Category Archives: Classics

Charlotte’s Web

Children’s classic about an unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider

As the pressure to reach my reading goal of 80 books for 2018 started to grow, I continued to raid my shelves for some of my shorter books and I came across this one. Although it’s a children’s classic, I must admit I had never read it (though I had seen the animated film many times). I figured it was probably about time I gave it a read.

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“Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White is a children’s book about a piglet who is the runt of the litter at the Arable family’s farm. Saved from premature slaughter by daughter Fern, she names him Wilbur and hand rears him. Once he is big enough, he moves to her uncle Zuckerman’s farm to be fattened up. Feeling very lonely, Wilbur tries without success to befriend the other animals and is then shocked to learn that he is to be slaughtered. However, when he meets a very clever spider, his future does not look so grim after all.

This is a talking animal story that explores themes of life, death, friendship and tolerance. White intersperses dialogue and plot with whimsical depictions of life on a farm and the effects of changing seasons on the landscape. I think that in an increasingly urbanised world, a story like this would have brought some of the realities of a farm to children who have only ever known cities. Charlotte is of course the highlight of the book, and her no-nonsense attitude and keen strategic mind is the key to Wilbur’s survival.

However, there were some things that irked me about this book. Wilbur is a pretty helpless character who is constantly falling to pieces in the face of adversity. Yes, his trajectory is pretty bleak, but he doesn’t do much to help himself either and relies completely on Charlotte’s generosity of time (exhausting her in the process). I wasn’t entirely happy with Fern either. She’s an 8 year old girl, and her mother worries that she’s spending too much time playing on the farm (?) and not enough time thinking about boys (???). Her mother seeks advice from a doctor and is reassured that she’ll start thinking about boys soon instead of frolicking on the farm. However, then when the doctor asks about her brother Avery, Mrs Arable laughs and says that he’s fine because he’s busy getting into poison ivy and catching frogs.

I just felt a bit that in this book, the male characters were free to make their own destinies, but the female characters seemed to just exist to conform and facilitate the male destinies. I thought that the animated film, made less than 20 years after the release of the book, remained very true to the story but depicted Fern as a young teen (the voice actor was 14). I felt that Fern’s transition from girlhood to young adult was much more appropriate in the film, Charlotte was a little softer and Wilbur was far less annoying.

Regardless of how women’s equality has changed since publication, this book remains a children’s classic and I’m sure if I had read it as a child, I would have enjoyed it.

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Charlotte’s Web

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The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince)

French children’s classic about life and love

Although a classic, this book has recently been generating a lot of discussion after being adapted into a film. It is a book have never read, and I came across this beautiful edition with gold tinted edges. Shockingly, despite the name of this blog, it has been over a year since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges – something that I shall have to remedy, because I certainly haven’t stopped reading them.

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“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and adapted from the French by Rosemary Gray (more on that later) is a children’s book about a pilot stranded in a desert. He wakes up to find a little prince requesting him to do a drawing. The pilot, although an adult, appears to have retained a child’s way of thinking and is able to connect with the little prince while he awaits rescue in the desert. Although not very forthcoming in answering questions, as the unlikely pair run out of water, the pilot slowly learns about where the little prince has come from and what he is really looking for. The little prince recounts his adventures leaving behind his beloved flower on his own planet, and meeting strange adults on various tiny planets and learning from their exaggerated behaviours, before he finally arrives on Earth.

This is a whimsical and bittersweet story that uses innocence and childlike logic to tackle personal and social issues. On his adventures, the little prince learns about vanity, greed, pointlessness, the value of experience and, finally, love. The reader is left wondering whether the little prince was in fact real, or whether he was something that the imaginative pilot conjured up to help get himself through a time of great hardship. This book lingers particularly on the importance of intangible things, like human connection, and the impermanence of physical things.

Sometimes, when you read a book, you can easily see the value in it it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you like it. This is one of those books. I cannot with complete certainty say whether it was the story itself that grated on me, or whether it was the translation. I have bakery-level French, so reading the original is beyond me at this stage, but I understand that this book has been subject to many translations and some preferred over others. I decided to have a bit of a look at the original English translation by Katherine Woods and immediately I liked it better. It is far more lyrical and much more in keeping with the style of the time. I think sometimes people are tempted to try to oversimplify language for children’s books, but there has been criticism of publishers “dumbing down” children’s books recently. If kids aren’t exposed to new words, how will they learn them?

Anyway, translation issues aside, I think that this story is definitely a bit of a “where we went and what we did there“, though I did feel that there was quite a lot of gentle exploring of social and personal issues like I said before. It is a short book, and though some of the life lessons seem a bit disjointed from one another, it’s an easy enough story to read.

While perhaps not my favourite of children’s books, certainly worth a read and definitely worth doing your research when it comes to translations (unless, of course, you can read French).

