Tag Archives: 1950s

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews and the review will be split over several posts.

Reading #1 The Lord of the Rings is a slow process for me. Clearly, a lot of people love this book very much. I really don’t understand why, but I would be glad if you could tell me what it is you like.

Book One is the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows on directly from The Hobbit – well, sort of. Bilbo has handed over the adventuring to his nephew, Frodo. Advised by Gandalf to quit the Shire, he packs up a few friends and a few ponies and heads into the dark and magical woods.

The timings
After the adventures in The Hobbit, Bilbo waits 60 years before handing the ring of the title onto his successor, and Frodo waits another 30 years before setting out on the next adventure. In the mean time, nothing has changed whatsoever in Middle Earth. And everyone’s still alive, apart from one grouchy relative and two dwarves.

I don’t understand why the lifespans are so extended. It doesn’t add anything to the story as nothing has changed – at least so far. There’s no evidence of 90 years of progress in any of the places we’ve visited. Also, humans (at least, I assume Gandalf is human) seem to live for ages as well. What’s the point of having super-human supernatural races if humans are just as good?

The races
As in The Hobbit, each race has distinct characteristics and individuals are slave to them. It seems like lazy world-building, but perhaps Tolkien is making some meta point about how he views the world. There aren’t enough humans in Book One to provide a test, but in The Hobbit it seemed that humans were allowed to vary, having no one type, so I think it’s a lack of detail. And, of course, some races are good and some are bad and no one shall ever swap sides.

The woman
There is a woman in Book One. Her name is Goldberry and she is as beautiful as I don’t know what. She’s a very gentle river goddess, so far as I can tell, and married to the god of the forest. She’s a hostess, and says nothing that doesn’t relate to her guests’ comfort.

Another woman is mentioned, an elf maid who is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She’s captured by a human man who has determined to own her. There’s something really off about this, and even Tolkien calls their first embrace ‘her doom’. This is glossed over and she gives up her immortality for him and they die happily ever after.

The poetry
I don’t like it. I like poetry by other poets. I don’t like Tolkien’s comic songs, I don’t like the elf-lore, I don’t like the historical ballads. They all seem pale imitations of the real thing – they are a bit soppy and far too nice. I remember reading Beowulf at school, and it’s it’s strange and beautiful, even in translation. This is a bowdlerised version.

The luck
One trait not mentioned, is that hobbits are incredibly lucky. In Book One, Frodo and friends get rescued at least three times. On each occasion, the timing is critical. A few minutes more and everything would have been lost. Fortunately, someone turns up and saves them each time. In once case, this is literally the only other person for a hundred miles. How lucky! How unsatisfying.

Sam’s servile attitude
It’s bugging the crap out of me. I really don’t understand why there’s this ongoing distinction between the different hobbits. And given that Sam is so low-class and servile, who are Merry and Pippin? And why haven’t they brought valets?

The economy
I don’t understand how hobbit society survives. What has Frodo been living off for all these years? Bilbo’s gold from his adventure? What about everyone else? Where do things like ponies come from? They actually pay for a pony in this book, and it gives the reader a glimpse of the economy. A pony costs about 4 silver pennies, and that’s a lot of money to working folk. And yet, throughout The Hobbit, people scratching a living in the wilderness gave ponies away like water. So who is making what, in Middle Earth? And who does all the cooking and cleaning?

The geography
Who makes all these paths? Who maintains them?

What I liked
I am growing fond of the hobbits – I feel like they could be rounded characters, if they were allowed. I also liked Strider (Aragorn). He’s been my favourite character in every incarnation of this story I’ve encountered. I don’t know why, but he’s less frustrating that the rest of the crew. I liked the barrow wraiths, and thought they were a good villain. I really liked the image of the river taking the form of foam horses, and sweeping off the threat. I quite like the Nasgul. They have a lot to put up with. I was sad to encounter the trolls from The Hobbit again. They were some of my favourite characters in that book and deserved a better fate. (I also don’t understand how trolls work, seeing as they can’t ever stand daylight? Not a good evolutionary tactic for creatures that live above ground…)

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.

