Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

This is the 12th Jacqueline Wilson novel I’ve read for the challenge, and I usually like them a lot.  I found #110 The Illustrated Mum to be disappointing although that said, Wilson is very good at what she does, and this is still a good book – it’s just not my favourite.

The Illustrated Mum tells the story of Dolphin, age about 10, who lives with her older sister, Star, and their mum, Marigold. Marigold isn’t an attentive or stable parent – she can’t hold down a job, goes out for one drink and doesn’t come home until morning and has black and manic moods. Throughout the book, both Star and Dolphin struggle with what to tell outsiders and what to hide.

The words
Marigold stands out not just because of her wild behaviour, but because she has a lot of tattoos. It’s the theme of the book – each chapter is named after and based around a different tattoo. Marigold is described as:

a red-haired woman in halter top and shorts her white skin vividly tattooed, designs on her arms, her shoulders, her thighs, one ankle, even her foot.

It’s a fabulous picture but definitely out of the ordinary – you can see why Star, who is trying very hard to fit in at the high school, gets embarrassed by having a mum who is different, who stands out so much.

I had two problems with the tattoos. The first is thanks to the introduction, where Wilson explains that she had seen a woman with fabulous tattoos and two small girls, and based the character of Marigold on her. That gave a sour taste to the book for me, as though Wilson looked at the woman and assumed, because of the tattoos, that she couldn’t be happy or balanced. It’s perhaps unfair as Wilson’s books tend to follow this pattern, and the subjects in the book have come up before –  it’s quite a lot like Lola Rose in some ways, for example – so it’s not that Marigold is her only tattooed lady and also her only bad mother: there are a lot of struggling or outright abusive parents in Wilson’s work. But Marigold, as a woman with several tattoos, is rare in literature and I was disappointed that Wilson had made her tattoos a symptom of her problems, rather than – for example – a creative celebration.

The pictures
The other disappointment was also tattoo related. The Illustrated Mum is illustrated by Nick Sharratt, who is very good. I’ve mentioned his work for Wilson’s books in Double Act and he’s done several other Wilson novels, and the pictures definitely add something to the story, expanding the experience. 

The problem I have with this book that in the pictures which show a full body portrait of Marigold there aren’t enough tattoos. The only ones drawn are those explicitly mentioned in the book, and while that amounts to at least ten, there’s something off about the coverage in the picture. The tattoos are all drawn so separately, with no particular thought to how they work together, and look small and sparse on her skin. Marigold is described as a great tattoo designer, as ‘covered from head to foot with glorious tattoos’, and this just seems off. I was expecting something more like this where the tattoos work together more, and are brighter, or perhaps the full-body coverage like in this picture.

Combined, the two disappointments seemed to diminish Marigold. She doesn’t come across as a well-rounded character like her daughters, the other characters in the novel like Oliver, Micky or Michael, or the mother in Lola Rose. Marigold is her tattoos and her craziness, and that’s it.

While I was disappointed, the book is still a good read. Wilson has a talent for writing tough stories which I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a child. It’s a book for older readers – probably children Dolphin’s age, which is 10, or above. The language is straightforward but the themes are complex and might warrant discussion, depending on the child. Star in particular is in a very vulnerable position, and does not make the best decisions – I’d suggest an adult read the book carefully before giving it to a teen girl who craves nice things. All in all, I do recommend The Illustrated Mum, just not as whole heartedly as the other Jacqueline Wilson books I’ve read.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Cambridge – a beautiful day

Cambridge – a beautiful day

We’re back in the UK for a few days. It’s a bit of a frantic trip, but I did have one moment of quiet. We were in Cambridge at the weekend (we’re now in Yorkshire) and I met a friend for lunch. As it was sunny, we took an improvised picnic onto Jesus Green.

A wide green grassy area with trees in the distance on a sunny day.

This is what I miss about Cambridge. Sitting on the common on a beautiful day when the whole city seems to have come out to play. You only get that in urban areas where people don’t have their own little patch of grass to sit on at home.

My friend and I are working on a shared knitting project – blanket squares – so it seems apt that we found this on the way home.

Close up shot of knitting wrapped around a lamp postA knitter or knitting group have been very busy dressing all the lamp posts in the avenue on Jesus Green. It looks amazing. It’s hard to photograph it well. I’m incredibly curious as to which knitting group did this – I knew people in several in the city, and I’d love to congratulate the folks behind it!

