The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

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Undine Spragg has been spoiled by her pathetic parents to the point of becoming barely functional as a human being. Greedy, shallow, brain-dead, common as muck, amazingly men fall for her because she has red hair. Because, let’s face it, the men are all shallow and brain-dead too, though far too classy to be greedy or common. No, the men are quite contented to amble pointlessly through life, living off the wealth of their relatives. Undine always wants something she can’t have – baubles, mainly, and bangles and beads. And admiration. And when she can’t have it she throws a tantrum because she has the mental capacity of a not very bright two-year-old. Surprisingly this behaviour appears to work, and people give her whatever she wants simply to shut her up, much in the way a stressed mother might shove a dummy in the mouth of a screaming child. And yet men love her…

This dismal, tedious tome is touted as a brilliant satire of American high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Brilliant” is a subjective term, so I’ll confine myself to subjectively disagreeing, wholeheartedly. “Satire”, however, has a specific meaning…

Satire: A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with the book is that there is no humour in it, no irony, not much exaggeration that I could see, and the very occasional attempt at ridicule doesn’t come off because they’re all such tedious people – not even worthy of ridicule. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is a brilliantly drawn central figure in a satire, because she is witty, intelligent, manipulative and determined, and because she starts with nothing, making the reader have more sympathy for her than for the immoral, feckless snobs she makes her victims. Undine, on the other hand is dull, stupid and talentless, and comes from a background where her every whim has been met. Why would anyone sympathise with her?

Becky’s victims are indeed exaggerated, often to the point of caricature. Who can forget the awfulness of miserly, lascivious Sir Pitt the elder, or the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Sir Pitt the younger, or the gullible vanity of poor Jos Sedley? Simpering, snivelling Amelia is the Victorian heroine taken to extremes, and Thackeray’s demolition of the reader’s initial sympathy for her is masterly. And so on.

Undine’s victims are typical, unexaggerated society wastrels, living on inherited wealth and contributing nothing of either good or ill to the society they infest. They are dull in themselves, and therefore dull for the reader to spend time with. Can one ridicule someone with no outstanding characteristics? I guess it’s possible, but there are few signs of it happening here. Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

Edith Wharton

I seriously considered abandoning the book halfway through on the grounds that I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom. But I decided to struggle on in the hope that perhaps there would be a whole marvellous cast of caricatured eccentrics waiting on the later pages, and maybe Undine would become deliciously wicked rather than depressingly selfish, and all the humour might have been saved for the later chapters. But sadly not, despite her following Becky Sharp’s career closely. Remarkably closely, actually, up to the very latter stages, which is why I have chosen to compare the books. I think the major difference is Becky enjoyed her life, so we enjoyed it with her, and despite her treatment of them she brought some fun and excitement into the lives of her victims – Undine is miserable pretty much all the time, empty and miserable, and she brings nothing but emptiness and misery into anyone’s life, including this reader’s. She sure ain’t no Becky Sharp, though it felt clear to me from the plagiarising mirroring of the plot that Wharton intended her to be.

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This was the People’s Choice winner for May – sorry, People! Never mind – it’s the first loser this year, and next month’s looks great… 😀

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Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

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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!

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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!

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

Woman, the temptress…

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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.”

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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

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Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

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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.

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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

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Those pesky apocalypses…

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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

The Classics Club Spin #29

Rien ne va plus…

The Classics Club is holding its 29th Spin, and my 12th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 20th March. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 30th April, 2022.

I’ve finally finished reading all the books on my first CC list though I still have a couple to review. So this is the first spin using my new list and all these books look shiny and exciting – no dust or cobwebs draped over them yet! However I’m also reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame for our Review-Along in April, so I’ve picked 20 of the shortest books on my list. I’m seriously hoping one of the light genre books comes up, so no doubt those mocking CC Gods will find a heavyweight, misery-laden tome lurking somewhere on my list…

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The Scottish Section

1)   John Macnab by John Buchan

2)   The Shipbuilders by George Blake

3)   Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi

4)   Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway

5)   A Song of Sixpence by AJ Cronin

The English Section

6)   She by H Rider Haggard

7)   The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

8)   Howard’s End by EM Forster

9)   Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

10) The Third Man by Graham Greene

The Foreign Section

11) Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

12) Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

13) A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

14) The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

15) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Genre Section

16) Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

17) The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

18) Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

19) Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson

20) In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes

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Which one would you like to see win?

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

A true mid-twentieth century American hero…

🤬

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was once a local hero for his prowess in college basketball. Now he demonstrates kitchen gadgets in five and dime stores, and fights with Janice, his wife. After trapping him into marriage at 23, Janice has now had the temerity to get pregnant for a second time. I’m not sure Harry realises that sex and pregnancy are linked – he’s not very bright. But he loves sex. He’s not too bothered about who with or even whether the other party is willing, because after all he realises that women exist simply to service men’s sexual needs. It’s rather annoying of Janice, therefore, to actually have needs of her own, and being heavily pregnant is surely no excuse for her asserting her unreasonable demands like which show she’d like to watch on TV. So Harry leaves her, driving off (in her car) to escape his humdrum existence and taking up with another woman, leaving Janice pregnant, with a toddler, no money and no transport. He’s a charmer, all right, our Harry!

