Kim Reads and Bakes

If I'm not reading or dawdling aimlessly around the World Wide Interweb, then I'm baking a cake or thinking about baking a cake.  Or else I'm thinking about where I'd like to travel to next.

"Three Soldiers"

Three Soldiers - John Dos Passos,  George Guidall


John Dos Passos was politicized by his experiences of war.  During World War I he served as an ambulance driver in Italy and France and his experiences led him to become a Communist.  Later, his experiences during the Spanish Civil War caused him to become disenchanted with the left and his politics became increasingly conservative during the 1950s.


When this novel was published in 1921, it caused a sensation.  A direct result of Dos Passos’ World War I experiences, it’s a passionate anti-war polemic, albeit one that deals less with the horror of actual warfare and more with the pettiness, corruption and cruelty of military life. The work relates the experiences of three young American men with different backgrounds and motivations, who embark for Europe to serve their country. Ultimately, the narrative focuses on John Andrews, a sensitive Harvard-educated musician, whose attitudes most closely reflect those of the author. 


Had I not listened to the audiobook version of the novel immediately after listening to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun also Rises”, I suspect that I would have liked it more. While the writing is powerful and unsentimental, its verbosity does not compare well with Hemingway’s simpler, less cluttered style.  The novel would have been much better, I think,  – and probably more widely read today – if the prose wasn’t weighed down by quite so many adverbs, adjectives and similes.  Even though I usually love ornate prose, the language in this novel at times made me impatient. Further, I was never in any doubt as to what the author wanted me to think and how he wanted me to feel, when I would have preferred to simply feel and think for myself.


That said, I don’t regret the time I spent listening to the novel, which was beautifully narrated by George Guidall, and I plan to read more of Dos Passos’ work. My interest in his writing has been sparked by my “Lost Generation” reading project. It’s been interesting to discover a writer who was well known and critically well received in his time.  It’s a shame that he’s not better known now.


KimR's baking books
KimR's baking books
The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway,  William Hurt
It’s odd how my memory works, or rather, doesn't work. I first read this novel in about 1976. The only thing I remembered about that first reading was that I didn’t like the book very much. I assumed that a rereading, albeit many years later, would trigger some memory of what I’d read before. But no, that file had been completely deleted from my memory bank.

A second reading was prompted by my fascination with the life and times of the Lost Generation. This, Hemingway’s first novel, is iconic of that period, focusing on the lives of American expatriates in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. The work prompted Lost Generation tourism, as young Americans flocked to the bars and restaurants in Paris frequented by Hemingway, his friends and the characters in his novel. The novel also romanticised the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona and Spanish bullfighting generally.

The Sun also Rises is in part a roman à clef, with the characters based on real people and the events in the novel based on what happened during a trip to Pamplona in 1925. In the central character, Jake Barnes, Hemingway portrayed himself, albeit with a quite different war injury. Robert Cohn is the fictional equivalent of writer Harold Loeb, whose affair with Lady Duff Twysden – the novel’s Lady Brett Ashley - enraged Hemingway, who fancied her himself. Hemingway set out to humiliate Loeb when the group was in Pamplona. In the manner in which Hemingway portrayed Robert Cohn in the novel, he humiliated Loeb all over again. According to Hemingway’s biographer Kenneth S Lynn, this affected Loeb for the rest of his life.


Ernest Hemingway (left), with Harold Loeb, Lady Duff Twysden (in hat), Hadley Hemingway, Donald Ogden Stewart (obscured), and Pat Guthrie (far right - Lady Duff Twysden's lover, who is Mike Campbell in the novel) at a café in Pamplona in July 1925.

I find the autobiographical aspects of the novel particularly interesting, although they don’t show Hemingway the man in a good light. Hemingway the writer is much more impressive. I love the fragmented cubist narrative style of the work. As with a cubist painting, the novel’s themes and meaning emerge through the putting together of its individual pieces. Each of the characters is in effect dealing with the horrors of World War I, although this is not overtly what the novel is about. In describing the post-war generation, Hemingway explores issues of sexual identity, masculinity, communication and authenticity. The complex simplicity of the prose is also astounding: the short, simple sentences and the repeated words and phrases give it a musical, poetic quality. I also love the interlude in the mountains between the Paris and the Pamplona scenes. This part of the novel demonstrates Hemingway’s ability to describe landscape in a way which makes a reader feel and not just see the scenes he paints. And I love Hemingway’s ability to evoke the Paris I know and the Pamplona I don’t know with such precision and economy.

