Stephen Fry’s fiction: A look at all four of his novels

Stephen Fry is well loved around the world for many things – for his work on television and film, his writing and of course his charming personality and love for words and verbosity. As a friend once said: “Ah, Stephen Fry. Now there’s a man who knows how to construct a sentence.”

Considering this, I thought it would be fun to write about the four novels Stephen Fry has written over the years, because I have met many the Stephen Fry fan who was not even aware he had written any novels, let alone four. Furthermore, in my opinion at least, these stories are as good as one would come to expect from a man who simply revels in his own startling intelligence and wit.

The Liar

Published in 1991, The Liar was Fry’s first novel, and for many it appears to be his most autobiographical work of fiction (read this alongside his first two memoirs and you’ll see what I mean – if you are wondering about his memoirs, I will most certainly return to them in a later post). The book is centred around Adrian Healey, who goes through a public boys school and Oxford, before becoming a spy of sorts. Throughout this all, Adrian lies chronically, which makes him an unreliable narrator but also brings quite a lot of fun to the story, with revelations appearing suddenly out of nowhere as the book progresses, and old truths suddenly being declared a lie. For a debut novel, this is daring in both story and language, full of vulgarity that may shock and offend some, yet delivered with such eloquence it is frankly impossible not to be charmed by it all. Perhaps Fry’s funniest novel, though maybe not the best place to start with his fiction work.

The Hippopotamus

Fry’s second novel, published in 1994, was the first I read, and I was enticed by the blurb on the back of the book, which reads as follows:

“Ted Wallace is an old, sour, womanising, cantankerous, whisky-sodden beast of a failed poet and drama critic, but he has his faults too.
Fired from his newspaper, months behind on his alimony payments and disgusted with a world that undervalues him, Ted seeks a few months’ repose and free drink at Swafford Hall, the country mansion of his old friend Lord Logan.
But strange things have been going on at Swafford. Miracles. Healings. Phenomena beyond the comprehension of a mud-caked hippopotamus like Ted…”

Really, after reading that, buying this book immediately was inevitable and downright logical. The story is partly epistolary, as Ted reports back through letters to his sick god-daughter Jane on the various happenings at the mansion, including the arrival of other house guests searching out the supposed miracles occurring within. The writing style is perhaps more tame in this book than his first, though the story is still outrageously shocking and hilarious at points, and once again brimming with serious and intelligent undertones, as well. This is a good place to start with Fry’s books.

Making History

Fry’s third novel is arguably his best, and certainly his most ambitious. This alternate history story is also his longest, clocking in at close to 600 pages, and yet it is the sort of book which, once started, is difficult to put down until it’s finished. The story is set around Michael Young, a young historian who meets an ageing physicist obsessed with the horror and atrocities commited by Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. When the two of them discover a way to stop Hitler ever having been born, they follow through with their plan, thinking they will avert one of the world’s worst catastrophes, but when Michael reawakens he finds himself in the wrong country, in a world vastly different from the one in which he grew up, and, scarily, in a much darker and more frightening world too. Slowly Michael realises that this alternate history turned out far more horrific, in ways he could never have began to imagine. It was a daring line for Fry to take with this story, but he pulls it off convincingly, not taking any short cuts and not holding back at any points, and delivers a truly stunning and thought-provoking novel. This is definitely my favourite work of fiction by Fry, and I would highly recommend this to any history buffs out there.

The Stars’ Tennis Balls

This novel, published in 2000 (and with the title changed to Revenge in the United States), is Fry’s attempt at a psychological thriller, and was largely inspired by The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, being, essentially, a modernisation of that classic tale of revenge.  It begins in 1980, as seventeen year old Ned finds all the pieces of his life – education, work, even a beautiful girl – coming together perfectly. However, a few badly timed events lead his life in a completely different direction, and the novel instead follows this new phase of his life, and, eventually, the vengeance he seeks to make upon those who caused these changes in his life. While still funny, this novel is tinged with a sense of bitterness and anger which gives it a sizzling energy as you turn each page, and simply adds to the growing evidence that Fry is a master of the English language, and a genius of storytelling.

Have you read any of Stephen Fry’s novels? If so, what did you think? If not, do you think you would read them?

