Friday, 24 August 2018

Down and Out in Paris and London


Down and Out in Paris and London, which was published in 1933, was George Orwell's first full length work. It is a memoir in two parts in which the narrator describes his experiences of being destitute in both Paris and London.  The book was based on Orwell's experiences of working in hotel kitchens in Paris as a dishwasher (plongeur) when he ran out of money.  He also spent some time living rough on the streets of London as preparation for his writing.

This is more than a personal account of being poor in the early 1930s.  It is also a social commentary on the inequalities of society, capitalism and the stupidity of the legal system which forced homeless people at that time to walk from parish to parish in order to obtain a bed for the night.

Although the topic is quite depressing, the author does manage to make the book interesting through his descriptions of the places and characters he meets.  Memorable characters include Boris the Russian in Paris and Paddy the Irishman and Bozo the street artist in London.  A few comic incidents lighten the book including the description of the narrator's encounter with "a secret society".  This consisted of Russians who then disappeared with some of the narrator's money.  The narrator says, "personally I do not think they had anything  to do with the Communist Party;  I think they were simply swindlers, who preyed upon Russian refugees by extracting entrance fees to an imaginary society."

The book provided an interesting contrast between Paris and London - the narrator did have a job in Paris but had to work very long hours for very little pay.  The Depression in Britain meant that there were lots of men after the same job - if a man found employment there was no job security as the jobs were all casual.  Although the situation in Britain has improved with the introduction  of the Welfare State there is still a huge problem of homelessness which costs the local authorities millions of pounds in providing temporary accommodation for homeless people instead of building affordable homes for people.  The situation of many workers who are trapped in low paid jobs in 2018 is probably not much better than it was for the plongeurs of the book.  This is compounded by the increasing use of zero hours contracts which provide no job security.

The narrator sums up his experiences at the end of the book saying, "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.  That is a beginning."

Most of the classics I read are 19th century novels and so this book was a complete contrast.  It was also interesting reading about a different historical period.  In conclusion, I am glad I read Down and Out in Paris and London which was thought provoking and well written.





Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Classics Club Spin Book

I was very happy that number 9 came up in the Classics Club Spin as this means that George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is my book for August.  I really enjoyed 1984 and Animal Farm and am looking forward to reading another novel by Orwell.


Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Classics Club Spin


I thought I'd take part in the Classics Club Spin which has been relaunched so here is my list of 20 books from my Classics Club "to be read" list.  I hope that this may give me added impetus to keep going as I haven't read many classics over the last few weeks. I hope that the number which comes up will be for a relatively short book as this should be read by 31 August!

  1. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
  2. Emma
  3. A Scots Quair
  4. Phineas Finn
  5. Oliver Twist
  6. A Passage to India
  7. Lois the Witch
  8. Jungle Book
  9. Down and Out in Paris and London
  10. Uncle Tom's Cabin 
  11. Persuasion
  12. The Old Man and the Sea
  13. The Small House at Allington
  14. Salem Chapel 
  15. The Cherry Orchard
  16. Shirley
  17. Little Men
  18. Tom Sawyer
  19. Midnight's Children
  20. Under the Greenwood Tree

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood



The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was first published in 1985. I knew nothing about this book, except it featured on many "classic" book lists, and I did not watch the recent TV series.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in the USA in the 21st century and is sometimes described as being science fiction although I would not classify it as belonging to this genre. The author describes the book as "speculative fiction". In the novel, the American government has been overthrown by a fundamentalist Christian movement and the theocratic state of Gilead created. This society is a very controlled one in which no-one has any freedom. People are constantly supervised by the Eyes and any transgressions dealt with severely. Women are subjugated and cannot hold property, read or do anything which might allow them to become subversive or independent.

In the Republic of Gilead people are split into rigidly defined groups. Men are Commanders, Guardians, Angels (soldiers) or Eyes. Women are Wives (of Commanders), Handmaids, Marthas or Econowives. The narrator is a Handmaid called Offred, meaning belonging to Fred, but we are never told her real name. The role of the Handmaids is to bear children for the Wives as fertility has dropped as a result of pollution and radiation.

I found this book very though provoking and still very relevant today - perhaps even more so considering what is currently happening in the United States. The book is well written and I liked how we gradually find out what happened to Offred in her previous life. The book reminded me of 1984 by George Orwell as the characters in both books could trust no-one and felt they were always being spied upon. I liked Atwood's description of the characters, especially Offred, and was optimistic that she did escape at the end of the story.

I feel that this book is certainly worthy of the title "classic" and I look forward to reading more books by Margaret Atwood in the future.


Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey




The Daughter of Time was the last book written by Josephine Tey and was published in 1952.  It was voted one of the best 100 detective novels of all time by The British Crime Writers Association in 1990

The book features a police inspector, Alan Grant, who is lying in hospital with a broken leg.  In order to lessen his boredom he decides to investigate whether Richard III did in fact have his two nephews, known as “the princes in the tower”, murdered as the history books maintain.  He is helped in his research by a young American, Brent Carradine.  The impetus for Grant’s research is a picture of Richard III and he asks various people what the portrait tells them about the king’s character.  They all have different opinions including his sergeant who thinks he looks more like a judge than a criminal. 

The novel shows how history can be interpreted in different ways at different times.  It also demonstrates how powerful people, in this case the Tudors, can influence what people are told about events and how an individual's character can be blackened.  It explores different styles of historical writing starting with school books.  Carradine  helps Grant in researching what contemporary people wrote about what was happening in England at that time.  The conclusion reached by Grant is that Richard III was not responsible for the murders of his two nephews but that they were later killed by Henry. 

