Tag Archives: Modern Classics

A Walk On The Wild Side, by Nelson Algren

3.5 stars3.5/5

When Lou Reed referenced Nelson Algren’s 1957 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, he borrowed more than the title.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 1998 reprint edition, paperback, 368 pages - book group choice.

Like Algren, Reed created lyrical portraits of people whose life was all about the next hustle. Algren painted a picture of lost souls in 1930’s New Orleans, Reed, those of 1970’s New York. Reed’s lines about transvestites and giving head are no more shocking than Algren’s condom-creating ‘wulcanized woman’ and no less depressing than his character Old Dockery’s ‘hundred dolls’.What they also have in common is a way of making the seedier side of life sound romantic by using a poetic narrative.

When Sakura chose Algren’s novel for our monthly book group (her thoughts are here by the way),I was surprised at how I’d never heard of this book that has been considered modern classic. While I was easily able to get myself a scruffy 1st edition on eBay for a few quid, I noticed it wasn’t exactly a best seller on Amazon or widely in print. What has caused A Walk on the Wild Side to fall out of favour? Published in the 50’s, this story of hapless hookers and the hopeless fortune-seeking hick Dove Linkhorn must have pushed the boundaries of good-taste and even now is quite shocking. It’s a really vivid snapshot of what life could have been like for people on the edge of society and explores themes of racism and class with some eloquence – the American dream turned inside-out where lonely wanderers struggle to make their way but without family or sufficient education are doomed to fail.

At the French Market, Dove, one of the key characters in the novel, watches turtles being killed for soup:

“When his eyes had got used to the deep-sea light he discerned a Negro the size of Carnera, naked to the waist and shining with iron-coloured sweat, decapitating snapping turtles with silvered precision.”

He watches one headless turtle, desperate to make it to the top of the pile finally make it and then skid straight back down in a bloody mess. Even for the luckiest characters in the book life is the same – a blind struggle and an easy descent.

Although the themes of the novel strike a blue note, Algren’s writing is darkly comic with scenes such as the one where Mama Floralee chases a naval officer around to indulge his repressed desire towards his childhood maid – a passage both tragic and funny.

One member of our group commented that it could be that the style of the book, has helped it to become more obscure in what is arguably a time of more plot-driven novels. In 350 odd pages A Walk on the Wild Side explores a multitude of characters, which can be disorientating. It isn’t structured in a neat and orderly way and this rather mirrors the haphazard lives of those featured in it. However, although A Walk on the Wild Side took a little bit of getting into, I’m really pleased that I read it. The indulgent use of metaphor and occasionally distracting diversions into the past of different characters was at times confusing but the use of language is inventive, quite beautiful in fact – and the characters were described in fascinating detail.

A Walk on the Wild Side is one to read you’re not in a rush and want to read the grittier version of the American Dream.

Am I the only person that hasn’t heard of Algren? Have you come across his writing before or read any of his novels?

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

3 stars3/5

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, was my latest read for Riverside Readers book group.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino

Vintage Classics 2007 edition, 272 pages (paperback) - book group choice.

‘Unusual’ is probably the best word that I can use to describe Calvino’s novel. Is it a ‘novel’ I wonder or is it an experiment of sorts? The book is structured as a collection of unfinished stories with more linear narrative interspersed, and I found a challenging and intriguing read. Via the protagonist (who sometimes appears to be you the reader and sometimes another reader – confusing yes?) Calvino takes a journey through a sequence of different stories, and often talking directly to the reader to explore how and why people read and twisting perceptions about what a book should be.

 

Calvino’s writing is beautiful – he’s a skilled writer capable of beautiful descriptions and cleverly expressed ideas, but reading If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is often quite a painful experience because it seriously messes with your head. The first chapter is misleadingly easy to read and very engaging. The first ‘story’ seems to be leading you somewhere exciting until… it cuts of abruptly. Sometimes I loved the way that Calvino seems to speak to you and get into your thought process and sometimes this technique felt quite invasive. I still can’t decide if I think that he is merely a playful writer or a bit pompous – perhaps a bit of both?

The funny thing is, that Calvino pulls it off (kind of). When I finally struggled to the end of the book which felt epic despite it’s modest 270 pages, I felt that it was worth it and I did get what he was trying to do. I can’t rate it highly as a book as it wasn’t enjoyable read 90% of the time, however I can’t give it a low score, because I did think it was clever, quite beautiful conceived in parts and really unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Read what some of my fellow book-groupers thought about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller:

Reading Matters – “While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas, his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me.”

Savidge Reads – “A weird book that annoyingly defeated me…”

Chasing Bawa – “I think I can forgive him the mind f*ck, because he ended it quite simply, quite beautifully.”

What books have you come across that stretched your idea of what reading is about?

