Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “reading”

The Rule of Four (book review)

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We were rushing off somewhere else when we called at the library to change our books so I grabbed this one off the shelf rather quickly. The blurb compared it with Umberto Eco, but it also compared it with Dan Brown. There was no time to look for another, however, so I just took it and hoped for the best.

When we got home my son, who had worked in a bookshop, recalled that it had been compared a lot with Dan Brown’s books about 12 years ago, so I was prepared for the worst, but was rather pleasantly surprised. Umberto Eco it isn’t. I gave five stars to Foucault’s Pendulum, and one star to The da Vinci code, but i think this one warrants three=and-a-half.

The rule of four is about four friends, final year undergraduates at Princeton University, two of whom are majoring in literature, and one of them, Paul Harris, is studying the Hypnerotomachia while another, the narrator, Tom Sullivan, is the son of a student of the same book, though he himself is working on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It appears that the Hypnerotomachia, is a real book about Poliphilo’s dream struggle for the love of Polia, so it’s not a fictional one like the one mentioned in The da Vinci code, which my son said people kept coming into the book shop to ask for, and would not believe him when he told them it was a fictional work in a work of fiction. Even when I got to the end of this book, however, I found it difficult to pronounce the title.

Paul Harris believes that the Hypnerotomachia contains a secret code, and much of the plot of the book is devoted to discovering what it is, which I suppose accounts for the similarity with The da Vinci code, but it is not nearly as facile as the latter. The plot also involves academic rivalries which lead to murder, and at some points that is rather unconvincing, and the narrative seems to jump about rather inexplicably.

It none the less kept my interest to the end, even though some parts seemed rather implausible. The book has several illustrations in it, and it would have helped if a map of the Princeton campus had been included among them.

I find I rather like books of this genre — books about literary studies of other books, or authors, where there was some mystery about them that needed to be solved. There didn’t seem to be a list for that genre on Good Reads, so I created one, and hope others will add similar books to the list, so I can add them to my to-read list.

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The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?


One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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Gilgamesh: it’s a long way to home

GilgameshGilgamesh by Joan London
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frank Clark, an Australian soldier, wounded in the First World War, marries Ada, an English orphan, and takes her back to Australia with him. They try farming in south-western Australia, but life is hard, and their two daughters grow up, one helping on the farm, and the other working as a maid in a nearby hotel. A visit from an English cousin and his friend leaves the younger daughter, Edith, pregnant, and she sets out to find the father of her child in Armenia, just before the Second World War breaks out.

It is a book about travel, about friendship and loss, and about the way in which peoples lives connect for a while, and are then parted and they never see each other again, or sometimes met again in unexpected ways. In that way it seems similar to real life, where the twists and turns of the story are not driven by plot, but often by chance, or spur-of-the-moment decisions. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. And so this story has a ring of truth, and seems close to real life.

Yet it also has a dream-like quality. I don’t know about other people but many of my dreams involve preparing and planning for things that never seem to happen, because something else intervenes and turns things aside at the last minute.

It is this combination of realism and dream that made the book interesting to me, wanting to see what happens in the end, because one never knows what to expect. The characters read The Epic of Gilgamesh, who, like them, travelled a long way from home. In some ways home is where you are, and in others, it is always somewhere else.

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Create your own personal canon with a life author

Bensonian

In A Christian Guide to the Classics, Leland Ryken writes:

Every lifelong reader needs to compile a private list of classics. It may or may not resemble the traditional canon of classics, but for us personally, these works meet most or all the criteria for a classic (the criterion most likely to be missiRyken.jpgng is cultural influence).

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever encountered in regard to reading came from an old book first published in 1941. To show how much things have changed, the book (Poetry as a Means of Grace) was written for ministers by a famous professor of English at Princeton University and was published by Princeton University Press in the United States and Oxford University Press in England. The author, Charles Osgood, wrote the book as a guide and encouragement to preachers to keep up their contact with imaginative literature…

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Children’s science fiction and more

We met for our literary coffee klatch at Cafe 41, and Tony McGregor arrived almost straight away. David Levey arrived soon afterwards, and we pronounced that we had a quorum.

