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Book Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

vile bodies

Vile Bodies was the second read for my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh and again it was an absoute hoot. I know I have mentioned this several times but it was the film by Stephen Fry that made me want to read the books (and others by Waugh). Vile Bodies was originally named Bright Young Things but that phrase became much too passé and so it was renamed, although this was used by Fry in his film adaptation. It is slightly catchier after all:

 

“Ooooh what’s that shiny thing, it’s hurting my eyes.”
“Sorry, that’d be me, I’m a bright young thing. Avert your eyes lest they be burned from their sockets.”

Set in the 1920s, the book follows the progress of young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes who has the bad luck of having the manuscript of his first novel confiscated by customs on his return to Britain from France. With this disappears any hope of an advance for writing the book without which he will not be able to marry his sweetheart, Nancy Blount, as she simply could not marry a man who is poor. What follows is a series of parties and events – Adam is on the fringes of a group of young people trying to find their place in a post-Great War world, a group named by the papers as ‘Bright Young Things’. They live in a whirlwind of parties, sashaying to and fro following whatever took their fancy and not taking much heed at all of what was going on around them.

Just like in Scoop, journalists are never far from the action. It shows the beginning of the tabloids, snapping pictures at parties and writing gossip articles. There are a few very funny scenes in which Adam is writing a gossip artice and making up celebrities and inventing fashions and watching as the world talks about them as if they were real. Adam does tire of the parties, as does Nina who describes them as ‘a bore’, listing all of the various events:

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths,…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

I loved the character of Agatha Runcible as she really does sum up what the Bright Young Things were all about, and she definitely gets some of the best scenes in the book. She is always at the centre of the fun and her speech reflects her different view of the world – when she is stripped at customs it is “too shaming”, drinks are “better-making” and she merrily goes along with everything in the pursuit of fun. There is a vulnerable side to her, dealt with rather comically, that reveals how much Waugh is ridiculing the way of life of some young people at this time. Even when spending some time in hospital, Agatha is surrounded by friends from her ‘set’ who laugh, listen to music and drink cocktails with the nurses. She sums up the experience of living in the public eye:

“D’you know, all that time I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate-crashers and Archie Schwert and people like that, all shouting to us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving – and then I used to crash and wake up.”

The relationship between Adam and Nina is touching – and they clearly do care for each other quite a bit despite the game they try to play of pretending otherwise when their financial situation isn’t working out. There are many telephone conversations written down between them and I wonder if this is some commentary by Waugh on documenting something that would have otherwise been lost. Nina and Adam are so very modern and although they do send the occasional letter and telegram, they communicate mostly by telephone.

The narrative is peppered with comical dialogue, ridiculous names, farcical misunderstandings and misadventures. Everything is so over-the-top and melodramatic, and the dialogue in this book is what really stood out for me. There are moments which make it stand out from me – I loved the description of how ‘The topic of the Younger Generation spread through the company like a yawn’ – how it is something involuntary and that they feel compelled to discuss it, although much like the young ones themselves, there is an apathy about everything that they don’t have the energy to overcome.

The film poster for Bright Young Things

The film poster for Bright Young Things

Finally, a note on reading this after having watched the film Bright Young Things as usually I read the book beforehand. This was a strange experience as the film was very true to the book, dialogue and all so I felt like I knew exactly what was happening and already had a clear vision of the characters in my head. That said, I really did enjoy reading the book and the extra detail it provided – I think the book and film are quite complementary!

Have you read Vile Bodies, or even watched the film Bright Young Things? How would you compare them?

Heavenali has also written a review of Vile Bodies this month which you can read here.

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Book Review: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

ScoopAs you may have noticed by now, I am having a little bit of a month focused on one writer: Evelyn Waugh. Scoop was the first on my list and one that I found to be very funny. It is full of wit and is a comedy of errors to lose yourself in.