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Since I last read #120 The Day of the Triffids, I’ve read several other books by John Wyndham. This a typical example of his work – the world ends, and everyone does, in fact, keep calm and carry on.

At the start of The Day of the Triffids, humanity has developed triffids, fabulous oil-bearing plants which also happen to have a lethal sting. Oh, and they can walk. When a meteor shower leaves approximately 99.9% of the population blind, hummanity is suddenly at serious risk – not only from the triffids. The main character, Bill Masen, one of the few sighted people left, is set adrift in this collapsing world.

How the world ends
First published in 1951, The Day of the Triffids is part adventure story and part philosophical treatise. The characters are erudite and educated, and adapt quickly and calmly to the situation – no one seems to run about screaming, they either kill themselves quietly and efficiently, die accidentally or set about coping. It’s astonishing, really, and somewhat unsettling. Bill comments, at one point, that he’s the only person looking for someone after the collapse – every other character seems to have shucked off all their connections on the day the disaster struck.

The obvious Big Read book to compare this to is Stephen King’s The Stand. While both books deal with the end of life as we know it and the collapse of society, The Stand dwells more on the horrors of the situation and shows a broader cross-section of society. In The Stand, people also retain their connection to their former lives, they’re tied to their homes, they want to bury their dead. They still have loves and hates, prejudices and joys left from before the disaster. In The Day of the Triffids, everyone seems to be born anew on the day of the destruction – the ties to their former lives seem superficial and no one seems to mourn much, even when their entire family has been wiped out. Conveniently, most of the survivors don’t have any family.

The Day of the Triffids presents a genteel view of the end of the world. Despite the desperation which must be caused by 95% of the world waking up suddenly without sight, there’s little violence. The Stand, to my mind, is more of a horror story – bad stuff just keeps on happening. And the disaster (a super-flu) seems horribly plausible – mobile, murderous plants plus a sight-destroying comet? Not so much.

Both books also stop just when – in my mind – things get interesting. I’m intensely curious about how the world being set up turns out, but neither author gets much beyond the first new generation – although Wyndham does do it in about a quarter of the pages.

Disabled, ruined, dead
For me, the horror of The Day of the Triffids lies primarily in what it says about the society Wyndham was living in. The people blinded by the comet are absolutely disposable – they’re ruined, entirely. They can’t in any way get on without a sighted person. Many of them kill themselves – Bill does nothing to stop this, he rather agrees with it as a course of action. Pretty much every sighted character has a name, only a very few of the blinded characters do – perhaps four in the whole book. As a view of people with disabilities, it’s appalling – and it’s more shocking how quickly the sighted characters give up on the blinded ones.

Apart from being upsetting, this seemed astonishingly unrealistic. I can understand some sighted characters being set adrift alone, but almost every character is willing to discard former friends, neighbours, family as soon as they lose their sight. It’s absolutely bizarre – there’s more nuance and regret in most zombie films than in this book.

Naturally, it’s not just people with disabilities who come under fire. Wyndham is not good about women. The main female character is, of course, the love interest, and the female-led colony is the one doomed to destruction. In Triffids we’re treated to a 3-page rant by a male character explaining that women are keeping themselves down, and need to snap out of it and start being capable and fixing engines. It is, it turns out, women’s faults that they’ve not been engineers before the war as they proved themselves capable during it. He does not address why they are no longer in those jobs now peace has resumed.

The woman this is aimed at objects, argues, is shouted down and leaves. It’s not always possible to tell whether a character is speaking for the author, but in Triffids, I think it’s fair to assume that if Bill agrees, Wyndham agrees. Bill agrees – he simply points out that the speaker should have been more tactful. It’s an appalling misrepresentation of the social situation – and an oddly limited view, coming from a character with poor or working class roots who should have known full well that most women in Britain didn’t have the option of handing over either hard physical work or bread-winning to a man. In fact, even middle-class women seem to have been working physically harder at home than their husbands would have pushing paper in an office.

The Day of the Triffids isn’t, to my mind, Wyndham’s best book, but it is certainly his best-known book, and I can see why. Written during the shift from World War to Cold War, it confirms a number of social prejudices and, even as London falls, holds British values up as worthwhile, strong and good. I can imagine that, at the time, it was both shocking and reassuring, that it pandered to the fears current at the time and also gave a road map out of them.

