Tag Archives: Big Read

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Maternity leave has given me more time to read, so I’ve picked up a couple of Big Read books. Neither of them are #90 On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I realised I never posted the review I wrote of that book. Here it is, almost exactly a year late.

On the Road on the rails
I’ve just finished On the Road, which I’ve read, appropriately enough, while riding the rails on a long train journey from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City. On the Road is the tale of a wandering life as the main character, Sal, travels fairly aimlessly around the USA, in the company of other drifters. It’s fairly well understood that the book is broadly autobiographical fiction.

In our epic trip across and around the USA this summer we visited quite a lot of the places Sal goes to, including San Francisco, LA, San Antonio and a couple other places I don’t this moment recall.

Booze and bad parenting
The book does not do it for me. It’s written on a high, in a lovely drugged-out haze, and as you go through you can see all the damage that these mad bad men are doing as they go. There’s a scene where Sal and Dean punch a door together, and Sal breaks a bone in his hand. He’s so drunk he doesn’t notice until the morning. That’s what the book is. Throughout the book, people get married, have kids, cart these kids around to squats and tents, don’t feed them much and take a lot of drugs in front of them. The stated assumption is that the kids don’t mind. What Kerouac can’t seem to see is that his generation, mourning their own lost fathers, are the missing and deadbeat dads of tomorrow. Of today, in fact, as even as they look for their own lost paternal role models they are squandering the chance to provide what they’ve lost for their own kids.

The book is very much a man’s story and women only play a peripheral role in it. Each of the main characters gets entangled with various women over the course of the book. It’s written as entanglement, women making demands and needing to be managed, but it’s easy to read as a con. It’s as though they’re mountain climbers. The man is leading, and if he cuts the rope that binds the group, he can walk on more easily. The woman is more firmly tethered to the children, and is well aware that if he goes the rest of the party is likely to go over the cliff. Kerouac’s characters cut the rope without, it seems, realizing they’re doing any such thing at all.

The wit of wine
Sal (and Kerouac) find a romantic charm in the ravings of drunks and potheads. I really cannot be bothered. I feel like I’ve met these men, and I don’t respect them. They look very different when you’re one of their targets (or not a target, being excluded due to age or lack of beauty or…) than when you’re one of their buddies. As a buddy, they’re mad fun. They keep you out late. You drink too much, then go to work in the morning hungover and happy.

On the other side of the fence, you can see the lies. You can see how they’ll say anything, do anything to get a girl they fancy into bed – do anything, almost, apart from give her respect. Respect, as Aretha Franklin pointed out, is important.

And that’s without getting started on his comments about 9, 11, 13 and 15 year old girls, which need their own content warning, frankly.

Why read it then?
There are two strengths to the book, in my mind. First, it rips apart the staid and sober notion of the 1940s was only a time of war related privations and jitterbugging parties. There are no poodle skirts and duck tail hair cuts. The guys are roving the USA broke, ragged, drunk and stoned; there is a lot of pot in this book.

Second, Kerouac does have an engaging, intense, frantic way of describing the places characters go. It’s like a drunken celebration, where someone is telling you that he’s so, so happy that he got a great job, and he only had a couple of drinks, and did he mention that he’s having a baby soon, too, so it’s perfect timing and the sky is so beautiful tonight and birds always sing louder in summer and…

Don’t travel to the beat of this drum
This is clearly a book that launched a thousand trips, and that’s both understandable and a crying shame. It’s the worst book in the world to try to travel to. It describes times and places that only existed – if they existed at all – for a few people for a few moments. And even if you could manage to stomach all the drugs and alcohol, and went a year later (or had a time machine and went the same year) you’d never capture quite the same spirit.

The book skips over the weeks and months of working quietly and making money (although they are there, if you look), creating a picture of an endless party that you just can’t match in real life, although thousands have wrecked Ibiza trying… In a way, this is the Pinterest problem 60 years early: a view of a life that’s so carefully edited reality can only disappoint. There’s also a clear line of descent from here to The Beach, both in a literary sense and in terms of travel choices. A bit of backpacker history while we’re on the go, it’s interesting but distasteful at the same time.

