my cow!

 

 Eventually the cow would be found. It was that much of a page turner.

How our expectations shape our experiences

Best exotic marigold hotelA while ago, I saw the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is a delightful movie about a young Indian man who decides to open up a hotel for elderly British people who would like to spend the rest of their days in the warmth of India, where their pound will go a long way. Sooner than he expects, an assortment of British retirees descend upon his hotel and he is forced to make some quick amendments to get the hotel in shape. The retirees, played by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, make the best of their situation and soon become charmed with the hotel and with India and forge relationships with each other. It is truly a wonderful, heartwarming movie.

So, when I found out that the movie was based on the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, I immediately added the book to my wishlist. After all, books that movies are based on are generally much better than the movies themselves. I therefore had high expectations.

these foolish thingsBut alas, the book did not manage to charm and delight me. Of course I was trying to match characters in the book up with characters in the movie and I failed miserably in most instances. For example, Sonny Kapoor, played by Dev Patel in the movie, is a fat, middle aged man in the book. That was a shock! And in general, the book failed to impress me.

That made me wonder…would I have been more charmed by the book had I not seen the movie first? Did the success of the movie set the book up for failure (at least for me)? When we pick up a book and expect greatness from it, how often does it not fail to impress, when it may have been a pleasant enough experience had we not set our expectations to high?

This is exactly the reason I am often loath to jump on the hype bandwagon whenever a book reaches bestselling status. That is not to say I do not read any bestsellers, but I very seldom run out to the shop to buy the latest hype. I never read Harry Potter when it was a phenomenon and I am glad of it. I recently read the first two books to my son, and although it is a nice enough story for kids, the writing itself lacks too much to enjoy the books as an adult. In other instances, this backfires, as I refused for many year to read the then very popular The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulish, only to love it when I finally read it a few years later. Imagine my dismay when I realised I could have had the wonderful pleasure of having this book in my life years before.

But ignoring hypes – or playing them down – does take away my expectations of a book being great. With the result that even if I did not love the book, I did not feel completely let down by it.

And that brings me to my last point: it is thoroughly unfair to an author – and a book – to expect greatness from them before you even begin to read. All our reading experiences should be entered into with an open mind, and no expectations. “Surprise me”, we should say to the book. “Show me what you have and then I will judge you.”

Unfortunately, because we do not live in isolation, this is not always possible, and as a consequence, our expectations could ruin our experiences.

Book Review – The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Other Boleyn GirlMary Boleyn is one of the queen’s ladies in waiting at the court of Henry VIII. When the king’s eye falls on Mary, her family is delighted and her parents and uncle decide that it would be a good career move for them if Mary becomes the king’s mistress. This despite the fact that Mary is already married to someone else. Her husband, William Carey, is told that his wife will not be with him any longer as she is destined for greater and better things. Mary’s desires are completely overlooked and although she feels loyal to the queen who has failed to give the king a son, she does as her family bids and becomes the king’s mistress.

Mary gets pregnant twice and gives birth to a daughter and a son. According to the tradition of the time, her children are taken away from her and sent to the family home to be raised by strangers. Mary fights for her rights to see them, and each summer as the court goes away for the summer, Mary is allowed to go to the family estate to be with her children. During one of her absences, Anne catches the king’s eye and he falls in love with her. The Boleyn family now decides that it will be better for them to hedge their bets on Anne, and so Anne is instructed to keep the king interested, while at the same time not becoming his mistress. Anne has her sights set on becoming the new queen and she stirs the king into starting divorce procedures, which result in a break between England and Rome. Anne eventually gets what she wants: the queen is ousted and the king marries her.

However, things turn sour for Anne as well, when she is incapable of giving the king a son. She has one child: a daughter, and all subsequent pregnancies end in miscarriages. She tries to keep her many miscarriages secret from the king, but one day, when she had been pregnant for a while and certain that this time she would be all right, she starts bleeding at a feast, and the whole court is witness to this. She miscarries again, and the child is deformed with an open spine and a big head. This gives the king enough evidence to accuse her of witchcraft and get rid of her as well. Anne is eventually beheaded and the king marries his latest love interest, Jane Seymour.

Meanwhile, Mary successfully escaped the clutches of her family by marrying a “nobody”, allowing her to escape the confines of life at the court and have some happiness of her own.

Philippa Gregory is very good at describing the corruption and scheming that goes on at a royal court. I read another book by her, Earthly Joys, and that was what struck me there as well. I do believe she does extensive research, but she does not feel the need to fill the book with lots of info dumping. I do not read a lot of historical fiction, but I do not think that Philippa Gregory is the best at it, despite her bestselling status. The reason for this is that it very much reads like a book written by a 21st century woman from the point of view of a 16th century woman. It is very hard for me to put my finger on why exactly, but there are a few things that did not ring true.

