Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

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Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

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Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Friday Frippery! Classics Club 10th Anniversary…

…and a questionnaire

The Classics Club is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has posed us all ten questions about our experiences with the club and with classics in general…

1.  When did you join the Classics Club?

I signed up in June 2016, and took five and a half years to finish my first list of ninety books, having made several changes to the original list along the way. I started on my second list at the beginning of this year – just eighty books this time – and am racing through them in the first flush of enthusiasm that only a shiny new booklist can bring!

2.  What is the best classic book you’ve read for the club so far? Why?

All of these questions are nearly impossible to answer, and my responses would probably be different on a different day! Excluding re-reads (which therefore excludes Dickens who would otherwise always win) I think I’d have to say The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Not only was it considerably more enjoyable than I expected with a lot of humour, but it’s Scottish, and it really helped put a lot of later Scottish fiction into context for me. It has the duality and the national obsession with our love/hate (mainly hate) relationship with our Knoxian brand of Calvinism, both themes that run through much of our literature. I think of it often, which has to be a sign of a great book.

3.  What is the first classic you ever read?

The thing is, I’m relatively ancient, which means that many children’s books I read when young which are now considered classics weren’t old enough to be thought of as classics when I read them! The Narnia books, even The Hobbit, weren’t classics when I read them. Possibly The Wind in the Willows was one of the first that would have counted by my own definition of being more than fifty years old, although I’m pretty sure I read the Holmes stories when I couldn’t have been much older (though shockingly even some of the later Holmes stories wouldn’t have counted as classics when I first read them!), and also some Rider Haggard, especially King Solomon’s Mines. Little Women and its sequels. And Anne of Green Gables, of course! But which was the first? Your guess is as good as mine!

4.  Which classic book inspired you the most?

I don’t know that any have really inspired me, but I did look on Anne of Green Gables as my role model when I was a kid. You could say Dickens’ books inspired me never to become a writer – I decided very early on that I’d never write a book if I couldn’t write one as good as his. The rest is history… 😉

5.  What is the most challenging one you’ve ever read, or tried to read?

Hmm, I’m never quite sure what “challenging” means in the context of books. I’ve disliked many that I’ve read – Lolita, Moby Dick, East of Eden – and abandoned many because I hated them – Earth Abides, Cannery Row, Last Exit to Brooklyn – but I wouldn’t say any of them challenged me. Maybe Heart of Darkness – it took me three reads to really appreciate it and I certainly found the notes essential, so yes, perhaps that counts as challenging.

6.  Favourite movie adaptation of a classic? Least favourite?

That really is an impossible question! Most favourite – any Hitchcock adaptation, especially Strangers on a Train, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc., etc. So I’m going to pick Moby-Dick – I thought the book was pretty bad but the film cut out all the stuff I disliked about the book and did what the book should have done but didn’t – turned Captain Ahab’s hunt for the whale into a thrilling adventure! I loved the film! And in the same vein, I’ll pick Slaughterhouse-Five as my least favourite – it seemed to miss out most of the complexity which made the book so thought-provoking and the changes the director made to the story weakened its impact and depth. I didn’t hate the film but I wouldn’t really recommend it either.

7.  Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

The Queen in Snow White.

8.  Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

Hmm, it would be rare for me to put a book I actually expected to dislike on my reading list – so rare I can’t think of one, in fact. I read purely for pleasure so whenever I open a book I hope it will thrill me, and am disappointed if it doesn’t – as happens frequently! However sometimes my expectations are lower than others – like with Silas Marner recently which, based on my lukewarm reaction to Middlemarch, I thought might be a middling read but ended up enjoying far more than I expected to.

9.  Classic/s you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

Goodness, I don’t know! That’s far too far in the future! OK, I’ll pick one randomly from my new list and then we’ll see if I actually stick to it – Crime and Punishment!

10. Favourite memory with a classic and/or your favourite memory with The Classics Club?

Hmm, another difficult one! I remember how breathlessly I raced through The Great Gatsby the first time I read it long, long ago. I remember how much fun and laughter I had buddy-reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books with a blogging friend.

I remember how I sobbed over that bit in Little Women/Good Wives that I can’t specify since it would be a spoiler, but you all know the bit I mean! I remember how I swooned over my Darcy – and still do! And with the Classics Club? My favourite memory of it would be seeing some of my blog buddies join in with lists of their own, so that now we can all compare spin lists and exchange opinions! And seeing some of you reading some relatively unknown Scottish classics on my recommendation, and enjoying them! And the chit-chat that reviewing classics always seems to inspire.

Thanks again to all the moderators past and present who have given generously of their time to make the Classics Club the huge success it is!

Have a Classic Day! 😀

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The importance of community…

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Unjustly accused of theft, Silas Marner, his faith in God and man shattered, flees his home and church and sets himself up in a new place where he knows no one and no one knows him. Raveloe is a small rural village with a strong sense of community among the working class, who, as tradition demands, show deference to the local Squire and his feckless sons. Here Silas lives alone, plying his trade as a linen weaver and accumulating a store of gold which he carefully hides and takes out each night to lovingly count. And so his life may have continued, but that one night his hoard of gold is stolen. He is still reeling and depressed from this disaster when, a short time later, a little girl walks through his door. Silas discovers the body of the child’s mother nearby in the snow, and decides to adopt the girl, whom he calls Hephzibah, or Eppie for short.

Being one of the small minority who didn’t love Middlemarch, I began this one with a lot of hesitation – a book I felt should read rather than one I wanted to. So the pleasure of discovering that I loved it was all the greater for being unexpected. This one has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour!

It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Eliot pontificates for a while about “the poor”, in that supercilious way that suggests they are one homogenous mass, easy to categorise, define and condescend to. “The poor”, apparently, are rather stupid, highly superstitious, easily led, and would fall somewhere not far above beasts of the field in a zoological league table. Whenever one of these 19th century writers talks about “the poor”, I feel I get a better understanding of why people invented guillotines. Happily, however, once she has staked her claim to social and intellectual superiority, she moves on quite quickly, and her depiction of individual members of “the poor” is much more nuanced and insightful than this opening monologue had led me to fear.

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I also feared that Eppie might be one of these saccharin, perfect angels that infest Victorian fiction, usually shortly before they die tragically. Happily not! Eppie is wilful, naughty and refreshingly normal, and won past even my pretty strong anti-child defences. Silas’ reaction to her arrival is very well portrayed, as he sees her as a kind of redeeming gift from the God whom he felt had deserted him. Since she’s a very young child on her arrival, Silas, a man with no experience of children, has to reach out for help, forcing him to become part of the village life he had until then shunned. Perhaps he never quite regains his lost trust in man or God to the same level of naivety of his youth, but he learns to love again, and to appreciate neighbourliness and kindness and the value of community.