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 Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

While we’re travelling, I’m reading less and also trying to read more books set in the area where I am, so #109 The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Fosyth is probably the last Big Read book I’ll read for a while.

Published in 1971, and set in the early ’60s, The Day of the Jackal is a thriller. A sinister group want to overthrow the French government, and to do so they’re going to hire The Jackal, an expert assassin.

A matter of style
Jackal is a classic airport thriller. It’s fairly chunky (358 pages) but not so thick as to be intimidating. It’s a very detailed fantasy, a careful working out of a fictitious political drama. It’s also a police procedural, as the main body of the story follows a detective who has been tasked with tracking down the killer.

The novel is divided into three sections: ‘Anatomy of a plot’, ‘Anatomy of a manhunt’ and ‘Anatomy of a kill’. The sections get shorter and shorter as the tension picks up. The novel shows both sides of the chase, what the plotters are planning first, then when the police get wind of it and start to hunt them down, and then how it all unravels. It’s easy to read and rattles along pretty well. I did get bogged down in the descriptions of the weapons and some of the details of the work on both sides.

Fact or fiction?
Set in France in the 1960s, Jackal features both real people and fictional characters. And they interact. I don’t like this. It sets my teeth on edge, and I spent the entire book trying to figure out which bits were real and which were fiction. I imagine that the audience at the time would have had less trouble.

Also, as the book was set several years before it was written, and is based around a plot to assassinate a real person, early readers would definitely have known the outcome before the book opened. In case later readers are in any doubt, Forsyth drops a spoiler in part way through. I feel this removes a lot of the tension. If you’re reading this book, it’s not to find out whether the assassination plot succeeds or fails, but to watch it unfold. And that, unfortunately, dragged. Perhaps it’s just a little dated. I did find it interesting watching the police struggle without the instantaneous communications and large databases we now take for granted, but that was about 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.

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

I’ve just finished reading #49 Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and it’s a beautiful book. I think it deserved to win the whole show.

When war is declared in 1939, Willie is evacuated from London and sent to stay with Mr Tom, a widower living in a country village. Mr Tom has lived alone for 40 years, and didn’t expect to start childrearing at this late stage. Willie is frightened of the countryside, and worried that Mr Tom will be as strict as his mother. And yet, one way or another, they have to learn to live together.

Just lovely
I couldn’t think of any other books Magorian has written, which sort of surprised me. This is such a beautifully written novel that I feel like all the author’s books should be hits, and I should have read them all. Looking her up, it seems that she hasn’t written much, by the book-a-year standard of other authors, and also writes for younger children.

I don’t know when it was written, but it’s a clever, lovely book. It’s got a mix of happy and sad, rough and smooth. It’s engaging and interesting all the way through, and I treasured the small victories as much as the big ones. It also has an effective sense of perspective, remembering that in an individual life – particularly in an individual childhood – apparently small things, like a bike or a trip, can loom large. That learning and growing isn’t always easy, isn’t always dramatic, but it is always happening.

Let’s talk about The Issues
Given that I’ve read two Jacqueline Wilson novels recently, I’m attuned to noticing when children’s books tackle serious or traumatic issues. Goodnight Mr Tom is set during the Second World War, so it’s not surprising that it deals grief, loss and change. Coincidentally, like Secrets it also tackles child abuse and what parental love really means.

Comparing Goodnight Mr Tom to Secrets, I feel that Mr Tom has much greater depth. It’s a book that I’d be happy to read again, one that I was looking forward to reading after all these years, and one that I’d happily pass on to a child. Secrets is good, but I don’t feel that there’s as much to it. It’s shorter, simpler, and perhaps expects less from its readers. That said, I don’t think that Mr Tom has complex or archaic language in it, although it does have some historical items and situations that aren’t explained. I think it is probably almost as easily accessible as Secrets, as long as the reader isn’t put off by the extra pages.

I would guess that this is a book aimed at and recommended for older children, probably age about 10-12. Willie is nearly 9 when the book opens, but he has a different mix of adult and childlike traits, as children in the 1930s and ’40s had very different responsibilities and restrictions than they do now.

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.

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

The last Jacqueline Wilson novel on the list, #155 Secrets is the 13th I’ve read, and that’s probably enough.

