Tag Archives: World Wars

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

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 I’m surprised I never read in school, #141 All Quiet on theWestern Front is a short, intense novel describing one soldier’s experience in the trenches in the First World War. At under 200 pages, it’s a quick read, but the subject matter makes it one which is hard to pick up or put down lightly.

I’m actually suprised that this feature on the list – although it is brilliant, and engaging, and thought-provoking, it isn’t a comfortable or comforting book, and for that reason I would hesitate to say it was a favourite of mine, although I would definitely recommend it.

The other side of the war
Reading in English, being British and growing up (rather a long time) after the Second World War, I’m not accustomed to rooting for German soldiers. In all the fiction I can think of, the German army is The Enemy. Even in Warhorse, which has quite a sympathetic portrayal of all the sides, the German army is not, of itself a good thing or a force one wants to triumph.

All Quiet on the Western Front is written by a former frontline German soldier, in German, and based on his experiences fighting against French, British and American troops. It’s one of the things which makes the novel a disquieting read – at the same time as I was hoping a particular character would survive, I knew I was hoping that – even in fiction – the army he was part of would lose. As there were quite a lot of individuals I was hoping would survive, it did make me ask myself how I thought that could happen – how could all these people survive, and their army, their battalion, still be crushed? In modern trench warfare it’s just not possible and that sense of rooting for and against the characters added to the creeping terror of the novel for me.

Reading in translation
My German is barely good enough to get me to the right city, when ordering tickets at a train station, so naturally I read All Quiet in translation. The edition I’ve got is a more recent translation by Brian Murdoch and is – in one sense at least – very good as it flows well and is thorough, so there are no German words left in italics to trip up the unwary reader.

However, there are a few odd moments, when the translator seems to almost have forgotten that he’s writing about a group of German soldiers. For example, one of them refers to getting a ‘blighty’ wound, which is a wound which is severe enough to get you sent home. However, a ‘blighty’ refers, specifically, to a wound which would get you sent back to Blighty, i.e. Britain, which is not at all what a group of German infantry would have had in mind. It’s also not a common word, even in war stories, so I did wonder at its inclusion.

That said, the power of the book outweighs any minor stumbles. I find it a very hard book to describe – it’s not an adventure story, there’s no plot, in the traditional sense of things caused by actions taken, and even the character development is limited. But none of that matters because it is what it is, and what it is is excellent.

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!