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The other side of the story is darker, and gives it a weight that prevents Silas’ story from being too sweet. The reader knows the identity of the dead woman, although the villagers do not, and we know why she was there that night, in a snow storm. “The poor” may get Eliot’s condescension, but she is stern on the fecklessness of those who live off the labour of others – the Squire class. Squire Cass himself is a man of pride and temper, and his sons have grown up with weak characters and a sense of entitlement that leads them into vice, each of a different kind. Eliot allows the possibility of redemption, but she intends to make her characters work for it.

George Eliot

I particularly enjoyed the occasional intervals where we eavesdrop on the men of the village, gathered of an evening in the local tavern to swap stories and exchange gossip. There’s a lot of humour in these passages, but they also give a great depiction of the social hierarchy of village life, based not so much on wealth as on age and experience, with a sense of earned wisdom being passed down through the generations. Eliot also shows how the women of the village try to ensure that motherless Eppie is given the guidance on womanly matters that Silas can’t provide.

Having been rather rude about Andrew Sachs’ narration of The Power and the Glory recently, I was delighted to find him excellent in this one. Without the distraction of “foreign” accents to contend with, he gives a full range of very good characterisations, each well suited to the social class of the character in question.

In the end, the various strands all come together satisfyingly, managing to be sweet without a surfeit of sugar. An excellent listening experience, and I’m now keen to explore more of Eliot’s work.

Audible UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

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When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

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Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

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Despite her charm and beauty and although she has had many admirers, Kitty Garstin at the age of twenty-five finds herself still unmarried and close to ending up on the shelf. The situation becomes more urgent when her younger sister makes an excellent match, and Kitty is horrified at the idea of her sister marrying first. So she accepts a proposal from a man she doesn’t love – Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who is about to take up a position in Hong Kong, (called Tching-yen in the book). Once out in the colony, Kitty falls for the easy charm of Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and they begin an affair. Kitty thinks this is true love, but for Charlie it’s merely one episode of many – his true love is his wife, despite his infidelity to her. So when Walter finds out about the affair he gives Kitty a choice – divorce him and marry Charlie, or accompany him to an area of China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It’s then that Kitty discovers Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife, and seems quite comfortable with the idea of Kitty going into China…

Although written in the third person, the book is told from Kitty’s perspective throughout, and so we only get to know as much about the other characters as she knows. This leaves Walter as rather vague, since Kitty never really understands him, not even why he should be in love with someone that he clearly sees, justifiably, as his intellectual inferior. When Walter makes his demand that she accompany him into the cholera zone, she believes that he is hoping that she will die there. And she may be right.

I found Kitty rather annoying at first, empty-headed and shallow. She never really develops a great deal of depth in her personality, but Maugham certainly creates depth in his characterization of her. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, as Kitty’s experiences first show her how empty of any meaning her life has been, and then give her the opportunity to grow. It’s also a study of the position of this class of women in that era, when a good marriage was still the ultimate sign of success and when divorce was still so scandalous that it would thrust a woman out of respectable society. Kitty has been trained and educated only to be ornamental and charming, so one can hardly blame her for her shallowness. Her role as a wife is to support her husband and to have children. Perhaps if Kitty had had a child she may not have indulged in an affair, but being the wife of a man obsessed by his work and having servants to do all the tedious work around the home leaves Kitty, and all colonial women to an extent, with very little to fill their empty days.

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First published in 1925, the book is of its age when it comes to colonial attitudes. Some of the language that Maugham uses in describing the Chinese characters and culture certainly seems offensive to modern eyes, more so, I felt, than in some other colonial writing from the same era. However, it does give an idea of how foreign and unsettling everything seems to Kitty, and as the story unfolds she shows at least a little desire to understand more about the people she finds herself living amongst. But mostly China is relegated to a beautiful and exotic background against which a very English story plays out.

There’s also a religious aspect to the book that rather puzzled me. Kitty has no belief in a God, but once in the cholera zone she begins to help out at the local convent which is caring for both cholera patients and orphans, and in her conversations with the nuns there’s a suggestion that she comes to feel that her lack of faith is part of the emptiness inside her. Yet there’s no suggestion of her converting to a life of religion. I couldn’t quite make out what Maugham was trying to say about religion – he seemed to admire the dedication and faith of the nuns without accepting the truth of their beliefs. I googled him afterwards and actually think that maybe this is a reflection of his own ambivalence – he seems to have been an atheist or agnostic of the kind who struggles with and perhaps regrets his lack of faith.

W Somerset Maugham

I loved the book for the quality of the writing and the characterization, and particularly appreciated the way he developed Kitty gradually and realistically over the course of the story. But I had two minor quibbles that just stopped it from being a five-star read for me. The first is entirely subjective and isn’t a criticism of the book – I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film before I read it and that unfortunately meant that I knew how the story was going to play out, which took away any suspense and reduced my emotional response. My second criticism is more objective – I hated the way it ended, the last few pages being filled with a kind of pretentious, breathless hyper-emotionalism that didn’t seem to match the rest of the book, nor tie in with Kitty’s character as we had come to know her. Again, it had the same kind of jumbled religious undertones that I felt had been confusing throughout, so perhaps Maugham was trying to resolve Kitty’s feelings about faith in some way in the end. But if so, I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.

Despite that, overall I found it interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable, and very well written, and it has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

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This was the People’s Choice winner for June. An excellent choice, People – well done!

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #30 – result!

It’s number…

It’s from the Scottish section…

It’s set in Sutherland…

It’s about the Highland Clearances…

Its title is a Bible quote…

It’s 160 pages…

It’s…

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The Blurb says: When she rose in the morning the house at first seemed to be the same. The sun shone through the curtains of her window. On the floor it turned to minute particles like water dancing. Nevertheless, she felt uneasy…

What had the girl said? Something about the ‘burning of houses’. They just couldn’t put people out of their houses, and then burn the houses down. No one had ever heard of that before. Not in the country…”

In this modern classic, from one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Consider the Lilies captures the thoughts and memories of an old woman who has lived all her life within the narrow confines of her community during one of the cruellest episodes of Scottish history – the Highland Clearances.

Written with compassion, in spare, simple prose, Consider the Lilies is a moving testament to the enduring qualities which enable the oppressed to triumph in defeat.

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Thanks, Spin Gods!

Classics Club Round-Up 5 – Scottish

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fifth and final…

THE SCOTTISH SECTION

As I’ve said many times, I’m ashamed of how few Scottish classics I’ve read, partly because we were mainly taught English literature in our education system and so English classics have always been my comfort zone. But this isn’t a good enough excuse to cover the several decades since I left school! So I was keen to have a Scottish section on my CC list – 20 books, some of which are well known and many others I’d never heard of, selected from various Best Of lists or from the recommendations of family and fellow bloggers. As well as reading the novels, I’ve read a little along the way about the history of Scottish fiction and its characteristics, and learned the meaning of the wonderful phrase “Caledonian antisyzygy” – “the existence of duelling polarities within one entity” or, more simply, duality or opposites – which features in different forms throughout Scottish fiction and, indeed, life: Jekyll and Hyde, good and evil twins or siblings, Highlander/Lowlander, Jacobite/Hanoverian, Protestant/Catholic, nationalist/unionist, etc., etc.

