August 2006


This is the second Jacqueline Wilson book I have blogged as part of the Big Read Project; the first was The Suitcase Kid.

In this story, April is a girl who was abandoned at birth in a dustbin and has been shifted from place to place, home to home ever since – getting into trouble more often than not.

The book is the story of just one day in her life, but a very important day. It is her fourteenth birthday. Understandably, April hates birthdays, and she ends up bunking off school to revisit her past lives, trying to come to terms with who she is and where she belongs. By the end of the day, April’s life and self have been turned around, we hope, forever.

A nice story, well up to the author’s usual standard.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I already had a copy.

Roald Dahl, one of my favourites! Fantastic Mr Fox, a simple little story aimed very much at the younger-reader end of the spectrum.

Boggis, Bunce and Bean are three mean and nasty poultry famers who go ballistic when Mr Fox steals a few chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys to feed his family. They resolve to put an end to his thievery by shooting him, by digging him out and finally by starving him out. But Mr Fox isn’t just wily and clever – he is fantastic Mr Fox – and manages to outwit them beautifully.

A quick read, with not many twists and turns, but rather nice all the same. Illustrated as usual by the inimitable Quentin Blake.

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy came from my extensive library of children’s literature. :-)

Gosh, what a novel.

(I’d seen the 1998 film version a couple of times but had not previously read the book. Now I have, and it is fair to say that – from memory – the film is on the whole very faithful to the novel, despite the inevitability of certain details being missed out or changed.)

The anti-hero, the ridiculously named Humbert Humbert, is a middle-aged academic, a divorcee who grew up and was educated in Europe before travelling to America following an inheritance that required him to become slightly involved in a family perfume business. He is also a paedophile, specifically he desires a certain type of girl, aged between nine and fourteen, which he calls a nymphet. We are given to understand that this predeliction is bound up in, and may or may not be a result of, his first, teenaged passion for a girl called Annabel who tragically died before their mutual desire could be properly consummated.

When Humbert discovers the eponymous Lolita (called by her family and friends Dolores, Dolly, Lo, Lola – it is only Humbert who calls her Lolita), he is instantly smitten. He moves into her home, first as a lodger and then as husband to her widowed mother, Charlotte Haze. When Charlotte dies unexpectedly, Humbert takes off with his new prize – a 12-year-old nymphet step-daughter – for a non-stop year-long tour across America.

Attracted by his devilish charm, good looks and sophistication Dolores Haze is already half-smitten with Humbert, in a girl-meets-movie-star kind of way, and so her seduction is accomplished with remarkable ease. What is more difficult for Humbert is to keep his Lolita where he wants her, and he uses a mixture of adoration, charm, bribery, authority, trickery and threats to do it. As you can imagine, in time the latter techniques overtake and supersede the former.

The climax of the story – how he loses her, how he finds her again, what he does next… show the disintegration and disastrous outcome of the (for him) blissful paradise world that he constructed out of the compassionless subjugation of this orphan, this Dolly. The novel shows the pathetic, yet monstrous, position in which a man puts himself when he seduces and enslaves a girl who is dependent on him. It is an analysis of the perspective of this particular paedophile*, of his pleasures and pains, the torture and havoc that he himself goes through as well as his wilfull heedlessness of the pain, torture and havoc that he inflicts on a helpless child. Towards the end, there is a suggestion that he begins to grasp what he has done to her – but no suggestion that her suffering is as valid as his own, no suggestion that he seriously regrets the pleasure he had at her, very dear, expense.

[*Let’s not suggest that all paedophiles are like Humbert. I don’t happen to know any (I hope), but I strongly suspect that many, perhaps most, paedophiles are somewhat different from, and somewhat less endearing in their cruelty than, the jovial Humbert.]

This portrait of a monster is everything that the hideously awful, nauseating American Psycho might have been reaching for but failed even to approach. Lolita is powerful, absorbing, shocking, touching, humourous, gentle, horrendous, moving, complex and, importantly, very readable.

Here is an Amazon link.
I’d already got a copy, waiting to be read.

What a find!

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is no ordinary gull. According to the philosophy of his Flock, the purpose of life is to eat and to live as long as possible, and the purpsoe of flying and fighting and everything is to get food. But for Jonathan, his purest ecstacy is in flight. He wants to be the best flier he can be – not just the best in the Flock, which is easy, but the best possible. He wants to break records, reach limits, stretch every fibre of his gull body until he knows the joy of perfect flight.

For this, he must break the law of the Flock and is made Outcast. But his learning continues; he is lifted to a higher, clearer plane; his understanding deepens; and he reaches closer and closer to the essence of being a Gull, an image of the Great Gull.

One day, he comes at last to understand what this all means, and he yearns to return to the Flock and find others who, like him, want to break away from the mindless existence of eating and fighting – to find others like him and to lend them a helping hand on the great journey that he himself has made. They had long ago cast him out, yet in his love he wants to teach them what he has learned. Magnificently, gleaming white, joyfully, he does indeed return. He soon recruits a few young Outcast gulls – but will the rest of the Flock ever listen to what he has to say?

This is a tale that works elegantly and beautifully on its own literal level, but also on a host of other levels. It is a story that will chime as a Christian allegory particularly, but which can give us a good deal to think about on the subject of religion generally. It is a story about birdly endeavour that translates easily into a story about human striving – the fanaticism of a person desperate to do that little bit more, go that little bit further, make it a little more perfect. The thrill of discovery is there, as is the joy of success and the frustrations and determination and grit that must accompany either.