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

3 stars3/5

Well, this is probably the longest it has taken me to review a book. I read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon for my book group back in August, and when I put it down I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it so decided that I should give it time to let it settle. Strangely it still hasn’t.

The Lonely Londoners, Penguin Modern Classics edition

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 edition, 160 pages - Book group choice.

First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners is a slim novel, but one that is packed with detail and filled with vivid descriptions of early 1950’s London seen through the eyes of Moses Aloetta, a migrant to the capital from Trinidad. At the beginning of the story, Moses is waiting at Waterloo Station. He is meeting another Trinidadian Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver who has just arrived in England. He doesn’t know him – all that connects them is the fact they are both West Indian. They are united by this fact alone and their sense of otherness, in a predominantly white city.

In The Lonely Londoners we are introduced to a variety of characters, all West Indian migrants and mostly young men. They get along however they can in the busy city, whether it be through hard graft or by hustling a living. Getting work is tough enough and the environment is hostile. Moses comments to Sir Galahad;

“English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live…they frighten we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why, because that is a question that bigger brains than mine trying to find out from way back.”

Moses himself has been living in London for some time, and in some ways seems has now made himself at home. While he suggests that Sir Galahad “hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today”, he himself has almost become ingrained in the city. He marvels at how some people manage to save money from a measly three pounds per week wages to take back to their families, but he himself cannot, making the reader wonder if he is trapped or whether he really does ever want to return to the ‘mother country’. Selvon conveys the limbo that these migrants must have felt – never quite a part of London, but somehow divorced from their home country.

The book is written in vernacular which makes it at times a tough read. Many a moment I wondered what certain words (such as ‘test’) meant and muddled my way through with educated guesses. At the same time, the use of the vernacular added to the books authenticity and made me feel as if I was really hearing the voice of the narrator and the characters in the book.

And The Lonely Londoners has a cacophony of voices. Sometimes optimistic (Sir Galahad), sometimes contemplative (Moses) and also cocky (Cap). I had a mixed response to these characters. I kind of liked Moses who reminded me a bit of Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh (weird I know), really disliked Cap who seemed full of himself and chauvinistic but was quite enchanted by Big City with his tall stories and confusion of the word ‘music’ for ‘fusic’. I also loved the passage where one of the few female characters – Tanty, manages to convince a reluctant shopkeeper to give her a tab.

There were some tragi-comic moments, such as when Cap decides to catch a seagull for his dinner which I found genuinely funny, but I have to say The Lonely Londoners is quite hard work. The book switches from one character to another, and these snapshots of their lives are simultaneously fascinating and confusing. I liked some of the characters and found parts of the book beautifully described but for some reason it left me feeling at a distance from it. Perhaps it was the fact that the voices were mostly masculine, or because I didn’t really feel much emotion from the characters. This sense of distance is something that I think is exactly what Selvon intended, and adds to the theme of loneliness, but it didn’t quite work for me.

The Lonely Londoners is more of a portrait of an era than a ‘story’ and opened up my eyes to a part of British history that I had no previous knowledge of. While I didn’t enjoy this book enough to want to read more Sam Selvon in the near future, it does leave me wanting to read more about the experiences of migrants to England during this period of time. To hear another voice.

My rating:

6 out of 10

Can you recommend other novels which explore migrants to England in the 1950’s?

Interesting link I found from BBC History – Black British History Since Windrush

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

Sarah, of A Devoted Reader recommended Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion to me when I was looking for books to read  in Venice (you can find my final choices here). I actually didn’t read it on holiday (I was a little ambitious with choosing five books to read on a long weekend!), and didn’t get round to reading it until recently. I think this was partly because I had the impression that it would be quite an ‘odd’ book and I wasn’t quite in the mood for odd books until recently. After reading The Castle of Otranto I thought it would have to work hard to be stranger than that!

And… The Passion is an unusual book, however having finished it I now want to read everything Jeanette Winterson has ever written. What an absolutely wonderful storyteller.

The Passion doesn’t really lend itself easily to a synopsis but I will try to give you a flavour of what it is about without giving the whole story away. It is a book made up of four parts and set during the Napoleonic Wars. In the first part of the story, we are introduced to Henri, a young man who has left his rural home in France to fight for Napoleon. In the second part, we meet the enigmatic Villanelle who is a Venetian boatman’s daughter. At night she dresses as a man and ventures into the seductive world of the Venice casinos.

The story is written in the first person in both instances which means the reader gets their unique perspectives. The reader travels with the characters over vast continents and share their thoughts and their passions.

Throughout the book, Winterson explores many different kinds of ‘passion’. First comes the violent and irrational passion of war-making, out of which she observes that victory is never ‘limited’, either because the loser of a battle will seek revenge or because the victor doesn’t know when to consolidate his gains, gambling even when he is in ‘profit’:

“Victors lose when they are tired of winning, the impulse to gamble the valuable, fabulous thing is too strong.”