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews or, in the case of abandoned books, from my notes on Goodreads:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

Annals of the Parish by John Galt – removed from the list to make room for one I acquired and wanted to include, Marriage.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “I wonder what happened to Lewis Grassic Gibbon? Sunset Song is undoubtedly great, Cloud Howe is mediocre and dull, and this one is dreadful. Did he only write the other two to cash in on the success of the first?” Replaced by The White Bird Passes.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett – I know loads of people love Dunnett, but I hated her writing style, and gave up on this one at a very early stage. Replaced by The Silver Darlings.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – “It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.”

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – “It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Marriage by Susan Ferrier – “One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her.”

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – “Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won.”

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.”

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – “It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures . . . and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky.”

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – “…religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains.”

THE GOOD ONES

Flemington by Violet Jacob – “Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night…”

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – “As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.”

No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – “Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers…”

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn – “His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book.”

THE GREAT ONES

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – “To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.”

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – “Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.”

Catherine and Ramorny in the dungeon

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – “When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure.”

The New Road by Neil Munro – “First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general.”

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder.”

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – “The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – “…allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – “Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.”

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

THE BEST ONE

Oh, this was a tough decision! The Gowk Storm, The Master of Ballantrae, The New Road, The White Bird Passes – all wonderful books, all eminently Scottish. But my winner has to be the most Scottish of all, full of that Caledonian antisyzygy stuff! It’s a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – “The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma.”

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

* * * * *

In summary, then, too many Jacobites in the historical fiction, too many miserable drunks in the 20th century batch. But also loads of great reads and it’s been a thrill seeing a few of my fellow bloggers read some of the books I’ve loved, and mostly loving them too. I also enjoyed doing a review-along of one of the books on the list, The Silver Darlings, which surprisingly my fellow review-alongers enjoyed even more than I did. I still wouldn’t count myself as well-read in Scottish classics, but I’m better than I was!

And that, as they say, is a wrap for my first Classics Club list!

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

Book 5 of 80

You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Round-Up 4 – English

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fourth…

THE ENGLISH SECTION

When it comes to the Classics, English is my comfort zone. In my day, it was English literature we were primarily taught in school, with a sprinkling of American and almost no Scottish. The same applies to history. The result is that I understand classic English literature without having to work at it, and I understand the social, cultural and historical background. So when I pick up an English classic, I am conditioned to enjoy it, and almost always do. More objectively, I also happen to think that the English have given us some of the greatest writers and finest fiction in the history of the world.

The result of my predisposition towards classic English literature is that this section is heavily weighted towards the good and the great. This was helped by the fact that it contained several re-reads of old favourites, and included five Dickens novels. Anyone who’s visited my blog for any length of time can’t fail to be aware of my abiding love for Dickens!

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

I abandoned no books in this section. I replaced two, but only to make room for two that hadn’t been on my original list that I read along the way and wanted to add. The two that I bumped to make room would both have been re-reads, and will no doubt be re-read again some time in the future:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens was replaced by The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene was replaced by Middlemarch by George Eliot.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

No Name by William Wilkie Collins – “As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically.”

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – “Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Middlemarch by George Eliot – “A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.”

The African Queen by CS Forester – “Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.”

THE GOOD ONES

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – “…this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form.”

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – “The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror.” [I gave this one five stars at the time, but reading back over my review I feel I was too generous, so have reduced it to four for the purposes of this summary.]

Dark deeds by the river…

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore – “The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.”

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – “…as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.”

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – “And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!”

THE GREAT ONES

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – “She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!”

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – “…I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.”

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – “Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh . . . She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either!”

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – “Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!”

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – “Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!”

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard – “…Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours.”

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – “Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.”

Rebecca  by Daphne du Maurier – “The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything.”

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – “Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her.”

The Go-Between by LP Hartley – “There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged.”

THE BEST ONE

(Obviously it was always going to be a Dickens! If I’d excluded Dickens, either Tess or The Go-Between would have been my choice. Or Frankenstein…)

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – “Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…”

(Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…)

* * * * *

So a wonderful section – any nation that can produce such great literature can’t be all bad! 😉

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90
Finished!

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

Amazon UK Link

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

Family history…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Thady Quirk has lived on the estate of the Rackrent family all his life, and here sets out to tell the story of the four Rackrents who have owned the estate over that period. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Kathryn J Kirkpatrick, is nearly a third as long as the entire novella, and tells us that “Castle Rackrent has gathered a dazzling array of firsts – the first regional novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Irish novel, the first Big House novel, the first saga novel.” Whew! But the question is, is it good? And for me the answer is it’s rather underwhelming, not helped in truth by all these accolades and high-flown claims which set expectations too high.

In fact, it is a rather slight novella, taking a humorous look at the Anglo-Irish Protestants who were given land in Ireland in order to subdue the Catholic natives, but then mismanaged it through incompetence or lack of interest. The Rackrent heirs show all the fecklessness of their class, and all the different weaknesses that lead them to gradually lose their fortune and control of their estates. Spendthrifts, gamblers, drunkards – the Rackrents have one thing in common; they do nothing to improve the estate, but expect it to provide enough income to pay for their vices. We see the evils of absentee landlordism and, of course, of rack-renting – demanding extortionate rents from tenants on threat of eviction. And we see the slow downfall of the family, helped along by the manipulations of Thady’s wily son, who rises to be the estate manager and in time to help the Rackrent dynasty come to its end.

Book 4 of 80

It’s written in a form of dialect but clearly aimed at an English readership as much as Irish, so not at all difficult to read. Edgeworth has included what she calls a glossary to explain some terms and traditions which may be unfamiliar to English readers. These take the form of explanatory notes, and are interesting and quite fun, containing some anecdotes to illustrate points she raises in the novella itself.

A mildly entertaining read, then, but I feel its fame is probably mostly for all those “firsts” and for the academic analysis of what the story has to say about the period. As you can probably tell from this lacklustre review, it didn’t inspire me to lavish either praise or scorn – a couple of weeks after reading it, it has faded almost completely away.

This was the book chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #29.