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The Little Prince

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The Velveteen Rabbit

It’s no secret how I feel about rabbits, so I thought I’d do a special little review for Easter and review one of my favourite childhood books.

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“The Veleveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson is a children’s chapter book about a toy rabbit who longs to be real. His friend, the Skin Horse, explains nursery magic to him and how a toy comes to be real through the love of a child. After a perfect summer as the Boy’s favourite, the Boy falls ill and the Velveteen Rabbit’s future is no longer certain.

I had this story on audiobook as a child, and reading this brought me straight back to being snuggled up in bed with my own menagerie of toys listening to a voice explaining to me how it was they became real. I was in tears almost the entire way through reading this book. If I have children, I will definitely read them this book if I can get through it without becoming choked up with emotion. It really is an absolute classic story, as relevant now as it was then. In fact, it is incredible that a story published 96 years ago now doesn’t have anything in it that would be considered inappropriate today. Williams has such a wonderful style of writing that manages to convey so much yet remain in childlike simplicity.

The copy I have, which is styled as ‘The Original Edition’, is interspersed with striking images in red, yellow and baby blue. These lithographs aren’t in a colour scheme I would ordinarily associate with children’s books, but they actually work really well. They give a warm vibrancy to the story and Nicholson captures the messiness of life and love as a child’s beloved soft toy.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. If you’re looking for an Easter story, or a story for any occasion for a child, you cannot go wrong with this one.

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Orlando

For those of you who listen to my book podcast Lost the Plot, you may be aware that I have a Patreon page where listeners can sign up for different reward tiers to help keep Lost the Plot on air. There are lots of different awards, and quite frequent giveaways. However, the top tier reward is The Bookworm where you, the listener, get the singular ability to choose a book for me to review. I currently have one patron on The Bookworm tier, her name is Kendall, and she nominated this book for me.

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“Orlando” by Virgina Woolf, is a book that really cannot be boxed neatly into a genre. Part love letter, part historical fiction, part magic realism, part gender exposé – none of these categories on their own quite do the novel justice. The story is about a young man called Orlando who grows up in a wealthy family in Elizabethan England. Both energetic and whimsical, Orlando has a number of love affairs and secretly longs to be a poet. However, after his heart is broken by a Russian princess, and a number of other social setbacks, Orlando flees England to work as Ambassador to Turkey. However, once there, Orlando undergoes a mysterious change and his – or her – life is never the same.

My first thought upon reading this book was how intricate and complex it is. This book is steeped with so much meaning, that it has pages upon pages of footnotes at the back to explain the personal significance of each of Woolf’s references. I’m not sure if it’s a testimony to the kinds of books I’ve been reading recently or a symptom of modern writing, but it has been a long time since I have read a book that felt like every single word was a deliberate choice. The writing really is spectacular and if you’re looking for inspiration for beautiful writing, you really can look no further than Woolf.

My second thought is that this is a deeply intimate book. There’s something almost voyeuristic about reading this book, because it makes the reader examine in minute detail the character of Orlando, who is modelled on Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. This makes it, thematically, a fascinating story about sexuality and gender. The introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert sheds further light on this by explaining that distinctions between being a lesbian and being transgender in the 1920s were much blurrier than they are today.

However, although it is an intricate and compelling book, it is not a perfect book and there were a few things that grated on me. First of all, you can tell it nearly 100 years old because the opening sentences include flippantly racist violence. Woolf describes a decapitated ‘Moor‘ and uses far, far worse terms at certain points throughout the novel and it was a pretty appalling way to start a book.

Another issue for me was less about inappropriate content and more about plot and pace. I think perhaps because this book is so closely modeled on the life and family history of Woolf’s lover, there was some sacrificing when it came to the book’s plot. The story meanders through the ages, more a comment on the societies of Vita’s various ancestors than a cohesive story. In fact, because there were so many footnotes in my edition explaining each reference to something in Woolf’s or Vita’s life, it took me quite a while to get through this book because I kept flipping back to read each note.

Ultimately though, this is a beautifully-written, intimate and insightful novel that says a lot about society then and now. What it lacks in story arc, it makes up for with language.

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Of Mice and Men

After finding out that despite being dead for nearly 50 years that this author’s books are still in copyright (something I talk about on my latest podcast episode), I had decided not to buy any of his books for my five weeks of American literature. However, while visiting friends in California, they actually had a copy of this book on their shelf. When I saw how short it was, I thought I’d better give this classic a go and I managed to read it in an afternoon.

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“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck is a novella set in California during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The story follows two men, George and Lennie, who are travelling workers trying to save money to buy their own piece of land one day. Lennie is incredibly big and strong, however has an intellectual disability that means he struggles considerably. George serves as his somewhat reluctant guardian who has managed to line up a new job for them both after things went badly at the last one. To keep Lennie focused, George tells and retells him about the house they will own together one day and the animals they will keep. However, when they arrive at the new farm they are faced with lots of new men and the Boss’ aggressive son Curly. With all the new distractions, George struggles to keep Lennie in check.