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a sort of prologue

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a sort of prologue

When I started the challenge, I thought that #1 The Lord of the Rings was the title of the first volume in a trilogy. I was corrected by a friend: it refers to the whole trilogy. Starting to read, I was corrected again. It’s not, says my edition, a trilogy but actually one novel told in six books, commonly split over three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

I’m not a fan of Tolkien’s works, as you’ll have noticed from my review of The Hobbit. From my prejudiced and unhappy viewpoint, it seems unfair that he not only got the top spot, he did it with three (or six, depending on your perspective) books disguised as one. I had to drag myself through The Hobbit, so I thought I’d help myself (and you) out by reviewing the books in chunks, as I read them. This means that although there are no spoilers in this post, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews. Either that or I’ll have nothing to say by the end. 

In the beginning
I bought the three volumes of Lord of the Rings on Kindle, as they were £1.99 each at the time, and K wanted to reread them. I then realised I had to go and read The Hobbit, as the blasted thing is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so it was a fair while before I opened the ebook. And then even longer before I got to the first chapter.

One advantage of reading a book on Kindle, is that the Paperwhite makes a good guess at how long you’ve got left in a chapter or the whole book. It’s easily tricked by appendices, but it’s pretty good overall. According to my Kindle, I had an hour of reading between the cover of my edition of The Fellowship of the Ring and the start of the first chapter. An hour! Fully 10% of the material in the book is before Chapter One. It’s partly a long discourse on who changed what when, partly Tolkein’s notes to the reader, and partly a long and involved history of the made-up travels of the non-existent original sources that are the imaginary fore-runners to this work of fiction.

Apart from a short ‘previously in The Hobbit‘, all this stuff should have been at the end of the last volume. It’s interesting stuff, but by no means essential. And, in his notes to the second edition, Tolkien spoils his own books. He tells you that so-and-so is bad and meets such-and-such fate, that this happens and that happens. I’ve played through the whole LEGO Lord of the Rings game, so I don’t care about spoilers at this point, but I also know enough to realise at least a couple of these things should have been surprising. So I’m already not happy with either Tolkien or his editor.

Getting to the first page was exhausting. I think I’ll break the six-book series into 7 posts, this being the first. I’ll launch into Book One, after I’ve had a nap and a third breakfast, hobbit style.

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.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

I didn’t like #9 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis when I was a kid. I read most of the Narnia books eventually but probably only once or twice each, simply because they were there. So unlike many of the books I’ve reread for this challenge, I was pleasantly surprised. The book wasn’t bad – problematic, of course – but didn’t seem to justify my strong dislike at the time.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of four children. Evacuated during the Second World War, they find themselves in a mysterious old house. Exploring, they come across a magical wardrobe, which acts as a door to another realm. Narnia, the land through the wardrobe, is a magical place full of talking animals, dryads and magic, where giants walk the land and people can be turned to stone in an instant. The children must fight to break the land free from its 100 year winter.

Unusually, I remember reading the Narnia Chronicles. We only had odd copies, sort of passing through, but my brother had a friend whose parents were friends with my parents. If they’d had a child older than my brother, it might have been perfect. As it was, I was often bored at their house. I don’t remember them having other kids’ books – probably those were kept in the boys’ rooms – but the Narnia ones were on the landing, where I could hide and read. They were surrounded by adult books, second shelf from the bottom on a white floor-to-ceiling book shelf at the top of the stairs.

I didn’t like the books much to start with, and I don’t, having reread this one, know why. I did like The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew was the next best one. Otherwise, I wasn’t interested, and I went off them entirely when, age about 12, I discovered that they were a Christian allegory, with Aslan standing in for Jesus. Learning that made me feel like I’d been duped.

The religious elements also bother me as an adult. Everyone ‘just knows’ that Aslan is special, and good and evil are determined pretty much entirely by gut feeling. You don’t need to see the traitor betray their friends because you’ll get a gut feeling. You can tell if someone has been tainted by evil by looking into their eyes. I think this is horrific, for two reasons. One, it suggests that if you get a strong bad feeling about someone, they are evil. Two, it completely excludes anyone who doesn’t feel a rapture walking into a church, suggesting that if you don’t, this religion is not for you. What I’m saying, I guess, is that as propaganda it seems poorly aimed and poorly launched.

The the sexism, the talking animals and the real problem
As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, it’s no great surprise that it’s sexist in an Enid Blyton way. The girls go on all the adventures, and step back when one person needs to fight something and step forward when one person needs to be tender or weep. Lewis says things like “battles are ugly when women fight”, as though they were so pretty when it’s all boys together.