On a second reading there are still things I don’t like about the novel. A significant proportion of it consists of somewhat tedious action and conversations, both of which follow a particular pattern. The characters drink a lot, then they bicker, then they’re hung over. Afterwards they talk about how much they drank, what they bickered about and how bad their hangovers are. Repeat ad infinitum. The anti-Semitic comments about Robert Cohn and the anti-homosexual comments are annoying, although they reflect common attitudes in the 1920s. What I dislike most about the novel is the bull fighting. I know that Hemingway was passionate about bull fighting, I understand that in the novel bull fighting operates as a symbol of authenticity and nobility and reflects and anticipates some of the actions of the characters. However, I can’t get past the fact that bull fighting is about killing animals for entertainment. Maybe I would react differently if I were Spanish, but I’m not Spanish and Hemingway’s glorification of the activity repels me.

I listened to an audiobook edition of the novel narrated by William Hurt. In general terms I like Hurt as an actor. His performance narrating this novel is good in parts. He is great with the male American characters, particularly Jake Barnes. In edition, Hurt clearly speaks good French and his pronunciation of French words and phrases is excellent. Otherwise, accents are not Hurt’s strong suit. His English accent for Brett Ashley is awful, his Scottish accent for Mike Campbell is all over the place and his Greek, German and Spanish accents all sound pretty much the same. Although I’m glad that I listened to an audiobook – listening rather than re-reading often makes me like books I haven’t liked first time around – I can only recommend this particular audiobook to very tolerant listeners.

It’s hard for me to rate this novel. Hemingway’s prose and the innovative narrative style impress me and the autobiographical aspects of the novel interest me. Other aspects of the novel I find significantly less compelling. In addition, while I was intellectually engaged by Hemingway’s writing, I was not particularly moved by it. As important as the novel is as an example of modernist literature, I would’ve liked it better if I’d been able to respond to it on an emotional basis. Consequently, the rating fits in at somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. My lovely friend Jemidar read this novel as I listened to it and I am, as always, glad to have shared the experience with her.
Animal Farm - Simon Callow, George Orwell
This short, powerful work is everything a political satire should be. Orwell’s prose is elegant, his wit is incisive and his message is abundantly clear. A working knowledge of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath adds an extra dimension to the work, but it’s quite comprehensible without that knowledge. The depressing reality is that the pattern Orwell describes has been repeated throughout the 20th century: an oppressed population overthrows a despotic ruler only to find itself oppressed all over again within a relatively short period of time.

In 1887 Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
It’s hard to imagine a better literary illustration of this maxim than Orwell’s classic tale of what happens when the animals take over the farm.

I listened to the wonderfully talented Simon Callow narrating an audiobook edition and he was, as I expected, superb. I’m very glad that I finally got around to this book, but I’m not sorry I didn’t read it as a teenager. This is very much a fairy tale for adults. Thank you to Jemidar for reading along with me.
Burmese Days - George Orwell,  Allan Corduner
I’m on a bit of a George Orwell kick at the moment. Until a few months ago, my experience of Orwell’s writing was limited to the truly brilliant [b:1984|5470|1984|George Orwell||153313]. I’m not sure why I’d not read anything else he wrote, particularly given that I’ve read 1984 multiple times. In any event, a walking tour in Paris which took in the street where Orwell (then just plain Eric Blair) lived and which is evoked in the first scene in [b:Down and Out in Paris and London|393199|Down and Out in Paris and London|George Orwell||2374970] led me to read that particular work and now I can’t get enough of his writing.

First published in the United States in 1934 – Orwell’s British publisher Gollanncz having turned it down fearing libel suits - Burmese Days was inspired by Orwell’s time as a member of the Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s, when Burma was a province of British India. The novel is set in the fictional town of Kyauktada, which is squarely based on Katha, a town located 150 miles north of Mandalay, where Orwell was posted in late 1926*. It's a fierce and articulate indictment of imperialism in general and of the mindset of the British Indian colonisers in particular - equal in passion to EM Forster’s [b:A Passage to India|45195|A Passage to India|E.M. Forster||4574850], if rather less so in subtlety.

Orwell’s main character is John Flory, a timber merchant. An outsider in the small British community in Kyauktada, the lonely Flory despises the attitudes and preoccupations of his fellow members of the local “whites only” club, but rarely has the courage to openly speak his mind. His only real friend is Dr Veraswami, the highest ranking “native” official in the town and an ardent supporter of the British Empire, whose downfall is being plotted by the corrupt U Po Kyin. Flory, whose unsightly birthmark symbolises all that isolates him from his fellow colonialists, is torn between loyalty to his friend and the desire to avoid conflict.