For example, when Mary has her children, they are taken away from court so she does not have to interrupt her duties to the queen (officially) and the king (unofficially). Although this was common practice for ladies at the court in those days, Mary goes on and on about how shocked she is that this happened and how unfair it is. I agree that this is an unfair practice, but it could hardly have come as a surprise to Mary since she grew up at the court. She and her sister had been shipped off to France at a very early age, so she knew this would happen. Even more so since the children were the king’s illegitimate children.

There were more things I did not particularly like about this book. There was the relationship between Mary and Anne: Anne constantly undermines Mary, treats her like dirt, takes away everything she ever cared for in the world, including her own son, and yet when she finally falls from her self-created pedestal, Mary does not once have a feeling of triumph or justice having been served. The book is written in first person narrative from the point of view of Mary and she often harbours hateful feelings towards her sister. So it would not have been at all unusual for her to think “this is what happens when you convince the king that he can have a divorce”. It takes other characters in the book to spell that out for her. I understand that the relationship between two sisters can be complicated, but Mary’s reaction to the events that led up to Anne’s beheading just did not ring true.

Also, I did not like the emphasis on sex in the book. Of course, the whole history of King Henry VIII is steeped in sex and there is no escaping that, but I do not think that it was necessary to make the whole book revolve around it. Not only the sexual escapades of the king are described in detail, but there is also the sexual preferences of Mary and Anne’s brother George. It is even implied in the book that Anne and George had an incestuous affair in order for her to have a successful pregnancy. Although the real Anne Boleyn does not sound like she was a very pleasant woman, the charge of incest could have been a fabricated charge sprouted from the minds of a king who wants to rid himself of his queen in order to marry his new mistress and the enemies that queen had made for herself, rather than the truth Philippa Gregory makes it out to be.

I usually give an author more than one chance before I stop reading their books, but I am forced to conclude that Philippa Gregory is not the author for me.

World Book Night

Okay, I totally forgot about World Book Night and it is coming up in a couple of weeks, on 23 April! As part of World Book Night I have been selected to give away 25 copies of my chosen book. I chose The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which I reviewed on this blog a little while ago (click here for a refresher) and which I am very excited about. I realise it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was by far the best book from the selection (in my opinion).

For those of you who are not familiar with World Book Night, you can learn more here. It is a really neat initiative to bring  more awareness of reading to people who do not normally read. I was a WBN giver in 2011, when I handed out 50 copies of A Fine Balance. A lot of my coworkers are not really readers, and they had a hard time with A Fine Balance, which admittedly is a very thick book and was maybe not the best choice (although it is a lovely book). I think those coworkers will find The Eyre Affair a lot more enjoyable. Apart from my non-reading coworkers I am planning to hand out some books at my local shopping centre and at my son’s school. With only 25 copies it should be a lot easier, although I handed out a lot of my 2011 copies at hospitals.

I am hoping there will be some events organised in my home town, last year the local Waterstone’s did a quiz which was great fun!

Is anyone else going to be a World Book Night giver, if so, please share which book you will give away and how you are going to do it!

How to get motivated?

notebookIt has been a month since I last edited. I had the excuse of busy at work and busy at home with crocheting my mom’s shawl, but the last week and a half I have had no excuse not to edit. It is just that every time I even think of picking up the big stack of paper I still have to trawl through I cringe. I feel very disheartened at the thought of how much rewriting my story still needs before I am happy to pass it on to the next reader (who will then undoubtedly suggest even more twists and changes). Part of this has to do with the cold outside and the desire to stay in bed with a book, which I have been doing a lot of lately. I have also neglected my journal writing and even my blog posts have not been as frequent as I would like.

When I was in the Netherlands two weeks ago, I stayed with my brother and sister-in-law for a night. My sister-in-law asked about my book and I explained I am a little stuck in the editing process. My brother piped up with: “But why do you want to edit and rewrite it? What is the point?” To be honest, for a split second, I agreed with him in my heart. What is the point indeed? I will never be a published writer. I hardly have the energy to read through a few pages of my book after a full day of work, let alone go through the grueling process of editing and rewriting to get it in shape to be sent to publishers. And then the process of writing a good pitch, the thought alone makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.

But, I do know that I need to rewrite and edit my book to the best of my ability. I know that until I do that, I will not be able to be proud of it, as it will not be my best effort. I do not see the point in leaving the story as it is now. Sure, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But that does not mean that it is finished. My book is not ready to be read by even my closest family members or friends. It needs polishing, it deserves polishing. And I promised it, myself and all the future readers that I will eventually get around to editing the whole thing.

Just maybe not yet this week. First I need to find my motivation again. Any suggestions?