To me, now, having read so much other apocalyptic fiction it seems lazy – whole swathes of the population, 95% of it, is ignored and unrepresented. Who is blinded and who isn’t doesn’t seem to have been thought through properly – and the numbers are too small, anyway. I feel that Wyndham had an idea he wanted to explore, and did it – it’s almost a personal fantasy or a cod-philosophy book. It may be early sci-fi, and it’s certainly gripping in a car-crash kind of way, but it’s not a book I strongly recommend.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Zurich for knitters

Zurich for knitters

I told you we were going to Zurich but I never told you we got there or what we did. Zurich is one of Switzerland’s largest cities, which means it’s the size of a large town anywhere else. It’s clean and safe and flat and a little bit dull (maybe that’s my prejudices at work). Most of the interesting things to see are within walking distance of the train station or the ferry station (which are about 1km from each other) so that’s a good place to start.

Zurich is a rich town – it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the world and the main shopping street reflects that – it’s Gucci, Armani and Tiffany’s all the way. Step into the side streets and things rapidly become more affordable – if you’re earning in Swiss francs. While the price of a loaf of bread has barely changed in 20 years, currency fluctuations mean that Zurich is expensive for foreign tourists right now.

Zurich is just 400m above sea level and in a relatively flat part of the country. It’s a beautiful place to visit, much like Geneva, with charming old stone buildings, a lovely lake – good for swimming – and ski slopes within a couple of hours’ drive.

As usual, I had my knitting cap on, but this town is not the best place to visit as a knitter – while I’m sure there’s a history of knitting right here, it’s not out in the open, hidden by glossy shops and hand-carved wooden cows. As a result, of the four things on this list only two have knitting in focus. Sorry about that – but they do add up to a very good weekend trip.

1. Haus Hiltl (restaurant)
Hiltl claims to be the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, and it’s certainly one of the very best I’ve ever been in. It isn’t a budget-breaking fancy restaurant, and frankly I’m glad.

We went for lunch on a weekday and chose to have the buffet. It’s an amazing spread of probably a hundred vegetarian dishes, recipes from around the world. Each dish is thoroughly labelled, so you’ve still got a good, clear choice if you’re vegan, gluten free, allergic to nuts, etc. There’s hot and cold foods, salads and dessert. Everything we tried was either good or excellent, and you pay by weight so you can pop in for a snack or eat for a week.

Tables on the street outside Restaurant Hiltl

It’s also right in the city centre and very easy to find. When we went, it was too chilly to sit outside so these tables are empty – but inside it was all bustle! The restaurant does club nights, too, although we didn’t come back for one of those.

2. The Swiss National Museum
Switzerland is really mixed place, and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich does a good job of exposing and discussing some of the variety. For example:

  • Switzerland’s famous for being neutral – after spending 500 years of fighting absolutely everybody 
  • Referendums can make the country really progressive – but also mean that women only got complete sufferage in the 1970s
  • Two key industries are cutting-edge biotech and dairy farming

My top tip is to go round the museum in the direction they intend. The signage wasn’t clear so we did it backwards, which was a little confusing.

An old horse drawn post carriage, mostly painted bright yellow

No photos inside the museum, so this is the only shot I’ve got – doesn’t the colour match the modern post buses perfectly? It’s an original post bus, from when that meant horses, and really doesn’t look at all comfortable.

For knitters, there were a number of displays of Swiss textiles and costumes which were very interesting. Not much actual knitting – as we all know by now, it’s often left out of museum displays as it’s serviceable and wears out rather than being kept for best – but there were some everyday knitting and spinning tools from the 18th or 19th century and a small number of handknits.

I particularly liked the exhibition on Switzerland and Foreigners – I’m sure you can guess why. Switzerland has a very high percentage of foreign workers, over 20% of the population aren’t Swiss and in the Geneva region it’s over 30% and, on the flip side, around 1 in 10 Swiss citizens live outside Switzerland. Naturally this creates some tensions, and the foreigners bring their own racism and prejudices with them – it’s certainly not just the Swiss being intolerant of incomers, the incomers are fairly intolerant of the Swiss and each other, too.

3. Hand Art yarn shop
Absolutely packed with yarn, the staff were friendly and let me browse as long as I liked, even though it was close to closing time. Hand Art is at 10 Neumarkt, in Zurich’s old town, so it’s a pretty stroll to get there, too.