This isn’t going to be a long review because while this wasn’t a long book, it was an excellent book. Steinbeck has crafted the perfect novella. He lays the foundation to create a story at once unforeseeable and inevitable. He touches on lots of themes in a very short time including friendship, disability and poverty. Even though we are only with the characters for a very short time, I was left with a real sense of wanting to know much more about them.

A real highlight during my five weeks of American literature and a book I’m extremely glad I got the opportunity to read this classic.

 

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I have had a copy sitting on my shelf for goodness knows how long, but I’ve always been a bit reluctant to tackle it. After finishing my previous book during my five weeks of American literature that tackled race issues from a modern perspective, I felt like now was the time to balance it out with this classic. This book, for better or worse, has definitely become a fixture in American racial discourse. This review feels even more timely since seeing the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” last night and seeing key players in the civil rights movement criticise one another through the lens of archetypes created by this book. Coincidentally, I ended up reading this book while staying in a tent cabin on the Idaho/Wyoming border.

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a novel set in Kentucky, USA in the mid-1800s – a time when slavery was still legal. Arthur and Emily Shelby are slaveholders who, due to Mr Shelby’s financial mismanagement, are forced to sell two of their slaves. Arthur chooses faithful and responsible slave Tom and Harry, the five year old son of beautiful biracial Eliza, to the horror of his wife and son George. The story follows Tom down the Mississippi River to his new homes and explores the attitudes of the various white people who own him. Risking everything, Eliza runs away with her son Harry, hoping to meet his father (her husband) free in Canada.

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There’s no other way about it. This book was an absolute slog. Beecher Stowe has this maddening, self-righteous tone that is exacerbated by the most omniscient of narrators. For some reason, she felt the need to announce at the end of each chapter that we were leaving particular characters to go see how the others were getting along as though she had made all these little dioramas and is taking us on a tour of them. Thematically, this book hasn’t aged well at all. Beecher Stowe interjects her correct interpretation that slavery is wrong with commentary on “the negro” and the kinds of emotional and intellectual characteristics to be expected from that ethnic group.

There is a lot of apologism for a number of the “kind” slaveholders, despite the fact that it was their own ineptitude, thoughtlessness and indifference that led to many of the predicaments in this book. Young George Shelby is touted as a hero, despite the fact that his family were slaveholders and the many benefits he received as a result. This book was surprisingly religious, and I found it interesting that Beecher Stowe relied heavily on Christianity as an argument in favour of abolition. A lot of her conclusions were ultimately pretty suspect, including the conclusion that the best solution for everyone would be if African Americans simply went back to Africa and be done with it.

This book can also claim responsibility for a lot of stereotypes that emerged after its publication for African American characters. There is the Uncle Tom: naive, loyal, virtuous and forgiving – never lifting a hand to defend himself. The Mammy:  overweight, nurturing, defers to white people but sassy to her underlings. The Tragic Mulatto. The list goes on and on.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was so controversial at its time of publication that it has been credited with starting the American Civil War. How unpalatable it is now to the modern reader is a real testimony to just how horrific things were during slavery. I don’t think anyone could criticise this book for being inaccurate either with respect to details or attitudes of the time. I think that this book, while not excellently written or by any means socially flawless, is today a keen reminder of how far American has come and how far it has to go.

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Five go on a Strategy Away Day

I got this little book as a Christmas present this year, and I chuckled to myself at the title. Clearly a spoof on Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five” series, it was a tip of the hat to the fact that since I started my grown up job, I now get to go along to corporate training sessions.

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“Five go on a Strategy Away Day” by Bruno Vincent is one of the new “Enid Blyton for Grownups” satire series that rewrites “The Famous Five” books with the characters now adults dealing with modern issues. George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy the dog have been summoned by the multinational corporation they work for to attend a day of team-building activities to a hotel in the countryside. There their team is put to the test while they compete with other teams, including a particular team made up of seven, to win a prestigious award. However things don’t go as planned, and there seems to be something sinister going on.

This book looks a lot like the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series that came out a while ago, so I was expecting it to be more of a book full of classic style illustrations with hilarious captions. Instead, it actually was just like an Enid Blyton book. I think there is a lot of nostalgia value to this book, and I think that anyone who works in any kind of big organisation can probably relate to the kind of team dynamics that are explored in this book. Vincent captures the tone and spirit of Blyton’s stories, with a twist of modern sophistication. However, although it’s quite clever, it didn’t quite elicit from me the scandalised giggles that the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series did.

This would make a good office waiting room coffee table book or a fun Kris Kringle present for a colleague.

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