I hated Harry, but not as much as I grew to hate Updike. I nearly abandoned the book at 44%, even going so far as to write my “review”. But then I decided in a fit of masochism that I must finish it. Sadly it continued to disgust me all the way through, and I found nothing to change my opinion. So rather than waste more of my time on it by writing another review, here’s my 44% rant…

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Book 84 of 90

Going at it like rabbits…

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom thinks about sex. That’s it – that’s the blurb. Indeed, it could also be the review, but I’d find that deeply unsatisfying (and, oh dear, there is nothing worse in this life, according to the white, male, middle-aged, mid-twentieth-century American writer than feeling unsatisfied) because this book deserves so much more. So much more trashing, that is.

Dear Lord, do these men think they invented sex? How do they think they arrived in this world? Did their mothers teach them to be potty-mouthed from birth? Or is it that they know the very best way to win a Pulitzer is to endlessly describe various sexual acts and fantasies? It’s like reading the secret diary of a 14-year-old child whose parents forgot to turn on the parental controls on the TV…

Boy, there wasn’t any fancy business then, you didn’t even need to take off your clothes, just a little rubbing through the cloth, your mouths tasting of the onion on the hamburgers you’d just had at the diner and the car heater ticking as it cooled, through all the cloth, everything, off they’d go. They couldn’t have felt much it must have been just the idea of you. All their ideas. Sometimes just French kissing not that she ever really got with that, sloppy tongues and nobody can breathe, but all of a sudden you knew from the way their lips went hard and opened and then eased shut and away that it was over.

(The grammatical horrors are Updike’s – not mine. The women all think in this unstructured, childish, stream-of-consciousness style. The men all think in well-formed sentences. Go figure.)

In this world of male sex fantasies, women are either whores or frigid, fat or skinny, mean or cheap, and they’re all “dumb”. They all want money from their men and are willing to sell sex to get it, they all get pregnant, they all turn to drink. Mind you, in a world where all the men are Rabbits who can blame them? They love to be mastered – there’s no such thing as sexual assault, or even rape, in this world because secretly the women are, to coin a phrase, gagging for it. Let’s take the example of Rabbit’s rough wooing of Ruth, the other woman. She would like to wear a diaphragm but Rabbit doesn’t like that so he refuses to let her. She goes to the loo, and he insists on watching her to ensure she doesn’t sneakily protect herself from pregnancy. Naturally, he refuses to wear a condom. He objects to Ruth’s make-up, so he gets a facecloth…

When he puts the rough cloth to her face, it goes tense and writhes with a resistance like Nelson’s [Rabbit’s abandoned two-year-old son], and he counters it with a father’s practised method. He sweeps her fore-head, pinches her nostrils, abrades her cheeks and, finally, while her whole body is squirming in protest, scrubs her lips, her words shattered and smothered.

Now, the problem with this is not that Updike describes this episode of male physical domination/assault – had he left it at that one could have condemned Rabbit, sympathised with Ruth, and moved on. After all, Updike is not trying to make Rabbit likeable – quite the reverse. No, the problem is that Ruth then has the best climax of her life and falls in love with Rabbit. That, dear white, male, middle-aged, mid-twentieth-century American writers, is why modern women call you vile misogynists and chuck your vile misogynistic books at the wall.

According to wikipedia there are other themes in the book, namely, religion, identity, vision of America and transience. I beg to disagree. It’s about sex. And not even sexy sex. Abandoned at 44% – I prefer my fantasies to Updike’s.

PS I should perhaps also mention it’s extraordinarily dull and not very well written, with endless, pointless, unevocative descriptions of everything.

* * * * *

So there you have it – 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…

Where’s my medicinal chocolate?

Amazon UK Link

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #28: The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

Dulce et decorum est…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As 1937 draws to a close, we are introduced to three young men, very different in terms of social background and beliefs, whom we will follow through to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Christian is German, drawn to the Nazis because they have restored a sense of pride to Germany following the defeat of WW1. He passively accepts the anti-Semitism at the heart of the regime as something that simply is. Noel is an American Jew, who is left alone when his father, his only relative in the US, dies. He has heard something of what is happening to the Jews in Europe and is concerned, but he is also falling in love with Hope and that takes up most of his emotions. Michael is a theatre producer, wealthy and surrounded by shallow, artsy types who don’t appear on the surface to care much about anything. But Michael is already a little guilty that he hasn’t, as some of his friends have, gone to Spain to fight the fascists. Oh, he’s raised money for the fight, but as the Nazi threat grows he feels he should do more.

There is so much in this book, both in terms of incident and depth, that it’s impossible to do it justice in a short review, so I’m going to concentrate on the things that most stood out to me, and strongly recommend you read it for yourself.

First off, the writing is superb, and Shaw uses beautiful control in the timing so that the thoughtful passages, of which there are many, don’t get in the way of the action, and vice versa. The book starts slowly, taking time to ensure we know these three men as they are before war has become a reality for them, so that we see throughout how their experiences gradually change them. He manages to be very even-handed, which surprised me in a book first published in 1948, so soon after the war ended. I don’t mean even handed between the Nazis and the Allies – there is no doubt in the book about the evil of the Nazi regime. But Christian is shown sympathetically at first as a patriotic German rather than a Nazi zealot, as of course most Germans were. And the Americans are shown warts and all, with a good deal of criticism for the army and the way the war was run.