In my view, the main weakness of the work is in the omniscient third person narration. At times detached and ironic, it is at other times – particularly in the first part of the novel – indistinguishable from Flory’s (and presumably Orwell’s) voice. While this contributes to the lack of subtlety of the narrative, at least you’re not going to die wondering what the author really thought. And it’s a relatively minor defect in what is otherwise a powerful satire. Orwell’s prose is wonderful and his evocation of time and place is superb. In addition, his characters are memorable. The characterisation of Flory in particular – who is not particularly likeable – is very well-achieved. In his portrayal, there’s a sense of a man who is much better than his surroundings and his lack of personal moral courage allow him to be. Flory’s love interest, Elizabeth, is thoroughly unlikeable. However, even she is still portrayed with sympathy and the reason for her shallowness is understandable.

This is a novel which may particularly appeal to anyone who has had experience of living in a colonial society. As a child, I lived in a place which started out as a French penal colony and which is still effectively under French rule. I remember just how shocking it was to the local whites with whom my parents mixed that they made friends with and socialised with “natives”. This was in the mid-1960s. Things may have changed, but somehow I doubt that they’ve changed very much. The colonial mindset is very hard to shift.

I listened to an audiobook edition narrated by English actor Allan Corduner. He was particularly good with the male voices. However, his voices for the two young female characters left much to be desired. Although they are not sympathetic characters, this doesn’t justify making them sound approximately four times their age.

*According to this article, efforts are currently being made to preserve the house in which Orwell lived in Katha.
Started Early, Took My Dog - Kate Atkinson
My friend Jemidar and I put off reading this, the fourth of Kate Atkinson’s novels featuring former police officer and former private detective Jackson Brodie, because we heard it ended in a cliffhanger. We don’t like hanging from cliffs and thought we’d wait until the next Jackson Brodie novel was published before putting ourselves in that situation. Turns out that Atkinson is not planning to write any more books in the series in the foreseeable future, so we decided to delay no longer. As it happens, we were also wrong in thinking that this novel ends in a cliffhanger. Although the ending’s not tied up in a neat bow, it does have a sense of completeness to it, all the while leaving open the possibility that Atkinson could change her mind and return to writing about Jackson Brodie at some point in the future.

This installment in the series is set in and around Leeds and in Whitby in Northern Yorkshire. Jackson is trying to track down the birth mother of a woman in New Zealand. His investigation leads him to chance encounters with a retired policewoman working as a security officer, a small child, an elderly actress in the early stages of dementia and an abused dog. From those encounters spins the story of a murder which occurred in 1975, police corruption and child abduction. However, the crimes are not the point of the novel. As she does in the earlier Jackson Brodie novels – and, for that matter, in her standalone works - Atkinson uses the plot to explore themes of grief, loss, loneliness, dysfunctional family relationships and mortality.

Atkinson’s characters are not happy, or if they are happy it’s unlikely to last. They are vulnerable, damaged and lost, looking for connection and only sometimes finding it. For them, loving is fraught with danger, being loved is temporary at best, but they still strive for both. This sounds grim, and it is. And yet, Atkinson’s elegant, ironic prose, her deft characterization and the intelligence, compassion and humour of her writing make her novels a joy to read. The most poignant and haunting scenes in this novel involve the secondary characters: little Courtney with her collection of belongings, her magic wand and her fingers forming stars; Tilly as she slowly sinks into dementia, the loyal Yorkshire terrier rescuing its new master.

A reader who expects a simple mystery or detective story from the Jackson Brodie novels will probably be disappointed. Atkinson eschews a conventional linear narrative. Instead, she jumps around in time and uses interior monologues that at times border on stream of consciousness to advance the narrative. In addition, the work is full of literary allusions (the title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem) and allusions to quantum mechanics (Shrödinger’s cat appears more than once). Atkinson is not afraid to use improbable coincidences in the plot, a technique that has the potential to annoy fans of more traditional crime fiction. However, the effect of chance encounters and the seemingly random choices people make are themes that run all through Atkinson’s writing and reinforce the sense she gives of the unpredictability of life.

If this is indeed the last Jackson Brodie novel, then it is a fitting end to his career. While I’d like to see him return, I completely understand if Atkinson decides to retire him permanently. At least he’ll have that lovely dog to keep him company on his travels and to stop him from feeling too sorry for himself.

I love Kate Atkinson’s writing and it has been a joy to read this particular novel with Jemidar.
Light in August - William Faulkner,  Will Patton
This novel is my first experience of William Faulkner’s writing. I was drawn to it partly because one of my favourite novelists, John Steinbeck, was a great admirer of Faulkner’s work and partly because I felt it was time to fill the gap in my literary education caused by my unfamiliarity with one of the great novelists of the 20th century.

