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Six degrees from catastrophe

Another month when I have been wrestling to make any headway with #6Degrees. It never seems to get any easier!

This month’s starter book is Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist published in 2018,  which I’ve not heard about let alone read. Some basic research tells me it’s about a horrendous episode of bush fires in Western Australia in 2009. They were among the country’s worst fires and caused the deaths of more than 100 people.

Five_Days_at_Memorial

Four years earlier, a natural disaster caused the loss of some 1800 people in Florida and Louisiana. They were victims of Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest hurricane since 1928. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is an investigative account of how some of those people died – they were all patients at the Memorial Hospital in New Orleans. Suspicion fell on a few of the medical staff who were accused of unlawfully hastening the deaths of some of those patients.

mosquito coast

Harrison Ford as Allie Fox in the film adaptation of Mosquito Coast

In Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, it is to avoid catastrophe that Allie Fox takes link his family away from their comfortable home in Massachusetts to a new settlement in Honduras. He has  become increasingly critical of American consumerism, education and culture and is convinced that a world war is imminent,

While in Honduras he builds a huge ice-making machine called ‘Fat Boy’ powered by hydrogen and ammonia, and transports the ice it produces farther up the river to isolated tribesmen, only to find to his disgust that missionaries have already reached them and ‘corrupted’ them to the ways of the West.

Poisonwood bible.jpg

Barbara Kingsolver’s best selling novel The Poisonwood Bible features one of those missionary families: the Prices of Georgia. They move to the Belgian Congo where each of the four daughters develop differently as they adapt to African village life and the political turmoil that overtakes the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.

Heart of darkness

The setting of the Congo gives me the link to my next book: Joseph Conrad’s best known novella: The Heart of Darkness.  It’s a tale within a tale of a steamboat journey to trading posts alongside the Congo river and one man’s obsession with an ivory trader called Kurtz whose methods and interactions with native inhabitants are morally ambiguous.

treasure-island

Heart of Darkness raises questions about imperialism and racism and sees little difference between so-called civilised people and those described as savages. Similar questions appear in the next book in my chain: R. L Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Although this was essentially an adventure story written for young boys, it poses some interesting questions about moral integrity. Some of the characters who are  meant to be upstanding figures of authority – the Squire and the Doctor – are shown to be just as avaricious as the recognisably evil pirates.

It’s a good reminder that fiction written for an audience of young readers can seem simple but is often quite complex when examined more closely. Which takes me to the next and final book in my chain this month. Well actually its just the first book in a very large series.

Harry-Potter

You might just have heard of Harry Potter…. J K Rowling’s tales of a boy wizard are  considered to have done more to encourage young people (especially boys) to read than any number worthy government inspired initiatives. They can be viewed as little more than a spiced up version of the tried and tested boarding school yarn, albeit  with a bit of magic sprinkled about.  But look more closely and you’ll find a lot more going on: questions about loyalty, dishonesty and the nature of true friendship, for example. Of course, being aimed at children, the presiding morality is that evil (in the form of Voldemort) must be destroyed whatever the cost and good must triumph. The question however is whether the way evil is destroyed is appropriate. Does Harry always come out of his encounters with Voldermort with his integrity intact?

And on that question I will bring the chain to an end. We’ve moved from a book about fire and a deliberate act of damage, to clashes between cultures and good and evil. I had no idea when I started this chain that I would end up talking about Harry Potter!

Treasure Island: a troubling adventure

treasure-islandHalf a century has passed since I first read Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson yet much of it is still fresh in my mind. I remember the menacing figure of Long John Silver and the quick witted child Jim who is initially mesmerised by Silver but proves his nemesis. I remember also some of the dramatic scenes like the one where Jim hides in the apple barrel and overhears the pirates plotting to kill their way to the treasure.

Treasure Island was a landmark in the history of children’s literature, one of the first directed specifically at boy readers. It was seen initially as a great adventure story which portrayed the qualities expected of men who formed the British Empire, governing and controlling  a waste swathe of the world. So Jim, our hero, is imbued with qualities like courage, the ability to take control (at one point he grabs the ship and steers it to safety) and integrity in the sense he knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s a coming of age novel in which Jim learns how to use those skills on the side of the establishment and against those who would destabilise it (in other words the criminal undercurrent).