Book 81 of 90

Christian is in the war from the beginning in 1939, whereas the Americans only came in after Pearl Harbor and even then it was a long time before they set foot in Europe, so for Noah and Michael most of their war is spent in relative safety, and by the time they are facing action in France it is against a force that is already beaten but not yet ready to admit it. So although they all face danger Christian is the one who experiences most and we see him gradually coarsened by what he witnesses, still patriotic, but losing his moral integrity as he comes to behave in ways he could never have imagined when he started out so full of pride. It’s wonderfully done – this destruction of a fundamentally decent man, poisoned by the evil of the regime he serves. By the end, Christian is monstrous but, because Shaw made us care about him in the beginning, it’s hard to hate him even while abhorring what he does.

‘I see several soldiers among the congregation and I know they have a right to ask, What is love for a soldier? How does a soldier obey the word of Christ? How does a soldier love his enemy? I say it is this way – to kill sparingly and with a sense of sin and tragedy, sin that is yours equally with the sin of the man who falls at your hand. For was it not your indifference, your weakness of spirit, your greed, your deafness earlier in the day which armed him and drove him into the field to slay you? He struggled, he wept, he cried out to you, and you said, “I hear nothing. The voice does not carry across the water.” Then, in his despair, he picked up the rifle, and, then, finally, you said, “His voice is clear. Now let us kill him.”’

Michael and Noah, on the other hand, grow from their experiences and although they become hardened to an extent, they are on the winning side, and Shaw shows how different that is. As the German forces fall apart and Christian faces the shame and despair of going home defeated, the Americans develop the camaraderie of men fighting for good against evil, confident of victory and a glorious homecoming, if only they can survive. But Shaw shows that there were atrocities on the Allied side too, not to the same degree, of course, but it gives the message that the potential is there just as much in America or Britain or France for evil to thrive as in Germany, if the circumstances arise. And he also shows that civilians suffer as much or more than soldiers, especially with the new horror of air warfare, and its bastard offspring – collateral damage and “friendly fire”.

There are many horrors, as is to be expected – deaths, injuries, atrocities, betrayals, despair – but portrayed with authenticity and without gratuitousness, and there is humour and friendship along the way which prevents the tone from becoming too unrelievedly bleak. There is a wonderful scene in London of a theatre company relentlessly continuing with their opening night performance of Hamlet as the air raid sirens wail and bombs explode outside.

Irwin Shaw

However, 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. Noah is victimised wherever he goes – in civvy street, by the men in his company, by hotel owners who won’t allow him and his wife to have a room on the rare occasions he gets a weekend pass. Shaw was an American Jew himself, and sadly this makes it all feel even more authentic. The Holocaust may have been exclusive to the Nazis, but again Shaw gets home the message that anti-Semitism is pretty much universal. I spent much of my time tear-drenched while reading this book, but there is one scene which I doubt I’ll ever forget when, on the Allies liberating a concentration camp – not one of the big ones, just a little local one – a Rabbi asks to hold a service for the Jewish dead, and other prisoners object. Even there, even after all they’ve been through together, they still hate the Jews.

A truly wonderful book, harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written, this one gets my highest recommendation. Thank you, Classics Club Gods, for making me read it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Nada by Carmen Laforet

After the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. Now she is an orphan, existing on a tiny stipend granted to her by the state to enable her to study. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house. Grandmother is very old and frail, and her mind is beginning to fail. Aunt Angustias is sternly religious, determined to maintain the standards of the past, and insists that Andrea must obey her in all things. Grandmother’s two sons, Juan and Ramon, seem to be in a perpetual fight which often results in fairly extreme violence, not towards each other so much, but because Juan takes out his anger and frustration on his wife, Gloria, whom the family consider socially beneath them. There is a general air of insanity in the family – only Gloria, the outsider, seems to have her feet firmly on the ground. Over the next year or so, Andrea will gradually learn the secrets of each of the family, and come to understand what has brought them to their present state of decay and mutual antagonism.

Written under the constraints of the still new Franco dictatorship, Laforet avoids overt discussion of the politics of the Civil War or of the current regime, but she shows clearly the deprivation and poverty many Spaniards are facing at this time. However, she also shows that this isn’t universal by any means – plenty of people are managing to get along just fine. She hints that perhaps Ramon and Juan picked the wrong side, although Juan had tried to remedy that by switching sides when it became clear who was going to win. She doesn’t, as far as I could tell anyway, pass her own judgement on who was right and wrong, but it’s intriguing that she takes such a negative view of a family that was rich and pampered before the war, and is considerably less cynical about the people who are doing quite well under Franco. Whether any more can be read into this than that she was keen to get the book past the censors, I am unable to judge.

Book 8

The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. I only found this out when googling after reading, and I rather wished I’d known in advance, since certainly the grotesquery and violence in the book makes more sense when placed in the context of a literary school. In terms of existentialism, there is undoubtedly existential angst for many of the characters, but Andrea herself seems to be curiously untouched – she feels like an observer more than a participant most of the time, and despite her youth often seems more adult than the adults around her. There is also a sense of the absurd which somehow makes the violence seem almost cartoonish, so that it’s not nearly as grim in tone as the content suggests it should be. In fact there’s quite a strong vein of black humour running through it for much of the time.

I’m not sure that I really fully got the book – my lack of familiarity with the conventions of both existentialism and tremendismo means that I suspect I missed a lot of nuance that would be clearer to people steeped in those schools, and Laforet’s necessary circumspection around the politics of the day made it difficult for me to place her on the political spectrum, which meant that I couldn’t quite tell how biased were her depictions of the various parts of the society she shows us.