The talking animals are inconsistent, as is typical, but more worryingly the magical creatures are used to a line between good and evil, putting some races on one side and some on the other. It’s a lazy, racist thing to do. It’s deterministic, as well – the villain is villainous because “There isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch…that’s why she’s bad all through.” She’s half Jinn (descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, apparently) and half giant. So she must be bad. Given it’s apparently as inevitable as a rock falling downwards (more so, I’m sure there are levitation spells in Narnia) it seems unfair to punish her so severely.

But none of this is unexpected, given the age and religious overtones. The real problem, to my mind, with this book is that there’s no strong positive to balance these flaws. All the characters are a bit wet. The villain is villainous, but ineffectual. Aslan is omnipotent. One child is pegged as evil from the get go, and does moderately evil (thoughtless) things. The others are good and do good things. Everything is, as predicted ‘finally defeated before bedtime’. At no point did I wonder if the ending would be other than happy. At no point did I think any of the characters were in real peril. Plus, they don’t ever seem to change, except through a magic conversion. There’s no growth or character development even across the series, if I remember correctly. The book just isn’t that good, although Narnia is an interesting world to visit.

I’m not sorry I read the book. It only took an hour to get through the whole thing, so it wasn’t a big investment. But I don’t really recommend it.

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.

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

I first read #37 A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute about 12 months before I started doing the challenge, so it’s taken me a while to pick it up again, even though I enjoyed it the first time.

A Town Like Alice is a love story crossed with an epic war story. It’s the story of Jean Paget, who treats her remarkable life with an almost overwhelming degree of pragmatism and common sense. It switches rapidly between her brutal treatment as a prisoner of war in Malaya, a comfortable life in England and a new existence in the Australian outback. It covers an astonishing sweep of locations and places, and is hard to describe without giving too much of the game away.

A woman’s war
Jean Paget spends the Second World War as a prisoner of the Japanese in British Malaya (now part of Malaysia). The story of her sufferings is, according to the author. based on an account he heard from a Dutch woman of her experiences in Sumatra, and other war experiences are also apparently based on stories told to the author by the people who lived them.

It brings up an interesting point. Reading the book in 2013, the Second World War is so far away that it’s truly history to me. Anyone under 70 won’t have lived through it, anyone under 80 probably won’t remember much of it. But when A Town Like Alice was first published in 1950, the war was fresh and recent. Bombed out buildings still lined streets all over Europe and rationing would last another four years in the UK.

A Town Like Alice is unusual in that it focuses on a woman’s war story, and one that’s not on the home front. Jean Paget is working out in Malaya when she’s taken prisoner, and endures and suffers with a fortitude that would do credit to any stoic British male. She’s resourceful and brave – it’s an interesting tale, although sad and grim, with the detached matter-of-fact style which seems to be common in accounts from the period.

Where do you find a town like Alice?
Before I’d read the book, I was intrigued by the title and I will say I found the explanation to be disappointing, so I’ll spoil that surprise here. Alice, in this case, isn’t a person – it’s Alice Springs, an Australian town which, at the time of writing, was ‘a bonza place’ having a cinema, a swimming pool and some actual shops, in sharp contrast to the gold rush ghost towns nearby, where, according to the book, you couldn’t even buy fresh vegetables.

One of the most absorbing aspects of the book is how effortlessly Shute transports you from one exotic location to another. He starts out in a post-war London, as exotic as any of the rest as busy central districts are country suburbs and gentlemen still dine at their clubs. From there, you travel to Scotland, Southampton, Malaya and the Australian outback, each place vividly described in a few lines.

Content notes
Shute is a product of his time, and captures the prejudices of his subjects neatly and apparently unquestioningly. Both in Malaya and Australia, people who are not white are treated as inferior, sometimes respected for certain skills, sometimes treated well or badly by the white characters, but they are always treated differently.

Another disquieting aspect is Shute’s attitude towards sex. Not whether or not it should happen outside marriage, that’s old hat. Rather, the scene that shook me most, perhaps in the whole book, is one where the two romantic leads are anticipating their wedding, as the coy old fashioned phrase goes. They’re making out, in modern parlance, with a bit of necking and groping. Her clothes (for reasons which are pretty plausible, actually) fall off a bit (because he undoes a key knot) at which point the main character, who has survived far worse, turns her usual stoic calm to the man she loves. She thinks: ‘It’s not his fault, I brought this on myself.’ She’s clearly reluctant to take it any further but resigned. He says ‘Do you mind?’ and she says (this is not a paraphrase) ‘Not if you’ve got to. If you can wait till we’re married, I’d much rather, but whatever you do now I’ll love you just the same.’ Because, as everyone knows, once a man gets aroused there is nothing for it. It’s like dropping a rock out a window – if you flash a bit of skin, however accidentally, you better be resigned to having a whole lot of sex you don’t want.