Hand Art yarn shop in Zurich with windows full of yarn

I did not have enough German to ask who had knit all these gorgeous sweaters – from here it looks like an upscale clothes boutique but inside…

A rainbow of yarn inside Hand Art Zurich

Can you believe I only bought 3 balls of yarn? Yeah, me neither. But it’s true!

There are several other yarn shops in Zurich – the best list I found is on a Zurich knitting group site – but we didn’t get to any of them. Honestly, this was enough! The yarn in Zurich isn’t that different from anywhere else in Switzerland, and the range in Hand Art was spectacular.

4. Camping Fischer’s Fritz
This camp site is right by the lake and a flat 4km walk from the city centre, mostly through parks and gardens. The facilities aren’t exciting but are adequate – clean and plentiful loos and showers plus lake swimming in summer. Seriously, check out the view from our van:

A row boat rests in a quiet tiny bay with Lake Zurich in the background

Here it is again, from inside the van:

View of Lake Zurich in the wet from a caravan window. Kindle in the foreground and part of a duvet is visible

Gorgeous! All in all, Zurich was charming and it’s a place I’d be happy to live one day.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

A gift from a friend, my paperback edition of #45 Brideshead Revisited has been battered by other hands. In its heavily used state, and with a picture of gowned students on the front, it seems a very suitable vehicle for this nostalgic book.

Brideshead Revisited starts in the middle of the Second World War, with the narrator, Charles Ryder, visiting somewhere which was precious to him in the free and easy years between the wars. It’s a reflective, period piece, and seemed like a good follow on from the trenches of Birdsong

A coming of age novel, Brideshead Revisited opens when Charles, age about 40, is unexpectedly confronted with his past, and reflects on the steps which brought him to that moment. He tells the story of the fascinating Marchmains, who’ve shaped his life, directly and indirectly, since he was befriended by the second son, Sebastian, in his first term at Oxford

Brideshead is a deeply reflective novel, looking back and never forward, and I think this is a product of the time when it was written. Waugh apparently wrote the book while convalescing from a wound in 1945 – by which point he, like Charles, like the rest of Europe, was no doubt heartily sick of the war and all it had wrought.

Aristocratic sinners
The Marchmains are mostly charming and all fatally flawed. None of them can quite function properly in the society that they’ve been set in. Partly, this is due to their own oddities, but partly its their religion. One of the sisters marries down, and the explanation is:

there was this faint shadow on her which unfitted her for the highest honours; there was also her religion

The faint shadow is family scandal, but it’s reiterated that:

wherever she turned it seemed her religion stood as a barrier between her and her natural goal

It seems to me – and this may be over-simplifying things but I didn’t like the book enough to care to do a deeper analysis – that it’s their Catholicism which damns them, literally and figuratively. They’re all sinners, bound for hell one way or another, and their Catholicism, a minority religion among the English upper classes, sets them apart from those around them, sets their morals at odds with the common line.

Catholics in trouble
It’s a very delicate, genteel Catholicism, inviting the cardinal for tea in the drawing room after mass. I’m used to finding a rawer, more challenging Catholicism in books – the passion and pain of The Thorn Birds, for example, or the unforgiving, granite faith which provides a backdrop to quite a lot of modern Irish literature, from chick lit to literary fiction.

For me, it’s unusual to see the Catholics on the side of immorality. The church has been influencing or dictating the nature of good and evil in Europe for close on 2000 years, and most authors seem to respect that – they fight the head on, arguing or showing that this is misguided, that is cruel and these people are corrupt. Waugh seems to be casting the entire faith as a social problem.

Further, it’s not entirely clear what the alternative is supposed to be. Charles doesn’t have a particular faith or strong lack of faith to guide him and his actions are as flawed as the rest. By asking this big question and coming up with no answer, the novel seems hopeless and hollow, all the thunder of a fear-sale-spiel with none of the dramatic solution.

I didn’t like any of the characters much. I didn’t care for the Marchmains, all repellent in their own way. Cordelia, who seemed the best of the bunch, was very much a minor character, and slipped from an irritatingly fey childhood to bland adulthood. I didn’t like any of the Oxford crowd, snotty little posh boys. I didn’t like Charles’ father, and although the awfulness of the father did make me feel more kindly towards Charles, that dissipated when I saw how he treated his wife and children.

