Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “reading”

The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

View all my reviews

The house on Falling Star Hill

The House On Falling Star HillThe House On Falling Star Hill by Michael Molloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read an earlier book by Michael Molloy, The witch trade, and was not at all impressed. The blurb made this one sound a bit more interesting, and as I had nothing to lose I took it out of the library anyway. I could alwasys dump it after a couple of chapters if it didn’t look interesting.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised tom find that it was a considerable improvement on The witch trade. The characters are more interesting, if somewhat stereotyped.

A boy, Tim Swift, meets a girl, Sarre, from another world, called Tallis. According to the Chronology of the story they are both about 11 years old, Tim and his dog Josh get unexpectedly dragged into Tallis where Tim discovers that Sarra is a Chanter, with special powers. Tallis has some similarities with Earth, and some differences. Jewels are plentiful but flowers are scarce, which makes a lucrative trade for some. There are also power struggles between the king and a would-be usurper., which makes for interesting adventures and excitement, in which Tim and Sarre, as somewhat precocious brats, play a significant part.

There are also hints of a romantic interest, especially on the part of Sarre, which at some points looked as though it might turn it into a rerun of His Dark Materials , but fortunately it didn’t. But while His Dark Materials appeals to adults as much as to children, I think The house on Falling Star Hill will appeal mainly to children, and rather younger ones at that.

View all my reviews

Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second dragon book I’ve read this month. The first was The dragons of Ordinary Farm).

Both books are about the last dragons on earth, and both of them feature an older girl and a younger boy, so they invite comparison. Both satirise commerce and corporate greed. Of the two, I think this one was better. The plot was less repetitious, it had more humour, and the dialogue was a lot less stilted.

But the biggest difference for me was that while in both books the children (a girl in her early teens and a pre-teen boy) had to outwit adult authority, in The Last Dragonslayer the reason and need for doing so was clear, whereas in The Dragons of Ordinary Farm it wasn’t.

Having said that, however, I also don’t think that this is one of Jasper Fforde’s best books. Jennifer Strange and her sidekick Tiger Prawns are running a dying business of managing magic. The owner of the business is missing, and they find themselves looking after a bunch of retired and semi-retired wizards in the Kingdom of Hereford which is about to go to war with the Duchy of Brecon over who gets to control the Dragonlands when the last Dragon dies. In addition to the political aspect, there are commercial interests at stake, with commercial firms vying with individual speculators to grab the biggest and best bits of real estate. The satire on this it a bit heavy-handed in a Mad magazine kind of way.

I found Jasper fforde’s earlier books much better, and this one seems a bit slapstick: Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett, if you like that kind of thing, but not really as good as either.

View all my reviews

Myths of the world

Myths of the World: A Thematic EncyclopediaMyths of the World: A Thematic Encyclopedia by Michael Jordan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I took this rather pretentiously titled volume out of the library in the hope of finding some interesting or useful information, but was rather disappointed.

I suppose I should have been warned by the slimness of the book; a book that size cannot really be called an “encyclopedia”, and indeed it wasn’t. A more appropriate title might have been “anthology” — a selection of myths that appealed to the author, categorised by particular themes.

Of course it is not possible to do justice to myths of the world in one short volume, but it could easily have been doubled in size without making it too unwieldy.

The accounts of the myths were also less than satisfactory. They were somewhat woodenly told. There were several ancient Greek and Roman “classical” myths, but I felt I learnt more about them from the 3-5 line descriptions in Pears Cyclopaedia. Chinese gods seemed to be a better bet for Chinese mythology.

Michael Jordan also appeared to suffer from a strong anti-Christian bias. He included about 3-4 Christian myths, but lumped them in with gnostic ones, which are utterly different, and the selection seemed pretty unrepresentative too. There was a section on dragon myths, but it did not include the Christian story of St George and the dragon, which is probably one of the most widespread, being popular from England to India, and from Murmansk to Ethiopia. Perhaps he regarded it as a legend rather than a myth, but there are many instances of overlap between them, and I think the story has enough overlap to allow it to be included in a book that claims to be an “encyclopedia” of myths.

The book was published a year or two before Google made web searches so much easier, so most of what the book can tell you can be found more easily and more comprehensively by searching the Web, but a good encyclopedia of myth would still be useful, because the problem with web searches is that you don’t always know what to look for.

The title implies that a reference book, but it is certainly not that. There’s far too much missing.

View all my reviews

The Secret History (book review)

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A crime novel, but not a whodunit, because you know who did it right from the first page. But the crime is central to the lives of the main characters.

I read this book because it was recommended in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels of the latter half of the 20th century. I don’t rate it quite as highly as that, but nevertheless found it quite an interesting read.

