05 January 2011

Book Review: The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff

Grr!

I was 80% finished with a pretty good (and lengthy) review of the The Hopkins Manuscript when I lost my data. I did one of those too quick keystroke combos that highlighted all my text and then wrote over everything as I unknowingly went on to type another word. In a second poof, gone. And not a damn "undo" button in site.

Sigh.

I had been intrigued by The Hopkins Manuscript from the moment I looked at my first Persephone catalogue. But for some reason I didn't order it when I chose my first twelve Persephones. I think I wanted everything in those first books to be jam and Jerusalem, and there didn't seem like there would be much cozy in a dystopian novel about the end of the world. I realize now that I was wrong on a few counts. Not only is there a certain coziness to much of the book, but the cataclysm of the moon crashing into Earth takes, rather perfectly in many ways, the thematic place of World War II - something common to many other Persephone titles. Indeed the fact that The Hopkins Manuscript was published in 1939 means that Sheriff could have only been aware of the rumblings leading up to WWII. Yet much of this survival tale seems prescient, and the accompanying highs and lows of human nature depicted could just as easily be applied to the WWII experience in Britain.

As a member of the British Lunar Society, our hero, champion chicken breeder Edgar Hopkins, learns months ahead of the general population that the moon has slipped its moorings and is headed toward Earth with ever increasing speed. What follows in the months that Edgar must keep the secret is an interesting, if somewhat odd, exploration of Edgar coming to terms with his final seven months on Earth. I have been trying to figure out how to describe Edgar. The word 'prig' comes to mind. A retired bachelor drawn very much like the stereotypical female spinster. Generally capable and content but with a deep well of loneliness and much too worried about the small stuff in life. Jodie at Book Gazing does an excellent job summing up Edgar:
He is a man obsessed with niggles, who inflates the importance of the smallest insult or honour to incredible proportions. He is rather petty and although he sometimes realises how ridiculous his behaviour is after the fact, he always finds some way to justify his thoughts to himself. He will probably remind readers of the phrase ‘a bit of a stuffed shirt’ and is a harmless character, though sometimes his thoughts tip over into small, spiteful ideas that have a little too much righteous conviction behind them.

Some of the 1930s-era content can seem naive given the rather breathtaking scientific leaps of the past 80 years, but this doesn't really diminish the novel's ability to draw the reader in. During the few days I was reading this book, there were times when I noticed something about the sun or the moon and thought of it in the context of the The Hopkins Manuscript before remembering that it was not really true. It is also the case that knowing the general plot (moon crashes into earth) does not diminish the book's suspense in any way. There is so much to learn about how and when and why and what happens next that it is hard to put the book down until you know all.

The book is also filled with many poignant moments of individuals and society coming to terms with the end of the world. It really made me think a lot what I would do in the same situation. Different than knowing that I might die from a terminal illness, but the possibility that humankind may perish from Earth or the entire planet itself may disappear into a million little pieces. And appropriate for many of us, what does one choose to read with only limited time left? Edgar first finds out the world has seven months left. What do you do with your TBR pile when you put it in those terms? What about your final hours on earth? You are healthy, mind as good as it ever was. What do you choose then?
I went to my bookcase. My hands moved instinctively away from the classics - the heavy books of history and philosophy that have helped me through unhappy times in days gone by. Instinctively I went to an obscure, untidy row of books in the corner of the lowest shelf: the oldest friends in my library - the treasures of my boyhood.

For as much as most of us love to read, we probably have other things we would rather do, people we would want to spend time with. But assume for one minute that you have said your goodbyes and have chosen to be alone when the end came. Are you calm enough to read? Do you obsess over what the end might be like? Do you want to think about happy times? About regrets?  Let's say you want to read. Do you choose and old favorite? Do you try something new? Will it be Jonathan Franzen or the Booker short list or something like that? Will it be the eternal truths of poetry? A picture book? People magazine?

It kind of boggles the mind doesn't it? So tell me what you think. As the world comes to an end and you sit in your comfy chair just waiting, what would be the last book you choose to read? [1/7/11 update: After reading the comments on this post I realized that my question is not as grammatically clear as it should be. I makes it sound like "well that is the last book I would ever read..." Let's try this instead: As the world comes to an end and you sit in your comfy chair just waiting, what would your first choice be for the last book you would ever read? Slightly better.]