Carmen Laforet

None of that prevented me from appreciating it though. I enjoyed the grotesque family and their fights and rivalries, and while I thought that Laforet didn’t give much of a picture of the day-to-day life of Barcelona, she instead invoked an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier. There is no sense of a return to the status quo before the war – instead Andrea seems to epitomise a new generation looking with interest at the past, but with no desire to relive it. The book was written in 1945, still too soon for anyone to know how post-war Spain would develop, and that feeling of uncertainty seems to be captured in Andrea’s lack of vision about her own future.

There is an underlying plot of sorts, relating to the brothers and their past, and it is also a kind of coming of age story for Andrea. But both of those things are secondary to the overall feel of the book – a kind of nebulous quality that somehow in the end gives a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done. I read it quite some time ago now, and it has lingered in my mind, growing in stature the more I think about it, so that although I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved it while reading, I have gradually come to appreciate it more and to recognise why it’s considered a classic.

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Amazon US Link

Review-Along! Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Novel Without a Hero, but…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(Spoiler-filled from beginning to end – you have been warned!)

As two young girls leave school together for the last time, their prospects couldn’t be more different. Sweet little Amelia – Emmy – pretty but brainless, is the pampered daughter of a wealthy man and has her future mapped out for her, including marriage to the son of her father’s friend, the handsome and dashing George Osborne. Becky Sharp – ah, Becky! Left like an unwanted parcel at the school years before by her feckless, drunken father, she has no fortune and no family, and she will have to make her own future in a world where matrimony is a woman’s only route to success – at least, respectable success. Fortunately Becky is fairly flexible about her definition of respectability…

This massive satire on every aspect of the English gentility in the years during and after the Napoleonic Wars is one of those very rare beasts – a satire that is actually funny. While Thackeray is brutal to all of the poor puppets in his play, his clear affection for them keeps the tone light even during the darkest parts of the story. There are really only two of the main characters to whom I felt he didn’t give much in the way of redemptive qualities – Emmy’s lover and later husband, George Osborne, and George’s father, who plays the role of villain. All the rest are variously flawed, weak, fickle, vain, but they are too recognisably people we might know (or be!) to be wholly unsympathetic. Thackeray, in his role as omniscient narrator, isn’t afraid to remind his readers frequently that they share the flaws of his characters and that theirs is the society he is mocking.

By the time Thackeray was publishing this in serial form in 1847-8, the Victorian reader had been treated to a variety of Dickens’ heroines, mostly drooping, pretty, tiny, passive, saccharin nonentities and therefore worthy of the love of the novel’s hero. I wonder if Victorian girls felt as nauseated by Dora Copperfield as any modern reader is almost bound to be? If so, what fun to meet Becky Sharp only a year or so later! All those girls who couldn’t be sweet all the time – who didn’t want to be sweet all the time – must have loved Becky from the moment she threw Dr Johnson’s Dictionary out of the coach as she drove away from school! As Emmy dripped and sighed over her worthless lover, and forgave him and forgave him, and wept, and wept, and wept, were the Victorian girls as relieved as I to turn to Becky, to see her demand her own share of the pleasures and vanities of life? Did they feel, as I did, that it was worth the inevitable crash and burn to have had a few years of excitement and fun? Did they laugh heartlessly, as I did and as Thackeray did, at poor Emmy’s years of pathetic fidelity to her long-dead and unlamentable husband? I bet they did!

Sir Pitt the Elder proposes

Of course, Becky is not a good person. But that’s her charm! She is a terrible mother who doesn’t see why having a child should turn a woman into a stay-at-home domestic goddess, giving up her own life to bring up a child who will doubtless turn into a brat like all the men around him, and end up being horridly condescending to his doting mamma (like Emmy’s revolting sprog Georgy). All the unmaternal Victorian girls must have been secretly cheering her on as she left her husband to the drudgery of child-rearing while she went off to parties, bedecked in silks and diamonds she couldn’t afford but managed to acquire anyway. OK, she stole poor Miss Briggs’ small fortune, but does anyone really think that Briggs would have had more fun in a tiny, bare room in a boarding house all alone, eating gruel and darning her stockings, than hobnobbing with the risqué but dazzling guests in Becky’s drawing room? And whether Becky killed her faithful swain Jos deliberately or simply accidentally by allowing him to over-indulge, be honest – wouldn’t his life have been empty and dull indeed if she had not fanned the flames of his passion? Were not his proudest moments when she allowed him to strut along the street as the favoured beau of the most scandalous woman in town?

1855 daguerreotype of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst

Meantime Amelia lives the life of the perfect Victorian heroine, doting on her child, acting as nurse to her elderly and rather selfish parents, steadfastly faithful to the memory of the man whose fidelity to her lasted no longer than about two weeks after the wedding. The only good thing that happens to Emmy is George’s death, but could she see it? No, she weeps and wails and wails and weeps, until even Dickens might have been tempted to tell her to put a sock in it. I’m sure every Victorian girl who had been told repeatedly that she should be more womanly – i.e., weep more and swoon occasionally – must have loved Thackeray’s delicious torturing of poor Emmy’s over-active tear-ducts. Becky may have been a devil and Emmy an angel, but there’s no doubt which one Thackeray liked best. Who among us didn’t cheer when Dobbin, faithful old Dobbin, finally told Emmy she was a worthless, brain-dead, whimpering doll not fit to be his wife? (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) And was I the only one who was a bit disappointed when he came running back to her after all? The last we see of Emmy is her sighing over the fact that Dobbin loves their daughter more than her – no doubt she had a good weep over it when they got home…

Guess which one is Emmy?