My research into which of Faulkner’s novels to start with indicated that Light in August is one of his more accessible works. This proved to be so, or at least, I found it very accessible. In it, Faulkner weaves together three stories. The novel starts with the story of Lena Grove, a young woman who has walked from Alabama to Mississippi looking for the father of her unborn child. It moves on to the story of Joe Christmas, an abused orphan obsessed with his uncertain racial identity, and to the story of Gail Hightower, a disgraced preacher living on the fringes of society. Their stories intersect in the fictional town of Jefferson and through them Faulker explores themes of alienation, religious intolerance and race and gender relations.

Faulkner’s narrative structure is fascinating. It combines omniscient third-person narrative with interior monologues and extended flashbacks. Faulkner also allows characters to tell parts of the story to each other, relating their experience of particular events and speculating about parts of the action they have not directly witnessed. The point of view constantly changes from one character to another and the narrative travels back and forward in time and place, which allows the same scene to be described from different perspectives.

As I listened to the audiobook I was irresistibly reminded of the writing of [a:Thomas Hardy|15905|Thomas Hardy|]. In the past couple of years, I’ve learned to appreciate Hardy’s writing much more than I have in the past. This makes me think that I probably wouldn't have liked Faulkner if I’d read him in my teens or twenties. When I read Hardy now it feels like I’m reading Greek or Shakespearean tragedy in the form of a novel. That’s also how I felt when I listened to Light in August. While the narrative style of the two novelists is quite different, they both set their novels in a fictional location based on a real place - Yoknapatawpha County for Faulkner and Wessex for Hardy. Other similarities between Hardy and Faulkner include their focus on characters living on the margins of society whose idiom they capture in striking dialogue, as well as their use of powerful symbolism and imagery that is almost painterly in its intensity. Further, Hardy and Faulkner were both poets as well as novelists and their poetry seems ever present in their prose. And somehow I think I'm going to be as haunted by Joe Christmas as I am by Jude Frawley and Michael Henchard.

Will Patton narrated the audiobook. His accent and speech rhythms brought the characters to life. Listening to the characters’ words and not just reading them transported me to their world - a world which both shocked and moved me. Listening to this novel was a very special literary experience.
Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise - Sally Cline My experience of reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s [b:Tender Is the Night|46164|Tender Is the Night|F. Scott Fitzgerald||8272], my ongoing fascination with Lost Generation writers and my experience of reading Therese Anne Fowler’s [b:Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald|15994634|Z A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald|Therese Anne Fowler||21763986] led me to this biography. Although I knew relatively little about Zelda Fitzgerald, prior to reading Fowler’s novel I wasn’t convinced by her portrayal in that work. The Zelda in Fowler’s novel was altogether too dreary, sedate and contemporary for a woman whose exploits made her an icon of the Jazz Age.

Cline’s biography has given me a much better insight into the life and times of Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s a very detailed and extensively researched work, covering Zelda’s family background, her childhood and teenage years in Montgomery Alabama, her meeting with F Scott Fitzgerald and their romance and subsequent marriage, which occurred five days after the publication of Scott’s first novel, [b:This Side of Paradise|46165|This Side of Paradise|F. Scott Fitzgerald||2520849]. The bulk of the work deals with the gradual and irrevocable decline of their marriage, destroyed by Scott’s alcoholism and Zelda’s mental illness.

One of the saddest aspects of Zelda’s life was the almost certain misdiagnosis of her psychiatric condition as schizophrenia and the cruel side effects of the treatment to which she was subjected. Another was the characterisation of her creative impulses as evidence that she was an unnatural wife and mother who wanted to compete with her husband. Yet another was the manner in which her husband appropriated her work for his own uses. Cline discusses these and other aspects of Zelda’s life with insight and sensitivity.

According to the introduction, Cline had access to resources denied to previous biographers, including Zelda’s full medical records. She made excellent use of that material. The work is extensively footnoted and includes a lengthy bibliography. The medical information available to Cline includes the transcript of an interview between Zelda and Scott and her psychiatrist during which the pair trade recriminations and Zelda ultimately gives in to Scott’s demands. This is particularly poignant to read, as are the extracts from the couple’s letters.

Cline’s style is easy to read and engaging. She occasionally indulges in speculation of the “Zelda must have thought” variety, but not so often that the work loses credibility. And while Cline is firmly on the side of her subject, she’s not unfair to Scott Fitzgerald who, despite his frequently brutal treatment of Zelda, continued to support her financially and cared for her to the extent of his ability to do so.