(Let's also pretend like you have made your peace with your god, so please no holy books...okay, you can say "The Bible" or similar, but then please follow it up with something else...you aren't running for office after all...)

15 comments:

  1. Either The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien or Moby Dick or Love in the Time of Cholera.

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  2. The last book I would want to read would be Ulysses or something like The Children's Book that would be even more tedious second time around that I would be willing the end of the world; I probably wouldn't be seeking out dystopian fiction either (despite loving it so ardently).
    Instead I would plump for something conforting and also something amusing - just like any reading slump, I would more than likely choose Jane Austen or Terry Pratchett.

    This is not a Persephone I own but I like the idea if combining two of my favourite genres: cosy and dystopia.

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  3. I'd want to reread Anne Tyler. Either Searching for Caleb (my first Tyler from my freshman year of college) or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. As Pearl Tull realizes: "dying, you don't get to see how it all turns out. Questions you have asked will go unanswered forever."

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  4. I would want to face the end with a smile on my face so either Excellent Women by Barbara Pym or Cold Comfort Farm. I loved The Hopkins Manuscript. I read most of it on a stormy afternoon & the thunder really added to the atmosphere.

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  5. Prig is a good word for him, for sure :) What I liked was that Sherriff found so much time to be compassionate for Edgar, to allow him to express himself without pretentions at times in order to make the reader care about him. Interested about your comments on the stereotypical picture of a female spinster - can't help wondering if I'd feel so easily kindly towards a female character of Edgar's kind/if an author would spend so much time helping the reader come to like that character even if they find them rather exasperating. Agatha Raisin comes to mind immediately...

    I agree with Paperback Reader that I'd want some Pratchett in my last hours, probably Small Gods - he would give me the courage and humour to face whatever might be coming. Or I might return to the last Hitchhiker's Guide book, although that might depress me a bit (more than the end of the world?).

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  6. Thats a tough question to answer. I can't make up my mind.

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  7. This was my last Persephone to read and I left it til last as it was sci fi and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
    As to what I'd read in my last moments, probably a comforting children's book or else a really gripping Daphne Du Maurier to take my mind off things (Unless there was something I desperately wanted to read from my TBR - imagine dying with a huge tbr!)

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  8. Frustrating that you lost your work. Blogger doesn't have an undo button but in the past Ctrl+Z has worked for me. At least worth a shot if it ever happens again!

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  9. What an interesting question and thanks for telling me about this book! I would also choose an "old friend", maybe an Austen or Wuthering Heights, or an unputdownable murder mystery with some redeemingly good character in it, like Michael Connelly.

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  10. Kiss a Cloud: For me reading Moby Dick would feel like the end of the world. I have never been able to get into that book.

    Claire: Your response makes me realize that my question was poorly worded. I am going to go back and change that. I think you would like The Hopkins Manuscript.

    SFP: I love that quote. I would hope that in the case of living into old age, one perhaps comes to terms with the fact that we won't ever know everything we want to know?

    Lyn: That atmosphere would have been cool for reading the book.

    Jodie: You know I have never read any Pratchett...

    Mystica: It is a tough question.

    Verity: I think we will all die with a huge TBR.

    Fahreen: Good choice. The flashback nature of the novel seems appropos for the end.

    Kerry: Control Z. I must try that.

    Julia: I think I would probably choose and old friend as well.

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  11. Well I was the only one who read it that way (and I couldn't understand why!) but now it makes sense; my answers still apply.

    Have you read The Blank Wall? Another less-obvious Persephone that still manages to fit into their ethos.

    I recommend reading Nation by Terry Pratchett. It is non-Discworld and also YA/cross-over, which may convince you that the target audience for such to do not all have lilac unicorns posted on our walls.

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  12. I think mine might be select passages from Jane Eyre. But Thomas, what would YOUR last read be? Do enlighten us!

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  13. I would read Jane Eyre. It's long enough and lovely enough to absorb my attention for several hours and hopefully I would be so engrossed that I'd forget to panic that my life was ending!

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  14. Claire: I haven't read The Blank Wall. I need to go look at which one that is.

    Read the Book: I am not sure what I would choose. It definitely wouldn't be something new. Can you imagine taking your chances on a book that is new to you and finding out too late that you don't like it? I might have to do a post specifically about this.

    Rachel: It has been so long since I read Jane Eyre. I think I may need to revisit it.

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