There’s far too much in this book to write a real review in any kind of reasonable length for a blog post, so as you can see I haven’t tried. Instead I’ve been inspired by Thackeray’s choice of subtitle. He may rightly have called it “A Novel Without a Hero” – poor Dobbin is too pathetic, poor Rawdon is too weak, poor Jos is too silly, poor Sir Pitt the Younger is too righteous, poor Sir Pitt the Elder is too vulgar and Lord Steyne is too evil (but not poor). But I contend it is “A Novel With a Heroine” – not snivelling Emmy with her perpetually damp handkerchiefs, but our Becky Sharp, leading the way for women everywhere to behave as badly as men and have just as much fun as they do! Go, Becky!

(PS I enjoyed Georgina Sutton’s narration very much, although because of my own slowness at listening to audiobooks I swapped over to a Kindle version in the second half.)

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

* * * * *

Several of us have been reading Vanity Fair as a Review-Along, and I’ll put links to the other posts here as they appear. Please also come back and check the comments below, where our non-blogging buddies Christine and Alyson will be sharing their opinions. I do hope everyone had as much fun reading this one as I had. Thanks to Rose for suggesting it!

Rose’s Review

Madame Bibilophile’s Review

Jane’s Review

Loulou’s review

Sandra’s review

TBR Thursday 300 – Joining the Classics Club 2.0

The Second List

Now that I’m very close to completing my first Classics Club list, I’ve hit a little problem in that I’ve used up all my Dickenses and, as regular blog buddies will know, I like to read a Dickens novel over the Christmas period each year. So I’ve decided to post my second list early, although other than a Dickens I won’t be reading any of these till my first list is done – probably around February or March next year.

Plus, adding a zillion extra books to my TBR/wishlist seems like a suitably dramatic way to mark the fact that this is my 300th TBR Thursday post! 😱

For people who aren’t familiar with the idea of the Classics Club, the rules are simple. Basically, a list of at least 50 books is required, along with a commitment to read and post about them within 5 years. The Club leaves it up to each member to come up with their own definition of “Classic”. I’m sticking with the same definition as I used first time round, namely, that any book first published more than 50 years ago counts, so my cut-off this time is 1971. Happily the Classics Club Gods don’t punish us if we run over time or swap books as we go along. As far as I know…

Because I generally read and re-read a lot of classics, I’ve decided this time to list 80, divided into four categories. Here goes…

The Scottish Section

The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett (1748)
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides/A Journey to the Western Isles by James
….Boswell/Samuel Johnson (1785)
Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott (1815)
The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott (1816)
Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott (1816)
The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott (1818)
The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott (1819)
Hester by Margaret Oliphant (1883)
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Doom Castle by Neil Munro (1901)
Gillespie by John MacDougall Hay (1914)
Open the Door! By Catherine Carswell (1920)
John Macnab by John Buchan (1925)
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd (1928)
The Shipbuilders by George Blake (1935)
The Land of the Leal by James Barke (1939)
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi (1954)
Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway (1956)
A Song of Sixpence by AJ Cronin (1964)
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith (1968)

The Bride of Lammermoor
Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852–1913)
The New Art Gallery Walsall

The English Section

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1766)
Evelina by Frances Burney (1778)
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (1848)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)
Silas Marner by George Eliot (1861)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (1870)
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
She by Henry Rider Haggard (1886)
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (1908)
Howard’s End by EM Forster (1910)
The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham (1925)
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936)
The Third Man by Graham Greene (1949)
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (1969)

The Foreign Section

Written in English

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1800)
Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu (1864)
The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander (1920)
The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher (1928)
A Farewell to Arms
by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948)
Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956)
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)
A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1967)
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (1970)

In Translation

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki (1810)
Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831)
Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1835)
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (1840)
The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (1850)
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
Germinal by Émile Zola (1885)
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947)
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse (1949)
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)

The Genre Section

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1888)
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
The Land That Time Forgot Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918)
Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth (1928)
The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931)
The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940)
Laura by Vera Caspary (1942)
Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson (1943)
Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie (1944)
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes (1947)
Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar (1952)
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin (1953)
Gideon’s Day by JJ Marric (1955)
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
The Guns of Navarone by Alastair MacLean (1957)
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959)
The Chill by Ross MacDonald (1963)
The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout (1965)

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all the many bloggers and commenters who have inspired me to add one or more of these books to my new list. The list will undoubtedly change over time but, meantime, what do you think? Any on there that you love? Or that you think doesn’t deserve a place?

Thanks for joining me on my reading travels!

The Classics Club Spin #28

Rien ne va plus…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 28th Spin, and my 11th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 17th October. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 12th December, 2021.

I missed the last few spins partly because of my general slumpiness over the last year and partly because recently they’ve seemed more like speed-reading events with very short deadlines, which is not how I like to read classics. Happily this one gives a full two-month timescale which is much more to my preference. I only have ten books left on my first list now and am hoping to read at least five of them before the year ends so I should theoretically be able to fit in whichever the spin picks quite easily – unless it lands on the lurking monster I’ve been evading for the last five years! So no doubt that’ll be the one… 😉

* * * * *

1) and 11) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

2) and 12) The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

3) and 13) Rabbit, Run by John Updike

4) and 14) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

5) and 15) Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill

6) and 16) No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long

7) and 17) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

8) and 18) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

9) and 19) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

10) and 20) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

* * * * * * *

Which one would you like to see win?