All that, and pictures too.

Now this little book is why I started the Big Read Project in the first place. How else would I have found such a gem?

Here’s an Amazon link.
I got mine from the library, but I think I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a copy of my own.

I’ll say at the outset that I am a bit of a Dickens fan. I’ve loved his books ever since I was old enough to understand his long, twisty, ironic, beautiful, biting, evocative, scary sentence structures. But Oliver Twist is not a favourite.

Let’s set aside for a moment the rather ugly anti-semitism that runs through the characterisation of key villain Fagin. Let’s ignore for a moment the more than usually obvious sweet-and-innocent-maiden / irredeemably-fallen-but-still-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes of the two main female characters, Rose and Nancy. Even apart from those things, I just don’t get Oliver Twist.

Here’s a boy, taken from birth and raised by the parish in the most utterly loveless place imaginable. Never hearing a kind word, never shown a good example, never taught to say his prayers, never taught anything at all, let alone good manners or religious sentiment – a boy treated harshly and unjustly in the dog-eat-dog world of the workhouse. Here’s a boy, that never knew his mother or father and never had a kind word, or any word, said to him about them. Here’s a boy that driven to desperation runs from “home” to London and is caught up with a band of robbers and pickpockets, the first people to treat him wiith even a drop of humanity (albeit of a very self-serving kind) who set out – by kindness, by cunning and by wickedness – to make him one of them.

Yet here’s a boy that has such moral fibre, such uprightness, such sweet holiness about him that he resists to his last ounce of strength and resolve, always insisting on maintaining his purity.

Let me run away and die in the fields… Oh! pray have mercy on me and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in heaven, have mercy upon me!”

Sorry, Mr Dickens, but this just makes me want to puke. As well as being stupidly repulsively angelic, Oliver is just implausible. People who are treated and brought up as he was, simply do not turn out like that! The whole thing just reeks of Blood Will Out because, of course* (stop reading here, though if you don’t want to spoil the surprise), it turns out that Oliver is no ordinary workhouse boy, but the illegitimate offspring of somebody rather special, whose sweet nature and loving sensibilities he has inevitably inherited.

[* The “of course” applies only if you know the Dickens formula. If you don’t, then the coincidences you will find in this novel are about as believable as the characterisation of Oliver himself. But never mind that. It’s a Dickens thing, and rather quaint.]

Anyway, once you have accepted these irritations, had a moan about them and got that off your chest, you can actually settle down to enjoy the story. Oliver’s adventures as he falls in with a criminal gang, is rescued, kidnapped, and rescued again… as his friends try to unravel the mystery of his past and as it all works up to an exciting climax and denouement… are as thoroughly enjoyable as any Dickens novel ought to be.

All in all, not bad – good enough for me to have read several times anyway. But not my favourite Dickens either, not by a long way.

Here’s am Amazon link.
I have a 1903, soft-leather-bound pocket edition, rather battered, but very well-loved.

Absolutley charming!

The narrator is a pilot forced to land in the desert, where he meets a little prince from outer space. The little prince has come exploring, away from his own very small planet where he looks after three knee-high volcanoes, pulls up baobobs before they take the place over, and lavishes attention on the beautiful, proud flower who finally drove him out with her pettish demands. Through his stories, and the little pearls of wisdom he drops innocently into them, we learn a little bit more about ourselves – and it is sad to see him go when at last his yearning for the beloved flower draws him homeward.

Sigh.

Here’s an Amazon link.
For me, the local library obliged, as usual.

Latifa is a pseudonym adopted by a young woman who grew up in Afghanistan when she travelled to Paris to talk about life in her country under the rule of the Taliban.

Latifa was born in 1980 and led a life of relative freedom and independence until the Taliban seized power in 1996. At that point, her life became ruled by fear and oppression the like of which you could not believe if you did not hear it from such a witness. The new rulers spewed forth orders and rules that had little to do with the Koran or with true Sharia law, and everything to do with revulsion for and hatred of women.

She tells how she and her sister did not go out of the house, partly out of unwillingness to comply with new requirements such as full covering under a heavy burqa (including a face covering) and partly out of fear of the consequences of some accidental infringement. She tells, for example, of women badly beaten with whips because they wore coloured shoes outside.

She tells how the Taliban prohibit women from working, and prohibit male doctors from treating women patients, thereby denying women any access whatever to healthcare. Latifa’s mother bravely runs a clandestine medical practice, treating women as best she can and obtaining drugs and equipment secretly from Pakistan. She treats women who have been beaten and raped and mutilated by their new woman-hating rulers. When she herself falls ill, her family must travel to Pakistan for treatment.

She tells how girls are denied any formal education whatever, while boys are taught only a Taliban-twisted version of religion and are given no secular studies at all. Latifa and her friends, bravely again, run a secret school for the children of the neighbourhood, teaching them secular subjects as best they can with what education they themselves had got. They also do what they can to run an underground newspaper to resist the Taliban propaganda machine.

When the family are asked to travel to Paris to speak to the outside world about Afghanistan, they take their lives in their hands and accept. They must pretend that they are travelling for health reasons and maintain strict anonymity when they reach France. However, this does not stop the Taliban from issuing a fatwa and from taking over the family home in Kabul and thus Latifa and her family are compelled to stay abroad as exiles, praying for the day when the Taliban leave and they can return to their home.

This is a seriously powerful story, the more so because it is truthfully and simply told. If you have ever thought that the systematic oppression of women in other countries might be “just a different culture”, read this book.