And yet there are some troubling elements in the novel that undercut that presentation of the novel.

The first is troubling element is Jim’s relationship with Silver.For a large part of the novel Jim seems to admire this former seaman. When he sees him for the first time in the Bristol quayside pub he runs, he is impressed with Silver’s energy and his ability to laugh and joke with the patrons. Knowing of Silver’s past association with Black Dog and his experience with the violent buccaneers who lay siege to his mother’s in, he is surprised to find Silver “a clean and pleasant landlord” who “he would have gone bail for.” Even when he discovers Silver’s true nature he admires the man’s ability to control the pirates, establish himself as leader and the energy with which he embarks on the climb to find the treasure. But Jim is un unreliable narrator – first because he is telling the story as an adult and hence what he recalls. Additionally he often tries to justify actions which at the time feel disloyal to the men on the side of the goodies – particularly the Squire and the Doctor. She he absconds from the stockade where they are trying to fend off the pirates he makes the excuse that he is “only a boy…”

A second element that undercuts the story is the way that the people who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority are shown to be just as bad as the recognisably evil pirates. The pirates are motivated by greed – they squabble and are ready to commit murder to get their hands on the buried treasure. But are the two figures who plan the adventure and fund it, any better? Squire Trelawney  proves to be someone who can’t keep his mouth shut about the voyage and spills the beans before they have even equipped their vessel. The local doctor Dr. Livesey is wise and practical and he does at least show integrity by agreeing to treat the pirates with just as much care as his own wounded men. But both men have just as much a lust for treasure as much as the pirates (even and both end up killing people. The Squire proves to be quite a crack shot, able to ‘pick off’ a distant pirate almost casually.

By the time they leave the island they show no remorse in leaving behind the remaining pirates to die because its less troubling than taking them home to face the hangman. They share out the treasure, in a fair manner according to Jim yet Ben Gunn who was their saviour doesn’t seem to have been treated in a way that recognised how instrumental he was in saving their lives and finding them the treasure. Only the boy Jim seems to recognise the true cost of the voyage as one of “blood and sorrow…. shame and lies and cruelty..” Not quite the behaviour you’d expect from fine upstanding members of the Colonial controlling establishment?

This undercurrent of something not feeling quite comfortable about the book’s messaging is the reason I enjoyed reading it. The adventure story was good – plenty of dramatic moments and nasty villains. But I enjoyed reading between the lines and trying to work out whether Stephenson is endorsing conservatism or undermining it.

What his motives were we will never know but in Silver he gave us a character tat has endured through the ages with constant reinvention. Without Silver we may never have had Captain Hook in Peter Pan or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Disney Theme Park. Not bad for a novel more than 100 years old..

Footnotes

The Book: Treasure Island by R.L Stevenson was published in 1883. Legend has it that it was inspired by a map Stevenson drew himself and that he drew on the histories of real pirates like Blackbeard.

My edition: Published by Oxford World Classics which has a good glossary (very useful for those nautical terms and a helpful introduction by Peter Hunt one of the leading academics in the field of children’s literature).

Why I read this: its one of the set texts on my children’s literature course.

 

 

 

Reading Snapshot October 2016

autumn-leaves-in-sun3I can pretend no longer. The tinges of red on bushes in my garden and the rate at which our copper beech is shedding leaves tells me that summer is over. Time for the season of mists and intermittent sunshine.

I know many readers who change their reading habits once the seasons evolve and start to think of slightly darker, or more cosy books once the nights begin drawing in. I don’t consciously do that – as far as I can tell I read pretty much the same things all year round. It’s rather a coincidence therefore that the two books I have on the go at the start of October are rather dark.