Scott’s alcoholism and insecurity and Zelda’s mental illness and refusal to conform made their relationship toxic. Together they formed the ultimate tabloid celebrity couple – the rock stars of their day. But like many rock stars, they flew too close to the sun and it consumed them. Zelda’s story is extremely sad and Cline tells it very well.
To Let - John Galsworthy, David Case
I'm not sure why I've found it difficult to write a review of this novel. It may be because much of what I want to say about it I've already written in my reviews of the the first two novels of the The Forsyte Saga trilogy, [b:The Man of Property: The Forsyte Saga|748318|The Man of Property The Forsyte Saga (Wordsworth Classics)|John Galsworthy||1057006] and [b:In Chancery|6383607|In Chancery (The Forsyte Saga)|John Galsworthy|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|19160560], which can be found here and here.

This novel is as witty a commentary on English middle class values as the first two novels in the trilogy. Galsworthy's prose is elegant and full of irony and yet he depicts even the least attractive of his characters with understanding and compassion. Although I occasionally thought the narrative dragged just a bit, I remained engaged, probably because after listening to the first two novels, I had invested a lot of time in getting to know the Forsytes and wanted to know what happened to them.

As a whole, the trilogy is much more than just a multi-generational soap opera. Galsworthy chronicled the passing of the Victorian and Edwardian ages, and the social, economic and political changes experienced by the English middle class as it moved into the 20th century. Into that social commentary, he wove a meditation on love, life, death, beauty, the good and the bad of human feelings and aspirations. For a novelist writing in the 1920s, Galsworthy had a rather old-fashioned style, but his writing is accessible, he had something to say and he was able to make his characters and the dilemmas they face seem very real.

All in all, I found listening to the audiobook edition of the novel a most worthwhile and at times moving experience. As I've mentioned in my reviews of the other novels in the trilogy, David Case is entirely the right narrator for this work. However, there is a minor problem with the production values of the audiobook in that a number of sentences are repeated, something which obviously should have been picked up in the editing process.

It was good to be listening to this book as my friend Jemidar was reading it. I'm glad that she liked the book as much as I did.
One Man's Initiation: 1917 - John Dos Passos,  Jeff Woodman
I hadn't heard of John Dos Passos until I started reading about expatriate writers in 1920s Paris. Like Ernest Hemingway, Dos Passos served as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. Whereas Hemingway’s experiences during the war helped develop his macho persona, Dos Passos’ exposure to the brutality of war politicised him. In the late 1920s he went to Russia to study socialism and in 1935 was involved with the US Communist Party-sponsored First Americans Writers Congress.

However, Dos Passos became disenchanted with communism during the Spanish Civil War after Soviet agents killed his friend and translator José Robles Pazos. At that time, Dos Passos was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway supporting the Republican cause, which Robles Pazos also supported. Dos Passos and Hemingway had been close friends, but when Hemingway condoned the killing of Robles Pazos as “necessary in time of war”, it led to a permanent rift in their relationship. The incident also commenced Dos Passos’ gradual move towards political conservatism.

This was Dos Passos’ first novel, published in 1920. Clearly based on Dos Passos’ wartime experiences, it follows two young American volunteer ambulance drivers in the battlefields of France. It lacks a linear narrative and instead consists of a number of loosely connected sketches describing different aspects of the experience of war, from the horror of the trenches to the quiet beauty of the countryside to the desperate dissipation of soldiers on leave in Paris. It includes a discussion of philosophy, politics, religion and provides insight into the thoughts and attitudes of a generation forever changed by war.

Dos Passos’ prose moved me to tears on a number of occasions and affected me more deeply than did [b:A Farewell to Arms|10799|A Farewell to Arms|Ernest Hemingway||4652599], Hemingway's novel based on his wartime experiences on the Italian front. The audiobook edition I listened to was very well narrated by Jeff Woodman, who did an excellent job with the various accents required by the narrative. While this short novel may be a minor work in the history of 20th century literature, it’s nevertheless effective in conveying the horror of war. It’s also a must-read for anyone with an interest in the literature of the Lost Generation.

The Angel's Game  - Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Dan Stevens
I am a patient reader. I can cope with ambiguity and digression. I enjoy ornate prose and the occasional serving of melodrama. I don't need each and every element of a plot spelled out for me. This means that I loved (almost) every over-the-top melodramatic moment of the first in Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "Cemetery of Lost Books" series, [b:The Shadow of the Wind|1232|The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #1)|Carlos Ruiz Zafón||3209783]. Reading that novel, I was carried away to Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and thoroughly enjoyed Ruiz Zafon's magical prose.

My overwhelmingly positive experience of The Shadow of the Wind means that I really looked forward to reading this novel. Set some twenty years before The Shadow of the Wind, it focuses on a young writer of sensationalist crime novels, David Martin, who is commissioned by a stranger to write a book and finds himself drawn into a nightmarish world where nothing is what it seems to be. It starts out well. Ruiz Zafon creates a sinister, threatening atmosphere within the architectural splendour of Barcelona. David Martin is an interesting character, as is the main antagonist, who may or may not be Lucifer incarnate. There are discussions of religion, the importance of books and reading and the nature of love.