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

There and back again…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

Bilbo Baggins leads a respectable life, as befits a hobbit approaching middle-age. He loves his hobbit hole, has plenty of money so doesn’t need to work, and would rather dream of tea and cakes than adventure. But for some reason the wizard Gandalf the Grey decides that he would make a perfect thief for an expedition that a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, intend to undertake to regain the treasure of their forefathers, stolen years ago by the great dragon, Smaug. And despite feeling that he’s not at all suited to the task, Bilbo soon finds himself setting off on the journey, without even a handkerchief to remind him of homely things.

When I first read this, I think I was too old to lose myself wholly in the adventures as a child would, but not yet old enough to appreciate it as an adult. As a result, it has never held a deep place in my affections, unlike its big brother, The Lord of the Rings. So I haven’t re-read it for many years, but when I saw that Audible had a new audio version, narrated by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, I felt this was the time to try it again. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those lucky people who still, as adults, get a great deal of pleasure from children’s books, unless they are ones, like Anne of Green Gables, which I loved so much and read so often as a child that they instantly take me back to those far-off times. So while I enjoyed my re-read of this, I still didn’t fall wholeheartedly in love with it.

Andy Serkis’ performance is great. He throws himself into it with gusto, using a whole range of British regional accents for all the various characters, especially the dwarves, which helps to distinguish them from each other. He sings all the songs – I don’t know whether he made up the tunes himself or if they are taken from the movie, which I haven’t seen, but he does them brilliantly, using different voices and characters appropriate to the singers, be it dwarves, elves or trolls. His Gollum, unsurprisingly, sounds exactly like Gollum from the films! He very definitely gets five stars.

I’m now going to get a bit critical (and probably a bit spoilery), so people who love the book or haven’t yet read it may want to look away now…

Gollum and Andy Serkis (but which is which?)

There were two things that stopped me loving it wholeheartedly. Firstly, I found I didn’t really like most of the characters, especially the dwarves, but also the elves and the humans. Bilbo himself is fine, but he’s no Frodo. He does indeed steal the ring from Gollum, which I had rather forgotten. I know that in LOTR we learn that Gollum himself stole it and also that the ring probably exerted its influence over Bilbo to take it out of the caverns where Gollum had kept it for so long. But we don’t know that in The Hobbit, so it just leaves Bilbo as a thief, stealing Gollum’s one precioussss possession. I’ve always had difficulty with heroes who aren’t any more morally upstanding than the villains, especially in children’s literature.

The second issue came as a big shock to me, and that is that the dwarves are given many of the negative characteristics associated with anti-Semitic tropes – their physical appearance of small stature and long beards, their essential cowardice, their love beyond reason for gold and jewels, their miserliness. I certainly didn’t pick up on this when I was young, and was so gobsmacked by it this time that I wondered if I was inventing connections that didn’t exist. So I googled, only to discover that there is a wealth of academic writing on the subject. I am not, repeat not, suggesting that Tolkien was anti-Semitic – simply that to modern eyes (mine, at least) the portrayal of the dwarves in this way leads to a rather uncomfortable reading experience, somewhat like trying to see Shylock through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than our own. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Thorin had suddenly started wailing “O, my daughter! O, my ducats!”, if only he had had a daughter.

I also couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for Smaug. (As a side note, Serkis pronounces it Smowg, to rhyme with now, whereas I’ve always thought of it as Smog, to rhyme with dog, so I found that a bit disconcerting.) It appeared to me Smaug was no less moral and no more obsessed with treasure than the dwarves, so it was difficult for me to feel they were the good guys and he the bad. As I say, I don’t think I’m very good at reading children’s literature!

JRR Tolkien

However, there are lots of fun episodes, like the trolls (I felt a bit sorry for them too, admittedly – they were just doing what trolls do), and the eagles, and all the stuff in Mirkwood is wonderfully scary, especially the spiders. Poor old Bombur provides a good deal of comic relief (despite the fat-shaming! Oh good lord, I’ve been brainwashed by the Woke!) and I felt Fili and Kili (always my favourite dwarves) redeemed the dwarves’ reputation a little by their heroism at the end.

Overall, a book I’m sure I would have loved far more if only I’d first read it when I was a couple of years younger. Maybe in my next life…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A nation of immigrants…

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day in the late 19th century, two children arrive separately in Nebraska on the same train. Jim Burden is a ten-year-old boy, recently orphaned and coming to the prairie land to live with his grandparents. Ántonia Shimerda is a couple of years older, immigrating to America from Bohemia with her family. Although from different backgrounds and traditions, the children become friends, learning about the land and wildlife of their new home together as they explore it with some of the other children in the farming neighbourhood. Over the years their friendship will gradually fade as Jim goes off to university and later to live in New York, but he always remembers Ántonia, and now in middle-age has set out to write down his memories of her.

When reviewing a much-studied classic it’s next to impossible to find anything new to say, so this is simply a summary of the things that most stood out to me while reading rather than an attempt at a full analysis. To start, I’ll explain why for me it only rates as four stars – simply put, it has no plot, which regular readers of my reviews will know is one of the things most likely to make me grumpy about a book. Instead it is a description of the short-lived era of pioneering, a wonderful depiction of the land and people’s relationship with it before it was fully tamed, a foundational story of the creation of America or perhaps of the myth of America, and a coming-of-age tale of Jim, primarily, but also of Ántonia and of the frontier itself.