Amazon UK Link

Review-Along! Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Woman, the temptress…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As she dances for the crowds in the streets of Paris, the gypsy girl known as La Esmeralda incites passion in the breasts of two men, both forbidden to love in the common way: Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, bound by vows of celibacy; and Quasimodo, the hideous creature who lives in the cathedral, condemned by his deformities to be an object of fear or pity, but never love. Esmeralda herself has formed a passion for another man, one unworthy of her love, but who will rouse the jealous fury of Frollo, setting off a chain of events that will ripple out well beyond these four central characters into the very history of Paris…

I must admit that there were points in the first half of the book where I had a deep desire to hit Hugo over the head with a brick, in the hopes that it might inspire him to stop waffling about 15th century architecture and get on with telling the story. However, it is often these digressions that linger longest, and provide us with that glimpse into the thinking of past generations which makes reading classics such a pleasure. Even as I waited impatiently to get back to Esmeralda and her lovers, I enjoyed Hugo’s detailed descriptions of how Paris developed as a city, and how it evolved between 1482, when the book is set, and 1829-31, when it was written. I found his ideas about architecture being the way societies once recorded their histories and philosophies fascinating and, despite my lowly status as a lady reader, I was intrigued and at least partially convinced by his argument that the invention of the printing press, as a new and easier way to spread ideas, would remove this important function of architecture for later generations…

Our lady readers will forgive us if we stop for a moment to look for what thought might lie hidden behind the archdeacon’s enigmatic words: “This will kill that, the book will kill the building.”

Book 3 of 80

Hugo’s love for Paris is clear, though clear-eyed too. He rants about modern architects destroying the glories of the past (thank goodness he didn’t live to see the Louvre Pyramid or the Centre Pompidou, or the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame itself), and waxes sublimely on the city as a living entity with its people as its soul.

Usually the murmur that comes from Paris in the daytime is the city speaking; at night it is the city breathing; here it is the city singing. Lend an ear then to this chorus from all the steeples, spread over the whole the murmur of half a million people, the everlasting plaint of the river, the infinite breathing of the wind, the deep and distant quartet of the four forests ranged over the hills on the horizon like immense organ cases, damp down as if in a half-tone everything too raucous and shrill in the central peal, and then say whether you know anything in the world more rich, joyful, golden, dazzling than this tumult of bells and chimes; this furnace of music; these ten thousand brazen voices singing at once in stone flutes three hundred feet high; this city transformed into an orchestra; this symphony of tempestuous sound.

This seems a good point to lavish praise on the wonderful translation by Alban Krailsheimer, who also wrote the informative and interesting introduction and notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition. He brings the prose to life, avoiding any of the clunkiness that sometimes makes translated literature such a chore, and gives full play to the humour and tragedy of the story, and to Hugo’s passion in his digressions. (He also reverts to the original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris – apparently The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an English invention.)

In the second half, Hugo finally buckles down to the task of telling the story, not a moment too soon for this reader. And what a story! Although Krailsheimer informs us that Hugo’s initial remit was to follow Sir Walter Scott’s lead into the art of historical fiction, the book reminds me more of the style that Dickens would later adopt, of making his city and his society as much a feature of the book as his characters and their individual histories. Like Dickens he is also crying out for social change, specifically on the injustices of poverty and of the use of torture and capital punishment as methods of social control, keeping the powerful in power through fear. Writing while the reverberations of the French Revolution had yet to settle and when, therefore, the future form of government in France was still unclear, his open criticism of the monarchy and the ruling classes seems courageous. While the book is set several centuries before the Revolution, it is clearly his intent to show the vast social inequalities that led to it. Does the book have a hero? I’m not sure that it does at the individual level, but I felt that Hugo’s sympathies lay with his mob – not the Revolutionary mob of the 18th century, but their historical ancestors: the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. He doesn’t sanitise them – they are shown as debauched and depraved, but within their own microcosm of society they act according to their own moral code, and provide mutual protection from the corrupt and brutal ruling class.

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

Two things surprised me most. Firstly, there’s a lot of unexpected humour amid the serious stuff, with Pierre Gringoire (apparently a real person, though I’d never heard of him) as the main comic turn who provides moments of levity to lighten the generally dark tone. I loved the whole story of Gringoire and the goat! Secondly, the way in which Hugo portrays Frollo’s battle with lust and sexual matters generally is so much more open and explicit than I’m used to in English literature of roughly the same era. Lust is seen as the driving force for all the passion in the book – Quasimodo perhaps is the exception to this, his feelings for Esmeralda perhaps more truly love, although even he is no stranger to the stirrings of sexual desire. I found it interesting that Esmeralda too was shown as a passionate being with her own physical desires – how different to the insipid sexless heroines of so much English literature. And I felt Hugo handled all this superbly – the characters and their motivations all felt true to me (and made me wonder whether Dickens’ caricaturing was a way to get round the literary repressions enforced on English authors of the time. Darcy staring at Lizzie across drawing rooms and ballrooms is about as close to lust as I can think of in classic English Victorian literature, though perhaps the success of the sensation novels suggests that the English appetite for lust was secretly just as strong as the French).

Victor Hugo

As always with these major classics, there’s far too much to discuss in a reasonable length blog post. In summary, then, after the long first half and the architectural longueurs in which he nearly lost me, Hugo won me over totally with the thrilling story and left me reeling at the end! And in the couple of weeks since I finished reading, I’ve found myself mulling over many of the issues he raised in his digressions, so that my appreciation of the whole book has continued to grow. It’s one I’d like to re-read, since knowing the outcome would lessen my impatience to get on with the story and allow me to savour all the rest in a more leisurely fashion. Heading for a paltry four stars at the halfway mark, by the wonderful end it had gained a well-deserved and brightly glowing five! (I’m even tempted now to read Les Misérables…)

I do hope my fellow Review-Alongers found as much in it to enjoy as I did. I look forward to reading their thoughts and will add links to their reviews below as I come across them. Please also check back to find out what our non-blogging friends thought, who will hopefully leave their comments on it below.

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

Amazon UK Link

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of girls from the exclusive Appleyard College boarding school are taken to nearby Hanging Rock for a picnic. When the time comes to start back, it is discovered that three of the girls and one mistress are missing and, despite much searching then and later, no clues are found as to what has happened to them…

I was until recently under a misconception about the book in that I thought it was written much earlier than it was, probably sometime in the 1920s or so. In fact it was published in 1967, and that much later date shows through in the mild air of mockery Lindsay displays about the attitudes of the late Victorians, and in her hints that the root of the mysterious disappearance may lie in the burgeoning sexuality of these girls on the cusp of womanhood – as we know, Victorian ladies didn’t have sexuality at any age, much less as schoolgirls! This meant that I was at first surprised by the tone, which was considerably lighter and with more humour at the beginning than I expected, though it gradually darkens into something quite troubling and chilling.

Book 2 of 80

Ambiguity has to be handled well if it is to avoid being simply frustrating, and it’s the excellent way Lindsay balances the information she does and doesn’t give us that makes it work so well. There are all kinds of little mysteries surrounding the larger one, blank spaces that the reader can fill in for herself, clues and hints that might mean one thing, but could just as easily mean nothing. Legend has it that Lindsay wrote a final chapter revealing all (in a woo-woo kind of way – it’s summarised on wikipedia if you’re interested) but that her publisher suggested she cut it. If this is true, what a debt the book owes to the publisher – no explanation would leave the book lingering in the mind the way it does by ending as the published version does. Apparently, there’s a lot of doubt that the missing chapter really existed though (the suggestion being that the one printed sometime in the 1980s, after Lindsay’s death, was a hoax), and I think I prefer to believe that and give the full credit for the ambiguity to Lindsay.

