Book Review of The Old Man and the Sea

old_man_and_the_seaThis novella by Ernest Hemingway has been on my list for a long time.  It’s the sort of story that you read with a lump in your throat… waiting for what seemed to me like an inevitable disaster to occur.  But Hemingway is clearly more hopeful that I am.  Seems like a concern!

Santiago is an aging fisherman who has not caught anything for over 80 days.  He is a simple man – who loves fishing and “the great DiMaggio” and is loved by a local boy who looks after him.  He appears to be man with whom the world is all but finished.

Out on the ocean, he encounters a mighty fish and refuses to give in.  He battles for days  to capture him, and then fights off the sharks to bring nothing but the carcass back to shore.  Nonetheless, it is a victory – a victory against the world that had given up on him and a victory that within ourselves that encourages us no longer to fight.  It is a reminder that even when it appears life may be over, as long as we hold on to what is strong inside of us, we do not have to accept this. A major achievement for such a slim read.


Book Review of The Left Hand of Darkness

LeftHandOfDarkness-ebookUrsula Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel is a re-read for me, but this is the first review I have posted on it. I remember enjoying it in my young adulthood and now – however many years later – it is a delight to find it equally as compelling. Travelling right now, it lured me back for a chapter or two on buses and trains – or curled up at some ungodly hour in a hotel room when I should have been sleeping. Clearly a powerful book.

The Left Hand of Darkness surrounds two characters – Genly Ai, an envoy representing an interplanetary body committed to peace and unity, and Estraven, a wily politician on the planet he is visiting. Gethen is a wintery planet, and the people there lack gender. Once a month, they go through a mating phase known as ‘kummer’ during which hey adopt male or female physical characteristics. They may adopt either over their lives, depending upon the gender adopted by their mate.

The relationship between the two characters is a fascinating one, seen initially only through the envoy’s eyes. As the narration changes (Estraven narrates alternating chapters and short spurts of Gethenian history and folklore are also included) we begin to understand how little the envoy understands the culture and politics of the world he had chosen to visit. His path is a dangerous one – and the one man he should trust is the one he is most suspicious of.

Le Guin’s world is fascinating and fully realised – the history and backstory are rich and realistic. Compelling and intelligent, The Left Hand of Darkness is more challenging than many modern science fictions. One that will provoke thought.


Book Review of To Kill a Mockingbird

to-kill-a-mockingbirdAs a teenager, I read this and found it dry and dull. Now, after really enjoying Go Set A Watchman, I felt I owed it to Harper Lee to take another look at this classic.

The most memorable thing about this book is the court case – where Atticus takes a stand and defends a black man against the charge or raping a white girl. To a modern audience, the accused man is clearly not guilty – but the course of the case shows exactly how far we have come in terms of civil rights in the last century.

This is powerful stuff – and I think the reason why this book initially frustrated me so, is that is it actually a very small part of the text. This is a story about family and growing up in the South. Scout lives through several significant moments in the book which are sure to shape her character – the character that was so evident in Go Set A Watchman.

I still think – perhaps controversially – that this isn’t a perfect novel. It’s too long – there are too many meandering stories of Jem and Scout’s childhood adventures. But it is an important story that the follow up novel makes us review. Atticus is still a great man – but it really doesn’t say anywhere in To Kill a Mockingbird that his defence of Tom Robinson is motivated by the Civil Rights movement. It’s motivated by justice. Atticus does what he thinks is right – he’s just “colour-blind” enough to do it for a black man too.

These remain a terrific pair of texts and I certainly have deeper respect for To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult. But I loved the grown up Scout in Go Set A Watchman too. Definitely have a read.

Day of the Triffids

triffidJohn Wyndham’s science fiction classic is well-deserving of its reputation, keeping me well and truly interested for the full 200 pages.
Triffids are a strange species of plants that appeared and were embraced by humans not only due to their usefulness in bing used as a fuel source, but also for novelty reasons – when they became mainstream, humans realised they could move and eventually that they could attack. In a serious fatal judgement, we felt we controlled the plants and could evade the attacks with their poisonous tentacles. One day, a meteor shower blinds everyone who watched the light display – leaving the Triffids with an opportunity to become the dominant species on the planet.
A small percentage of humanity, including our hero Bill Masen, are left with sight. Bill had undergone eye surgery immediately preceding the meteor shower and far from regretting missing the spectacle, he soon realises he has been given a gift.
While this information might seem like spoilers, the true genius in this novel is the fact that all of these details – while at the heart of the plot – are simply the opportunity for Wyndham to explore the spectrum of reaction amongst humanity to an extinction level event. Some find empathy and purpose through service, others seek to be in charge of whatever new civilisations that develop. An interesting study of human nature, when the average becomes extraordinary and all the characters find out what they are made of.