Treasure and India live just a few streets from each other, but their lives are worlds apart. Treasure’s young and trendy Nan has taken her in, because her mother’s boyfriend hits her. India’s family is crumbling in a different way – her parents can’t seem to stop arguing, and it’s often about money. Both are lonely, and when they meet it’s friendship at first sight. But can they stay together when so many grown ups have other plans?

The diary and Anne Frank
The novel is told through diary entries, with Treasure and India taking it in turns to tell their story. It’s a useful structure, as it allows the reader to see both sides of the story, even before they’ve met. It also lets Wilson tie in the Diary of Anne Frank, which is India’s favourite book. She even mentions Zlata’s Diary, a book I remember reading in school as it was a child’s diary of the war in Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

Bringing in The Diary of Anne Frank is an obvious choice for a book about secrets, and I can see why Wilson would want to guide her readers towards it. I’m not entirely convinced that the gambit works. India is very intense about Anne and her diary, but the rest of the novel never quite shares that passion. I found her attachment disquieting, to be honest. It really seems like she has nothing else in her life, not even any other books.

Blurbed
The back of the book describes this as a ‘novel for older readers’, and talks about the girls sharing ‘their most serious secret ever’. Given this dramatic set up, and the fact that the book starts with Treasure’s step-father sending her to casualty, I expected that the book would be particularly grim. It’s not. I mean, Wilson tackles serious subjects, as she usually does, but it doesn’t need a content warning above and beyond the usual.

I was honestly a little disappointed, thanks to the blurb, as I kept expecting something awful to happen that never really materialized. I realise this isn’t fair, and I think it’s because I’ve read so many of Wilson’s novels. I’m really not the target market and I’ve read a lot of them in quite an artificial way. Although this is a longer novel that most of the other Wilson novels on the list, it felt a bit thin and unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s time for me to read something aimed at adults!

Who is the book for?
Given that Wilson has already addressed the issues in the books in ones aimed (if I remember correctly) at younger readers, there are two reasons that I can see this book being for older – or perhaps more mature – readers. First, it’s longer, and doesn’t have as many illustrations. It’s jumped the line from illustrations every page or two to illuminated chapter headings. Second, it does talk about difficult things, and it also uses the story of Anne Frank. I imagine that a lot of readers will want to go on and read Anne’s diary, which itself is probably a book for older readers. In this context, of course, older readers are probably about 9-11 as most of Wilson’s books are probably aimed at 6-8 year-olds, with some aimed at those just starting to read on their own.

I do struggle to suggest age ranges for children’s books, partly because I don’t have any kids around to experiment on, as most of my friends either live far away or have very young children, and partly because I read so much and so precociously as a child myself. I remember reading The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia (both excellent, highly recommend them) in school when I was in year 6 (about 11), and I think it was around then that I started reading Heinlein, Asimov, Austen and the Brontes. I would already have read James Herriot and had definitely read Libby Purves’ How not to Raise a Perfect Child. (I broadly agreed with her advice, incidentally.)

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 Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

I haven’t read #92 The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel since I was about 14 or 16, when it was one of my favourite books. My dad recommended it, and I remember being really pleased when I got a copy of Shelters of Stone (the fifth book in the series) for him, before he knew it was out. I wish I could remember what he thought of the books, beyond liking them. He told me he had suggested them to my 6th grade teacher, as we were studying the period. Mrs H apparently agreed that they were a good topic match, ‘apart from all the sex’, so he decided to wait a few years before handing them over!

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set around 25,000 years BC. Ice covers northern Europe, and woolly mammoths, aurochs and the giant cave bears roam the land. The stone age homo sapiens share their world with Neanderthals, not always peacefully. When an earthquake destroys the home of 5-year-old Ayla, a homo sapien girl, and the cave of a Neanderthal tribe, their paths cross. The Neanderthal group take Ayla into their clan, and she tries to become a good clan woman. But her differences are more than skin deep, and as she grows up both Ayla and the Clan wonder if she can truly become one of them.

Not as good as I remember
I enjoyed revisiting Ayla and the people of the Clan, but honestly, the book isn’t very good. It’s one of those sweeping epic stories where impossible things happen regularly and million-to-one chances come through nine times out of ten. This first book is about 500 pages long, and there are six in the series. Ayla is the main character, and she changes and grows (quite literally: she grows up) but I don’t feel like the other characters developed much.