However, it all falls apart at about the halfway point. There's too much ambiguity and digression and too much melodrama. By the end, I had no idea what was going on and what's worse, I didn't much care. I listened to the audiobook edition (which is very well narrated by Dan Stevens) and it occurred to me that my loss of both focus and interest may not have occurred had I been reading the novel rather than listening to it. But I'm not really convinced that's so.

It's not as if the novel has nothing going for it. The prose is great, the translation by Lucia Graves is excellent (at least, I assume it is, because it reads like a book written in English) and the threatening, rather Gothic atmosphere Ruiz Zafon creates jump off the page. Four stars for these aspects of the novel and two for the messy, confusing and overblown plot leaves an average of three.

I'll definitely go on to read the third book in the series, [b:The Prisoner of Heaven|13623012|The Prisoner of Heaven (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #3)|Carlos Ruiz Zafón||18067409], if for no other reason than I'm hoping it will explain what this novel was all about. Thank you to Jemidar for accompanying me on the journey. The fact that both of us were confused makes me feel better.
In Dubious Battle - John Steinbeck,  Warren French
Writing novels about the poor and dispossessed in 1930s California and in the process attracting the wrath of farmers’ organisations and the attention of the FBI gave John Steinbeck a reputation which has persisted to this day. Many people assume that he was a communist, or at the very least a socialist. This novel, along with [b:The Grapes of Wrath|4395|The Grapes of Wrath|John Steinbeck||2931549] and [b:Of Mice and Men|890|Of Mice and Men|John Steinbeck||40283] is a work which cemented Steinbeck’s reputation in that regard.

However, the characterization of Steinbeck’s politics as socialist or communist is incorrect. While he had a passion for supporting the underdog, he wasn’t any further to the left politically than New Deal Democrat. Steinbeck was, if anything, disparaging about communists, commenting in a letter to a friend shortly after this novel was published:
I don’t like communists either. I mean I dislike them as people. I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had equally bad manners.
The plot of this novel - Steinbeck’s fifth - focuses on fruit growers in a fictional valley in California. Two “Party” (presumably Communist Party) activists – the seasoned campaigner Mac MacLeod and his young apprentice Jim Nolan – infiltrate a group of itinerant fruit pickers with the intention of provoking a strike and violent confrontation with the growers. From the beginning Mac is aware that the strategy is doomed to failure because of the superior resources of the growers. However, he doesn’t hesitate to manipulate the fruit pickers and to use whatever means at his disposal to achieve the Party’s objectives.

The novel works on a number of levels. At its simplest level, it analyses the process of manipulating a group of people to achieve a political end. However, it’s also an exploration of one of Steinbeck’s favourite themes – group behaviour and the way in which it differs from the behaviour of individuals. The novel also functions as Jim Nolan’s bildungsroman, the psychological portrait of a young man moving from disaffection to self-knowledge as he discovers his skills and strengths.

Unusually for Steinbeck, the novel contains relatively little description of the natural world. Instead, most of the action is contained in dialogue. However, even with the absence of descriptive language, there is a cinematic quality to the narrative. I could picture scenes in the novel as scenes from a film – detailed, vivid and striking. The characters are also striking with a solidity and reality I’ve come to expect from Steinbeck’s writing.

Writing a novel like The Grapes of Wrath meant that everything else Steinbeck wrote either before or after was going to be compared to it. That was a burden for Steinbeck as it would be for any writer. Given the subject matter of this novel, the comparison with The Grapes of Wrath is even more inevitable. That’s a shame, because this work has its own power. And according to Wikipedia it’s Barack Obama’s favourite Steinbeck novel, which may well be another reason to read it, should a reason be required.
Searching For The Secret River: A Writing Memoir - Kate Grenville
Reading [b:The Secret River|347698|The Secret River|Kate Grenville||1374275] earlier this year was a profoundly moving experience, as was seeing the superb theatrical adaptation of the novel produced by the Sydney Theatre Company*. Together, the novel and the play spoke to me spoke to me about the colonial experience in New South Wales in a way that all of my other reading on this subject has failed to do. It personalised the dilemmas faced by the new arrivals and the conflict between them and the indigenous people of the country. It made those dilemmas and that conflict real in an emotional, not just in an intellectual sense. That emotional impact has remained with me over the months, fed and revitalised by reading the other novels of what has become Grenville's trilogy about the colonial experience, [b:The Lieutenant|4285471|The Lieutenant|Kate Grenville||4866916] and, over the past few days, [b:Sarah Thornhill|12338846|Sarah Thornhill |Kate Grenville||17318055].