I absolutely hate scenes like this. If anyone ever said something like that to me, I would be furious at the idea that, as a reasonable adult, I was unable to control myself enough to not hurt the person I loved. It’s a clear insult towards men who are decent human beings, while providing an excuse for those who are looking for one to behave cruelly. We spend all this time explaining to children and adults that it’s unacceptable to just do what you want when it hurts someone else, not, not even if you really want to, and then, what, write a blank cheque for rape if you’re really turned on.

Anyway, that’s my particular bugbear, although others will be more upset by different scenes. The book is a difficult read – children die, there’s plenty of racism, there’s deliberate cruelty and torture. So if the slightly detached, British stoic type narrative doesn’t help you drift through all this unscathed, you may want to give the book a miss. Otherwise, I recommend it. I was gripped and engaged, and read the whole book through in about a day. It’s an odd mix, part war story, part love story, part economic treatise on the growth of outback towns and I think it’s worth a look for that reason alone.

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.

Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Looking for books off the list at the library makes the reading order fairly random. I picked up #170 Charlotte’s Web by EB White last time I was in, although it wasn’t one I had in mind. When I walked in the door, I was looking for On the Road or A Town Like Alice and I got this instead. No regrets though – it’s rather lovely.

Charlotte’s Web is the story of Wilbur. Born the runt of the litter, he’s saved from death by Fern who hand-rears him until he’s weaned, when she sells him to her uncle, Homer. Finding out that Homer is fattening him up for winter bacon, Wilbur, quite naturally, gets very upset. The rest of the farmyard is fairly blase about his situation, but Charlotte, a spider, steps in to save his life.

Talking animals
All the animals in Charlotte’s Web talk, apart from flies. It’s interesting as the only predators in the book seem to be Charlotte herself and the humans – the other characters are herbivores. I don’t even remember seeing a farm cat or the dog talk. Moreover, Charlotte recognizes the moral quandaries associated with her position, something the humans don’t seem to do. Another interesting point is that Fern can understand the animals talking (at least when she’s young) so she has an additional insight into their plight. And yet, so far as I can recall, her family still eat ham and mutton and other meat products, including, one assumes, Wilbur’s siblings.

Eater or eaten is a critical power dynamic in so many animal stories, and the communication element makes it more interesting. What if mice really could plead for their lives? What if the cat could understand them? What if pigs really could object to being killed with a reasoned speech? Would you become vegetarian? If not, what would that do to you?

The book itself
I enjoyed Charlotte’s Web, although not quite as much as I thought I would. It’s an intriguing, unusual story and well told. EB White is a talented writer, and I have very fond memories of The Trumpet of the Swan, which we read in school so I had a copy of for my very own. Charlotte’s Web must have been a library book, so I wouldn’t have reread it as often and as a result don’t have strong childhood memories of it.

Wilbur is something of a stereotypical princess-in-a-tower. He’s somewhat hard-of-thinking, prefers comfortable confinement to difficult freedom, and can’t save himself. Charlotte, on the other hand, is fabulously complex. She’s smart, creative, analytical and has a clear, complex moral code. She’s the star of the book, and it’s interesting that all her energy goes into saving the life of a creature who isn’t her equal. But then, Wilbur is both childlike and quite literally a child, being only two or three months old at the start of their friendship, so it’s hard to argue against saving him on the grounds that he’s kind of dull.

Charlotte’s technique for saving Wilbur is also very clever and another interesting side to her character – while it saves Wilbur’s life, it’s only through the superstition and gullibility of the humans who prefer to believe in divine intervention than a clever spider.

All in all I thought the book was interesting, definitely a good read. I didn’t remember the ending, and now I know it I’m tempted to read the book again, to look at Charlotte’s words more carefully, get my hindsight in, but as it’s gone back to the library, I can’t. The book does have a few sad moments and there is a risk that young readers may stop eating meat, but otherwise I think it’s a good choice for new readers.

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.

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.

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.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

In #70 The Lord of the Flies, a group of boys, age 6-15, find themselves stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. The paradise soon reveals a dark side, both to the natural surroundings and the boys’ own nature.