Much Obliged, Jeeves: A review

I’ve managed to finish two books in the last couple of days, including Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (which I will review doubled up with Mockingjay a bit later on, for various reasons), and just today, Much Obliged, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. Having discussed Wodehouse before but never reviewing one of his books on its own, I thought, well, why not do it now?

It is tricky to review any Wodehouse book, to be honest. As Stephen Fry puts it, on the cover of this book, “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.” I must confess, I tend to agree with Fry on this one – there is something about the way Wodehouse writes which resists any analysis and critique, and I suspect he is one of the only writers in the history of writing in the English language who has managed to achieve this.

Much Obliged, Jeeves is part of the ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ series of novels, and compared with those which I have read so far, the story in this one stood out particularly as being a little more unique, while reprising many beloved characters and places from previous stories. Set in a place known as Market Snodsbury, the story centres around a chaotic local election between Bertie Wooster’s friend Ginger, and the rather firm and powerful Mrs McCorkadale. In the mix of all this are numerous engagements (with varying degrees of amiability between the couples), Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia, where everybody is staying, and who is trying to extort a large amount of money from the grumpy old Runkle by softening him up with her chef Anatole’s amazing cooking, and a book known as the Book of Revelations – a book shared among butlers which contains all of the deeds and misdeeds, routines and bad habits of their employers. When the book suddenly disappears, the dignity and respect of several people becomes jeopardised, including those involved in the election.

The story is great, and leaves you guessing right up until the last few pages how it will ever be resolved, and as always the resolution is startling in its simplicity and genius. If I were to critique one aspect of this novel, it is that the wit doesn’t seem as sharp as it has in other Wodehouse books I have read – however, this is only comparing it to other Wodehouse books, as on its own against most literature this novel is still highly witty and hilarious. And considering this book was first published in 1971, when Wodehouse would have been in his late eighties, it goes to show that even old age bore no real threat to his intelligence, charm and general verbosity.

I wouldn’t recommend Much Obliged, Jeeves as a first Wodehouse novel for those yet to read him, as it mentions far too many events and characters who have no meaning unless you have read his earlier works (I always suggest to start with Thank You, Jeeves), but for those more seasoned readers of this series (by which I mean you have read at least three or four), there is plenty of fun to be had between the covers of this book. For those interested, I rated this four out of five on GoodReads (and gave a considerably shorter review on there similar to this one).

Lastly, I have to share my favourite line from the book: “Where one goes wrong in looking for the ideal girl is in making one’s selection before walking the full length of the counter.”

What books have you finished recently?

Have you read any Wodehouse novels in recent times (especially as I keep bringing him up)?

I dedicate this blog post to great book dedications

As eager as I often am to jump straight into the story when starting a new book, there is one thing I always have to do first – check to see if there’s a book dedication.

While many dedications are quite simple and usually just include the mention of loved ones, every now and then I stumble across one that includes a bit more, such as a cheeky sidenote, or  something completely different and silly, or sometimes a more serious and inspiring message. I have gathered here some of my favourites, all of which are taken from my personal book collection (so hopefully there will be a few you haven’t read before). Enjoy!

“To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” – The Heart of a Goof by P. G. Wodehouse

“Simply and impossibly: For my family.” – Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

“This book is dedicated to my bank balance.” – Silly Verse For Kids by Spike Milligan

“To my mother, who liked the bit about the horse.” – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

“To Vik Lovell, who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs.” – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

“To my dear brother Desmond, who made my boyhood happy and with whom I have never had a crossword, mind you he drives his wife mad.” – ‘Rommel?’ ‘Gunner Who?’ by Spike Milligan

“To the love of my life, my soul mate, and the greatest person in the world: Me.” – The Alphabet of Manliness by Maddox

“To ………………………………………….
                (insert full name here)             ” – The Liar by Stephen Fry

“For Stephen and the bills.” – Mrs Fry’s Diary by Mrs Stephen Fry (Stephen’s alter ego)

“This book is dedicated to my family, for their unfailing faith and enthusiasm; to Caroline, for her fund of stories and luminous presence; and to all those who are persecuted for daring to think for themselves.” – The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernières

And finally, perhaps my favourite book dedication of all time, and one I mentioned briefly the other day. I decided this one might be easier to just take a photo, rather than type it all out. Sorry about the glare. Enjoy…

From Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman. Do you think this story is real? I certainly do (I particularly love the mention of Douglas Adams, too).