I did enjoy this book although I do not have an historical background and am unfamiliar with this period of English history having been educated in Scotland. The book was well written and I liked the main characters. The relationship between Grant and Carradine developed during the novel and I felt that Carradine matured and, encouraged by Grant, was able to find his role in life, deciding to write a book.

I would have liked to have seen references for the books used by Grant to develop his argument although Wikipedia suggests that two of these books were fictional having been invented by the author.

This novel certainly emphasises the importance of not taking everything that is written at face value but in understanding who the author was, when they lived, their background and their motives in writing what they did.  This is as important today in this age of “fake news” as when reading historical documents. 

I would like to finish by quoting a discussion from chapter 3 in the book when Grant asks one of his nurses who said the princes were smothered how she knew this and she answered “My history book at school said it.”

“Yes, but whom was the history book quoting?” asks Grant.

“Quoting?  It wasn’t quoting anything.  It was just giving facts.”

If you want to find out more about Richard the Third the Richard III Society can be found here.


Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Wuthering Heights




Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847, was the only novel written by Emily Brontë who died the following year at the early age of 30.

I read a survey recently which named Wuthering Heights as a book which many people had difficulty finishing. I did not find this to be the case - in fact I read it quite quickly as I was keen to find out what happened to the characters.  I had never read this book and mistakenly believed it told the story of the love affair between Catherine and Heathcliff. However there is so much more to the book than this. It is a story of love and passion but also of hate and revenge. It deals with the themes of class and inheritance. It could be classed as a gothic tale as there are supernatural elements in it.

The story is told by two narrators - Lockwood, a gentleman who has moved up to Yorkshire from London, and Ellen (Nelly) Dean who is Lockwood's housekeeper and a local woman. The story opens when Lockwood decides to visit his landlord, Heathcliff, at his home, Wuthering Heights, situated on the moors. Lockwood is somewhat disconcerted by the inhabitants of the house who are not very welcoming. In addition to Heathcliff there is also a young woman whom Lockwood initially mistakes for Heathcliff's daughter and a young man who seems to be a kind of servant. Heathcliff is described as "a dark skinned gypsy, in aspect, in dress, and manners a gentleman." The weather worsens and Lockwood has to stay the night at Wuthering Heights. He has a very disturbed night culminating in a "nightmare" when he tries to close the window - his arm is grasped by an ice cold hand and a woman's voice screaming "Let me in, let me in!" When Lockwood asks who this is the voice replies "Catherine Linton. I'm come home, I'd lost my way on the moor." In order to shake off this creature, Lockwood pulls its wrist on the broken pane of the window "until blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes."

When Lockwood eventually returns home, he becomes ill and persuades his housekeeper, Nelly, to tell him about the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights to help pass the time. Nelly knows a lot about the families in the novel as she was brought up in the house when it belonged to a family called the Earnshaws. They already had two children Catherine and Hindley when Mr Earnshaw returned home from market one day with a "dirty, ragged, black-haired child" who was named Heathcliff. As time passed, Heathcliff was treated very badly by Hindley although Catherine developed a very close relationship with him.

To prevent giving away the plot I will not go into any more detail about the story which follows the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff and the next generation. I really enjoyed this book and feel this is one I will read again. I liked the way the author portrayed the various characters - there was such a contrast between the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and the more refined, upper class Lintons who live at Thrushcross Grange. Although there were few characters I actually liked, I did admire the way the author developed them throughout the novel. The plot was cleverly worked out and I was surprised that the ending was as positive as it was. I particularly liked the descriptions of the moors and the seasons. I felt that the use of two narrators worked well giving the reader contrasting views of the characters and events.

I feel that Emily Brontë was ahead of her time in writing Wuthering Heights. It shows the power of her imagination that a woman who was brought up in the relative seclusion of a parsonage in Yorkshire could write about such a wide range of emotions and characters. I really enjoyed this book and cannot understand why it has taken me so long to read it. In conclusion I would like to quote from the introduction to my copy by David Daiches who states "one of Emily Brontë's most extraordinary achievements in this novel is the domiciling of the monstrous in the ordinary rhythms of life and work, thereby making it at the same time less monstrous and more disturbing."







Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Water Babies


The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley was published in 1863.  It tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep, who finds himself in the room of a little rich girl by mistake.  He runs away and ends up in a river where he changes into a water baby.  The rest of the book describes his adventures as he travels down the river and out into the sea.  This is a journey of redemption as he struggles to become "good".  At the end he is turned back into a human becoming a great scientist - "he is now a great man of science, and can plan railroads, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth."

Although I do enjoy Victorian novels, I struggled to finish this one.  I found the long lists of words irritating and I did not like the religious overtones although I realise that The Water Babies is a moral tale aimed at Victorian children.  I found the book boring and would have given up had it not been for the reading challenges.  I can understand why this book went out of favour during the 20th century as there are many examples of insulting references to the Irish, Jews, Catholics and Americans. One example will demonstrate this.  "Did you never hear of the blessed St Brandan, how he preached to the wild Irish on the wild, Kerry coast, he and five other hermits, till they were weary and longed to rest?  For the wild Irish would not listen to them, or come to confession and to mass, but liked better to brew potheen, and dance the pater o'pee, and knock each other over the head with shillelaghs, and shoot each other from behind turf-dykes, and steal each other's cattle, and burn each other's homes."

However I did enjoy some of the descriptions and the part in the story when Tom's master Grimes gets his come uppance and is stuck in a chimney.

Although many 19th century novels can still be read and enjoyed today, I do not think this is not one of them.