Reading Currently

One is the latest in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny that I’m reviewing for NetGalley. Penny has found a clever way of dealing with the problem that two books earlier she made her protagonist retire from his job as head of homicide for the Quebec region after a dramatic showdown with the corruptive elements in the force.  The last novel saw him retire to the quiet community of Three Pines with this wife, but even then he found a crime to solve. But of course she can’t go on creating crimes in Three Pines given it is such a small community. The latest novel A Great Reckoning sees him take up a new role at the helm of the police training academy, determined on a root and branch review and a cull of the less desirable influences which of course sets him firmly on course to antagonise his colleagues. One of them get murdered and Gamache is in the frame as a potential murder. As with all of Penny’s novels we get a reasonably good plot but a lot of thoughtful commentary about the state of the world as seen by Gamache.

It’s all rather different from my second novel which is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – the first in his trilogy. I read it a few years ago and wasn’t all that enamoured with it – it features a talking bear and some fantastical creatures called daemons that you carry with you as a reflection of your soul. Reading it a second time for my  study module on children’s literature I can appreciate more the way Pullman plays with the typical elements of fantasy and quest fiction, of mythology and Paradise Lost to create a tale of other worlds that asks searching questions about religion and the role of the Church. Still wish he hadn’t included  talking bears though….

Just Finished

I do seem to be on a run of darker material since I only just finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing by the Canadian author Madeline Thien. It’s shortlisted for both the Booker prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It covers a vast swathe of Chinese history from the era of Mao and the devastation he brought to the nation not to mention the untold number of deaths, right up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some of the history is familiar from my reading of Wild Swans (one of my favourite non fiction books) but Thien looks at this through the lens of three highly respected and talented musicians and how political upheaval affects their ability to learn, play and enjoy music. It’s an ambitious novel and really tough to review for Shiny New Books for their upcoming edition.

What’s next?

A lot of other children’s novels await my attention in coming months. Next in order will be Treasure Island which I love and Little Women which I loathe…. In between I hope to get to some of the books I mentioned in a recent post about books on the Autumn reading plan but like most of my plans its likely to go astray. German literature month beckons as does the 1947 club and then there’s the Classics Club prize which I have sadly neglected this year and the Booker project and my world literature project. Plenty to occupy me for sure.

Beyond the Booker

I’m taking a short break away from reading the Man Booker prize winners, partly so I can explore some of the book recommendations I’ve had from fellow bloggers. But I also need to catch up with reading for my children’s literature course with the Open University which starts in September.

The two non-Booker books I’m currently reading, could not be more different.

 Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses

I had never heard of Elizabeth Taylor until recently but there seems to be a growing swell of people who rate her very highly. And so I bought, at random, A Wreath of Roses which turns out to rated as one of her best.  

The early chapters didn’t sparkle very much for me but I sense a change and the emergence of  a psychologically darker tone. It’s a story about three women who were very close for several years and spent many idyllic summers together in the country. But as the novel begins and they meet once again for their holiday, each of them is conscious of how much their lives have changed.

The once young and carefree Liz is struggling with her new role as a mother and vicar’s wife.  Frances, the eldest of the trio,  having swapped her life as teacher and governess to become a successful painter in later life, now finds her new work taking on a darker, more disturbing tone. Such changes leave the central character Camilla feeling estranged and disenchanted with the direction her own life has taken. The handsome man she meets by accident at the train station suggests an escape ..but Richard Elton seems to have an all too different agenda.

That was the point at which I decided it was worth reading further. I’d enjoyed some of the descriptive passages thanks to Taylor’s very painterly but the characters hadn’t really come to life so I didn’t particularly care what they thought or felt. It wasn’t until the narrative switched to Richard’s point of view and glimpses of his disturbed personality, were revealed that the book took on a new dimension. Let’s hope it keeps going in that direction.

R L Stevenson: Treasure Island

I first read this more than 40 years ago and yet I can still remember that feeling of excitement as the story of adventure unfolded. Long John Silver is one of those unforgettable characters from fiction of course but I remember too some of the turning point episodes – of Jim crouched in the apple barrel overhearing Silver plotting the mutiny. Reading it now, it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its freshness -the story still feels like it zips along at a cracking pace and even though I know the ending, the child in me can’t help but hold my breath just in case Jim gets caught in the barrel or he loses the fight up on the mast and plunges to his death. I hope that as the children’s literature course progresses that I don’t get so bogged down in the analysis that the magic fades……

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