Are there any great or funny book dedications you have come across? I’d love to hear them if so!

On Poetry – Part 6: Exotic forms – the Haiku, Luc Bat and Tanaga

In this post, we are going to look at forms of poetry that originated in languages other than English. In many cases, there is the argument that a lot of the power of the poetry has been lost, or at least changed, through the language differences, but many will also argue that these forms are still lovely in any language, and I certainly believe this to be true.

We’re going to look at the haiku, as well as two similar forms, the senryu and the tanka, before moving on to the luc bat and tanaga. All are relatively short and quite simple to understand, but as always if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

The haiku, senryu and tanka

All three of these forms are of Japanese origin, and all have very similar rules. We’ll start with the haiku, a form that many people know to be a three line poem, with five syllables, then seven syllables, then five syllables for the lines. What less people seem to be aware of is that there are more rules than this to the haiku – the haiku needs to have some sort of reference to the season, or at the very least the weather or atmosphere (often known as a kigo word), and it should include little if no verbs, instead engaging the senses with an image of nature, a single moment. As a quick example, I’m going to make something up on the spot (uh oh):

The sun shimmers on
the icy cold winter waves,
no life to be seen.  

The senryu follows the same syllabic rules of that haiku, but instead focuses more on the human nature (without that kigo word) than the physical or geographical nature. English-speakers and writers tend not to follow the syllabic conventions so strongly for this form, and overall it hasn’t been as popular as the haiku (though often the content of the two has been mixed up anyway, and the rules appropriated for different purposes). Despite this, this form was popular with the American beat poets like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.

The tanka is similar to both these forms, only with five lines and a syllable count of 5,7,5,7,7. It is becoming more popular, and there is a growing amount of websites dedicated to the tanka online, for those interested in this odd form. The other rules for this one are rather vague and lost in translation, so again it is best just to enjoy it for what it is.

Luc Bat

The luc bat is a Vietnamese poem, in which lines of six syllables alternate with lines of eight syllables (‘luc bat’ translates as ‘six eight’). The length is not fixed, but the rhyming pattern makes this a form that is easier to do than to try and explain. The sixth syllable of the first line rhymes with the sixth syllable of the next line, but the eighth syllable of that second line then rhymes with the sixth syllable of lines three and four, and the eight syllable of the fourth line rhymes with the sixth syllable of the fifth and sixth, so that each rhyme appears three times (though not always at the end of the line), until the end of the poem, where it will finish rhyming with the first line again. If this doesn’t quite make sense, look at this example below, taken from http://lonestar.texas.net/~robison/luc_bat.html :

The luc bat shows two trends.
The poem’s rhyme scheme tends to climb;
Lines alternate in time.
A six-beat line is prime; an eight-
Beat one succeeds its mate.
The form is not ornate, and yet
Does its job… Don’t forget,
To conclude this vignette, it bends.

Hopefully you can see the rhyme pattern in this poem – I have underlined one set of rhyming words to illustrate how it works. The best way to get your head around this form, as always, is to try it!

Tanaga

The tanaga consists of four seven-syllable lines, usually with a rhyme scheme of aaaa, although it has lately been changed to abab, abba, and aabb. It is a Filipino form, and is not particularly well known in English as yet – so much so that there aren’t any well known English tanagas (an opportunity for a talented poet, perhaps?), so I will simply move on and show an example, this one coming from the ever trusty Stephen Fry book, The Ode Less Travelled (I am suspecting he wrote this one):

The tanaga owes its genes
to forms from the Philippines.
To count all your words like beans
you may need adding machines. 

So there we have it, five forms from non-English speaking languages, all quite easy to master and quite fun to write.

Do you enjoy any of these forms, and will you try any you haven’t heard of before?

What are your thoughts on the language barriers – do you think these poems still work in English? Do you still enjoy them in English?

Silly Verse for Kids – a book I wish I had read as a child

I briefly mentioned Spike Milligan’s brilliant book of children’s poetry and songs, Silly Verse for Kids, in this post last week, and decided it deserved a little bit more attention, especially as it is Poetry Month still (also, I just love Spike Milligan).