Perhaps I’m too alienated from the mores of the time to sympathize, but the whole book felt bitter to me. Not just bittersweet, in the way that remembering something loved and lost is, but bitter and perhaps angry, as when an adult looks back and realises that, as a child, they were sold glitter disguised as gold. When I didn’t want to slap Charles, I did feel sorry for him – he had no hope, poor duck, of ever coming right after that first corrupting contact with the charming, fascinating, destructive Marchmains.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Knit Your Socks on Straight by Alice Curtis

Knit Your Socks on Straight by Alice Curtis

One of the things I keep learning about knitting is that there’s always more to learn about knitting. Knitting socks on straight needles seems like an enormous faff to me – and yet someone wrote a whole book about it! Why? I needed to know, so immediately requested a review copy.

Luckily, Alice Curtis opens her book, Knit Your Socks on Straight with an explanation of where she’s coming from and what the book is about. As a yarn store owner, she encountered a fear of knitting in the round, and developed sock patterns to help her clients / students knit around that fear.

Knitting your first socks
I don’t imagine that beginner sock knitters are the only people who will buy this book, but a book like Knit Your Socks on Straight does need to cater to beginners. Curtis opens the book with several pages of chat which evolves into a technique section. The section is illustrated, but I would say not thoroughly enough – I couldn’t follow her cast on description, and I know how to do it.

However, I do like the way she talks you through the different options she’ll use (cast on, heel and toe, for example) and explains why you might choose each one. A lot of beginner sock patterns simply instruct, which means that the knitter has to take everything on trust – I know I wasn’t that trusting, and got in an awful pickle with my first sock as a result of thinking that can’t possibly be right. The patterns in this book also start with simple designs and move to more complex ones, which some beginners may find useful.

What about the seams?
Socks with seams sounds like a bad idea, but Curtis tackles it head on. She’s developed – or reinvented, or adapted – a method of seaming which seems to be both simple to do and comfortable to wear. (It’s a crochet seam, for the curious.) However, her smartest move is to make the seam a design feature. Socks are seamed up on the outside, where the seam won’t rub, and the seam is part of the design. It’s a cat-flap moment, and makes the book much more interesting.

Sadly, this is a book that might have been better as a blog post. The patterns are good, but not as exciting as that single page explaining the secret to socks on straight. There are 20 patterns in the book, by my count, and 4 of them seem to be variations on stocking stitch socks with side seams. Earlier, Curtis did a great job of explaining each choice and why it was made, here she’s presenting 4 versions of the same sock, just in different sizes and yarn weights.

The rest of the patterns are pretty good. They’re clearly explained, well-illustrated (although it’s not always clear where the seams are). A new sock knitter will probably find plenty to enjoy. I didn’t find anything I wanted to knit but this may be because I am jaded. The patterns are a mix of quirky novelty sock designs and more discreet textured patterns – there’s probably something here for everyone, and there are certainly a couple of patterns I would happily wear.

I do find it odd that Curtis chose to knit all the patterns from the cuff down. It seems like an odd limitation – sideways socks are exciting, new, and open up a whole different set of options. I expected at least one sideways sock or something with an interesting construction but this is purely a technique shift. On that basis, I feel that it would have been a kindness for Curtis to cover translating patterns from in the round to on straights, but I didn’t find anything on that topic.

Overall, the book is a good, if limited, and I think it fills a gap in the market. While I think that almost any knitter can learn to use DPNs, I don’t for a minute imagine they would all like it – and knitting, above all, should be enjoyable. Curtis’s book is a good choice for any knitter who wants to make socks without knitting in the round.

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Storey. You can see their page about Knit Your Socks on Straight here.

Ne’er cast a clout until May is out

Ne’er cast a clout until May is out

This is most of my knitting output for the year to date. Luckily K is taking the old saying seriously, so they’ll probably be in use for a while yet.

Hand knit socks in orangey red marled yarn, shown on hairy white legs Hand knit socks pink and black pseudo Fair Isle yarn, shown on hairy white legs Hand knit socks in in transitioning shades of brown and grey, shown on hairy white legs

Knitting socks is like a magic trick. It’s actually – and non-knitters never believe this – really very simple when you know how it’s done. Most people with the coordination to use a computer can knit a plain sock like the ones above. As sock knitting looks ferociously complicated and socks are easily portable, it’s a great party trick.