The Grapes of Wrath

UnknownIf you are in trouble, or hurt, or need – go to poor people.  They are the only ones that will help.

This is one of the most moving novels I have ever read, and if you have not read it yet, put it on your list.

Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family, tenant farmers driven off their land by drought and economic hardship.  First we meet Tom Joad, just coming out of prison for manslaughter.  He catches the family just before they leave to California, a kind of mythical promised land where there is apparently work for all.  Although it is clear to Tom and the reader that the dream of the little white house in California between the orange trees may well be unattainable, he continues on with the family.

What follows is tragedy compounded by tragedy.  The older members of the family pass away, unable to leave the land that was their entire life, or to lead the life of hardship on the road.  Along the way they meet so many other families with stories like their own, many initially in worse circumstances than them.  As they progress, they too fall into even harder times.  The veil of dreams is removed from their eyes and it becomes clear that the plentiful work they expected is just a lure to capture so many workers that the landowners can pick and choose and lower the rates of payment.  Many can barely feed their families on the pittance they are given for a whole day of manual labour.

But many other dreams are shattered along the away as well, most notably for Tom’s sister Rose of Sharon.  A newlywed and pregnant, Rose of Sharon (pronounced Rosasharn by her family) dreams of a little home for herself, the baby and her husband Connie.  But Connie proves too weak, and the young, naive Rose of Sharon must grow up quickly.  Her role in the final scene is a powerful transcendence of her circumstances.

What stood out for me most was the simple kindness of all the folks – none ever had so little that they could not share it with others.  Even in such desperate times, the common man would look after each other.  Just beautiful.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

16299590A great little Sherlock Holmes novella, narrated for by the fabulous Alan Cumming.  Didn’t you love him as Mr Elton in Emma?  And so many other things.

I love a little bit of Sherlock Holmes, its so intriguing how he sees so much meaning in those things we overlook everyday.  The story start with him making suggestions as to the character of the owner of a lost hat, simply by analysing the wear and tear on the hat itself.  The owner was accosted in the street, and dropped his Christmas goose and his hat in order to flee.  In that goose was a famous missing stone, the Blue Carbuncle of the title.  While an arrest has already been made, Holmes seeks out the real perpetrator and discovers just how and why a precious stone ends up inside a goose.  Entertaining.  Cumming is a wonderful narrator but pretty sure you can download the text version for free.

The Great Gatsby

9780743273565_custom-s6-c10This is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous although not most acclaimed novel.  It is a sad story set in a shallow time with transparent characters.  Not a lot to recommend it.

The story is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, an ex-World War I soldier who – like Gatsby – is making his way in the nouveau rich world he finds himself in.

Gatsby – not a likeable character, but a sympathetic one – has done slightly better for himself, with his mansion and nightly parties which he overlooks from his balcony.  But Gatsby is the ultimate “hollow man”, a made up persona looking to better himself, firstly to escape his lower-class upbringing and James Gatz, and secondly to win the love of Daisy, the debutante whom he loved but lost due to his comparative poverty many years ago.

It is Gatsby’s continued devotion to the vacuous but charming Daisy that drove him to seek wealth, ostensibly through the thriving bootlegging business.  Although he would tell you he inherited family money.

Nick watches on as as Gatsby finally re-connects with his long lost love, now Mrs Tom Buchanan and living just across the water from him.  Daisy is disgruntled with her brutish and philandering husband, and begins an affair with Gatsby that comes to a head one afternoon when all the players in this drama are invited to lunch at the Buchanans.  This is a move even a simpleton could have avoided.

Abusive Tom realizes that his wife is having an affair, and in response, Gatsby challenges her to tell Tom she never loved him.  But Daisy, caught up in the whirlwind of reason, her young but alarmingly absent daughter and social expectations cannot, and becomes distressed when asked to.  Her fragile emotional state leads to a great tragedy, which is Gatsby’s undoing.

A romantic hero only for his constancy, Gatsby is disappointed by Daisy who elects to stay in her unhappy marriage.  She leaves to return to the simpler world of the Mid-West without a word.

Its hard for me to imagine how this story has become so romanticized.  The social commentary is the only interesting aspect, although the shallowness of all of the characters becomes tiresome and not even Carraway can rescue the reader from wanting to write off the lot of them.

A necessary read before the Baz Luhrmann version comes out, but I firmly believe that this may be more style than substance.  Sparingly written, it will be interesting to see not only how Luhrmann captures the decadence of the twenties, but the emotionally stunted world of the characters.