Written almost half a century ago, this small book contains over thirty rhymes, all with Milligan’s own ridiculous drawings (which feature prominently in his other books too, including his war memoirs), which were written either to amuse his children, or as a result of things they had said at home. The poetry and songs aren’t particularly amazing in terms of poetic technique, but they are funny and are quite clever in terms of content, still retaining enough of a musical quality to make them fun for children (and, let’s be honest, fun for adults too – I’m twenty-five but I still enjoy reading this book).

Some of the rhymes in this book became quite famous and are still sung to children today – in particular, Spike Milligan wrote On The Ning Nang Nong, a song I grew up with, but which I only attributed to Milligan recently. There are a few others that I particularly enjoy, that I thought I’d share for a bit of fun. The first is a cute one about a Granny struggling in adverse weather, the second is making fun of the stereotypical English teeth (which as an English born man with imperfect teeth, I can appreciate), and the last is just plain silly (the third line of which goes off the page in the book…you’ll see what I mean).

Granny

Through every nook and every cranny
The wind blew in on poor old Granny;
Around her knees, into each ear
(And up her nose as well, I fear).

All through the night the wind grew worse,
It nearly made the vicar curse.
The top had fallen off the steeple
Just missing him (and other people).

It blew on man; it blew on beast.
It blew on nun; it blew on priest.
It blew the wig off Auntie Fanny –
But most of all, it blew on Granny!

Teeth

English Teeth, English Teeth!
Shining in the sun
A part of British heritage
Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!
Always having fun
Clamping down on bits of fish
And sausages half done.

English Teeth! Heroes’ Teeth!
Hear them click! and clack!
Let’s sing a song of praise to them –
Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

Failure

I’m trying to write the longest first line that poetry has ever had,
For a start that wasn’t bad,
Now here comes a longer oneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
I know I cheated:
It was the only way I could avoid being defeated. 

I know there are many other great books of children’s poetry and song out there, but this is one book that has certainly grown on me, in all its silliness. It makes me want to write similar rhymes for my children, one day, and any book that inspires one towards writing of any kind has to be worth a mention.

Have you read this book before? Who’s your favourite author of children’s rhymes (if you have one)?

And Now For Something Completely Different: Several Monty Python members write books

This may not come as much of a surprise to many, but I am, and for as long as I remember always have been, an immense fan of Monty Python. As a child I remember watching two of their movies, The Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life, over and over, loving the silliness of The Holy Grail (which to this day is my favourite film) and pretending to get the jokes in The Meaning of Life. As I hit my adult years, I discovered the other Monty Python movies, then discovered the television show they made, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and quickly digested all forty-five episodes. I even managed to find most of the albums they made (including my favourite, Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, which must be the funniest audio recording of all time).

But now I had ignited something deep within me, an insatiable hunger for more of this comedic genius. I re-watched John Cleese’s brilliant Fawlty Towers. I discovered the odd comedy Terry Jones and Michael Palin produced around the same time called Ripping Yarns. I watched the television shows the Monty Python crew had starred in before coming together. I watched movies that featured some of the pythons, such as A Fish Called Wanda and Erik The Viking. I even watched all of Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (which I must say were thoroughly enjoyable). With a little room left for dessert, it occurred to me I should look into whether any of them wrote books – in particular if any of them wrote fiction. And it turns out, some of them did.

The three books I intend to look at are the novels The Road To Mars by Eric Idle, Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin, and the non-fiction volume Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman.

The Road to Mars by Eric Idle

This bizarre novel is perhaps one of the most thought provoking and insightful books both of and about comedy I have ever read. Set vaguely in the future, it follows the story of two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby, who suddenly find all their gigs along an inter-planetary vaudeville circuit called ‘The Road To Mars’ are cancelled, for no explicable reason. Thrown into the mix are divas, mastermind terrorists, a micropaleontologist (who studies the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes) as the narrator, and my favourite character, Carlton, a robot who is attempting to decipher the essence of comedy, and why he as a robot doesn’t understand or appreciate it. It is through this last character that the novel seems to split, being partly a hilarious science fiction tale rather similar to the work of Douglas Adams (which is interesting, as Adams had cited the Pythons as being an influence on him), and partly a dissertation on comedy, coming from somebody who frankly is in a position to ponder the art of humour so philosophically. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, and would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of comedy on any level (which surely covers most people).

Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin

I have mentioned this novel briefly before on my blog, as this was a book I only got around to reading quite recently. It is a very English story, set in a small English village, mostly around a post office (I know, not exactly a setting that bounds with excitement). Martin Sproale is assistant postmaster, and is obsessed with Hemingway, but when he is beaten to the position of postmaster by an outsider, Nick Marshall, who then steals his girlfriend and brings controversial changes to the post office, much to the annoyance of the workers and villagers, Martin soon has to find inspiration to fight back, as his hero would. It sounds inspiring in a sort of humble way, and as I read it I kept expecting it to make me leap up and cheer for Martin, but I just don’t know that it did. The book ended up being a lot stranger than I had anticipated, and when I finished I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it isn’t a book I think I’ll be in a hurry to read again. Having said that, the writing was lovely and very evocative, and there were some funny moments in the story. If you’re a fan of Hemingway, or of Michael Palin, it is definitely worth a read, but it probably isn’t for everyone.

Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman (edited by Jim Yoakum)

This is an anthology containing, as the front cover states, various “sketches, essays, letters, gondolas”, but also monologues, teleplays, articles both by himself and also by others about him, and much more. Throughout them all, these pieces and fragments reveal the many sides of Chapman, from the anarchist who liked silliness for its own sake, to the man who campaigned tirelessly for gay rights, who became a qualified doctor only to walk away from medicine for comedy, and who became one of the most influential comedians of his time. The book is fascinating, intelligent, but most of all just downright hilarious – from the first page beginning with “This book is dedicated to the following apology” (which is then followed by an apology letter he wrote to a pub), through to the “What you may have missed by skimming through this book” page included at the end. I often found myself laughing to the point of being in pain while reading this, so if you are a Monty Python fan, I absolutely urge you to find this book and read it.

Have you read any of these books before, and if so, what were your opinions? Would you be interested in reading them if you haven’t yet done so? And lastly, are there any comedians you love who have written books you also enjoyed?

On Poetry – Part 5: Comic Verse – The Limerick, The Cento, and The Clerihew

We’re nearly at the halfway point for April, and thus the halfway point for the many poets participating in NaPoWriMo. I suspect many are feeling the same as I am – exhausted and deflated. Writing poetry daily under this kind of pressure can quickly turn this hobby into a chore, and I find the best thing to do in such a situation is to change the tune, to break it up a little. So, we move from the villanelles and sestinas I have discussed in previous blogs to comic forms that will remind us that poetry can be fun and simple, too.

I am going to look at three forms of comic verse – the limerick, the cento, and the clerihew – and briefly discuss what they entail, along with some fun examples, to show that these forms can be just as much fun for adults as for children.

The Limerick

The limerick has been popular for the last two centuries, and is a five line poem normally of a silly, funny or sometimes even lewd nature. Despite its simplicity, it does in fact stick to a strict rhyming pattern, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with one another. What really gives the limerick its power, however, is the rhythm, which has a bouncy feel to it using double weakly stressed syllables, and this type of rhythm is known as an anapestic rhythm. The rhythm can be demonstrated by the following pattern, where dashes are weakly stressed syllables, and the back-slashes represent emphasised syllables.

1) – / – – / – – /
2) – / – – / – – /
3) – / – – /
4) – / – – /
5) – / – – / – – /

Of course, not every limerick adheres strictly to this pattern, but you’ll find if you do it gives the poem a lot more power and buoyancy, which often adds to the comic feel you are wanting to achieve. I’m going to provide two examples for this, one by Edward Lear, and one by Spike Milligan (which is slightly off in terms of rhythm, but which still works). Particularly in the case of the Lear limerick, read it aloud to hear the rhythm we just discussed.

From Edward Lear’s Book Of Nonsense

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

There was a young soldier called Edser from Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse For Kids

There was a young soldier called Edser
When wanted was always in bed sir:
One morning at one
They fired the gun,
And Edser, in bed sir, was dead sir.

The Cento

The cento is remarkably easy to explain, and a surprisingly good way to come to terms with a particular poet and their way of writing. Why? Because the cento is made up of individual lines taken from fragments of other poetry, often all from the same poet (although you can mix them up). The result is a parody of that poet, particularly if using well-known and much loved lines, and yet, despite the parody, it can also be a form of tribute to the poet, especially if it still works well together. The example I am going to give is by Ian Patterson, and is a cento made up of lines from some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have taken this poem from Stephen Fry’s marvellous book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled.