Ayla is boringly perfect and lucky. I complained about the convenient back story issue when I reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Ayla suffers from the same affliction. She has just the right background to make sure she shines in any situation, and the author struggles to find someone who isn’t won over by her charms. However, it’s important to add a bit of strife, so one person resists, and conflict ensues.

I probably wouldn’t mind the clumsy narrative devices, such as how many discoveries Ayla makes (approximately 10,000 years worth, over the next few books, if I remember correctly) if the book was internally consistent. It isn’t. There’s a lot of detail to remember, but in a couple of places the story was definitely revised as it went along, so something happened for the first time at least twice. I found it jarring, but other people may not notice these details.

Fake pre-history
The blurb for the book says it was praised by scientists and paleontologists. Although my understanding of the period is severely limited, I can’t imagine that praise was unambivalent. As I’ve said, I’m no expert, but I’d be highly surprised to discover that the prevailing understanding of Neanderthals is that they were telepathic, with a race memory that extended back to the primordial seas.

The characters are also very well equipped with accurate and effective herbal remedies. Medical training is a recurring theme, and the characters involved seem to have a surprisingly modern understanding of illness and health. They have a few blind spots, where narritively convenient.

All the sex
I would give a content warning for the sex, and not because of erotic or pornographic descriptions. The sex is strange, and uncomfortable. It’s not described in much detail in Cave Bear (although I have a feeling that there’s a more graphic and steamy account of consensual sex in Valley of the Horses), but the sex is primarily non-consensual, and exists in a culture where meaningful consent is impossible. In Clan society, any male can demand sex from any female, and it’s culturally impossible for a female to refuse. Most females wouldn’t even consider refusing.

A culture where refusing sex is impossible is something I find weird and creepy as it is. That most of the characters are under 16, adds an extra dimension of weird uncomfortableness, even though Auel establishes that lifespans are abbreviated and adulthood comes earlier. As if wrapping one’s head around the idea of a 10-year-old being an adult and a 20-year-old being a senior citizen wasn’t hard enough, sex in Auel’s Clan society starts in childhood. Children apparently imitate what they see their parents doing, the games getting more realistic as the children age. But, she clarifies, there’s no prohibition on adult males having intercourse with female children, it’s just less common.

Auel switches between dry, almost academic detachment and in-character view points. She doesn’t really give us an in-character view of what a healthy, normal sexual life in the Clan would be like. An abnormal one is portrayed, and we’re given a little lecture on how sex occurs in this society, but there’s little emotional information. It’s not a big part of the book, but it’s not handled well, and it does stand out.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read the book again, as it made me think about my dad, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I’m unlikely to hunt down the other books, even though I don’t think I ever read book six, Land of Painted Caves. I got Clan of the Cave Bear out of the library, as I couldn’t find Dad’s copy – he tended to lend books he liked out, and didn’t worry too much about getting them back. His rule was ‘when you lend, mentally give’, which is a sound one, even if it leaves a few gaps on the book shelf.

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.

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

At #117 Bad Girls is the 13th Jacqueline Wilson novel I’ve read for this challenge, and I think it’s too many. They’re all starting to blur together, and the tears and traumas in this one just felt too familiar.

Mandy is the opposite of a bad girl. Small and dressed in frilly frocks, she looks closer to 7 than her actual age of 10. Since her best friend joined Kim’s clique, Mandy has been the target of all their taunts. She’s lonely until she meets Tanya. At 14, in foster care and separated from her younger siblings, Tanya is happy to have someone to care for. But bad habits are hard to break.

Have I read this book before?
Wilson’s strength is the natural way that she combines issues (foster care, absent parents, shop lifting, bullying) with a plot that children can relate to. Bad Girls is, objectively, a good book. It isn’t preachy, and shows that there can be complicated responses to issues. It never labels the ‘bad girls’ of the title, and juxtaposes two different sorts of ‘badness’ in a way that might make people think, or perhaps be unconsciously less judgmental. So it’s good, and I recommend it.