It is a very powerful book – I wouldn’t say I loved it and would read it again, or that it was an easy or comfortable read, because it wasn’t. But I do highly recommend it and it is an excellent counterpoint to the sappy Victorian children’s literature – like Little Women, like Swiss Family Robinson, like Heidi, like (apparently) Coral Island – where everything is for the best and everyone is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Boys will be human
I’m going to be vague as it’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling it. It’s a deeply emotional book and discusses the social fallout from the crash in detail. The book is beguiling and horrifying, at once a ripping yarn and a warning that humanity is in each of us – and so is unbearable cruelty.

The cast is exclusively male – all the children stranded are boys – but (unusually) this isn’t a problem for me. British society is still very strongly gendered, even for young children, and in creating a mixed-gender group the author would have had to deal with a much wider range of issues – some of the boys are old enough to be well into puberty, for example – and the book covers enough as it is.

In many ways the book is a fable, and just as the old stories are stripped down to the essentials and told and retold without losing the message or the drama, the group of stranded children stripped of inter-gender relationships, sexual tension (a product of having imaginary 1950s adolescents, I imagine, rather than modern ones) and gender-roles are free to symbolize all humanity.

Everyday hero
Clearly the situation the boys face on the island is extreme, but the heroism of Ralph, Piggy and friends is not the brash, physical courage we discussed in Stormbreaker but the more ordinary courage required to uphold one’s beliefs in fairness, freedom, society and other human inventions when it’s easier to let them go. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in this way, but it may be the kind of courage, of steadfastness, which is easiest to put into practice. You don’t need to leap (off) tall buildings, but simply to trust another human being. To believe that the beggar knows their own priorities best, and will spend your money wisely (even if that’s on drugs). To believe the stranger on the internet is honest – whether honestly hurt, honestly naive or honestly deluded – and offer sympathy not scorn. To keep an eye on kids playing in the street, just in case, or the couple arguing in their car.

And yet – as Lord of the Flies shows – it’s hard to be civilised (whatever you, personally, mean by that word) when all about you encourages chaos. And it’s easy for people to get hurt, to protect that soft centre by shutting out the world.

In the last few months I’ve been going back and forth between London (where making eye-contact is seen as a sign of aggression or panhandling) and rural Switzerland (where you say hello to everyone, even strangers, even if you see them eight times in a day). The barrage of good wishes can feel like an intrusion, but it’s also a clear sign that the social contract is alive and well. ‘Bonjour’ says more than ‘hello’ – it says ‘I see you’.

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.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

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.

Another book from my childhood – #156 is The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. I think I got this as a prize at school as it still has the typed note-card from Elm Books in it. We didn’t shop at Elm much but most of our primary school prizes came from there.

The Silver Sword tells the story of one Polish family during the second world war. The father and mother are taken away by the Nazis, which leaves the children to fend for themselves in Warsaw. At the start of the book, in 1940, Ruth is 12, Edek is 11 and Bronia is 3. Their mother is Swiss and, with another lost child, Jan, for various reasons they decide to go to Switzerland. The novel describes their long journey across a particularly battered part of Europe as the war rages.

Based on true fact
In the author’s note at the start of the book, Serraillier says “The characters in this book are fictitious but the story is based on true fact.” Naturally, I was curious but I haven’t been able to find out much more than that.

First published in 1956, The Silver Sword seems designed to share the experiences of children in Europe with those ‘safe’ in Britain. Reading it now, it seems like a sanitised version of the war both literally (there’s no mention of what anyone does for waste disposal or personal hygiene while they’re living in bombed-out cellars) and figuratively but for children, especially those for whom this might be their first introduction to WWII or to the idea that children get caught in war, it works well.

Because it elides the most obviously horrific elements of the war and the camps – I’m not sure anyone actually dies in the novel even – it leaves space to explore other aspects of the war as it affected displaced children – loyalty, family and authority are three which come to mind.

Serraillier manages to make some fairly complex points without preaching – the juxtaposition of the people the children meet, who helps them and who doesn’t, for example, raises questions about enemies and friends, the difference between a soldier you’re fighting and a person you meet and invaders/liberators being largely down to perspective.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and am glad it came my way as a child. It’s a book which is likely to provoke discussion, which is ideal for teachers but perhaps a note of caution for parents – you may have to answer some tough questions!