Until I noticed that my GR friend Gaeta was reading this book, I didn't know it existed. How grateful I am to have come across it. The theme of the work is there in the title. Grenville, inspired by family stories about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman - whose name is immortalised in Sydney geography by the settlement of Wiseman's Ferry on the Hawkesbury River - decides to write a biography of the convict turned wealthy landowner. She researches his story in London and in Australia and spends five years writing and re-writing what becomes not a biography, but a novel, and not a novel about her ancestor, but a novel centred on a character inspired by him and about the cultural misunderstanding which contributed to the difficult relationship between white settlers in the colony and the local indigenous people.

Grenville's writing method - the research, the re-imagining, the writing, the revision - is interesting in and of itself and would be, I imagine, of particular interest to other writers. However, that's not what captivated me about this work. What moved me at times to tears, was the recognition and memory of shared experiences. When Grenville describes the Reconcilation Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000, I was taken back to that day, because I was one of the 300,000 people who participated. When Grenville described standing next to the Thames realising that this was the place where Solomon Wiseman had been arrested, I remembered touching a headstone in a cemetery in a churchyard in Cornwall, knowing that this was where generations of my ancestors were buried. When Grenville described looking at Sydney Harbour, imagining what it was like when the ship on which Wiseman arrived in the colony, I remembered having done exactly the same thing, as I imagined the arrival of my ancestors. While I found her journey as a novelist very interesting, it was her struggle to find meaning, connection and belonging with which I most identified.

This is quick to read and highly recommended to anyone who loves The Secret River, who is interested in the process of researching and writing a novel or who has tried to make sense of family history. Thank you, Gaeta, for leading me to it.

*Excerpts from the play and interviews with playwright Andrew Bovell, director Neil Armfield and cast member Ursula Yovich can be seen here.
Sarah Thornhill - Kate Grenville
This is the third novel of Grenville’s trilogy set in the colony of New South Wales and links directly back to the first of those novels, [b:The Secret River|347698|The Secret River|Kate Grenville||1374275]. Sarah Thornhill is the narrator. The youngest daughter of the wealthy emancipated convict William Thornhill, she had not been born when her father participated in a massacre of local indigenous people near their settlement on the Hawkesbury River. Ignorant of her father’s past, Sarah falls in love with her brother’s friend, Jack Langland, the son of a white father and an indigenous mother. However, Sarah’s father’s secret will have a devastating effect on her life.

As she did in The Secret River, Grenville sensitively explores the difficult relationship between white settlers and the indigenous inhabitants in early 19th century New South Wales. She does not presume to tell the story from the point of view of the indigenous people, for that is not her story to tell. However, Grenville captures the colonial experience and, in telling Sarah’s story, particularly evokes the experiences of the first generation of those born to emancipated convicts - the so-called “currency lads and lasses” - who were looked down upon by free settlers and, unlike their parents, had nowhere other than the colony to think of as home.

At its heart, Grenville’s work focuses on how to deal with guilt, grief and loss, as Sarah strives to come to terms with the loss of her first love and the discovery of her father’s guilt. Her descriptions of the country in which the Thornhill family lives on the Hawkesbury River is evocative. This is what that area looks like, much the same today as it looked two hundred years ago.


Grenville’s portrayal of the life Sarah lives on the “frontier” – an area around the upper Hunter Valley – is equally evocative. This section of the novel was particularly meaningful for me, as I have ancestors – an emancipated Irish convict and his wife – who settled not far away. He was killed by a lightening strike in the 1850s while ploughing his land, leaving an illiterate wife and five young children to fend for themselves. As a woman who has always lived in the city, I am remote from the world in which my ancestors lived, and I found myself moved by Grenville’s portrayal of that world, with its underlying reality of inter-racial conflict.


While reading Sarah Thornhill’s story was generally a positive experience, this novel is not in the same league as The Secret River. It lacks the raw power and dramatic conflict of that work. In addition, although Grenville does a good job in giving Sarah a voice, she uses a stylistic device which becomes distracting - the use of sentence fragments rather than full sentences. While this reflects the laconic speech pattern of the Australian rural class, it’s overdone and makes all of the characters sound the same. Still, notwithstanding its weaknesses, I needed to read this novel. Grenville’s work is an important contribution to understanding and coming to terms with the Australian colonial experience and should be read by everyone whose family history ties them to this country. This is so even if I can’t rate this particular novel at more than 3-1/2 stars.
This Side of Paradise - F. Scott Fitzgerald
When published in March 1920, this - Fitzgerald's first novel - was an immediate critical and popular success. It led to success for Fitzgerald in another way too, because when it was accepted for publication Zelda Sayre, who had ended her relationship with Fitzgerald the previous year, agreed to marry him. After the first print run sold out within three days of publication, Fitzgerald wired for Zelda to come to New York City to marry him that weekend. She agreed and they married a week after the novel was published. The pair then fell headlong into the life of celebrity which contributed so much to their ultimate downfall.