It takes the form, almost, of a student diary. I kept a diary as a student, but not in as much detail. This one weighs in at over 600 pages covering one academic year; mine for any one year was not more than 200. So the book goes into great detail, including what they ate, what they drank, what they smoked and how they smoked it,

In some ways the detail enhances the book. A middle-class small-town Californian student, Richard Papen, goes to study at Hampden College in Vermont. The landscape is unfamiliar to him, so he describes it in detail. I found that useful; not having been to Vermont it helped me to picture the scene, and not to mix it up with universities that I am familiar with.

Having done some ancient Greek at his previous college, Papen decides that he wants to major in it, but is advised against this. The professor, Julian Morrow, is fussy about which students he takes, and indeed rejects Papen at first, though when he accidentally helps some of the other students on the course in the library, he is eventually accepted, and becomes part of an elite group of six students who hang out together. The others all seem to have rich parents, though one of them, Bunny Corcoran, does not receive much support from his parents, and behaves like the last of the great spongers. It is Bunny who is eventually murdered by his fellow students.

The setting is the late 1970s or early 1980s, when personal computers were rare and smoking less outré, though the classics students, unlike most of the students of those days, go round in formal dress, the males in suits and ties, and even braces, even when working in the garden. The more casually dressed students they despise as “hippies”, under which label they seem to lump everyone who doesn’t fit their social model.

The leader of the group is Henry Winter, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of money. In the book Richard Papen does not, however, play Boswell to Winter’s Johnson, or treat him as the Great Gatsby, though there are echoes of those works in his writing from the periphery, observing the great man. It is only in retrospect that Papen recognises how much influence Henry Winter had over others in the group and so his descrip[tions are of his perceptions of the others, and he is quite self-effacing; we know what the others look like, because we see them through his eyes, but we never see him through their eyes.

The central theme of the book is the effects of their crime on members of the group — both in planning it and in trying to avoid discovery afterwards. Though in some ways the central group are the privileged among the privileged, and somewhat eccentric in their old-fashioned ways and manner of dress, in others they are fairly ordinary students, and their crimes are not those of monsters exiled from the human race. Crime is not confined to the “criminal classes”, nor are the criminals uniquely monstrous. What comes across is the banality of evil. Somehow amid their normal student pursuits — drinking, arguing, playing cards and, occasionally, studying — they murder one of their fellow students. In a way this book falls somewhere between Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby, but it isn’t as good as either.

View all my reviews

Saving a tokoloshe and jumping the shark

Tokoloshe SongTokoloshe Song by Andrew Salomon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me quite a while to get into this book, because the characters and their roles in the story are introduced in separate chapters, with no apparent connection between them. Richard Nevis helps out at a shelter for abused tokoloshes. Toby is intimidated by Kras (who appears to be very rich) into stealing something for him. Two midwives wander round in long coats. A bloke is conducting surveillance on someone (who has nothing to do with the story) in Mumbai. Another bad guy has a couple of hangers on who are not midwives.

When the characters come together and you see how they connect, the story starts to move a bit, and eventually moves out of Cape Town to Nieu Bethesda, though it doesn’t stay there for long. What was quite nice about that was that I could actually picture several of the places, having been to some of them, though following the directions in the book will not get you to Nieu Bethesda from Graaff Reinet.

The tokoloshes in the book are not the fairy-like creatures of popular folklore, but rather shy and rare animals that are calmed down by singing, hence the title.

I was enjoying it and was getting ready to give it four stars, but then in the penultimate chapter it jumped the shark, literally as well as figuratively, so I gave it three instead.

View all my reviews

Steinbeck: American or British?

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is a place of fish processing plants, a marine biology lab, a grocery shop and a brothel. Steinbeck describes some of the characters who live there, and the efforts of a group of semi-homeless people to organise a party for the marine biologist who runs the lab, and is regarded as a benefactor by most of the people who live on the street.

It reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is written about the other side of the USA, and may have been inspired by Cannery Row, but this one is much lighter, and there is more humour.

One thing I did find rather annoying, however, is that the edition I read was published in the UK, and the publishers had decided to use their own British house style for spelling and terminology. House style is all very well, but when it is obviously alien to the setting of the book it is distracting. So “curb” has been changed to “kerb” (or has it? Maybe Americans in general, or Steingback in particular, spelt it that way in the 1930s). It made me pause and wonder what other liberties the publishers had taken with the text. Would a bunch of down-and-outs living in California in the 1930s really have filled a truck with petrol? Or would they rather have used gasoline? Or did Americans actually speak of petrol back then, and is gasoline thus a more recent innovation?

In some books this might not be so important, but Cannery Row is mainly about the place and the people who live in it — the plot is pretty sketchy. So inauthentic dialogue is a distraction for the reader.

View all my reviews

Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Post Navigation