Ian Patterson’s Shakespeare Cento

When in the chronicles of wasted time
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime
To guard the lawful reasons on they part,
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye
To change your day of youth to sullen night,
Then in the number let me pass untold
So that myself bring water for my stain,
That poor retention could not so much hold
Knowing thy heart torment me in disdain:
        O cunning love, with tears thou keep’st me blind,
                Since I left you my eye is in my mind.

The Clerihew

The Clerihew, named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley, is a four line poem non-metrically written in rhyming couplets, where the first line is a proper name with nothing added. They tend to be clumsy in feel, and are supposed to tell a biographical truth about their subject. Other than that, there’s not much to them really. I’ll include two examples, both of which are taken from Stephen Fry’s book again, and the first of which is actually his own attempt at one.

Oscar Wilde
Had his reputation defiled. 
When he was led from the dock in tears
He said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at two years.”

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

So there we have it – three forms of poetry that are a bit more fun, and a nice way to give yourself a break, particularly if you happen to be writing thirty poems in thirty days!

I would absolutely love to see people’s attempts at these forms, too, so please feel free to share (I will be sharing some more comic verse of my own soon).

Lastly, you can find Part 1 of this series, which included some of my thoughts on poetry, here, Part 2 which looked at some great poetry books here, Part 3 which looked at the villanelle here, and Part 4, focusing on the sestina, here – please do click on these links and check out these pages if you haven’t already, as there may be something that grabs your poetic interest on those posts too.

Happy reading and writing, poets, authors, readers and friends!

The Greatest Stories Ever Told – The Penguin Epics Box Set

I was watching Stephen Fry’s Planet Word on television last night (a great show if you haven’t seen it yet – especially the numerous interviews with Brian Blessed who just makes me smile and laugh by his very presence, let alone hilariously vulgar tongue), and the episode was about storytelling – on why it is important, why it is such an integral part of human existence going back to before the written word to the very beginnings of language itself, and why it will continue to be so important in the future.

After watching this, I found myself gazing at some of the books on my bookshelves, thinking about the age of some of the stories there, and I very quickly found my attention drawn to one of my favourite items on my shelves, The Penguin Epics Box Set. This amazing collection houses twenty short books containing some of the greatest stories of all time, from the five thousand year old epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, through to Homer’s story of Odysseus returning home, from the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, to the medieval tale Beowulf, and from Dante’s Descent Into Hell to The Voyages of Sindbad taken from The One Thousand And One Nights from the seventeenth century. Millennia of amazing stories that have stood the test of time are found in these books, and they are just as mesmerising today as they were within their own times.

All twenty books in order, from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to The Voyages of Sindbad. Both the English nerd and the history nerd within me become excited every time I look at this...

I will be honest and admit I haven’t read every single one of these yet, though I have read many of them (even if many of them I read a long time ago and I probably need to re-read anyway). I particularly loved The Epic of Gilgamesh, which I found very easy to visualise, and which is, in its own way, very much an epic. I have always loved any stories from ancient history, so the likes of Homer, Herodotus, Virgil and Ovid have long been in my reading lists since my earliest university days. Likewise I studied Beowulf, and read it in its entirety quite a few years ago. Many of the books here are only fragments of the full stories (The Divine Comedy by Dante is several times the length of the short section contained here, for example), so if you enjoy them there is always more to explore.

If you love stories and storytelling as much as I do (and if you’re looking at my blog, chances are you do), I would definitely recommend this box set, which is as enlightening as it is entertaining, and which really shows how much storytelling both has and hasn’t changed over all these years, providing a nice little reminder that stories themselves will never fade – they are a key part of human existence, of life itself.

Happy reading, storytellers and readers!

Love books? Love music? You might love this, too!

If there is any interest of mine which comes close to rivalling my passion for books, it’s music. I absolutely love it, and collect it even more obsessively than I do literature, which is saying a lot. Although I do have a number of books about music (which I will blog about in the future), the book I want to write about is in fact as much to do with our brains as with music, and is called This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin.