In some ways it's difficult to understand why this work was so well received. It has "first novel" stamped all over it. The writing is uneven in quality and patchy in tone, clearly cobbled together from pieces which don't always fit together harmoniously. Fitzgerald combines standard prose narrative, narrative in the form of a play, free verse and rather pedestrian poetry to tell the story of Amory Blaine, a young mid-Westerner who believes he will achieve extraordinary success in life. He goes to boarding school and then to university, falls in and out of love, drinks too much, tries to write, goes to war, works briefly in an advertising agency and endlessly philosophises alone and with his friends.

Amory is squarely based on Fitzgerald and much of the action is autobiographical. While what appealed to critics about the novel in 1920 was the exploration of young American manhood in the aftermath of World War I, it is the autobiographical flavour of the novel which is probably of most interest to modern readers. Fitzgerald's ego and his insecurities, his relationship with Zelda, his desire for success, the cynicism of the age are all there in the text. Amory Blaine's self-obsession is Fitzgerald's self-obsession, not the less real for being insightful. In a moment of introspection, Blaine reflects:
He knew tht he could sophisticate himself finally into saying that his own weakness was just the result of circumstance and environment; that often when he raged at himself as an egotist something would whisper ingratiatingly "No, Genius!". That was one manifestation of fear, that voice which whispered that he could be both great and good, that genius was the exact combination of those inexplicable grooves and twists in his mind, that any discipline would curb it to mediocrity. Probably more than any concrete vice or failing Amory despised his own personality - he loathed knowing that tomorrow and the thousand days after he would swell pompously at a compliment and sulk at an ill word like a third-rate musician or a first class actor. He was ashamed of the fact that simple and honest people usually distrusted him; that he had been cruel, often, to those who had sunk their personalities in him - several girls, and a man here and there through college, that he had been an evil influence on people who had followed him here and there into mental adventures from which he alone rebounded unscathed.
Knowing that Fitzgerald did not continue to rebound unscathed from those mental adventures adds a certain poignancy to reading this novel. However, nothwithstanding the beautiful prose, the evocation of the age with which Fitzgerald has become synonymous, and the autobiographical insights, this is not a work I have any particular interest in reading again. Most of the problem with the novel is, I think, that clever young men are never quite as interesting as they think they are. Two stars for Amory's story and another one because of the insight it provides into the workings of the young Fitzgerald's mind.
Unseen - Karin Slaughter
I've been reading crime fiction for almost as long as I've been reading. From a childhood addiction to Enid Blyton's [b:The Secret Seven|17496|The Secret Seven (The Secret Seven, #1)|Enid Blyton||1389014] series and a similar French series, [b:Les six compagnons de la Croix Rousse|3251951|Les six compagnons de la Croix Rousse|Paul-Jacques Bonzon||3287104], I moved on to read my mother's entire collection of [a:Agatha Christie|123715|Agatha Christie|] novels when I was a teenager. The love of mysteries survived into adulthood and crime fiction has remained my favourite light reading genre, usually indulged in during the Christmas break, or when a writer whose series I've been following publishes a new book.

Karin Slaughter's one of those writers. I've been reading her for a number of years and I've particularly enjoyed her Will Trent series, which focuses on a detective who, having survived a horrific childhood, works with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Will is a sympathetic hero and the supporting characters are interesting. Slaughter writes good prose and plots well. The narrative contains descriptions of violence, but they are within (albeit at the limit of) my not particularly high tolerance level for such things. In this instalment the narrative structure includes flashbacks which have the potential to be confusing, although they create a number of mini-cliffhangers, which I presume was the reason the technique was used. Unfortunately, I identified the major baddie at about the halfway point. This was through a lucky guess rather than the application of any literary detective skills and consequently a bit disappointing. There were some surprises in there, though, so the novel was still a bit of a page-turner.

All of that said, this is not Slaughter's best offering and a long way from the best crime fiction I've ever read. I have a tendency to get sick of series and give up on them before their authors do. I'm not sick of this series yet and I'll be lining up to read the next instalment when it's published. But unless Slaughter really pulls something out of the bag, I can foresee a time when I'll no longer care about Will Trent and his friends and colleagues. However, crime fiction series are not exactly thin on the ground and I daresay when that happens I'll find another writer to entertain me. Good but not great, this was a 3-1/2 star read for me.

Currently reading

The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, John E. Woods
Three Soldiers
John Dos Passos, George Guidall