Dan Dare — pilot of the future

David said he had noticed on my reading list that I had read a lot of children’s fantasy, and said that he had also read quite a lot of Dan Dare comics as a child, and Dan Dare frequently tangled with a fat-headed green Venusian called the Mekon, who was often up to no good.The producer of the Eagle comic was a Christian and tried to incorporate a Christian message in the Dan Dare stories.

I mentioned that I had an Eagle annual at home, featuring Dan Dare and the Mekon at the Interplantary Olympics, which were held on Venus, and I think it involved a terrorist plot to blow up the Olympic stadium when the Olympic torch was brought in. I also now recall that that was the first time I encountered the word “plinth” in the wild. Somewhere, somewhen, within the last two or three years, I encountered an online discussion about the word “plinth”.

The Mekon — Dan Dare;s Nemesis, or was Dan Dare his Nemesis?

I had not read much children’s science fiction when I was young, but I did read a fair bit of “adult” science fiction when I was at school, and two stories from an anthology called Looking Forward had particularly impressed me. One, called “Ultima Thule” was about a spaceship whose hyperdrive went wrong, so it jumped right out of the universe into nothingness, but because the universe is expanding, it expanded to reach the spaceship 17000 years later, and Captain Vanderveen was welcomed back by his descendants many generations hence. I’m reminded of it by the Queen song about the land that our grandchildren knew.

The other story was a kind of anti-colonialist satire called “The Last Monster” by Poul Anderson. It’s about a planet that has been colonised from earth, and the last of the native inhabitants is dying, and in a poetic and tear-jerking ending says “There’ll always be a shadow just beyond the fire.”

David mentioned two children’s science fiction stories he’d read. One was The cave of time by Paul Capon, which was a boy who discovers a cave and falls through a hole which leads to another cave, which comes out in a different time. I found it interesting because I’d just written a scene in a follow-up story to my children’s novel in which a boy head-butts another boy who is bullying his friend, and he disappears. He later says he didn’t mean to do that, he only wanted to butt him into the middle of next week, and one of the others suggests that that might be what had happened.

The other novel David recommended was The Death of Metal by Donald Suddaby, in which space aliens appear who make metal go soft.

Tony McGregor wrote on Facebook:

“She crossed the lawn like some strange memory, and passed statelily towards the water.” Sometimes a sentence in a book just hits home in a rather mysterious way. Don’t you just love the word “statelily”? As for the “strange memory”, well, that is just wonderful. Any guesses as to what I’m reading?

He promised to reveal all at the coffee klatsch, so we asked him and he produced Women in love by D.H. Lawrence. None of us would have guessed. He said he was re-reading D.H. Lawrence, which he liked, but confessed that he had never managed to read more than a couple of pages of The Hobbit. Val suggested that he start with Lord of the Rings as she had.

I recalled recently reading an article (which I now can’t find) about how fiction has changed. Premodern fiction was all about events: this king mustered an army, he sent it out, they won battles, they conquered their enemies. Modern fiction, however is more about the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Tony said he had read a book like that, East of the mountains by David Guterson, where all the events that took place were related to the interior thoughts they sparked in the protagonist’s mind. Val had enjoyed another book by Guterson, Snow falling on cedars, about Japanese interned during the Second World War.

The Moon of Gomrath

Moon of GomrathMoon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having just read it for the 5th (or is it the 6th?) time, I think I notice some flaws I did not spot in earlier readings, but would still give it 5 stars for the tension, the excitement, the facing of strange dangers. Though the blurb describes it as “Celtic”, the Einheriar of the Hearlathing sound pretty Anglo-Saxon to me, and the “old straight track” is anything but old, and was concocted by a 20th century businessman, but it still makes for a good exciting story, not of other worlds far away, but other worlds impinging on this one.