The disappearance is, of course, pivotal, but it’s by no means the whole story. As time passes and no trace of the girls and their teacher is found, we see a ripple effect running through the lives of the people affected. Mrs Appleyard’s school, so successful, so exclusive, is now the centre of scandal and we see how this affects Mrs Appleyard herself and the other members of staff. The English boy, or young man, who saw the girls last as they made their way up the Rock, is haunted by the beautiful face of one of them, Miranda, and by what seems like a sense of guilt that he didn’t stop them; though at the time there was no reason to do so and, anyway, English Victorian propriety would not have allowed him to address young ladies to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced. Then there are the pupils, each missing their classmates to varying degrees and confused and frightened through not knowing what has happened to them. And the police, having to face accusations of incompetence for failing to find them. All of these ripples grow larger as time passes, so that as the incident itself begins to fade into the past, the effects of it grow and, with them, an impending sense of dread.

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There are lots of other interesting side aspects that make it more complex than it at first sight appears. Lindsay shows the born Australian’s affectionately contemptuous attitude to new arrivals from England, with their strict social protocols, rigid dress code and class divisions, while the new arrivals are having to learn a new way of life, complete with scorching heat, snakes, killer insects and the vast empty landscape where place is divided from place by distances unimaginable to the inhabitants of crowded little England. Indigenous Australians aren’t visible in the story but their culture is, or at least the idea that this land is ancient and imbued with legends and a strange spirituality not understood by the incomers, and therefore threatening. The Rock itself, with its strange monoliths and hidden caves, seems to exert a power that may be physical or a psychological effect, or possibly otherworldly.

Joan Lindsay

There’s also the time of writing. The ‘60s were such a time of social change – are there hints of homosexual undertones in some of the relationships? There probably wouldn’t have been in a novel from 1900, and there almost inevitably would be in a novel from 2022, but a novel from 1967? Beautifully ambiguous again, intentional or not. Hard to read it with modern eyes and not see things that may not exist, which seems quite appropriate to the overall tone!

The writing is excellent, both in the characterisation and human interactions, and in the many passages descriptive of the natural world which Lindsay uses to add to the feeling of strangeness that the newcomers feel. It’s surprising and disappointing that she wrote so few novels and that this seems to be the only one to have remained in the public consciousness. But if you’re only going to be remembered for one novel, then this is a wonderful one to be remembered for.

This was the People’s Choice winner for April. Well done, People – great choice! 😀

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Round-Up 3 – American

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the third…

THE AMERICAN SECTION

Oh, how I struggled with the Americans! When they’re good they’re very, very good, but when they’re bad, they’re horrid! Misogyny, racism, narcissism, sex-obsession, introspection taken to tedious extremes, dreadful writing and way too much religion! Also, brilliant examinations of war, masculinity, politics and corruption, with sublime writing, intellectual depth and emotional truth. I abandoned, replaced, hated, derided, loved and lavished praise on them. In the end, the excellent ones have become some of my favourite books, and some of the dire ones gave me so much fun mocking them that I grew quite fond of them after all!

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews or notes:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West – It’s so long since I abandoned this I can’t remember why, and my note on it is somewhat succinct – “Dire!”

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – “Plotless, pointless, endless description and shallow unrealistic characterisation with more than a whiff of misogyny.”

Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper – “Ugh, this is awful! It should be subtitled ‘The Joys of Killing’.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe – Removed from list due to me developing “issues” with how early Americans treat their black characters – see below!

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – Removed because on reflection I thought it sounded horrid.

THE HORRID ONES

Horrid is, of course, a subjective term. (Except in the case of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is both subjectively and objectively horrid…)

Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald – “Fitzgerald’s self-obsessed narcissism is only part of the problem. The other part is his opinion of women…”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – “… slaves and their descendants being depicted as devoted domestic pets seems to be a theme that runs through a great deal of American fiction…”

(Am I alone in wishing Mammy had kept tightening till Scarlett croaked?)

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin – “If I wanted to be preached at I’d go to church, but not one full of religious maniacs at the extreme end of the spectrum . . .”

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. – “. . . why would I want to spend time with moronic, foul-mouthed losers? Who cares if they all kill each other? Not me.”

Rabbit, Run by John Updike – “. . . an early example of the whiny, me-me-me, self-obsessed, sex-obsessed, narcissistic bilge that too often passes for literature in these end times for Western culture. With added misogyny…”

THE BAD ONES

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain – “I’d have thought quality writing would have been an essential criterion for a book to acquire [classic] status. But apparently not.”

East of Eden by John Steinbeck – “The spell-it-out-in-case-you-miss-it religious symbolism laid on with a trowel. The women who are all victims or whores or both. The casual racism. And the misery. The misery. Oh, woe is me, the misery!”

Moby-Dick: Or the White Whale by Herman Melville – “. . . Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction . . .” [I did have fun pastiching poor Moby, though…]

(The film, on the other hand, is wonderful.)

THE MIDDLING ONES

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger – “It made me laugh – well, sorta smile, at least – several times and even made a tear spring to my eye… once. But mostly it bored me.”

THE GOOD ONES

The American by Henry James – “This was more enjoyable than I expected a James novel to be, concentrating on the contrast between the brash money-driven society of the New World and the snobbish exclusivity of the Old, with neither showing in a particularly good light.”

My Ántonia by Willa Cather – “The vastness of the landscape, the strength and courage of the pioneers, the rapid development of towns and social order are all portrayed brilliantly, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind . . .”

Passing by Nella Larsen – “none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen.”

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – “. . . it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth . . .”

THE GREAT ONES

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – “. . . a profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another.”

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – “It is of course a sympathetic depiction of the black characters, but one that jars a little now. There is no challenging of the innate superiority of whiteness here – merely an encouragement to treat ‘good’ black people better.”

(And another wonderful film…)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – “The writing is wonderfully versatile, ranging from the profanity and sexual crudeness and humour of the men’s language, to profound insights into this small microcosm of the insane world we all live in . . .”

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – “. . . it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable.”

(Poitier, Steiger, and a wonderful bluesy score by Quincy Jones – fabulous film!)

The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw – “. . . the thing I will remember most from the book is Shaw’s depiction of anti-Semitism, horrible enough when it’s coming from the Nazis, but so much worse when it’s perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be on the right side.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – “It’s a marvellously American story . . . But of course the themes resonate for those of us who live in other democracies, since all share the same fundamental weakness – that those who stand for office are as fallible and flawed as everyone else.”

THE BEST ONE

(This was an almost impossible and ultimately somewhat arbitrary choice – either The Young Lions or All the King’s Men could stand just as proudly on the winner’s podium.)