I’ve talked about neurology based books before, such as my post on The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, and even more specifically my post on a music based neurology book by Oliver Sacks called MusicophiliaDaniel Levitin was a record producer who later became a neuroscientist, and so really is a man in the perfect position to write a book about music and the brain, in an attempt to try and understand this incredible, almost transcendental, human obsession.

The book breaks down the relationship between music and the brain in a number of ways, looking at what actually makes music, to how we categorise music, how music plays on our anticipation, our expectations, and our emotions, before looking at why we like the music we like, when other people might not, and eventually onto the concept of the music instinct.

What I love with this book is that no other book I have read breaks down music in such a scientific way, and yet, although I feared this might ruin the magic of the art form, it really doesn’t. This book explains that we are naturally hard-wired for music, that we all can appreciate it and possibly even play it better than most of us think we can, and that good music can really help us overcome the greatest depths of grief and despair, as well as lift us to new heights of joy, all because it affects the same parts of our brain in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Levitin also manages to explain all of this with language that is easy to understand no matter how much or little knowledge you have of both music and the brain, making this a great book for all readers with an interest in either of these subjects.

I can’t really say much more about this book without just retelling the contents, but to cut a long story short, if you love music, I highly recommend you buy this book. It is enlightening and fascinating, and for me has only added to the awe with which I find myself drawn to music in general, highlighting just how incredible, and ultimately how necessary, music really is in our lives.

On Poetry – Part 4: The Sestina, and my love/hate relationship with this form

When it comes to reading poetry, sestinas are among some of the best poems I have ever read. But I must confess, when it comes to writing them, they really challenge me. I don’t think I have ever written a sestina I’ve been truly happy with, and I am hoping that will change some time during this month, with NaPoWriMo. But only time will tell.

In the meantime, however, I will attempt to explain how a sestina works, and show you one of my favourite sestinas, a rather clever and unusual one which actually shrinks (more on that later).

A sestina consists of 39 lines, including 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, followed by an envoi of 3 lines. All of these are unrhymed, but, and this is a big but, the same 6 words must be used to end each of the lines in the 6 stanzas, only in a changing pattern throughout the poem. This pattern is known as lexical repetition, and this is where it gets tricky. The first line of the second stanza must have the same end-word as the last line of the first stanza. The second line of the second stanza then has the same end-word as the first line of the first stanza. The third line of the second stanza ends on the same end-word as the second last line of the first stanza, the fourth line matches up with the second line of the first stanza, the fifth line with the third last line of the previous stanza, and the sixth line with the third line of the previous stanza. Make any sense? Have a look at this diagram to help clear it up a little:

This diagram above shows what lines from the previous stanza the current stanza should be taking its end-words from. The same goes for each stanza, taking from the previous stanza in the same manner, until you get to the envoi at the end which uses all six words again. If this still isn’t quite clicking into place, just stay with me – seeing it in action with the poem I’m going to use as an example might help clear this one up.

The effect of this is that the poem revolves around these six words or ideas, again moving in a circular motion as compared to the linear progression of other forms and free verse. Despite being invented in the twelfth century by a troubadour, the sestina remains popular today with poets because it accommodates conversational discourse within it so well. Everyday speech often repeats certain words, and so the sestina can seize upon this to create a poem that repeatedly questions and examines a thought or theme, in a way that the reader can relate to and understand with ease.

Now, onto the example. If you were struggling to understand how the sestina works before, read the poem below, then go back and re-read how it works, and see if you can match the way the end-words are moving around in the poem. This example is innovatively modern, cleverly shrinking the size of the lines as the poem goes on until, in the final stanza, there is only the 6 key words left.

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time 
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come-

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark – they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they comes.
They’re going to
less with time.

Time
goes
too
fast.
Come
home.

Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the quick years come
then you will, too.  Me, I’ll still be home.

So there we have it, my dodgy explanation of a form which I love and hate, and an example of a very clever way to use this form in poetry, both of which again come from the Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Strand and Boland that I so often refer to in these posts. When trying to write your own, there is a multitude of places to start. Some poets prefer to think of the six words, or themes, first, while others just prefer to dive in, write the first stanza, and then figure out what trouble they have found themselves in. Like with a lot of writing, it ultimately depends on what works for you.

I will most certainly be trying to write a sestina again during NaPoWriMo, so the question is, will any of my fellow participants (or even just other writers and poets) be willing to try their hand at this daunting but potentially rewarding form?