I did like the emphasis on creativity, particularly drawing and writing, in the story. The rainbow theme helped me notice how much time Wilson’s characters spend making stuff. It’s not just in this novel. Her characters are constantly making things, drawing pictures, dreaming and living in their imagination. It makes drawing, writing, art, dance and similar seem really accessible and achievable. I think it would be encouraging and inspiring, if I were 10.

Have I read this book before?
That said, I feel like I’ve read this book before. The chapters have a gimicky theme (colours of the rainbow this time), the characters all feel familiar. Tanya and the foster family she’s staying with are even in Dustbin Baby, so it’s more than a generic likeness. I struggled to work up any enthusiasm for the novel, and feel like I can’t give a clear review.

Broadly, I think this is a good book for kids age about 10. As with all Wilson’s books, there are challenging issues addressed, so some parents might want to read through it ahead of time. It only took me an hour, so that shouldn’t be much of a chore.

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.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

I’m back in Cambridge, which means I can use my library card to break out of my rut! I’ve made a list of all the books you recommended – and now I’m reading other things, until the plan takes off in May! First up, one of the books I’ve been rationing: #69 Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.

Ankh-Morpork is the Discworld’s largest, smelliest city. Its stench is usually enough to warn off invaders, but not when the marauder is a dragon. Faced with a fire-breathing menace, the City Watch swing into action to defend their city. Shame there’s only 3 of them, plus the new recruit…

One for the NPCs
In role playing games, both computer and table-top, characters that aren’t controlled by the player are called ‘non-player characters’. These NPCs may give you the last jigsaw piece, kidnap your party, or serve drinks in a bar, but their main role is to die a lot. In Guards! Guards! Pratchett has taken those characters and brought them to centre stage.

I hadn’t reread Guards! Guards! since I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts, another fun book which takes a look at the same sacrificial lambs from a different angle. Coming back to Guards! Guards! I had a different perspective, which is always fun. It makes reading a book for the dozenth time feel fresh. I’ve also played a lot more games since I read the book for the first time, and I can confirm that it’s fun whether or not you’re a role playing / gaming / fantasy geek.

Character development
Pratchett introduces a lot of characters that he later developed and reused in this novel. It’s the 8th Discworld novel, first published in 1989, and introduces (if I remember correctly) several key characters, including Captain Vimes, Nobby, Sergeant Colon and Carrot, swamp dragons, Lady Ramkin and the Patrician. It’s also the first book to really dive into Ankh-Morpork, as in the earlier Rincewind largely runs away from the city, the witches mostly stayed in Lancre, and the wizards in the university.

I reread Snuff, the 39th Discworld book, recently. It features many of the same characters as Guards! Guards!, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve all evolved. It’s hard to recognise the later characters of Vimes and Carrot in their earliest incarnation, and yet the seeds are there. I do feel that Pratchett doesn’t always ensure a logical character growth, particularly when he’s off and running with a new idea. He doesn’t usually reinvent people whole cloth, so the arcs tend to sort of work, but I do sometimes feel the bumps.

While Guards! Guards! isn’t my favourite Pratchett novel, it’s still a good book and a very enjoyable read. I’m glad I found it at the library, and I’m happy to break my slump with a new review for 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.

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The reason I haven’t posted a Big Read review in a while is that I’ve been stuck. I hate this book. Fortunately, #190 Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg, so I didn’t have to pay to hate it.

Sons and Lovers is bleak. It’s set in a hamlet near a coal mine outside of Nottingham, in a family where no one seems to choose their life partner very well. It starts off in a gritty-family-drama sort of vein, then slips into hundreds of pages of wallowing in a young man’s confused and depressed ramblings, interspersed with coded descriptions of his sexual adventures.

Worse than a boring dinner party
Reading this book reminded me of being depressed or talking to someone with serious clinical depression. I don’t think the state is interesting, almost by definition. It’s a state of not-doing, where anxiety overrides normal actions, decisions are avoided and everything is dragged out and discussed until it’s painful. Where everything seems pointless and wishing for the end seems reasonable.