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – “One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own.”

(Haven’t watched the film – I really must!)

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

* * * * *

So I may have been waging a love/hate battle with American fiction over the last six years, but I enjoyed the fight and both America and I emerged victorious! A country that has produced the sublime writing of a Hemingway can surely be forgiven for Moby-Dick. 😉

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

Sympathy has its limits…

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Dermod Flynn lives for the first few years of his life with his family in Donegal. His parents make it clear that his main, perhaps sole, purpose in life is to go off to work to send home money to keep his parents and younger siblings from sinking further into poverty than they already are. So at a young age he is packed off “beyond the mountains” to the hiring market, where farmers hire workers on a seasonal basis. After a series of jobs, treated well in some, appallingly in others, Dermod joins a gang of workers bound for Scotland for the potato-picking season, and this begins his life as an itinerant worker, a “navvy”, in Scotland in the early days of the twentieth century.

Dermod is MacGill’s fictional representation of himself. In his foreword, he claims that most of the people he meets and most of the incidents in the book are true although he has used some licence to create a kind of plot to hold the thing together. Mostly the book is remembered (if at all) as a record of a way of life now gone, though some (oddly) praise it for its (non-existent) literary merits. Since I am already fairly well aware of the appalling conditions of itinerant Irish workers at this period and of the poverty and ill-treatment they suffered, the lack of aforesaid literary merit meant that it wasn’t worth enduring the intense dislike I developed for Dermod/MacGill for anything I might learn. I therefore abandoned it halfway through, merely flicking to the end to discover if the mawkish love story MacGill used as his plot had a happy or tragic ending. I won’t spoil it for you, in case you ever feel inspired to read the book.

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Had Dermod been truly fictional, I might have been able to tolerate him as a character. It was the knowledge that he is in fact MacGill by another name that caused me to find the book intolerable. Despite being at the bottom of the social heap, Dermod has a wonderful ability to look down on others, clearly because by disparaging them he thinks it somehow makes him look superior. I might even have found this psychology interesting or pitiable had it not been for his clear dislike of humanity as a whole, and the female half of humanity in particular. The language he uses to describe women is repellent – perhaps normal for men of that class and era, but it seemed to me indicative of a real hatred for women, especially those who had lost the physical attractiveness of youth. Here he is describing Gourock Ellen and her friend Annie – whores in their younger days but now too old for that job, they eke out a pitiful living crawling across muddy fields on their knees picking up potatoes. And yet Gourock Ellen is kind to beggars, washes Dermod’s clothes for him and generally shows a generous soul despite having nothing herself. Here’s what lovely Dermod says of her and Annie:

Nearly everyone in the squad looked upon the two women with contempt and disgust, and I must confess that I shared in the general feeling. In my sight they were loathsome and unclean. They were repulsive in appearance, loose in language, and seemingly devoid of any moral restraint or female decency. It was hard to believe that they were young children once, and that there was still unlimited goodness in their natures.

Patrick MacGill

This from a man also with nothing, also filthy from working in the fields, also viewed with contempt and disgust by those who think themselves superior to the poor. Funnily enough, he can find justifications quite easily for his own weaknesses. He gets drunk and gambles his money away because society makes him do it, not because he is “devoid of any moral restraint” and his routine unprovoked violence is apparently not an indication of any lack of “male decency”. Here he is on a night when he has been prowling round a large house, peering through a window at a dinner party in progress:

At the further end of the table a big fat woman in evening dress sat facing me, and she looked irrepressibly merry. Her low-cut frock exposed a great spread of bulging flesh stretching across from shoulder to shoulder. It was a most disgusting sight, and should have been hidden.

He throws a stone through the window, showering broken glass over those inside, and the householder lets the dog loose:

Before I reached the gate a fairly-sized black animal was at my heels, squealing as I had heard dogs in Ireland squeal when pursuing a rabbit. I turned round suddenly, fearing to get bitten in the legs, and the animal, unable to restrain his mad rush, careered past. He tried to turn round, but my boot shot out and the blow took him on the head. This was an action that he did not relish, and he hurried back to the house, whimpering all the way.

It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.

Amazon UK Link

No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

The story of the Razor King…

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Johnnie Stark is the son of a violent drunk who beats his wife so badly he nearly kills her and then dies in jail. Although Johnnie hated and feared his father, he is just like him, drunkenness and violence being the norm for the men, and often the women, living in the Gorbals in Glasgow in the depression years between the wars. This is the story of Johnnie’s rise to become the Razor King, a gang-leader and violent fighter, feared and admired in equal measure, and of his eventual fall.

The book was written by A McArthur, himself a Gorbals man, who wanted to show what life was like in the deprivation of one of the worst slum areas of Britain. The publisher Neville Spearman was interested in the story but thought it badly written, so brought in a journalist, H Kingsley Long, to work with McArthur to polish it up. It became a massive bestseller, reprinted many times over the decades. Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers, although it is in reality long out-dated and was in fact already becoming so when this book was first published in 1935. The book is also often credited with having turned things around – forcing those in authority to recognise the squalor in the slums, and the danger this represented to social order both in terms of violence and in the growth of Communism in these areas, and therefore to act to improve conditions for the slum-dwellers. Again, not quite true, though it did bring the question to a wider public. Gang violence peaked in Glasgow around 1929 and was declining somewhat by 1935, and the authors recognise this themselves in the final chapters when they talk about the changes that were already being put in place by a worried establishment, although it took many years to turn the situation, and the Gorbals, around. Although the book is specifically about the Gorbals, gang culture was a feature of the slums of most of the big urban centres of Britain at the time, making this Glaswegian a little annoyed that one book should have given Glasgow a reputation so much worse than other cities with just as serious problems.

A 1932 Weekly News article by Billy Fullerton,
head of the notorious Billy Boys gang

As a novel, it’s somewhat better than I was expecting. Again it has the reputation of not being very well written but, while it’s certainly no literary masterpiece, I found the writing quite acceptable and the dialect feels authentic throughout. It’s considerably before my time, of course, but I still recognised most of the language although there were some expressions that had disappeared by my childhood. Where the authors felt that pieces of dialect might not be comprehensible to a wider readership, they include an English translation in brackets, so despite all of the speech being in dialect it should still be accessible to most readers, I think. Overall it gave me the impression, in fact, of having been written for an outside audience rather than for Glaswegians – there is a feeling throughout of it being anthropological in style, and I couldn’t help feeling the characters were being displayed like animals in a zoo, a lower species than the likely readership, intended to amaze and terrify “decent” people.

