Archive | August 2015

Book 25: Great Britain: Wales (English) – How Green was my Valley (Richard LLEWELLYN)

 

This is a delicious family saga set in a coal mining town which is being gradually buried by the mountain of slag produced by its lifeblood, and the simultaneous encroachment of English civilisation. There are some laugh-out-loud moments (I particularly loved Mother’s taking her son’s school maths exercises too literally!). The language is lush and lyrical, and gave me a strong feeling of what Welsh must be like. The centrality of song to the Welsh comes through his description of a nightingale:

               ”A good big chest full of breath, him, and a chest to hold it, too, and up with his head, and open with his mouth, thinking it no shame to sing with the voice that God gave to him, and singing with tone, with a trill and a tremolo to make you frozen with wonderment to hear. A little bird, he is, with no colour to his feathers, and no airs with him, either, but with a voice that a king might envy, and yet he asks for nothing, only room to sing. No howling, no scrapes, no bending of the knee, or fat fees for Mr Nightingale.”

 

The town is under threat both physically and sociologically as the mine owners try to squeeze the coal workers’ wages, provoking a response in unionism and socialism, and a counter-response. But the workers are seemingly willing prisoners of a harsh and apparently doomed way of life, at the mercy of outsiders. A lovely book, and I regret that it sat unread on my bookshelf for so long (my copy is so old that it seems to have no ISBN!)

 

LLEWELLYN, Richard (1906 – 1983), How Green was my Valley, London: New English Library, 1978 (originally 1939)

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Book 24: Great Britain: Scotland (English) – Kidnapped (Robert Louis STEVENSON)

“We were going down a heathery brae, Alan leading and I following a pace or two behind, like a fiddler and his wife; when upon a sudden the heather gave a rustle, three or four ragged men leaped out, and the next moment we were lying on our backs, each with a dirk at his throat.

                I don’t think I cared; the pain of this rough handling was quite swallowed up by the pains of which I was I was already full; and I was too glad to have stopped walking to mind about a dirk. i lay looking up in the face of the man that held me; and I mind his face was black with the sun and his eyes very light, but I was not afraid of him. I heard Alan and another whispering in the Gaelic; and what they said was all one to me.”

 

Another classic that everyone else has probably read… I fell in love with RLS the man as a 21-year-old when I visited his moving hilltop grave “under the wide and starry sky” in what was then Western Samoa, but somehow missed this rollicking adventure story, so I seized the excuse to read it now. It is soaked in the atmosphere of heavy inter-clan rivalry and injustices suffered from the English. Stevenson is up there with luminaries like Dickens for creating some of the most memorable characters ever. Through the narrator, David (Davie), we follow a boy who is swept out of his comfort zone but revels in the thrilling adventures life throws at him. Some of the Scottish words were unfamiliar to me but it was often possible to guess their meaning and nothing holds up the impetus of the narrative. If, like me, you missed this wonderful book in your childhood, don’t dismiss it as a ‘mere’ children’s book, you will still love it!

 

STEVENSON, Robert Louis (1850 – 1894), Kidnapped, London: Vintage, 2009 (originally 1886), ISBN 978-0-099-51896-9

Book 23: Great Britain: England (English) – Pride and Prejudice (Jane AUSTEN)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession
of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property
of some one or other of their daughters.”
Surely that is one of the most famous, and best, kick-offs to a novel ever. And the pure brilliance of being able to summarise a plot in a single sentence carries through the book.

How do you choose what to read from a country that could keep you reading for generations, if you discovered the secret of immortality? In the end, I ended up with the book I was reading at the time (or, one of them).
Having escaped having to read it at school, I first had a go at this classic and deeply loved novel a few years ago. I found it hard to engage with a cast of females who seemed to have no aspirations for their lives other than to get married – it had little appeal to me and it all seemed rather sad. However at second attempt it did eventually grab me. I could hardly criticise a work for its theme (so wonderfully summarised in its ingenious first sentence) or for portraying life and mores of the idle rich and not-so-rich as they were at the time of its setting. Austen, like her heroine, does wry humour very well. It is in fact a very sparkling book and I can understand why it is so well-loved.
I don’t think it would be spoiling the well-known plot for anyone if I revealed that the guy gets his girl (or the other way round) in the end. Anyone who had lived in a vacuum and never heard of the book would see the inevitability of the denouement from the beginning. But it’s Austen’s genius that for almost all of the book we can’t see how the headstrong Elizabeth and the arrogant Darcy could ever get together. It took me a while, but I finally appreciate what a marvellous work it is..

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), Pride and Prejudice, London: Penguin, 1975 (originally 1813), ISBN 0-14-043072-5