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. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was the Dickens novel chosen by the "Lunch with Dickens" reading group for 2018.  This group meets every week in the Shetland Library in Lerwick starting the new year with a Dickens novel before moving on to works by other 19th century novelists. Although I have now left Shetland I am trying to read some books along with the group. 
Charles Dickens completed Little Dorrit in 1857 although it was set much earlier in the 1820s. The illustrations were done by Phiz.   The book was published in monthly instalments between December 1855 and June 1857 and was very popular with some 35,000 copies of the first number being sold. 

Little Dorrit of the title is Amy Dorrit who was born in the Marshalsea Prison where her family was imprisoned due to their father's debts.  The theme of prisons runs throughout the book encompassing both physical prisons in London and France and also mental and moral prisons.  Dickens deals with many themes in this book including poverty and riches, the class structure, the state of the civil service at the time and financial ruin caused by fraudulent investors. 

There is a huge cast of characters in Little Dorrit  including the Dorrit family, Arthur Clennam and his mother, the Meagles, Mr and Mrs Merdle, Rigaud, Miss Wade and others.  Some of the characters who stand out are Amy who works so hard providing for her father in prison but cannot admit that she is actually working as Mr Dorrit still considers himself to be a gentleman.  Amy is the only one of the Dorrit family I liked - her sister Fanny is a snob and her brother Edward a waster.  Many of the women in Little Dorrit are strange and seem to be caricatures rather than real women.  Some of these are Clennam's widowed mother who is confined to her wheelchair and his former girlfriend Flora who simpers and talks non-stop acting more like a girl in her teens than a mature woman. Miss Wade is very strange character and I am unsure if she adds anything to the book. I did like Mrs Clennam's servant Affery who is aware of unusual happenings in the house but too frightened of her husband to tell Clennam about these.  The convicted murderer Rigaud who tries to blackmail Mrs Clennam was another strange character of whom Claire Tomalin says "fails to convince at any point."

In addition to the main story about the Dorrits and Arthur Clennam, there are various sub-plots. The first part of the book is entitled "Poverty" and deals with the time when the Dorrits are in Marshalsea Prison.  The second part entitled "Riches" follows the Dorrits on their Grand Tour of Europe after Mr Dorrit is released from prison when it turns out he is actually an heir to a large fortune.  I did like the descriptions of London and the various locations abroad - Dickens is excellent at describing places so that you can picture them.  One example is Clennam's old house in London where his mother still lives.

"The gaunt rooms, deserted for years upon years, seemed to have settled down into a gloomy lethargy from which nothing could rouse them again.  The furniture, at once spare and lumbering, hid in the rooms rather than furnished them, and there was no colour in all the house; such colour as had ever been there, had long ago stared away on lost sunbeams - got itself absorbed, perhaps, into flowers, butterflies, plumage of birds, precious stones, what not."

Dickens's descriptions of the Marshalsea are based on his own  experience of this prison as a child when his father ended up here as a debtor. "Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the Borough of Southwark, on the left hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison.  It has stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it."

Amy does not enjoy her new life as a lady of leisure, and does not take part in the hectic social life on the continent instead preferring to sit and watch as this description from Venice illustrates.  "In this crowning unreality, where all the streets were paved with water, and where the deathlike stillness of the days and nights was broken by no sound but the softened ringing of church bells, the rippling of the current and the cry of the gondoliers turning the corners of the flowing streets, Little Dorrit, quite lost by her task being done, sat down to muse.  The family began a gay life, went here and there, and turned night into day; but, she was timid of joining in their gaieties, and only asked leave to be left alone."

Dickens's satire of the civil service, which he calls the Circumlocution Office, is cleverly written although a bit repetitive.  Nothing is ever achieved by this office and its reason for existence seems to be to seems to employ the useless sons of gentlemen (the Barnacles of the book). 

