Luckily for Seniors, who do not like new things or change in general, there have been no really good books written since To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Oh yes, Publishers talk a good game and we have had everyone from Joan Didion to Zadie Smith thrust at us over the years, but let’s stop kidding ourselves. Don’t tell Jonathan Franzen, but the gig is up.
(Yes, we know some people say Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace was a truly great book, but as no human has ever finished it, nobody is really qualified to say. In a related matter, the police are still not sure if Mr Wallace’s death was a suicide or not; he did leave a note, but they have only made it up to page 273 and are finding it pretty heavy going.)
The following authors and books may be safely read or reread with enjoyment by all Seniors. But get on with it, you are not getting younger.
Dickens was a genius who wrote episodically, which was amazing considering that TV wasn’t even invented back then. Starting with The Pickwick Papers, he would churn out the chapters at an alarming rate which would then be published in monthly instalments and read by the waiting public. Often the public couldn’t wait and would stand over his shoulder in long lines to get a glimpse of what Pip was doing to Mr Micawber this week or vice versa.
This infuriated Dickens’s rivals like Thackeray, who accused Dickens of being a ‘Populist’; unlike Thackeray, who preferred to be an ‘Unpopulist’ and largely succeeded apart from Vanity Fair. With the exception of a distracting tendency to give his characters names like Mrs Tizzyfuzzwinkle and Mr Croppboppit, Dickens’s work holds up wonderfully well and his books are so long that most Seniors will have forgotten at least 50% of them before and after reading, which makes them most economical.
Highly Recommended: Great Expectations. The best one. Pip, Estella, Herbert Pocket, Magwitch and the marvellously macabre Miss Havisham, still wearing her wedding dress at the age of 70. (What a show-off. Yes, it is impressive she can still fit into it, but a lot of us have other things to do than sit-ups and brooding over being jilted at the altar. Not a lot of jilting goes on at the altar these days, most grooms preferring to jilt via text after having met a stripper who really understands them at the Bachelor Party.)
Approach With Caution: Bleak House. It is not called Cheerful House for a reason. Brilliant but a bit depressing, which is unusual for Dickens who preferred to keep things upbeat. Even when Bill was beating the hell out of Nancy in Oliver Twist he would often whistle ‘Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ to keep the mood balanced.
Unavoidable: A Christmas Carol. There is simply no way to miss seeing at least eight adaptations of this story every yuletide. It is no good saying ‘Bah Humbug’, you will end up watching every single Scrooge from Alastair Sim to Albert Finney and the surprisingly great Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol. (We are not surprised that Michael Caine was great, he always is, it’s just that is extremely hard to act seriously opposite Gonzo the Great and Miss Piggy. Sir John Gielgud tried it once in an ill-conceived production of The Muppet of Venice and ended up trying to throttle Fozzie Bear during his ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, wokka wokka’ speech.)
A superb writer, Jane Austen wrote all her novels in Bath, which must have meant her fingers got really pruney, but at least she was clean. So are her novels, which are safe to be studied at any high school. Austen’s novels presented the world in ‘a microcosm’, which meant she rarely left the village and all her plots were the same.
This is an exaggeration, of course; in Emma, a strong-willed but too proud young woman realises she has made errors of the heart and marries nice Mr Knightley. Whereas in Pride and Prejudice, a strong-willed but too proud young woman realises she has made errors of the heart and marries the secretly nice Mr Darcy. These stand in marked contrast to Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, where she was persuaded by her publisher to change the plot slightly by having the too proud young woman take seven whole years before she gives up and marries the nice Commander Wentworth.
Highly Recommended: Pride and Prejudice. A masterpiece. Benjamin Disraeli read this novel over 17 times. Presumably on purpose, we know the plots are similar, but Disraeli was no dum- dum and would realise that this wasn’t Emma by at least Chapter Four. Although a wonderful book, one wonders about the harm it has done to the romantic life of many young women who wrongly believe that haughty, ill-tempered young men are their Mr Darcy, whose heart and true nature shall be revealed in due course. As Senior Ladies know, most young men like that are just rude bastards and the only thing revealed in due course is that they were secretly working their way through all your girlfriends. Jane Austen remained single her whole life; smart girl.
Approach with Caution: Mansfield Park. This is known in literary circles as Austen’s ‘problem novel’, the problem being that the heroine of the book, Fanny Price, is such a miserable pill. Yes, there are lots of long metaphorical walks around walled gardens and the characters put on a play at great length, also metaphorical, but you secretly root for the villain of the novel, Miss Mary Crawford, who is great fun and does not spend her entire time lighting metaphorical fires like Fanny does every two chapters. 6/10 Austen, see me afterwards.
There were at least three of them and Branwell used to dress up occasionally ‘for fun’ so let us put him down as a provisional fourth. The famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Zeppo, all lived together on the windswept Yorkshire moors, although Emily would sweep the moors with a broom occasionally if brooding visitors were expected. An exceptionally close and competitive family, each sister was expected to complete at least one masterpiece before they were even allowed to get tuberculosis by their father.
Highly Recommended: Jane Eyre. Not to be confused with Jane Austen, this is the Jane that actually got married, to Mr Rochester in this case. No, no spoiler alert, this book is 200 years old and you are approaching the century at an alarming pace yourself. Mr Rochester’s first wife was mad and kept in the attic so that Mr Rochester could brood in peace and gradually fall in love with the Help, which did help with the brooding but made his wife even crosser.
