This is my contribution to the #77club reading week run by Kaggsy and Simon. I managed to get a copy from the library just in time. It’s set in Egypt at a critical moment when the Allied forces are desperately trying to hold back the advancing German forces. Though the war is the background, so far the book is about the response of the Europeans resident in Cairo and their uncertainty about the future. Manning is excellent at evoking the atmosphere of the desert.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
I was looking for an antidote to the drama of the world of neurological surgery that I’d been reading about in Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Gaiman’s book has been on my shelves since December 2013. I can’t remember why I wanted it since it’s a fantasy kind of story and has three ‘witches’ as characters which is not my usual reading material. But I’m now deeply impressed by Gaiman. It was hard to put this book down at night….
I’m trying not to plan ahead too much this year but to choose what takes my fancy in the moment. I might return to a book I started just before the Olivia Manning one became available; Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave . It’s another from my shelves that I’ve been meaning to read for some time since I love all the myths around Arthur and Merlin. Or I might pick up one of the Booker prize winners I still have to read. I’m weighing up whether to read How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman (I actually started this last year) or The History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Both make heavy use of dialect so are not going to be easy reads. Any recommendations??
Last week was Banned Books Week, an annual even run by the American Library Association to highlight challenges to our freedom to read. As always this event comes with a reminder of which books groups have campaigned successfully to have prohibited from school and public libraries. Children’s authors who frequently show up on the list include J K Rowling, Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson often because religious groups feel the texts are at odds with their own beliefs. The other key reason given for a ban is that the book is deemed to contain content inappropriate for children, such as sex or drugs.
It was a surprise to me that Harry Potter was so frequently on the banned books list. I never read any of the novels when they were published (why as an adult would I want to read a children’s book was my thinking at the time). It’s only because of my course on children’s literature that I ended up reading the first in the series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know there are some among the literati who were very sniffy about this series. The critic Anthony Holden for example called the books ‘pedestrian, ungrammatical… patronising, conservative…derivative. ”
That seems rather harsh. Rowling’s narrative may not be as multi-layered as say Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but we should give her credit for reinventing the traditional school story as a form of fantasy. The magical elements have cited by various religious groups as reasons to restrict children’s access to the series but it seems this rather misses a key point. Yes the books contain wizards and spells but the magic is not set up to be a superior force – in fact it’s logical reasoning, not spells, that enables the trio of Ron, Harry and Hermione to discover the philosopher’s stone. Nor is the magic used without fetters – from his first connection with the non-Muggle world, Harry is instructed on the proper and improper, legal and illegal, uses of magic. He is not to use magic in the Muggle world during summer vacations, for example, and while at Hogwarts he is expected to follow the rules around the appropriate and inappropriate uses of magic.
Focusing so much on the magic also seems to miss the point that this is a novel that is firmly grounded in the kind of morality and codes of behaviour that surely parents want their children to understand and follow. Read beyond the magic and you’ll find Harry gets several ‘lessons for life’ during his time at Hogwarts. This is a novel very much in the tradition of the Bildungsroman where Harry changes from an unkept, unloved, abused child to the hero of the hour who has defeated the forces of evil. Along the way he learns the importance of study, of loyalty among friends and that while it’s fun to challenge and break the rules, there are undesirable consequence. By far the most important thing Harry learns in this novel, however, is not that he is special and has magical power but that it matters how he uses this power. He has a choice to use it on the side of goodness or to follow the example of Lord Voldemort and go over to the dark side. Every challenge he encounters at Hogwarts are tests of his character and his resolve to be the good guy. young readers can identify with Harry not just because he defeats Voldermot but because he makes the right choices. Why would that be something dangerous for children to read about – instead of seeing him as something bad and dangerous, isn’t he in fact a good role model for children? Instead of trying to ban the spectacled kid, shouldn’t we embrace him?
I’ve never got the whole fantasy thing. I tried reading Tolkein in my younger days but didn’t get beyond the first 50 pages of Lord of the Rings. Somehow I struggled through Gormenghast (though probably only understood or enjoyed a tiny fraction of it.) My sister laps up Pratchett and lots of the sword and sorcery type of series. But I look at the covers and then the synopsis of the story and am left totally cold.
And yet I spent much of my week reading some of the classic fantasy stories for children. The reason? An impending essay on whether there is a clear divide between books for children and books for adults. And since fantasy is a genre that is enjoyed by both, I thought I’d take a closer look at what the fuss is all about. The great thing about many children’s books are that they are short and therefore quick to read!
I started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe since C S Lewis is classed as one of the great writers of children’s fantasy. I can see the appeal it had for kids joining forces with talking animals to fight a queen who wants to destroy Christmas. The language is pretty straight forward and of course good triumphs over evil). Reading it as an adult you notice different things – for example, it’s somewhat gender-biased. The boys get to fight but the girls only get to act as nurses and help make the sandwiches. Like in most books for children, the four main characters learn some lessons about life and mature through experience – except that in this one, the growing up only takes place within Narnia and when they go home, they are the same age as they were when they left home.
Maybe the first of the Narnia books (The Magician’s Nephew) which I have just started reading, will be a bit more interesting.
I’ve also dipped into Alice in Wonderland, the book that established fantasy as a major mode in English language children’s literature. Even as an adult I find it confusing so it clearly demands a lot from child readers. And that’s even before I get to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with its complex riddles and perplexing questions.
As a complete contrast, I re-read Enid Blyton’s first Famous Five story (Five on a Treasure Island). It was underwhelming – the adventure took quite a long time to materialise and then seemed over very quickly. The children really spent most of their time doing fairly normal things like playing with a dog and going swimming. From what I remember of later books, they also seem to perpetually going on holidays where they drink copious amounts of ginger beer (which is an oddly strong-tasting drink for young palettes).
What’s on the bookstand for October?
I’m going to finish White Tiger tonight (one from my Booker list) and then plan to finish North and South, both of which I seem to have been reading for a very long time. North and South will then be the first of the Classics Club texts that I will actually have got around to reading
After that it’s going to be a toss up between Midnight’s Children or Possession from my Booker prize winners list or The Moonstone or Mansfield Park from the Classics Club list. It will all depend on what direction the wind is coming from, whether there is an R in the month and other reliable indicators of my mood!.