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Johnnie’s story is one of violence throughout, but he is shown as merely being the most violent among a community where violence was the norm. Male unemployment was at record figures, and the men are shown as living off the meagre wages of their wives, drinking, whoring and fighting, while the women struggled to feed their children. There is an astonishing amount of violence towards women, and this is shown again as an accepted feature of life, with the women often admiring the violence of their men even when directed at them. Was this true? Possibly, though I felt it was (not surprisingly) a rather male view of how women viewed male violence towards them, if that makes sense. I wondered if the women were really quite so admiring, when the men weren’t around to hear them. Perhaps. (I was reminded of Their Eyes Were Watching God, about another poor and marginalised community far away, where Zora Neale Hurston also shows male violence towards women as something the women admired and even envied.) Certainly domestic violence continues to be at unacceptably high levels today in Glasgow, though to nothing like the same degree, and without the social acceptance of it shown here.

The general violence and gang-fighting I could readily believe in – I grew up just three miles from the Gorbals, though decades later than this, but the area still had a bad reputation in my time and was a place for “respectable” people to avoid. I had more of an issue with the portrayal of routine sexual promiscuity within marriages, which again is shown to be largely socially acceptable, even having its own set of rules. Call me sexist, but I easily believed in the promiscuity of the men, but had more difficulty in believing that married women openly had affairs and even children to men other than their husbands. Not because I feel the women would necessarily have been more “moral”, but because I would have expected their husbands to kill them, literally, if they’d been openly promiscuous. But again, it was before my time, and (without wishing to sound snobbish) considerably lower down the social scale than my own upbringing. However, I still have my doubts.

And now those of you of a certain age know where the inspiration
for the title song of
Taggart came from…

So the question is, would I recommend it? Hmm, not as a novel, really. But it’s certainly of interest to anyone who’d like to learn something about the slums and gangs of the era, or who would like to see the genesis of the reputation that has produced so much gang-obsessed Glaswegian fiction over the intervening decades. As a Glaswegian, it both interested me and irritated me – I don’t like people being displayed like animals in a zoo, and I don’t like how the book still adversely affects the reputation of my city, which in reality is neither significantly worse nor better than most other major urban centres. But the book is socially important in the history of Glasgow and as a record of the slums, and has influenced generations of writers for good or ill, so for those reasons I’m glad to have read it.

Amazon UK Link

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Those pesky apocalypses…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When young David Strorm meets Sophie, a little girl with a secret, he sympathises, because David has a secret too. Sophie’s secret is visible – she has six toes on each foot, and to the inhabitants of Waknuk this shows she is not a human being since all humans are created in God’s image and therefore must conform to the specifications laid down several generations ago. David’s secret is easier to conceal but even more threatening to normal humans, for David and some of the others can share their thoughts. From a young age they know this makes them different and difference is dangerous, so they learn to keep the secret among themselves. Until Petra comes along, with a talent for sending and receiving thoughts far greater than any of the others, and too young to know how to control it…

First published in 1955, the book takes its inspiration from the Cold War fears of nuclear devastation that influenced so much science fiction of that era. However, as in The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham is not so much interested in the fact of war or destruction as in the societies that may arise following an apocalyptic event.

Here we’re in Labrador, in one of the few populated areas left on Earth where only the far north and south have recovered enough from the nuclear winter to allow some kind of normal life to be resumed. A little further south are the Fringes, where mutations in plants and animals run wild, and to where mutants are exiled to fend for themselves. Further south again are the Badlands, where human life is unsustainable due to continuing nuclear pollution. In the conflict and disaster that followed a few hundred years ago, all technological knowledge was lost and the small population of remaining people have since gone back to old-fashioned methods of farming and living in small village settlements. The Bible survived, however, and faith is strong. People believe that God sent Tribulation as a punishment for sin, and are determined to root out any new signs of sin in order to appease him. Sin has come to include any form of deviation from the norm, physical or behavioural. David’s father is a staunch and harsh believer, always first to condemn sin and brutal in his insistence on driving out and destroying any kind of mutation. The basic story is of the danger in which David and the others find themselves when their secret leaks out, and the tension is in knowing whether they can find a way to survive.

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But along the way Wyndham is mulling over wider philosophical questions. What is normal, he asks, and does our humanity rest in our physical selves? Since the Bible doesn’t physically define what a man or woman should be, how can the people of Waknuk know that their definition is right? We hear of other communities, far away, from where intrepid explorers have returned with reports of people who look very different – they may be hairless, or have hair all over their bodies, the woman may have six breasts rather than two, they may be taller, or shorter – and they all think they’re “normal” too and that any other form is a deviation. Some societies don’t seem to care about mutations in their children so long as the child is viable, while others, like David’s, refuse to even accept that a newborn is human until it has been inspected and passed as meeting the specifications set down.

John Wyndham

The question of evolution is also at the heart of the book, even if evolution in this case has been triggered by a profoundly unnatural event. Through his characters Wyndham debates whether two diverging arms of a species can co-exist or whether the less evolved will always try to eradicate the more evolved through fear. I found the way he did this fascinating, although I’m not sure he intended me to feel as I did – that his characters at each level soon came to believe in their own superiority and to de-humanise anyone different from them. At first it is David’s father and his like who set out to destroy all deviations, but soon David and the other telepaths seem to believe just as firmly in their own superiority and to convince themselves that their survival justifies the killing of “normal” people. I felt Wyndham expected me to agree with David’s people on that one, but I came to see them as just as blinded and blinkered and cruel as his father. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there is another group who appear later in the book, and they also seem to consider themselves highly superior to all others and, indeed, to see those others as little better than dangerous vermin. Survival of the fittest, perhaps, but this seems like more than survival – it seems like hatred.

The introduction in my copy, by M. John Harrison, picks up on another theme which I missed but feel is valid; namely, that the book was written just at the beginning of what became known as the Generation Gap, when young people suddenly had the opportunity to get a good education, including living away from the parental home at universities and colleges, and be upwardly mobile, leaving their parents’ generation behind and often scandalised by the new moral codes the younger people were forging. Again, though, I felt this made the evolutionary theme less, not more, credible – the younger generation didn’t want to eradicate their elders and the older generation didn’t kill their deviant young (in most cases!).

On the whole I found this excellent, but perhaps not quite as coherently worked out as the earlier Triffids. Telepathy seemed a strange mutation to choose, not directly resulting from the nuclear devastation in the way Sophie’s extra toe did, and the message seemed confused between a cry for us to embrace deviations from the norm and a kind of endorsement or at least acceptance of a survival of the fittest mentality being used to justify eradication of the “other”. However, I certainly found it thought-provoking, which can only be a good thing! So long as no one out there thinks “thinking” is a sign of deviancy… 😉

Kelly and I read this as a Review-Along, so follow the link below to her review to see what she thought of it!

Kelly’s review

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Round-Up 2 – Crime

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the second…

THE CRIME SECTION

Despite my fairly eclectic reading tastes and my disgruntlement about the state of contemporary crime fiction, crime is still where my heart lies and is the genre I know best. So most of my choices were either books I’d long wanted to read, books from authors I’d enjoyed previously, books of films I love, or occasionally re-reads. The result? I thoroughly enjoyed most of the books in this section! They provided welcome breaks between the more heavyweight novels on my list.