Of course this idea of gambling and victory also applies to the passion between lovers whether requited or unrequited. I found Winterson’s discussion of love and passion beautiful and moving. She explores how passion can trap you in her leopard metaphor;

“You might reason that you can easily feed a leopard and that your garden is big enough, but you will know in your dreams at least that no leopard is ever satisfied with what it is given. After nine nights must come ten and every desperate meeting only leaves you desperate for another. There is never enough to eat, never enough garden for your love.”

She also shows the other side of the coin, how love can make a person free:

“To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free.”

The idea of passion is developed in so many places in the book even down to the simple pleasure of food, which is even more pronounced for the characters faced with hardship and a harsh environment. I really enjoyed how well this theme was explored and articulated.

Other things I loved in the book… the character of Villanelle. She is a strong woman, sometimes a saviour and also a whore. At times she is wildly feminine and at others androgynous. Her glorious red hair is an outward display of her passionate nature. Of course I relished the descriptions of Venice having fallen in love with it when I visited.

“This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day  and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you.”

“At midnight the bells ring out from every one of their churches and they have a hundred and seven at least. I have tried to count, but it is a living city and no one really knows what buildings are there from one day to the next.”

When I began reading The Passion I didn’t have a clue where it was going, but enjoyed the beautiful magical storytelling elements. I then felt rewarded with a tale that really fulfilled everything I could hope for in a real ‘story’. A fantastic piece of writing in more than one sense of the word.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read The Passion or any of Winterson’s other novels that you can recommend?

Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton

Goodbye Mr Chips, by James HiltonGoodbye Mr Chips was a random library choice. The title rang a bell so I picked it up and the reviewer’s assertion that “Here is a triumphant proof that a little book can be a great book” clinched it for me. Of course in typical style, I loaned it out and promptly forgot about it until its’ due day loomed when I thought I should get on and read it!

Although it was evidently quite a popular book in the 1930’s when it was first published (first in a newspaper, then by Hodder and Stoughton), it seems to have been forgotten a bit. I myself, didn’t have a clue what it would be about, but had a feeling that it would be quaintly old-fashioned and very English. I found that it was both of those things, and though a sentimental book (possibly why it’s not so popular these days), I also found it charming.

We are introduced to Mr Chipping, (or ‘Mr Chips’ as he is known by the boys at the school where he teaches) when he is the twilight of his life. The book is a portrait of his life as a much-beloved and long-serving teacher at a boys school and gives glimpses into his life before and after the turn of the century. Old enough to have been a child visiting The Great Exhibition of 1851, yet with a teaching career lasting until after the First World War, Mr Chips is known to his boys and colleagues as just a kindly old bachelor but it is also revealed that he had a happy marriage with a bold and adventurous young woman in his younger days.

Goodbye Mr Chips is a gentle sort of book. I did like the nostalgic feel to it and the way that Hilton creates such a vivid and warm character. It made me giggle to think of Mr Chips with his detective novels, a guilty pleasure:

“Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French.”

However although he is for the most part tucked away in his rooms or teaching his boys at school, he is also quietly aware of the world changing around him. His life spans the latter half of the 19th Century, he is witness to the development of the “New Woman”.

“For he did not, he would have said, care for women; he never felt at home or at ease with them; and that monstrous creature beginning to be talked about, the New Woman of the nineties, filled him with horror. He was a quiet, conventional person, and the wold, viewed from the haven of Brookfield, seemed to him full of distasteful innovations…”

That is until he meets his wife-to-be, Katherine. Mr Chips attitude to the world changes forever after a happen-chance meeting with an intrepid young woman who he meets out climbing.

The book has some poignant moments, especially in the latter half where the First World War begins to make its mark on his beloved school, claiming the lives of ex-pupils:

“…but Chips, in the back pew under the gallery, thought: They are only names to him, he doesn’t see their faces as I do.

1916. The Somme Battle. Twenty-three names read out one Sunday evening.

Mr Chips’ unconventional outlook in his later years is also demonstrated in his warm words for an old friend, an ex German teacher.

Goodbye Mr Chips, is a book about a an educator who has lived many years, been touched by the sentiments of the time and has shepherded generations from boyhood to manhood. It is also about an old world being left behind and a new, tumultuous yet exciting one taking its place. It can’t say that reading this book exactly changed my life, but it was sensitively written, gave me a glimpse into another era and left me with a warm happy-sad nostalgic feeling. As comforting and typically English as a buttered crumpet in front of the fire.

My rating:

7 out of 10

Book Review – Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway Penguin Modern Classics EditionMrs Dalloway is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while but also one of the most difficult. I decided to give it a go as part of Nonsuch Book’s Woolf in Winter season and thought that at just over 160 pages it would be a quick read. It really wasn’t – partly because I was sort of reading in tandem with another book, and more so, because I found it hard not to let my mind drift of when I was reading  as I found Woolf’s prose challenging.
Mrs Dalloway is set on one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of an MP. She is hosting a party and the day begins new and bright:

“And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.”