I’ve been sent a review copy of a new sock knitting book – Knit Your Socks On Straight – which takes some of the trauma out of sock knitting by doing away with the double pointed needles. If you want to knit a sock, but don’t like knitting in the round, this could be the book for you. I’ll post my review on Wednesday, so check back later in the week for the full story.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes

The winner of my you choose what I read poll, #13 Birdsong is clearly enormously popular. Checking on Amazon, it’s still getting fresh reviews every week or so, even 20 years after its publication. I didn’t love it.

My copy – and I should really stop reading the back of books, I hadn’t realised this was an advantage to ebooks – says: “A brilliant, harrowing tale of love and war” which is immediately followed by “…among the most stirringly erotic I have read for years”. As a combination, those two sentences are quite off-putting. Fortunately, perhaps, the novel isn’t erotic (to my mind) and the sections are quite distinct – the ‘erotic’ section is entirely separate from the war section.

Birdsong is a harrowing tale of war – it’s mostly set in northern France, in the trenches of the First World War. It’s not for the faint of heart – the descriptions are necessarily gruesome and both characters and circumstance can be brutal. However, I feel like the book was well researched and well-written – I’d prefer to read All Quiet on the Western Front, but Birdsong isn’t bad.

The largest part of the book deals with soldiers on the front line, in the trenches, during the First World War. The whole war is covered, from 1914 to peace in 1918, and the book does an excellent job of describing shifts in attitude and tactics, the arcs of emotion and events which shaped the internal and external worlds of the soldiers at the front.

It’s grim – it’s nearly impossible to write a book on this topic and not be grim. Death is so prevalent in the books that you start to wonder how anyone could survive, not just physically but mentally, how soldiers could go through months and years of this, of watching everyone and everything around them be destroyed, and still be able to crack a joke, visit a pub or scrounge some brandy.

That they did is historical fact, and Faulkes makes the whole thing very plausible. The emotional narrative of the soldiers at war is convincing and understandable. Even the characters I didn’t care for – most of them – I wanted to survive. And yet, you know it’s impossible, so even as a reader you can find yourself detaching, deciding not to care about these characters and not quite daring to hope that these others will be OK.

The ups and downs were plausible too – one of the most memorable moments in the book, for me, was a letter from home, bringing bad news. It seemed that all the ills in the world must be concentrated on this front line, that the carnage must have sucked up all the disaster lying around, and everywhere else must be safe – and yet that’s never the case. Things can always get worse, and there’s no natural justice balancing things out so that no one gets more than a certain quota of grief.

The rest
Where the book falls down, I feel, is the bits which aren’t about war. The novel starts in 1910, in the Somme area of norther France which saw such heavy fighting only a few years later. It’s a really interesting idea – to show the ordinary before the war, the calm before the storm, and Faulkes writes well. Unfortunately, the entire section didn’t interest me. It centers around a young man and a love affair. This is the allegedly erotic bit and frankly, it wasn’t. I read a lot of romance novels, and I’ve read some absolutely awful purple prose. Faulkes isn’t the worst offender, but this really isn’t good either. The love story seems so arbitrary, every character seemed unsympathetic, and I didn’t really believe that any of them would act the way they did.

The resolution to the section – and the whole love story – was unsatisfactory. I almost thought that the characters need never have spoken to each other at all, as they spent so much time not bothering to tell each other things and going on significant glances and repressed sighs.

In addition to the 1910 section, there’s another arc, set in 1978. I didn’t like that, either. It didn’t really do its job of giving the reader the benefit of hindsight and the plot of that section is deplorably pot-boilery. It reads like a cut scene from a 1980s romance, like The Shell Seekers and is best forgotten quickly.

It’s hard to summarize my feelings about Birdsong. I didn’t love it, I don’t particularly recommend it, but bits of it were good so I wouldn’t stop you reading it either. It’s a book which, while I didn’t love it myself, I can see other people enjoying. I don’t think I’d read another Faulkes, but I don’t regret reading this one.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

La Givrine, Vaud

La Givrine, Vaud

If you’ve ever come out and stayed with my family in Switzerland, you’ve probably been up to La Givrine, up in the Jura. It’s at about 1200m above sea level, so the season is quite different than down by the lake and it’s pretty all year round – plus, there are at least 3 restaurants which do good food, and one which does excellent fondues.

Low hills (as we're already up a mountain) withfull snow and trees under a blue sky.