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then:

REPLACED

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Trevor

No abandonments at all in this section, and this replacement wasn’t because I had gone off the idea of this book but because I received a review copy of another one that seemed too perfect for the challenge to overlook – The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher. I still intend to read Anatomy of a Murder at some point.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term. The quotes are from my reviews.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – “The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr – “I certainly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the impossible crime style of mystery, but less so to people who prefer the traditional whodunit.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan – “…there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax . . . I found myself nicely caught up in it.”

Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps, complete with added blonde! The film is better than the book…

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – “Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain – “Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art?”

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane – “Sexism, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and did I mention sexism? Then there’s the violence, the sex, and the guns – good grief, so many guns! The odd thing is: I quite enjoyed it!”

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – “Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome.”

Hitchcock again, and the film is brilliant! Definitely better than the book! Sadly I never got around to reviewing the film.

THE GOOD ONES

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers – “. . . Germany was growing and becoming more powerful at this time, and while Carruthers and Davies feel goodwill towards it and admire all the Kaiser is doing to advance his country, they also see it as a potential opponent in the future. There’s an odd sporting edge to this – they rather look forward to meeting Germany in war one day, as if it were some form of jousting contest fought for honour and glory. (One can’t help but hope neither of them were in Passchendaele or the Somme twelve or thirteen years later.)”

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – “This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey.”

Yep, more Hitchcock! And again, the film has the edge over the book. Have you guessed yet that I love Hitchcock?

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham – “. . . we mostly follow Geoff as he gets himself into deep peril, and Inspector Luke as he and his men try to catch up with Havoc. The tension wafts from the page in these scenes, and they are undoubtedly as thrilling as anything I’ve come across in crime fiction, old or new.”

She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac – “They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.”

The brilliant film version of She Who Was No More which sadly I never got around to reviewing.

Cop Hater by Ed McBain – “When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.”

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie – “. . . one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome.”

The wonderful Margaret Rutherford plays an unusual version of Miss Marple in Murder, She Said – loosely(!) based on 4.50 from Paddington

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carré – “There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us?”

THE BEST ONE

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher – “Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with.”

….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”

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A great section – not only did I enjoy so many of these books but they led me to spiral off into other books and authors, and over the course of the six years of the challenge classic and vintage crime has become my safe space to escape from the horrors of real life! Plus I loved watching lots of the films that have been made of some of these books. [Note to self: really must get back to doing “film of the book” comparisons.] Thanks for your company on my journey!

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Purgatory…

😦

Fourteen-year-old Johnny Grimes has been brainwashed into mental agony by his religious fanatic of a father, his religious fanatic of a mother, and all the other religious fanatics they chum around with. So much so that when, on the morning of his birthday, he does what teenage boys do, he believes that God will damn him to hell for eternity and spends the day wondering whether he should seek salvation, or go out and have fun instead. His mad dad Gabriel is not exactly an inspiring role-model – self-declared saint he may be, but that doesn’t stop him beating his wife and children, bullying everyone around him and preaching hellfire endlessly. And if Johnny thinks a bit of onanistic seed-spilling has earned him a place in Hell, wait till he works out he’s gay…

Book 87 of 90

I abandoned this one at the halfway point on the grounds that it had bored my atheist brain into a coma. If I wanted to be preached at I’d go to church, but not one full of religious maniacs at the extreme end of the spectrum, who screw up their children deliberately – most parents only do that by accident. On the rare occasion that Baldwin lets his characters reveal themselves to the reader it’s quite interesting – Aunt Florence’s story in particular is well told – and the basic premise of a child dealing with being brought up in a family of religious fanatics with a bullying, violent man at its head has a lot of potential, especially since we know it’s autobiographical; and the writing is good in parts. But unfortunately Baldwin seems to have decided to cunningly hide the interesting sections within page after page where he simply quotes the Bible or prayers or sermons ad nauseam – the kind of sermons that make my old pal John Knox look caring and cuddly. When he decided to give screeds of Gabriel’s first Revivalist sermon word for word, complete with hallelujah responses from the crowd, I decided enough was enough. In Gabriel’s world view I, as an unbeliever, will doubtless be damned to everlasting torment in the fires of Hell when I die, but I see no reason to condemn myself to purgatory in advance.

Amazon UK Link

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This was the choice for our Review-Along and I look forward to reading everyone else’s opinions. I sincerely hope (and expect) that you all enjoyed it more than I – not a high bar! 😉 I’ll add links to everyone’s reviews as I spot them, and I hope you’ll all look out for our non-blogging friends’ responses to the book in the comments section below.

Katrina’s Review

Rose’s Review

Laila’s Review

Madame Bibi Lophile’s Review

Kelly’s review

The Hollow Man (Dr Gideon Fell 6) by John Dickson Carr

Impossible…

🙂 🙂 😐

Professor Charles Grimaud is found shot to death in his room one night. The murderer couldn’t have left by the door since it was in the view of Grimaud’s secretary all through the relevant time. But the murderer also couldn’t have escaped through the window, since there had been a deep snowfall that evening, and the snow was undisturbed. It’s up to Gideon Fell to work out how the murder was done in the hope that that will also reveal whodunit. But just to complicate matters, another “impossible crime” is committed the same evening – a man is shot in an empty street in front of reliable witnesses, but the shooter is nowhere to be seen and again there is an absence of footprints in the snow.

I’ve long known that impossible crimes only interest me when they are packaged into a traditional whodunit with good characterisation, a range of suspects and plenty of motives. This would appear not to be how Carr works in the Gideon Fell stories – the emphasis is almost entirely on the way the crimes are committed, and frankly, in this one at least, the background story of why the murders were committed is a bit of a mish-mash of horror tropes and a convoluted and incredible motive backed up by a bunch of cartoonishly drawn mysterious characters. I loved his early Bencolin books, but this is my second Fell and they’re proving not to be my kind of thing, unfortunately.

Book 86 of 90

John Dickson Carr

Apparently what makes this one a classic for impossible crime aficionados is that, in the middle of the book, Carr pulls his characters right out of the story, has them admit that they are in fact characters in a book rather than real people, and then has Fell give a lecture on the history of the impossible crime mystery, including many examples, complete with spoilers, of other books in the genre. While I fully accept that this is interesting as an essay, it felt entirely out of place to me within the novel, and the spoilers annoyed me since I don’t feel that any author has the right to give spoilers in his book for the books of other authors. Therefore the very thing that many people praise this book for was the part that I liked least.

I wish I had enjoyed this more and because I enjoyed some of Carr’s earlier books so much I’m not yet ready to give up on him, so will continue to read at least a couple more of the Fell novels to see if by any chance I can get back in synch with him. I certainly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the impossible crime style of mystery, but less so to people who prefer the traditional whodunit.

Amazon UK Link