2017 - 2018 book reviews
“Anglo Saxon Attitudes” (1956) by Angus Wilson
Set near to the Sutton Hoe burial site and mindful of the recently exposed hoax of Piltdown man, Wilson tells us of the convoluted life of historian/archeologist Gerald Middleton. Difficult to get into with its huge (essential) list of characters, the book becomes riveting as the “detection” unfolds. Very amusing at times, with some really odd characters and some unpleasant ones.
We are told that authors need to grip their readers within the first few paragraphs. Angus Wilson seems to ignore this and gets away with it.
"The Rape of the Fair Country" (1959) by Alexander Cordell
The Rape of the Fair Country by Alexander Cordell is a moving and savage historical novel spanning the years 1826 to 1839, telling of the brutal hardship of life in the Valleys of South Wales. It describes the merciless actions of the Ironmasters, the growing tension between the Ironmasters and the Trade Unionists, the catastrophic affects of the ironworkers strikes, the Benefit Clubs, the uprising of the Chartists Movement, and the Newport Rising of 1839. The story is told through the lives of the Mortymer family and gives a very real insight into what it must have been like to have lived and worked during these times.
“Hussein, an Entertainment” (1938) by Patrick O’Brian
Hussein, orphaned early in the book goes to live with his uncle's family and continues the family tradition as a mahout. As he explores his neighbourhood, he falls in love with the village beauty, Sashiya and starts courting. He is poor and has powerful rivals and is driven away to seek his fortune after reassuring Sashyra that he will return to claim her.
Humour, suspense and bizarre incidents, many barely credible, rush us through the book, covering an incalculable number of years and a vast area of India. We meet with espionage, robbery, money laundering, crooked money-lenders and big game hunters. There are tigers, wolves and snakes, snake charmers, fakirs (whose curses work). We come across tensions between Muslims and Hindus and the Brtish Indian Army is in the background.
Hussein, having made his fortune, spends much of it building a palace for his bride, and then goes to collect her on Jahangir in regal fashion.
O’Brian, never having been to India, relied heavily on Kipling’s stories, tales of those returning from India and a vivid imagination!!
He later became renowned as a master story teller with his seafaring novels of life in Nelson’s Navy.
"Under the Greenwood Tree" (1872) by Thomas Hardy
Hardy, gives no firm date for the story. The main clue, setting it in the early 19th century, comes from the arrival of a young vicar. He has new ideas to restore the Church to respectability, after centuries of neglect from bishops living in luxurious palaces while ordinary folk were left to the ministrations of poverty-stricken curates or land-owner appointees. We guess Mr Maybold is a follower of the Oxford Movement which emerged in 1830's.
The rural community is upset when Mr Maybold replaces the gallery instrumentalist and singers, who who have lead the services for years, by an organ to be played by the beautiful Miss Day at the request of the lecherous church warden Mr Shiner.
The heroine, Fancy Day, has been educated outwith the village and has aspirations for a better life causing romantic problems for Mr Maybold! The hero, Dick Dewy, who is making his way in the world, wins the lady – with the help of the local witch who has a secret “she would never tell.”
We meet a collection of rustic characters who keep us amused with their actions, sayings and stories of of times gone by.
Hardy's most cheerful novel for which he received £30, setting him on his way to a writing career and marriage. Then the novels lose their cheer!
“The Remains of the Day” (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and the group were interested in what it was about this book which would make us feel this was deserved. Certainly we all agreed we enjoyed the book – but for different reasons. Some of us found it amusing, others sad, and for others it raised various issues that made us think!
Kazuo Ishiguro himself was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and came to England with his parents when he was five. His father had taken a job in the UK and as he envisioned moving back to Japan in the future, the family maintained their Japanese culture at home. Mr Ishiguro studied English and Philosophy at the University of Kent, and later took a creative writing course, but in between times worked as a residential social worker in London. He started writing full time in 1982.
“The Remains of the Day” was written in 1989 and was his third novel. It won the Booker Prize and was later made into a film.
“The Remains of the Day” is narrated by Stevens, a long serving butler at Dartington Hall. In the summer of 1956 he undertakes a motoring trip through the West Country, culminating in an appointment with the ex-housekeeper at the Hall, Miss Kenton. During the six day journey, Stevens reflects on his past at Dartington Hall, and among other things, muses on what constitutes a “great” butler and the need to maintain dignity at all times, to the extent of not revealing any emotion. In fact, Stevens seems incapable of having any warm relationships at all or expressing any emotion either towards friends, his father or of course, Miss Kenton.
Going over his memories about the time between the two world wars, Stevens proudly expresses his complete loyalty to a man (Lord Darlington) who he felt was good, and whose wisdom he trusted. However, history proved this loyalty misplaced, given Lord Darlington’s support of Germany, notably what Hitler was achieving, and also his Lordship’s admiration of Fascism and anti-Semitism (such that he dismissed two of his maids because they were Jewish). At the end of the book, Stevens then asks what dignity there was in supporting such a man.
The reader is left to consider what Stevens will do with the rest of his life – the remains of the day. However, following his examination of his memories, and meeting Miss Kenton which did not go as he had expected, Stevens picks himself up and goes back to his American master stating that he will try to learn how to “banter” with him as this is obviously what is now expected of him in his role of butler.
