Monday, 29 November 2010

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: I had forgotten how good this book is. Orwell recounts his time as a hotel worker in Paris (albeit often unemployed) during the late twenties. He was hoping to write but found that all his time was taken up with looking, trying to eke out his money or recovering from the long hours required by hotels. What comes over again and again is the way in which employers were able to treat their workers with utter disdain. Jobs could be lost for the smallest infraction with no consideration for the employees’ situation. Although conditions are harsh Orwell tells of how friends help one another, give good advice and even share their meagre rations.

In London Orwell joined the large community of tramps. By being on the inside (rather than being a well-meaning do-gooder) he was able to write about the full horror of life for men on the road. Apart from the horror of the sleeping conditions in many of the hostels available the lives of the tramps were made more difficult by the numerous petty rules. For instance, men could only stay for one night in any place and could not return with a month. Although there were undoubtedly many people hoping to help the men but were nonetheless unable to hide their disdain. As Orwell says: “Curious how people feel they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”

Throughout the book he shows great respect for the tramps, beggars and others down on their luck. These were times when being “broke” meant that you had literally no money or means of any kind – no credit cards, no bank overdraft – and certainly no state benefits. A few coins made all the difference between eating and starvation. Anyone who feels the poor are treated too generously now should read this book!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: Emma Larkin uses the writings of George Orwell as a “peg” for a travel memoir about Myanmar. She starts at Mandalay, goes on the Myangmya in the Delta region, then to Rangoon, then Moulmein and lastly to Katha. Her travels and interactions with locals are obviously helped with her knowledge of the local language. However in conversations it is never made clear whether they are talking in English or Burmese.

The best parts of the book are the linking together of Orwell’s novel Burmese Days with the places and people that she meets. Orwell was a complex character and some of his contradictions are included. He wrote passionately about anti-colonialism but he also seems to have been very domineering in his dealings with locals. The book fares less well when she tries to equate Animal Farm and 1984 with present day Myanmar. Many of the comparisons seemed clumsy and forced. I read this book in anticipation of a visit to the country. The book succeeded in giving a “feel” of the place – and I will definitely visit Pansodan Street, Yangon which is supposed to be filled with bookshops!

Homonym alert!!! On page 200 we have “hoards of people” – oh dear, that really should have been spotted by the editor….

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: Pearl Buck lived in China for many years and spoke the language so I am happy to accept the authenticity of her writing. The Good Earth tells the story of Wang Lung - a hard-working peasant farmer with ambitions to improve his life. O-lan is a plain servant girl (effectively a slave) in the house of the local landowner. Wang Lung takes her as a wife having said that he does not want a beautiful woman but one that is strong and willing to work and bear him sons. Love is not an expectation.

Although Wang Lung and his wife work hard other things conspire against him and his life is a continual struggle against poverty and destitution. Buck writes in a very simple and lucid way – which somehow makes the issues that she raises even more shocking. The story is interwoven with infanticide, murder, drug-taking, prostitution, greed and betrayal. But throughout it all Wang Lung is convinced that it is the land which will offer them salvation. For much of the narrative Wang Lung and many of the other characters are far from flawless – but the author doesn’t judge them. Instead she relates their actions and attitudes and leaves the rest to the reader.

It is not made absolutely clear when the book was supposed to be set. Slavery was abolished in 1910 so it is probably supposed to be set about that time. By 1912 the Republic of China had been created although there were many internal factions leading to the era of the warlords. The Good Earth was first published in 1931 – so the story was written without knowing the massive upheavals that were to occur in China a few years in the future. But already the country was in a state of flux with the mention of distant wars and gangs of local robbers.

A brilliant book – a true classic.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


DATE READ: October 2010

NOTES: Like his earlier work, The Corrections, this is a family saga. Outwardly Patty and Walter Berglund look like the ideal parents to an ideal family. They are a bit smug and judgemental about others. But this is no happy family. Tensions and divisions abound. Teenage son Joey clashes continually with his parents and leaves home to live with (to Patty’s horror) their blue collar neighbours. Patty is a depressive and still bitter about the way in which her mother seemed to prefer her second daughter. In the same vein Walter feels he has always played second fiddle to his brother Mitch.

But throughout the whole novel there exists an eternal triangle: Walter, Patty and Richard Katz. Katz is an intriguing character – charismatic, talented, emotionally powerful and yet odious. The book is complex and spins off in different directions of time and space. But it is so beautifully written that it would be hard not to be drawn into the narrative.

As well as being concerned with the dynamics of family life Freedom clearly signals issues from the first part of this century. Walter is a keen environmentalist and becomes involved in a fairly dodgy project. Joey gets well paid work “reconstructing” Iraq which actually means buying up substandard equipment for selling on at inflated prices.

Franzen isn’t frightened about letting us know how he feels about things. Different ideas about freedom intersperse the story as do his frequent “rants” – such as against consumerism, the shallowness of youth, the Republicans. I especially applauded his rant about cats!

I loved The Corrections and so was looking forward to this new work. Was it worth the ten year wait? Yes, it certainly was – it is brilliant!