The flaw I noticed this time, however, was the heavy commuter traffic between Alderley Edge and Shining Tor. They rush the 9 miles to Shining Tor, on horseback or sometimes on foot, only to discover that they have to rush back again to consult the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow about something. This shuttling back and forth makes it seem that something is happening, but it isn’t really. It gives it the feel of one of those comedy films or stage shows where people are rushing from room to room in a house looking for someone who is looking for them, each one looking in the rooms that the other has just vacated.

I still like it, though. I think Alan Garner’s first three books are among the best and most exciting fantasy books I have ever read. I like his style, I like the excitement and the tension, I like their link to real places.

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Postcards

PostcardsPostcards by Annie Proulx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Loyal Blood is a farmer’s son who leaves home after his girlfriend dies. How she dies is never revealed, though he feels somehow responsible, and after that has an allergic reaction if he touches a woman. He wanders around doing various odd jobs. and occasionally sends postcards back to his family, but they can never reply because he leaves no address.

The book covers about 40 years, from 1944 to about 1984, and in some ways was an evocation of my childhood, remembering things like turning the handle of the milk separator to get the cream, and turning the handle of the wooden butter churn to make butter. Remembering what it was like to have no mains electricity, and waiting four years for the post office to install a telephone line. That was life back in the 1950s. I recall going to the Rand Easter Show, and looking at agricultural machinery, shiny in red and green paint, with springy metal seats for the operator, and then seeing such machinery, abandoned and rusted and useless, behind a ramshackle shed.

I wanted, at times to be a farmer in those days, and used to read Popular Mechanics and the Farmers’ Weekly. I never read the articles, just the small ads of farms for sale, or farm equipment. There was a course advertised in Popular Mechanics on “How to break and train horses”, which cost $50.00. That would have been about R40.00 in those days, but about R6000 in today’s money.

And this book brought it all back, with its descriptions of rural life, the life behind the Popular Mechanics ads. And the reason I never took it up is that farming is hard work with no let-up. Those cows have to be milked every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. The milking shed has to be cleaned or they get foot-rot. There are no weekends off, no holidays. And the book brings this out.

And I wonder if the urbanised people who talk about land redistribution are aware of this. Your grandfather may have been unjustly dispossessed back then, but are you prepared to go back and recreate his life, and take up where he left off? Back in the 1950s there were no big supermarket chains whose bulk buying could squeeze prices they paid for agricultural produce.

In Postcards Loyal Blood is sometimes a farm hand, sometimes trying farming on his own account, sometimes a fur trapper, sometimes a miner, sometimes a uranium prospector. And most of these rep[resent a way of life that has vanished. I remember those ads in Popular Mechanics for geiger counters and books on how to get rich quick as a uranium prospector in the 1940s and early 1950s. And somehow Annie Proulx manages to capture all of that.

So what genre is the book? A family saga? A snapshot of a period? Or a series of snapshots. It’s quite well done, in a way, and yet strangely unsatisfying. What happened to the girlfriend? Did he kill her? Did her family look for her? Did anyone wonder about her?

For the last 40 years we have been researching our family history, and in a way real family history is very like this book. There are snatches of recollections and old photos of cousins who disappeared and no one ever heard from them again. But they must have had lives, and perhaps some of them ended up like Loyal Blood in this book.

I recall Joan Rogers, who at one time lived in a caravan in our driveway. She had a horse called Royal and an old pointer dog. She worked in the lab at the South African Institute for Medical Research beyond Silvamonte, and at one time showed us the dessicated button spiders that they ground up and injected into the necks of horses to make the antivenin for the spider bites. She was something like Loyal Blood in the book, a wanderer, whose path intersected with mine for a couple of years but where she came from and where she ended up is unknown, at least to me.

And it was things like this that the book was evocative of. For other people it will be evocative of something else, other scenes, other people, other experiences.

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Where the rainbow ends

Where The Rainbow EndsWhere The Rainbow Ends by Clifford Mills
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1965, at the age of 24, I wished I’d had it to read when I was younger. Even though I was preparing for final exams at university, I bought as many of the other Narnia books as I could find, and shared and discussed them with friends, and bought them as Christmas presents for children that I knew.