The novel begins with a visit by author John Courtenay Boot to lady of high society, Julia Stitch, whom he asks to convince newspaper mogul Lord Copper (of the newspaper The Beast) to hire him as a foreign correspondent in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia. The press have caught wind of a story there and of an imminent civil war – John Boot isn’t so much interested in that as running away from a woman who has become over-desirous of his attention. After a few errors and misunderstandings, the foreign editor of The Beast hires a Mr William Boot as their foreign correspondent, wines him and dines him and introduces him to the world of journalism and sends him off to Africa with a ridiculously large pile of luggage. What follows is a rather comical account of Boot getting caught up in the hunt for a story.

The main things that I enjoyed about Scoop were its wit and satire of the press. I was laughing out loud at this book as some of it is rather farcical but somehow you could quite believe that these things could have happened. William Boot is an unsuspecting journalist and falls into it – he lives a sheltered life with his family in the country and really doesn’t often venture very far. He is learning the ropes as he goes along and it is through his eyes that the reader gets to gaze in wonder at the ridiculousness of the press in their search for a scoop. He teams up with another correspondent out there who tries to show him the ropes:

‘Corker looked at him sadly. ‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.’

While all of these foreign correspondents are chasing a story, the people of Ishmaelia are benefiting from the revenue that this sudden influx of men living on expenses brings – hotels are doing the best business they’ve ever done and office workers are taking time off their jobs to be runners for the journalists, charging them extortionate fees of course. And the politicians are having a rare time playing the journalists off one another and sending them on wild goose chases which make for some hilarious scenes!

The bits featuring the foreign editor Mr Salter and his boss Lord Copper were very funny, as they constantly misunderstand each other, accidentally on Lord Cropper’s side and willfully on Mr Salter’s. I love this little anecdote which really sums up their relationship:

‘Mr Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, ‘Definitely, Lord Cropper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point.’
‘Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?’
‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’
‘And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’
‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’

I think I might borrow ‘Up to a point’ for future use!

The press aren’t averse to making up stories, or adding a little ‘colour’ as they describe it. There is even an incident where a member of the press describes a Russian spy arriving by train to the capital of Ishmaelia. It turns out the man is actually a ticket collector and not Russian at all – however, instead of retracting this story, the journalists let the public continue to believe so as not to shake their belief in the press. It makes me very wary of believing anything I read in the papers as you just never know!

One downside for me was that there are some parts of the dialogue and even the narrative that can be a little racist in their word choice and comments that grated on me a little but I had to remind myself of the time this was written, back in 1939. Aside from that I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading more!

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March Reading Round-Up & April Preview

March Books

March wasn’t a particularly busy reading month but I did read some really good books and ones that were quite different from each other too. I think my favourite book this month has been The Search by Geoff Dyer as I got really drawn into it.

Books from March are:
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Search by Geoff Dyer
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I also published a review of The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins which I read back in November last year.

I’m really happy with my blogging this month as I feel like I am finally getting the hang of it and being a little more consistent in putting up reviews soon after I’ve read a book. It’s taken me a while to get to this stage and I find that I am enjoying it more and more. I started a new Wish List page where I aim to put links to reviews that have inspired me to read something that I hadn’t heard of or just hadn’t fancied before. So far I have Life After Life by Kate Atkinson on there which I will hopefully get my hands on soon!

April Books

I’m really looking forward to what’s in store in April as I have embarked upon something a little different by reading several books by Evelyn Waugh all in one month. I started reading Scoop yesterday which I’m already finding very funny, and after that I’ll be reading Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust. Another of Waugh’s books, The Loved One was recommended to me by Fleur Fisher of the Fleur Fisher in her world books blog – I don’t have a copy but I’m planning to borrow one from my local library and add it to my list. If I have time, I may even re-read Brideshead Revisited! I might try and catch up on a few Waugh films too – I’ve seen the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited but didn’t rate it highly and I’ve heard the TV series with Jeremy Irons from the ’80s is far superior so I’ll see if I can find that. The film version of A Handful of Dust has also been recommended to me so I’ll try and track that down, as well as watching Bright Young Things after I have read Vile Bodies (the book on which the film was based).