I felt it was an odd and intriguing choice for Cather to tell Ántonia’s story at a remove through the eyes of a male narrator, especially since I found Jim’s voice almost inexorably feminine, particularly when he reaches the age of developing sexual interest in girls. I was interested to read in the introduction by Janet Sharistanian in my Oxford World’s Classics edition that Cather’s deepest relationships throughout her life were with women, although Sharistanian is careful to clarify that there is no evidence as to whether those relationships were sexual. However, she quotes another academic critic whose views rather neatly summed up my own feeling about Jim as narrator and Cather as author: “Judith Fetterley posits that ‘Though nominally male, Jim behaves in ways that mark him as female’; that his ‘sexual self-presentation’ as well as his actions reveal his ‘gender ambiguity’; and that ‘My Ántonia is the work of a lesbian writer, who could not ‘tell her own story in her own voice’”. Sharistanian doesn’t agree with this wholeheartedly, but I do. I also felt it perhaps explains another aspect I found mysterious – that we are first introduced to Jim in an introduction written by another person, using ‘I’ and presumably Cather herself, who apparently shares these childhood recollections of Ántonia and yet never appears in Jim’s narrative. I felt that Cather had handed over not just some of the autobiographical facts of her own story to ‘Jim’ but also her internal feelings, and that he really has to be considered her alter-ego.

Book 79 of 90

The other aspect I found most interesting was that this is the earliest example I’ve read of what is now a standard part of American literature, and increasingly the literature of other Western nations – the ‘immigrant experience’ novel. This, however, is written not by the immigrant herself, but from the perspective of an established ‘American’ – that is, a person of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant stock (although the Burdens are certainly not WASPs). Ántonia is from Eastern Europe, Catholic and, like most waves of immigrants to the US (and elsewhere), looked down on and treated as lesser by those already established until they in turn become accepted and absorbed into the story of the nation. I wondered if Cather chose to tell the story from Jim’s point of view purely because that was her own perspective on Ántonia, or if again she felt that America was not ready to hear from the voices of recent immigrants. In our time, it would be rather frowned upon to tell the story of an immigrant in this way – we are much more into ‘own voices’ and reluctant to imagine ourselves into the lives and minds of ‘others’. I thought Cather did it excellently, never once demeaning nor falsely romanticising Ántonia or the other immigrant girls we meet, and showing them as having become both physically and metaphorically the mothers of the young nation.

She also has a wonderful sense of balance in the way she shows the immigrant girls as living in a male-dominated society but refusing the role of victim or underdog, instead exercising a lot of autonomy in the way their lives unfold. The overall impression I came away with is that she believed that waves of immigration, especially the women, strengthened the American bloodstock (to put it rather crudely).

Willa Cather

The writing is excellent, especially in the descriptions of the various settings. 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 – for this reader, more lasting than the lives of our major protagonists, I must admit, who largely felt as if they existed to tie together a rather disparate set of episodes illustrating facets of the frontier life. Ántonia herself disappears completely for large parts of the book and her story is often told at a distance, by some third party telling Jim the latest gossip about her. Again, Sharistanian suggests a long-running debate between people who think the book is fundamentally Ántonia’s story, or Jim’s. I fall into the latter category – for me, this is very definitely Jim’s story, and therefore largely Cather’s own. But mostly it feels like a part of America’s story, or of its myth-making of itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’ – that is not to denigrate the myth or to suggest it is untrue, simply to say that all nations form myths from their own history which reflect and influence how they feel about themselves and how they act as a society. And I feel this foundational myth-creation aspect may be why the book has earned its place in the hearts of so many Americans, and as a well-deserved American classic.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Silver DarlingsWhen the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.

It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.

Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.

classics club logo 2Book 78 of 90

Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.

….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength.
….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. 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. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.

Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.

I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

War and peace, and cattle…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Town Like AliceWhen solicitor Noel Strachan makes a will for an elderly client, it seems straightforward – the client’s nephew will inherit all his money. But the war intervenes and, like so many young men, the nephew dies. So when the client also dies a couple of years after the war, the money goes to his niece, Jean Paget, but with a clause that makes Strachan her trustee until she is thirty-five. This brings the two together, and elderly Strachan develops a sentimental attachment to young Jean. Over the next few years, they write long letters to each other, and it’s from these that Strachan is now telling us Jean’s story.

When the war broke out, Jean was working as a typist in colonial Malaya and, along with a group of other English people, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. The men were promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp. The women and children were not so lucky. Marched for hundreds of miles around Malaya while the Japanese tried to find somewhere to leave them, illness and exhaustion was too much for some of them. The hardier ones eventually found themselves a kind of refuge in a small village where they waited out the war. Now that Jean has come into some money, she wants to pay the villagers back for their kindness, and so starts her new journey, first to Malaya and then all the way to Willstown, an old mining town in the outback of Australia, where she finds a new challenge on which to turn her resourceful nature.

What a great storyteller Shute is! His style is oddly plain – no great poetic flourishes or literary tricks. But he brings a whole range of characters to life: the rather lonely widower Strachan, the women and their captors in Malaya, the people in the Australian outback and, of course, Jean herself. He doesn’t fill the pages with descriptions of their emotional inner life – he simply tells the often horrific story of the women’s march and leaves the reader to do the work with her own imagination. It’s far more effective than if every emotional twinge was handed to the reader on a plate. It leaves space for each reader to imagine how she would have coped – would she have survived?