One day a group of us were discussing the genre of children\s fantasy, in a wood that reminded us of the Lantern Waste, and we tried to recall such books we had read as children. One friend mentioned The Princess and the Goblin, and I was sad that I had not read any of the ones the others mentioned. The only such book I had read as a child had “rainbow” in the title, and it featured children looking for their parents, and being helped by St George and hindered by the dragon, At one point there were two forests, one bright and good, and the other dark and evil, where the dragon tried to distract the children from their quest. But I could not remember the title or the plot, so I wanted to re-read it. I knew only that one of the children was called Rosamund.

The following year I was in London, and knowing that the British Museum was a copyright library, supposed to receive a copy of every book published in the UK I spent a couple of days there searching for books with “rainbow” in the title, without success.

Eventually I found a copy on a secondhand bookstall in Woolwich Market. I grabbed a copy, and read it. It was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than imperialist propaganda. It featured a lion cub called Cubby, who always got sick when he wasn’t dosed with a patent medicine called “Colonial Mixture”. St George was no saint, but was a mascot of the British Empire.

All those passed me by as a child, at least consciously, thought it may have brainwashed me into being a closet colonialist. But in 1967 is stuck out like a sore thumb.

So why did I read it a third time?

I was taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and the novel I was writing featured St George, so I re-read it to remind myself how St George was handled in fiction.

I suppose, when I read it as a child, I would probably have given it three or four stars. But now, it’s somewhere between one and two. And I still wish I had had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read as a child.

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The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few days ago I read Embrace by Mark Behr, and then read this book. I picked them up almost by accident at the library, and found quite a number of similarities. The protagonists are separated by age, but there are also similarities, in that both look back on earlier parts of their lives. In Embrace the protagonist is a boy who has reached puberty, and looks back on his childhood. In The Remains of the Day the protagonist is a butler, looking back on his working life.

If I hadn’t read them one after the other, perhaps I might not have seen a connection, but what stands out for me is the similarity of technique. For the schoolboy the “present” is a year of school; for the butler the “present” is a holiday trip he takes to the West of England. But in both the bulk of the story is taken up with recollections of the past, and wondering how accurate those recollections are.

In both there is a contrast between the present, and recollections of the past, and it is the recollections of the past that gradually lead to a reinterpretation of the present.

There are also notable differences, based on the age of the characters, and Kazuo Ishiguro manages, in my view, to handle it better. The butler, self-effacing, writes his memoir in a formal and professional style, which is inevitably stilted. He is dominated by the requirements of his job, by the need to give everything to the service of his employer. His own feelings and needs must be subordinated to the needs of the job, and so it is the the job that dominates his life. Even a sense of humour is to be cultivated according to the needs of his employer. Ishiguro portrays this very well indeed.

It also brings out for me the discomfort I feel about the “servant culture”. I would hate to be a servant, and would hate to employ one. I once shared a house with someone who wanted a live-in servant. I was quite happy to pay someone to come in to clean or do the laundry. That is paying someone to do a job one doesn’t have time to do oneself. It’s like paying a mechanic to repair my car. I could do it myself, but because I’m an amateur, it would take me much longer. But a live-in servant is something different. It means having a dependant, and being a dependant, and to me that was a very uncomfortable relationship. And so my housemate and I parted on rather bad terms.

And Ishiguro brings out all the things that made me feel uncomfortable about having a servant, and being one.

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2017 Reading Challenge Meme

For those who like memes (of the internet variety), here’s one that may bring more interesting reading in 2017 (Hat-tip to Jennifer Neyhart).

That should provide some interesting reading.

The ones I have so far are:

  • a book you’ve already read — Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
  • a book in a genre you usually avoid — Veil of Darkness by Gillian White

I’m going to have to think about it a bit more before I complete my list, but I have another challenge to my friends, if any (more shameless self-promotion).

In which of the above categories would you put my book Of wheels and witches?

Follow the link to see how you can get a free copy (offer closes  on 11 March 2917 — it’s part of the Smashwords Read an E-book Week promotion).

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