Mostly grass, some green, some brown, patches of snow and trees under a mostly blue sky


The white speckles you can see are crocuses – they’re absolutely everywhere at the moment, in their thousands. The snow’s hanging on late this year, but it’s nearly gone – there’s only these patches in sheltered spots left. Some years they don’t get enough snow to open the ski lifts, but this year the skiing was good.

If you’re in the area, it’s a very pretty place to visit – there’s a train up from Nyon, and an easy walk to several restaurants. The easiest is 20m – there’s a restaurant right at the train station – but our favourite is the the Couvaloup de Crans, about 2km / 40 minutes up the mountain.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Published in 1951, #173 The Old Man and the Sea is a short book and a quick read. The novel tells the story of Santiago, the eponymous Old Man, and one particular, momentous, solo fishing trip in a long career as a fisherman.

It’s a simple book, but the writing is tight and evocative, easy to get into. I don’t have a strong opinion about this book – I enjoyed the story well enough to read it quickly, but I didn’t love it and don’t expect to read it again.

Who is Hemingway?
I can’t remember the last Hemingway I read, but whatever it was, it left a bad taste as I had a hazy mistrust of him and all his works. Research suggests he is widely considered a macho misogynist (although critics are disputing or revising that). I don’t have a clear opinion after having read The Old Man and the Sea as there are no women in it – a point I don’t argue with as there are very few characters. For most of the hundred or so pages, it is, in fact, just the old man and the sea.

The old man does talk about the sea as feminine – makes a point of it, in fact, being la mar not el mar – and it’s not a flattering comparison. But the sea can kill you easily, if you go out in a small skiff, and the relationship certainly isn’t equal so I don’t feel it’s fair to expect some kind of evolved and nuanced comparison. The sea being a cruel mistress does not have to mean that all women are cruel and capricious.

My other reason for mistrusting Hemingway is the book – it reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha in that it seems to be about a very intense, very private world which – on the basis of the text alone – I believe the author was never part of. Having read a little about him, it seems that he spent a lot of his life hunting and fishing, and a fair amount of it in Cuba, so perhaps that was unfair.

I don’t get it
The other problem I had with the book was not at all Hemingway’s fault. The copy I read is out of my parents’ collection, a 1970s paperback with a slightly unfortunate cover (the old man appears to be wearing Cuba as a hat). The back of the book says only:

Towards the end of his life Hemingway wrote a novel so simple and yet so profound that it is perhaps one of the greatest stories ever told.

In 1954 shortly after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The message was in huge type, hard to avoid and with no room for ambiguity – clearly, we’re supposed to draw the conclusion that The Old Man and the Sea is, in fact, one of the best books ever.

If it is, I’ve no idea why.

I did enjoy the story, as a story. I can picture the Old Man, I can picture the sea. I certainly didn’t hate the book. Like his contemporary, F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway has a way with language – it’s the measured, careful prose which I associate with rewriting drafts by hand and wanting to leave out any unnecessary words as a result.

I can see why the novel is a great boon to scholars – it’s short and there’s a lot in it, a lot to pick apart because you can see symbolism in every paragraph. Probably the fact that the Old Man calls all fish of a certain type tuna, whether they are or not, can be read as a criticism of the imposed classifications of science on the natural rhythms and language of the people, and the flying fish are a gift from god and the young boy is symbolic of both redemption and the future and… and… But you can do this with any book, any text, if you’ve got the passion for it – I’m fairly confident that more time, energy and words have been spent on dissecting Harry Potter than Hemingway so I don’t think that’s enough to make this great.

Further, Hemingway’s novel seems to me to fall foul of the criticisms leveled at Austen – it’s narrow, it’s provincial, it’s a small story about small people. I mean, I’m all in favour of going deep with a novel, but why is a story about fishing more profound than a story about marriage or mothering or cross stitch? Hemingway may not, himself, have been the essence of macho misogyny, but the literary gatekeepers of his time and after certainly were, at least in their collective form, and for me at least, that makes their seal of approval a dark mark indeed.

Essentially, I’m lost. I’m looking for something which perhaps isn’t there, or which I’ve seen over again (I have been reading The Greats in high concentration for a year now) and dismissed. I can’t spot the specialness. I want footnotes for the back of the book, dammit. I want to know what makes this book better than Sense and Sensibility or Small Gods, because I really can’t see it and looking probably ruined the book for me.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.