I came across The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis (1942) via an article in The New Yorker. I downloaded a copy from the Gutenberg website (Canada). It is a dry deadpan satirical tale following the efforts of Wormwood an apprentice demon and Screwtape his mentor and senior demon to capture the soul of an unnamed man (who is not tempted, but rather falls in love and is killed in an air raid). Lewis was a well-respected broadcaster and writer during WW2: he was wounded on the Somme in 1917/18. Its enduring power comes from its portrayal of a typical life, which despite temptations and failings reveals the strength of human nature. When we were kids my mother didn´t let us read Lewis – so of course we borrowed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from school friends. Perhaps she was not keen on christian apologetics.
I saw the movie the The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett (1989) and then immediately caught up with the novel (really a short albeit true story, a Graham Greene ´entertainment´). I had read some of the stories before in the London Review of Books. The screenplay is actually much better than the novel. I also re-read his more recent novella The Uncommon Reader (2007) which is a firm favourite, a gentle piece of lèse majesté. The Queen comes across a mobile library parked outside the kitchens of Buckingham Palace, and starting with Ivy Compton-Burnett moves on eventually to Marcel Proust, causing much discontent in the Palace and beyond. For republicans the ending is a treat too.
Power: A Radical View (2nd edition) by Steven Lukes (2005). This classic text was published in 1974 and updated in 2005, showing Lukes´ willingness to re-assess his ideas. Lukes describes “three faces of power”, of which – the third dimension – is about power as domination over people: “how do the powerful secure the compliance (unwilling or willing) of those they dominate?” Much of this translates into drivers of change and theory of change approaches in my own field of work.
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014) is sadly not much good. His classic novels – The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being – were written before the fall of the Czech communist regime. Since then he has rather lost his mojo. Jonathan Coe reviews Kundera´s legacy, which includes his apparent disdain for his women characters.
Kundera would fail a literary version of the Bechdel–Wallace test that asks whether a film features (a) at least two women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man.
My own bookshelves show that I would fail such a test in terms of what I buy. Most of these books are non-fiction, not that that is an excuse. I am making an effort to read more fiction written by women. One of my favourite writers has been Jenny Diski who has sadly died. I have copies of Rain Forest and Skating To Antarctica. As she wrote she lived with cancer. The London Review of Books has put all her contributions online, a lovely gesture.