Jane Eyre is a fever dream masterpiece, an astonishing feat of imagination and tragic memoir, but this does not change the fact that Jane was a homewrecker. We have our eye on you, Eyre, and do not be surprised if that love-rat Rochester tries to lock you up in the attic when your looks go, too.
Also Highly Recommended: Wuthering Heights. Also terrific, also features a dark, brooding hero who stalks the Moors called Heathcliff. The Brontë girls certainly had a type, didn’t they? Perhaps if there was a little less broody stalking across windswept moors and a bit more staying in with a nice cup of tea and a sensible cardigan, at least one of them might have made it to pension age.
Anyway, the book has a happy ending when Kate Bush reads it and makes that peculiar video where she twirls unsteadily about in red taffeta looking like a ballerina with balance problems. Like tuberculosis, the song is very catchy, although we doubt Ms Bush ponied up any royalties to Branwell or whichever Brontë was left by this point.
Approach with Caution: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Look, it’s fine, but it’s an Epistolary Novel, which basically means that the author can’t be bothered with prose and does the whole thing with a series of suspiciously long letters. Jane Austen got away with this in Sense and Sensibility, but it is tougher sledding here and switches to diaries halfway through, which is even worse. If the Brontës were The Beatles, Anne was clearly the George of the group. This is the literary equivalent of one of those ponderous Indian songs that you would skip over so you could get to ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. We advise the same here.
Although his name sounded like inappropriately familiar advice for the wedding night, Rider Haggard wrote extremely well in a ‘Boys’ Own Adventure’ Style for Grown-Ups. In real life, Rider Haggard was a real adventurer and barrister (a rare combination indeed, most barristers regard selecting the Coconut Slice for morning tea as enough adventure for a whole week).
In his spare time Rider Haggard personally started the Boer War, in the hope of giving himself more material, which was a mistake as the whole war turned out to be a bore, except for Breaker Morant shooting prisoners while reciting poetry.
Highly Recommended: King Solomon’s Mines, a roaring adventure which has been ripped off by Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and every single film where somebody pauses and says, ‘Listen… the drums have stopped ’. (With the exception of ‘Let It Be’ where the drums stopped all the time because Paul and George kept arguing.)
The hero of King Solomon’s Mines is Allan Quatermain (think Clint Eastwood but less femme), who follows a mysterious Secret Map to search for – as the title might slightly give away – King Solomon’s Mines. Personally, we don’t recall King Solomon as being much into mining from Sunday School; he was more concerned with telling two women they could cut their baby in half. (They didn’t, it was a trick. The real mother was revealed when she broke down and begged King Solomon to put the child into day care because she needed some sleep.)
Also Recommended: She, another African adventure featuring the very sexy and mad Queen Ayesha or ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed ’ (yes, that’s where it is from, not Rumpole). Rider Haggard was offered 100 pounds for the copyright for She but chose a 10% royalty instead. As the novel went on to sell, and yes this figure is right, 83 million copies in the next 75 years, we and Rider Haggard’s incredibly wealthy heirs feel he made the right call.
Among the people who read She were both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who theorised a lot about women on the basis of this sexually sadistic fictional character. So did we, but we kept that sort of thing to ourselves and did not do it in front of patients.
The most famous writer of ‘The Jazz Age’, although he wrote no Jazz whatsoever, unless you count ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’, which we don’t, because Fats Waller wrote that. A handsome and charming fellow who was born into wealth and glamour, Scott Fitzgerald became a brilliant worldwide success after the publication of his first novel while he was still at Princeton. Naturally, he reacted to this ceaseless good fortune by slowly drinking himself to death.
Many people blame this rather odd reaction on his choice of wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, but then again she did have the same last name as him, so some kind of kismet seems to have been at work. Zelda was a very beautiful and talented flapper but she was also bonkers; she bonkered Ernest Hemingway amongst others, and spent most of her time either in a Loony Bin or being rather cruelly caricatured in her husband’s novels; for instance in the…
Highly Recommended: The Great Gatsby. Like most of Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, this book is about extremely rich people who, despite having everything, drink a lot and are miserable. (Wherever did he get his ideas from?) Jay Gatsby, the mysterious tragic hero of the novel, is a man desperately trying to repeat the past, which is also the business model for many channels on Foxtel. Jay says ‘Old Sport’ quite a lot, is obsessed with Zeld… we mean Daisy, his old love, and also throws giant, really cool parties that are supposed to be spiritually empty but sound like a lot of fun and we would definitely go if invited, Old Sport.
A wonderful novel that is also wonderfully short, The Great Gatsby is beloved by high school students for its lack of length, clear themes, obvious symbolism and a choice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford for those who give up and decide to rent it instead.
Approach with Caution: The Last Tycoon. This was Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, unfinished because he kept deciding to finish a bottle of gin instead. Although people keep pretending that the ending would have been a humdinger, the two-thirds that is there is not terribly interesting.
What is interesting is that while writing this book, F. Scott and his latest gal pal would amuse themselves of an evening by going out onto their balcony and listening to the married couple next door fight. The wife was a very funny and sarcastic young actress, the husband was a very handsome and unfaithful young singer. That couple were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and many years later they turned this bickering into ten seasons of I Love Lucy. Told you it was interesting.
A record-breaking conquest of all 14 of the world’s 8,000m ‘Death Zone’ peaks in 7 months: Nirmal (‘Nims’) Purja tells his remarkable story.