“Imperial Woman: The Last Empress of China” (1956) by Pearl S. Buck
If medals were awarded for the most read but least appreciated novelists of the last
century, Pearl Buck would be in contention for gold. Because of her extraordinary life - born in 1892, daughter of American missionaries to China where she spent most of her first forty years at a time of huge turmoil - it's understandable that her novels have received less attention than her life. But in fact many of her novels are serious works of art investigating the hopes, fears, beliefs and values of people caught in a historical moment when their ancient civilization was dying and modern China was slowly and agonizingly being born.
Many of Buck's 'people', as she called her characters, were the rural poor, at the mercy of drought, famine and flood, unable to see beyond those natural forces to the historical movements that would change their lives so profoundly.
But in one novel, Imperial Woman, Buck tried to see not through the eyes of an impoverished woman whose hamlet was her world, but through the far-seeing eyes of one who was to become endowed with semi-divine status by her countrymen and women: the 'last empress' of China, Tzu Hsi (1835-1908).
From her lowly position as a teenage concubine in the imperial harem, Tzu Hsi became the consort of one emperor, mother of a second and aunt of a third, growing in power until she became the controlling force behind the Qing dynasty in its last days.
What makes the book memorable is not only Buck's exciting retelling of that story but her ability to imagine what it might have been like to be Tzu Hsi - a young girl uprooted from her family, desperately lonely all her life, but growing in determination to save the country she loved from the depredations of brutal foreign commercial interests - including those of Great Britain.
“The Radetzky March” (1932) by Joseph Roth
Roth was a master of the large pageant where his characters, their circumstances and destinies are expressed in poetic detail producing a living vibrant whole.
It is a sociological novel with the events reflected in the lives of its characters, principally the Trotta family, who served the Emperor Franz Joseph in various administrative and military capacities.
While covering the period from the battle of Solferino (1859) to the start of the first World War it was written in the 1930’s with Roth nostalgically comparing the supposed harmony Austro-Hungarian Empire of his youth with brutal nationalism of post 1919 Europe.
Roth’s gentle dry deadpan humour pervades many scenes and ideally suits the mundane life of the District Commissioner and the chaotic love life and military service of lieutenant Trotta in a remote eastern border post. Interspersed are scenes where Dr Skovronnok and Count Chojnicki try to focus attention on the reality of the crumbling empire.
Roth describes the plight of Demant, the impoverished, hardworking Jewish army medical officer with sympathy and sensitivity. The passages where the Jews meet the Emperor and say their farewells before going to fight for their country are poignant. Overall it was a thoroughly good read enjoyed by the entire group.
“The Moonstone” (1868) by Wilkie Collins'
The retrieval by the temple priests of this precious stone stolen in 1799 from a Hindu
temple by an officer in the East India Company Army forms the base of a complex and diverse story set in the Victorian period.
The story begins in a country house where the narrator, Gabriel Betteridge, is revealed as the faithful steward and butler of Lady Verinder. He holds together the intertwining themes and characters of the narrative. Betteridge has known from childhood Lady Verinder's daughter, Miss Rachel Verinder, and of her very much hoped for romantic attachment to the impecunious Franklin Blake.
Around the stealing of Rachel’s eighteenth birthday present, the Moonstone, Collins skillfully weaves another thread: the unrequited love and tragedy of the kitchen maid, Rosanna Spearman, whilst at the same time documenting the attempts of the Constabulary to solve the mystery of the theft. The London officer, Sergeant Cuff, could be seen as an early Sherlock Holmes.
Collins introduces humour with Miss Clack and Godfrey Ablewhite’s sanctimonious charitable efforts, (indicating a possible rejection by Collins of his father’s strict religious beliefs), and Collins constructs a cast of further meaningful characters who are essential to this plot as are the generations of temple priests who are true to their vow to return the Moonstone to their God.
Whilst writing this absorbing plot Collins suffered from increasing pain from gout for which he took opium….could this have influenced his narrative? And is this correctly considered to be the first modern English detective story?
“A Tale of two Cities” (1859) by Charles Dickens
A champion of the poor he supported the overthrow of the French aristocracy but not the excesses of “The Reign of Terror” which followed.
Dickens’ references to highway robbery in Britain pales into insignificance compared with the brutal repression of the poor in France epitomised by the Marquis St Evremonde whose, carriage driving recklessly through St Antoine, kills a child, evoking the response “ the child would be worse off alive”. Evermonde cannot understand why the coins he tosses as recompense are thrown back.
The plot deepens when we learn that Dr Manette had been abducted and forced to treat victims of Evremonde’s cruelty but had then been silenced by imprisonment without charge for 18 years. During this time Dr Manette recorded and hid his account of these events to be discovered when the Bastille is stormed. Dickens analyses Dr Manette’s mental state, linking it to the shoe making he did in prison and into which he lapses when stressed.
Released, Manette joins his daughter Lucie in England where she marries Charles Darnay, another French émigré, who has renounced the title and wealth of the Evremonde’s.
Dickens in a masterly manner builds suspense through Madam Defarge whose family had suffered under the Evremonde’s and who seeks nothing less than the total elimination of the Evremonde family including Dr Manette in revenge. Darnay, having returned to France, is arrested and sentenced to death.
Using a clever sleight of hand Dickens contrives an ending where honour is satisfied. It was an enjoyable read although stretching the imagination in places.