As the day goes on and Clarissa prepares for her party, we dip into the lives of a set of characters. There is Clarissa’s old friend, Sally Seton and an old flame, Peter Walsh. They share a mutual history and missed opportunities. Peter seems a haunted character, a bit of an adventurer who has lived in India, has a soft spot for unfortunate relationships and fiddles with his pocket knife when nervous unlike the unruffled (perhaps uninteresting, but kind) Richard Dalloway.
We also happen upon Lucrezia Warren Smith and her not-always lucid husband Septimus in the park, a curious couple, sometimes heartbreakingly tragic, but also strangely tender and together. Then there is Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, a young woman who is stepping out into the world brightly, full of hope and potential in contrast to others strife and fading youth.
It took me a while to get to grips with the different sets of characters, especially as the writing often jumps from one situation to another without notice. They are however, very realistic and Woolf’s depiction of their lives is wonderfully poignant. I also found Woolf’s writing style at once vibrant and at other times just too flighty. Sometimes it was difficult for me to focus and catch the thread of what was going on. I did appreciate the wonderful way that the city life of London was evoked however, and how some descriptions were so vivid they were almost ultra-real, like this passage which turns a simple moment into something more:

“Gently the yellow curtain with all the birds of Paradise blew out and it seemed as if there were a flight of wings into the room, right out, then sucked back (for the window was open).”

I had a real sense of how people’s lives were changed by the war and by their experiences overseas and how society was changing. There is a passage where one of the male characters comments on how young women are now happy to paint their faces in public, and another where someone at the party comments on how young girls wear dresses  well above the ankles now (gasp!).  I was really struck by how modern Woolf’s writing seemed, there is a scene in which the carts and carriages divert to let an ambulance through the streets and it might have been a scene picked out of the everyday in London now.
I am happy that I’ve read Mrs Dalloway. Having read Orlando a few months ago, I didn’t expect it to be a walk in the park, but it was harder to digest than I thought it would be. However, it did give me lots of food for thought and although I don’t think that I would ever go on a Woolf binge, I would like to read more in the future. Perhaps just not for a little while!

Are you a fan of Woolf?

Details of Woolf in Winter can be found here.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

I have to admit that when Jackie (Farm Lane Books Blog) chose Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) for our Riverside Readers book group, I was a little dubious (sorry Jackie!). Firstly, it involved a mouse called Algernon (“silly name for a mouse” I thought), and the copy that Jackie showed us had a rather spooky sci-fi looking cover with a maze on it. I can’t help it, I’m a book cover snob.

Little did I expect to completely fall in love with it…

Flowers for Algernon is the story of a 32 year old man – Charley Gordon, who is given an operation to correct his mental disability and allow him to learn. The experiment has been tested on a mouse called Algernon, who has become something of a super-mouse with an ability to figure out complex puzzles (hence the maze on the cover). At the start of the book Charley works as a cleaner in a bakery and has an IQ of 68. We read the book in the form of ‘progress reports’ which are written by Charley himself, so the reader is instantly given a special insight into his perspective on the situation. His initial reports are at first childlike, and confused, but develop as the experiment affects him. I won’t go into too much detail on the storyline, but I will say that the reader goes on a remarkable journey with Charley, exploring the relationships he has before and after the change, his disjointed family background and the experiences he has of the world as he develops. The actual timeframe that the book covers is very short (less than a year) but it feels like a lifetime in terms of the discoveries and changes that Charley undergoes.

I don’t know about you, but reading a synopsis of this book wouldn’t have made me want to read it, but I am so pleased that I did. The writing style was fluid and engaging (I was completely absorbed for 2 days), the characters incredibly realistic and the idea once I’d started reading was so compelling that I found myself believing that this was a real person and a real experiment. It’s also an incredibly moving book, and really makes you switch on to the ideas expressed in a skillful way (i.e. without being over dramatic or sickly-sweet). At times I loved Charley, and felt deep empathy and at others I was disappointed in him and upset, and I responded to him as a real human rather than a creation.

The book posed all sorts of questions for me like; Was he better off before or after? How does intelligence define personality? Was it worth it? Was it a moral experiment? As a book group choice it provided excellent fodder for discussion and I think that it would appeal to a wide spectrum of people, who might not think to pick it up. I would seriously urge you to get a copy!

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?
Have you read any books that surprised you?

Want another opinion? Read my other book group members thoughts. A link to Savidge Reads and Farm Lane Books Blog is here, and Kimbofo of Reading Matters has also written a review.

Interested in the Riverside Reader’s London-based group? Click here to find out more.