Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t understand English teachers who claim they don’t read. You might be wondering, and you would be justified in your disdain, who these people are and what right they have to teach the joys of English literature when they haven’t read anything since their A-Levels. Believe it or not, these people do exist and seem to take great pleasure in announcing, in some vaguely defiant manner, that they have not read anything recently and that they don’t care what anyone thinks.
You can call it what you like: subtle humiliation, a gentle prod in the right direction, a vicious nudge towards some self awareness but this blog post is all about sharing what I have read. I am most conscious of the fact that by sharing my recent literary choices, I may be leaving myself open to criticism, perhaps even mockery. There will be some who sniff at my recommendations, but dear reader, I laugh in the face of your snobbery. At least I am reading and I can look my students in the eyes when I tell them they should be reading because it is important and not feel like I am living a lie.
I am going to start with my guilty secret. I have been reading George R.R Martin’s epic set of novels, entitled collectively ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. I haven’t really engaged with the fantasy genre since I was at school and my brilliant young English teacher in Year 7 made Ursula Le Guin come alive for me. I readily admit that I have turned up my nose at the fantasy section in Waterstone’s. I probably would never have picked up the novels had it not been for a TV series made of the first book, ‘A Game of Thrones’, starring the perennial historical drama favourite, Sean Bean. So, I started reading the books with no real expectations and somehow, four months later, I am on Book Five of what seems truly to be a never-ending story.
The premise is complicated, but what makes the books so spectacularly successful is their readability. Essentially, the stories chart the tensions between dynasties competing for power in the fictional world of Westeros and beyond. Once you absorb the amount of characters and begin to familiarise yourself with the various warring factions, the compulsion to keep reading is almost unbearable. Martin’s gift is the ability to create whole cultures in his novels. The historical setting feels like medieval England and Scotland (albeit medieval circa 1985 with big blonde hair), whilst being set in an entirely new universe. Places like King’s Landing and the Wall are geographically recognisable as London and Hadrian’s Wall, yet seem to have personalities of their own.
Martin narrates each chapter in the third person, but each chapter follows an individual character. Rather than feeling heavy (and there is a risk of feeling like you are overloaded with information, as most of the books stretch to at least 800 pages), you succumb to Martin’s drip feed effect. No one monopolises the pages. This in itself is a achievement. Some of the families aren’t likeable. The fact that Martin allows them equal space in his tome is a testament to his own ability to create and not judge.
I’m not going to lie, Martin is fond of showing his characters in all of their various states: drunken, incestuous, dramatic, repugnant, in stages of undress…sex, explicit or otherwise, features regularly, almost becoming a character itself. It all adds up to the fact that these novels are unashamedly the Mars Bars of fiction: chunky, naughty, made up of layers of fun stuff and not entirely good for you. They are not Work, or Rest. They are definitely Play.
I did take a break from epic medieval fantasy last week. It was not my best move, a fact that can be confirmed by the other half, who patiently consoled me when I cried like I haven’t cried at the end of a book for a long time. I couldn’t help thinking, as I wiped the tears away and felt vaguely foolish, that Jake Wallis Simons’ ‘The English German Girl’ would be the perfect recommendation to some of my students. Some of my girls really enjoy, for some reason, books that show suffering and heartache. This novel follows the fortunes of Rosa Klein, a young German girl, transported from the crucible of Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport.
It’s not a groundbreaking novel, parts of it feel familiar, like maybe you’ve seen bits of it on a TV movie. What I liked was the melange of fact and fiction. Characters that you imagine have just been conjured up by the writer appear in a who’s who of notable figures involved in Jewish resistance and wartime London nursing circles.
It is, perhaps, the predictability of the ending that upset me. Jake Wallis Simons propels his readers towards the inevitable conclusion and I, as expected, dissolved at the exact moment I imagine I was supposed to and felt a little bit like I had been manipulated. While I enjoyed the book, in the way I might enjoy a pancake with lemon and sugar (I know, I don’t know why I keep comparing books to food today), I wanted there to be…more. Better writing, perhaps less of the inevitable and predictable and more of the quirks of humanity that could have been demonstrated in the main characters. ‘Twas a diversion, at best.
The also-rans? Some interesting biography in ‘The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering my SS Grandfather’s Secret Past and How Hitler Seduced a Generation’ by Martin Davidson. Like the title, arduous. A brief flirtation with Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Mary: A Fiction’. I like the narrative voice, its thinly veiled sarcasm and bitchery is delightful. Maybe when I’ve consumed the next 900 page instalment of George R.R Martin, I may have some brain cells left to return to proper literature. Here’s hoping…