I realise there’s an idea of the artist as a tortured soul, but this book doesn’t read like that, at least for me. It’s not the late-night-party, let’s-go-to-Paris manic-pixie-dream-girl or the vibrant-but-damaged-artist. It’s like a long conversation with someone who is deeply unhappy and so anxious they can’t change anything. It’s the person who can’t get out of bed for the week, because finding clothes is too hard. The one who never smiles. And then, at certain points, it’s cruel. I definitely do not recommend reading this book if you’re grieving. At a certain moment, I stopped wanting to slap a certain character and started wanting the whole parcel of them locked up for cruelty and murder. That makes it sound more interesting than it is: you’ll wait about 390 pages for this section.

Why do people love this book?
I have no idea, and I can’t guess as I found the whole thing frustrating and tedious, after the initial pot-boiler phase. I googled around a bit, looking for clues, and found two articles that might interest other readers. One is a review published in The Guardian in 1913; the second a review published in the same paper in 2013, to mark the centenary of the book’s publication. Both are in favour, neither explains the greatness very well. Perhaps I’m missing something. Which reminds me: as a content note, it seems that I missed a physically incestuous element in Paul’s relationship with his mother, or perhaps I read the original 1913 edition which had been edited more strictly than later versions.

Help me get unstuck
When I started the year, I gave myself permission to not finish a Big Read book every week. I intended to focus on some of the longer books left on the list, like Les Misérables and David Copperfield. Instead, I’ve gotten stuck. I started Lord of the Rings and got stuck. I moved on to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and got stuck, skipped on to Sons and Lovers and got stuck. I’m starting to feel like there are no cheerful books left on the list. I’ll be travelling a lot for the next few months, so I can only read books on Kindle. I’m listing the ones I have available below. If you enjoyed any of them or they made you laugh, please let me know and I’ll read that next! You can also look at the list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed, and recommend ones I should buy.

The Count of Monte Cristo
The Wasp Factory
Lorna Doone
The Woman in White
Bleak House
David Copperfield
Crime and Punishment
1984
Middlemarch
Silas Marner
The Magician
The Forsyte Saga
Sunset Song
Anna Karenina
War and Peace
Far from the Madding Crowd
Jude the Obscure
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Dune
Les Misérables
Brave New World
Ulysses
It
Moby Dick
Kim
Frankenstein
Dracula
Vanity Fair
The Lord of the Rings 
(parts 1, 2 and 3)
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Any suggestions?

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.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I enjoyed rereading #142 Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson was one of my favourite authors when I was at uni, and Behind the Scenes is set in York, where I studied. I haven’t picked up her books much in the last few years, but now I’ve read both this and Life After Life n the last couple of months; both were good.

The story starts at conception, and the narrator, Ruby, tells the story of her life from that point on. With flashbacks to earlier generations, Ruby builds up a clear picture of an ordinary family living through extraordinary times.

 Voyeuristic 
Ruby’s narrative gives the reader insight into her family. She shares the details of their lives, of their loves and losses, dreams and depressions. The book answers the sort of question you can’t ask your neighbours: who fathered the baby? what did you really think of your parents? why did so-and-so get married? Atkinson goes into a useful level of detail, without getting bogged down so the book moves along at a good clip.

The novel has the plot of the family saga about it, but uses literary motifs and techniques which elevate it from the fast-paced gossipy style to something more contemplative. It’s a clever book. As an example, it quickly becomes clear that Ruby isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator, giving the story extra levels. As well as trying to puzzle out what she’s hiding, I also wondered about what she was reporting. Was Ruby, the character, making it all up, just as Atkinson, the novelist was?

A good book, but no longer popular
If the Big Read survey was redone today, I don’t think Behind the Scenes would make the cut. That’s not because I don’t like the book or think it’s not worthy, I just feel its wider appeal was fleeting. I think people would now choose Life After Life, or something else entirely.

I suspect that Behind the Scenes will last though, be passed around second hand, and recommended by word-of-mouth through the decades. It’s a good mix of literary and readable, plus the historical setting makes it date less and be more nostalgic. So I think it has a good chance of being in print in 50 years (particularly as it has already been transformed into an e-book), although I don’t think it’ll ever be more popular than when it was the big new thing.

I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it. I don’t have any detailed content notes, all though I will say that the story spans three or four generations, and a period where infant mortality was higher.

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 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.