Overall the story is quite pessimistic but redeemed at the end by the love of Amy for Arthur.  The ending does tie everything up so we know what has happened to all the characters. I did not like this book as much as some of the other Dickens's novels I have read and feel that some judicious editing of the book would have improved it.  I did, however, enjoy the descriptions, some of the characters and the author's commentary on the society of the time.  I was glad I persevered although I would probably need to read the book again to work out some of the complicated plots.
Useful additional material about Dickens and his works:-
Charles Dickens a Life by Claire Tomalin

Friday, 12 January 2018

Christmas Stories by GMB

Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown (1921 - 1996) was published by The Perpetua Press in 1985 with a limited edition of 150 copies printed which were signed by the author, illustrator and printer.  George Mackay Brown was an Orcadian writer who lived in my hometown of Stromness, the Hamnavoe of his stories.  Stromness is a small town in Orkney,  nestling beneath Brinkies Brae, the hill which provides some shelter for the town.  Although George Mackay Brown rarely left his beloved Orkney, not all his writing was confined to Orkney as this collection demonstrates - the first story is set in Hamnavoe, the next two on an unnamed island and the final one in the Middle East.   
The first story "Haul of Winter Fish" is a magical Christmas story - the fishermen of Hamnavoe have caught no fish during December and the crofters are no better off.  A young boy tells his family he has seen a boat landing three baskets of fish on the pier.  His mother makes a fool of the boy.  However it turns out to be true.  "When the mother opened the door in the morning, upon the jet and crimson of dawn over Scapa, there were three brimming baskets of cod on the pier: enough to feed every house in the village." 
The second story "Christmas visitors" is a very sad tale of an old woman whose fisherman husband, Samuel, had been lost at sea 42 years ago.  However he came to visit her every Christmas except this one.  The story ends, "She is left with silence in the heart of her last winter: until the earth and the sea are one."
The third story "Miss Tait and Tommy and the Carol Singers" is a happier tale describing how Miss Tait changed from being a mean old woman to a friendly, generous one who invites the local children into her house to share exotic fruits and nuts.  
The final story in the collection is entitled "The Christmas Dove" and is set in the Middle East.  This is a version of the Christmas story and a fitting end to this book.  After various adventures the dove reaches a town where he sees the shepherd boy who had helped him.  "The boy stooped in at a dark door, where there was only a glim of light.  Shadowy animals moved about inside.  It was (thought the dove) the poorest house in the town.  A tall shadow, a man, bent over a kneeling shadow that held a bundle in her arms."
The themes Brown deals with in his writing are the universal themes of love, sorrow, loss, faith and poverty.  His language is beautiful and poetic as the following examples demonstrate:-
"And there you stood, sea-taken one, with the piece of torn net in your hand: speechless."
"Now the sun had moved down the sky, and as it touched the horizon a flush engulfed the desert.  Through an air red as wine the dove spied, far below, three travellers with laden camels."

To hear George Mackay Brown reading his poem "The Poet" follow this link to the Poetry Archive
Stromness, Orkney


Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Victorian Reading Challenge 2018

These are the books I am planning to read for the Victorian Reading Challenge organised by Becky's Book Reviews.  I am doing some of the suggested books from the Option C checklist.

A book published between 1851 and 1860 - Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1857)

A book published between 1871 and 1880 - Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy (1872)

A book with a place name in the title - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A book with a character name in the title - Emma by Jame Austen

A children's book - The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

A science fiction or fantasy book - 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

The Mistletoe Murder

P D James was often commissioned by newspapers to write short stories and four of the best were  published in 2016 in the book The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories which I chose to read for A Literary Christmas Challenge organised by In The Bookcase.  As P D James died in 2014 it was a pleasure to buy a new book of her work.

I have read most of P D James's crime novels and really enjoyed them.   It is quite difficult to write a good short story as the author has to develop characters and plots in addition to describing the settings but is restricted by the number of words s/he can use.  As P D James states in the preface to this book "The good short story is accordingly difficult to write well, but in this busy age it can provide one of the most satisfactory reading experiences."  I think that this book demonstrates that P D James could write excellent short stories too.

The first story in the book is "The Mistletoe Murder" which is set in a country house at Christmas during the Second World War. The narrator's description of the house immediately creates an atmosphere - "and then the moon moved from behind a cloud and the house was revealed; beauty, symmetry and mystery bathed in a white light."  The narrator is visiting her grandmother for Christmas.  Her cousin has also been invited in addition to another distant relation who is an antiques dealer and is to value her grandmother's coins.  Christmas Day passes quietly with the age old traditions of exchanging presents and eating Christmas lunch.  The next morning the antiques dealer is found dead in the locked library.  The local police believe the murderer had come in through the French windows - however the coins have not been taken. We eventually learn how the murder was committed and why. 

The second story entitled "A Very Commonplace Murder" was much darker than "The Mistletoe Murder".  The final two stories in the book involve a young Adam Dalgleish who features in many of P D James's novels. 

I really enjoyed this book and now plan to read The Lighthouse by P D James as it is sitting on my bookshelf!  I gave the rest of her novels away to a charity shop when I moved house recently.