Finally, I have also looked out Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck to re-read as I was reminded of it so much when reading The Cone-Gatherers and fancied reading it again. So I have a busy month ahead of me and potentially 6 books to get through – looking forward to it!

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Evelyn Waugh Month: Scoop

This month I am embarking on something a little different in my reading choices and reading several books by Evelyn Waugh in one month. The first of these will be Scoop which was described by the Observer as ‘The funniest novel ever written about journalism’. The blurb on the back:

Scoop

‘Lord Copper, newspaper magnate and proprietor of the Daily Beast, has always prided himself on his intuitive flair for spotting ace reporters. That is not to say he has not made the odd blunder, however, and may in a moment of weakness make another. Acting on a dinner-party tip from Mrs Algernon Stitch, he feels convinced that he has hit on just the chap to cover a promising little war in the African Republic of Ishmaelia. One of Waugh’s most exuberant comedies, Scoop is a brilliantly irreverent satire of Fleet Street and its hectic pursuit of hot news.’

I’m really looking forward to this and hope that it will be funny and full of salacious tales about life as a hack. I expect my review to be up by the end of the week. If anyone fancies reading Scoop this week too, or any other books by Evelyn Waugh, do let me know – it would be lovely to do a bit of a read-along!

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Evelyn Waugh Month

This coming April, I have decided to give myself a challenge to read three Evelyn Waugh books in a month as there were quite a few of his books I wanted to read. I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago and just loved it, and I have to admit that I was also inspired by Stephen Fry’s wonderful film Bright Young Things which was inspired by Waugh’s Vile Bodies. If you fancy joining in at all please do let me know!

The three that I have on my shelves are:

Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust

Scoop

I plan to start with Scoop and will be reading this in the first week of April if anyone is up for a read-a-long. I’m also happy to take suggestions if there are any other books by Evelyn Waugh you think I should be reading.

P.S. Isn’t the incredibly writerly photo of Evelyn Waugh just exactly what you would expect of him?

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Reading Plans for 2013

What my reading looks like for this year so far...

What my reading looks like for this year so far…

I tried the structured approach last year, with my reading list. Although I think that was useful as it brought together some of the books I had been wanting to read for some time, I think this year I will be reading more on whim. There are always interesting books that pop up throughout the year so the list of books I want to read grows and grows. I have already finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which was just brilliant and I only first caught wind of it a couple of months ago. It was a book club pick so I’ll wait until after then to discuss it more and leave you hanging on…

I will be working my way through my bookshelves as they stand at the moment. From this, two portions of planned reading have emerged, thanks to a little pre-Christmas indulgence when Penguin were doing their 50% discount deal.

The first of these two will be a burst of classics. I really like the Penguin English Library covers and I used it as an excuse to buy some classics I hadn’t read. I’ll be starting this in mid-January, finishing (hopefully!) by the end of February. The books on the list are stellar, and I am a little ashamed to say that I have never read them:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I know, I know, I hang my head – a young woman who loves Kate Bush and hasn’t even read Wuthering Heights?! I did start it when I was younger but didn’t get very far… This will be duly rectified soon and I cannot wait – I want to see what all the fuss is about! The 28th of January sees the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice so I will be reading that after finishing off my current read, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

The next planned reading session is an Evelyn Waugh month. I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago and really loved it, and since seeing Stephen Fry’s film Bright Young Things I have been keen to read Vile Bodies as that’s what it is based on. Again, these were picked up for a steal from Penguin. There are three to read and I may try and make a little event out of this – I’m pencilling this in for April at the moment but this may change. The books I’ll be reading by Waugh will be:

Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust
Scoop

I quite like the idea of small, focused challenges to get stuck into as I think they’ll also make me more focused in my blogging. Time will tell! If you fancy reading some of these books along with me then do let me know – the more the merrier.

Oh, and all the best for 2013!

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