Nevil Shute

For me, the Malayan section is quite a bit stronger than the Australian section, because of the sense of danger and uncertainty and the picture of the cruelty so many prisoners suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The Australian section has a more domestic feel – not a bad thing, simply less to my taste. However, we are given a great depiction of the primitive style of life in these isolated towns at that time, cut off from their neighbours by the huge distances of Australia, so unfamiliar to those of us on this crowded little island of Great Britain. Jean finds that girls don’t stay in Willstown – there’s no work for them and no form of entertainment. They’re not even allowed to go into the one bar in town – strictly men only. So they leave for the cities as soon as they’re old enough, and that makes it hard to keep single men on the cattle ranches too. Jean decides that somehow she must make Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, with enough opportunities for work and fun to keep young people around.

I’ll be honest – at this stage I began to find Jean intensely irritating. She seems to be the only one in town who ever has an idea, or is capable of making a plan. Everyone else, men and women alike, mostly stand around either doubting her or gasping in amazement at her ingenuity. But fortunately there had been enough before that stage to prevent this section from dragging the book too far down, and I liked the other characters, especially Strachan. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Jean too, I just wanted to roll my eyes at her every now and again when she came up with a new cunning plan. But I loved learning all about the cattle ranching, and the way the isolated homesteads kept in touch by radio, and the sense of community that exists even across the huge distances between the ranches, with neighbours pitching in to help out in a crisis.

I was considerably less tickled by the constant racism that infests the book, both in Malaya and Australia, and the fact that Shute clearly held these attitudes himself. But it was standard for the time, so I was able to overlook it for the most part. I could imagine it might be harder to overlook if you were an Australian Aboriginal person being forced to read this in school, though – I wondered if it’s on the curriculum. I also wondered if Australians were OK with the idea that a young woman from England needed to solve all the problems they were clearly incapable of solving for themselves. But then I told myself to shut up and stop over-analysing, and just enjoy the story, which I did!

Robin Bailey
Robin Bailey

Robin Bailey’s narration is great. He has the perfect accent for Strachan – that very proper English post-war voice that we’re all so used to from films of the era. But he also does what sounds to me like a very good Australian accent, and he reads the book as if he’s totally involved in Jean’s story himself, just like Strachan is.

Rose recommended this one to me after I’d enjoyed On the Beach, and I’m very glad she did. An excellent read or listen, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of Shute’s work – I think I can now count myself as a fan!

Audible UK Link
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Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Alien visitors…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Way Station 2As a young man, Enoch Wallace fought at Gettysburg. When the war was over, he returned to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin, soon finding himself alone there after the death of his father. One day, he met a stranger who put a strange proposition to him. Ulysses, as Enoch named him, was a being from another world, a representative of the Galactic Council, who wanted to set up a way station on Earth for intergalactic travellers wishing to explore this remote sector of the galaxy. Ulysses had chosen Enoch to be in charge of the way station because of his interest in the stars and his readiness to accept new ideas. Enoch accepted, and now, nearly a hundred years later, Enoch is still running the way station, and he’s still a young man. It is his seemingly eternal youthfulness that has at last attracted the interest of US Intelligence…

First published in 1963, this, like much of the science fiction of the Cold War era, is steeped in the fear of nuclear holocaust. The world is on the brink of another war, about to hold a last-ditch Peace Conference that no one expects to succeed. Enoch longs for Earth to be able to join the Galactic Confraternity because he has glimpsed some of the wonders out there and wants his fellow humans to be able to access the accumulated knowledge of a myriad of civilisations. But he knows that war will destroy the chance of that – only worlds that have moved beyond constant wars are invited in.

Enoch lives a solitary life on the farm. When he is inside the station – which used to be the family home and still looks that way to the outside world – he doesn’t age, but outside he does, so he restricts his outings to an hour a day, and his only real contact is with the mailman who brings him whatever he needs in the way of supplies. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated community, who keep themselves to themselves, so his apparent non-ageing is quietly ignored by his neighbours. But when an incident brings him into conflict with one of those neighbours, his anonymity is threatened. And on top of this, something has happened on Earth that has offended an alien race and the Galactic Council are threatening to withdraw from the sector. Enoch must decide whether to stay with humanity, and age and die, or leave Earth forever.

classics club logo 2Book 76 of 90

This starts out slowly with a lot of information about the way station and Enoch’s life, all of which is interesting and much of it highly imaginative. After a bit, though, I began to long for the appearance of a plot, and happily it turned up just before I lost patience. As we get to know more about the Galactic Confraternity, we see that it isn’t quite as perfect as Enoch had thought – things are beginning to go wrong, and just like on Earth there are squabbles and power struggles arising within it.

Clifford D Simak
Clifford D Simak

The writing is excellent and the characterisation of Enoch is considerably more complex than is often the case in science fiction of this period. The concept of the way station allows for all kinds of imaginative aliens to visit, and Simak makes full use of the opportunity, plus the actual method of intergalactic travel is both fascinating and disturbing – personally I’ll wait till they get Star Trek-style matter transference working, I think! Although Enoch often has alien company, we see his desire for human contact too, and the impossibility of this without endangering his secret. As the plot progresses, it develops a kind of mystical, new-age aspect – an odd mix of the spiritual with the technological, and a hint of supernatural thrown in for good measure, but although that makes it sound messy, it all works together well. The ending is too neat, but the journey there is thought-provoking in more ways than one. The book won the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel – well deserved, in my opinion.

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