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Archive for the ‘English Literature’ Category

I read Penelope Lively’sA Stitch in Time‘ a few years back and loved it. I read up a little bit about her and that is how I discovered ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe‘.

I want to say something about the author Penelope Lively here. Penelope Lively wrote stories both for children and for grown-ups throughout most of her writing career. Other writers stay on one side of the divide and occasionally experiment on the other side, but Penelope Lively’s backlist on both sides is huge and very impressive. She was a true all-rounder. She won the Carnegie Medal for this book and the Booker Prize for ‘Moon Tiger‘. I think she is the only writer ever to win these two prizes. It gives me goosebumps when I think about that.

Now on to the story.

James moves with his parents and his sister to a new house. Then one day strange things start happening in his room and in the house. Notes start appearing in his room in a strange cursive handwriting in archaic spelling asking James to do one thing or another. When he doesn’t do the requested things, strange things happen inside his room and even a gale blows. His family suspects that James is responsible for all this. The strange secrets which stumble out after that and how James handles the situation is told in the rest of the story.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe‘ is a ghost story. But it is also a story about memory and imagination and time with some surreal elements. Penelope explores some of these themes related to memory and time and the surreal elements in more detail and in more sophistication in her later acclaimed novel ‘A Stitch in Time‘. The ghost in the novel is a cool, unusual character. I loved the main character James. He is cool and inquisitive and adventurous and made me remember one of my favourite characters Nicholas from the story ‘The Lumber Room‘ by Saki. James becomes friends with an older person called Bert, who is a decorator and a builder, and Bert is a cool person too and was one of my favourite characters from the book. The ending of the story was very beautiful.

I loved ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’. I think ‘A Stitch in Time’ is a more sophisticated book, but ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’ was very enjoyable. I want to read more of Penelope Lively’s books now.

I’m sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below. They both made me smile 😊

“James introduced Simon to a game he sometimes played. You walked along quite ordinarily except that you pulled your face into the most extravagant expression you could manage – horror, or fear or joy or anything you fancied. The game was to see how many people noticed. Very few did. You could walk the length of the High Street looking like a zombie and the odds were that no one would bat an eyelid. This, James had worked out to himself, was because as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible, unless the grown-ups happened to be school-teachers or to have a particular reason for being interested in the child concerned, such as being its parent. For most people, children were something they were so used to seeing around, like lamp-posts or pillar-boxes, that they never really looked at them. Just like dogs pay no attention to people, only to other dogs. Simon was impressed with this theory : he put it to the test, and found it to be true.”

“If you have something important to say there is no point, he’d learned from experience, in saying it during the most active part of the day when people are coming home and getting meals and eating them and whatever you are trying to say gets lost in a commotion of doors opening and shutting and crockery banging and people asking where the newspaper is. He’d tested that out before now : he’d stood in the middle of the kitchen and said, ‘I broke my leg at school today,’ and his mother had turned the hot tap on and put another pile of plates in the sink and said, ‘Yes, dear I’ll see about it tomorrow, dear.’ No, it would be better to wait till later, when the household had subsided a little, come off the boil, so to speak, when his parents would be relaxed and more receptive.”

Have you read ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Penelope Lively book? Do you prefer her fiction for children or for grown-ups?

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I’ve wanted to read John Le Carré’sThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘ for a long time. Today I finally got around to reading it.

The story told goes like this. We are in the middle of the Cold War era. Alec Leamas is a spy in British intelligence. He runs the operations from West Berlin and builds a spy network in East Berlin. At the beginning of the story, one of his spies tries to move into West Berlin after his cover is blown. But just before he crosses the border, he is shot dead. Leamas is recalled back to London and given a desk job and put to pasture. Things go from bad to worse for him. He gets depressed, he gets drunk, leaves his job, and things go so bad that he is not able to pay his grocery bills. But then some surprising things happen, which I won’t go into, and the book shifts up a gear and the pace of action increases. You need to read the book to find out what happens.

Once upon a time, there was a traditional spy novel. The spy was a cool, stylish handsome guy, who went behind enemy lines, did unbelievable things, was involved in car chases, and boat chases and gun fights in glamorous places like the Bahamas, Paris, Venice, Rome, Hong Kong, and beat the bad guys and won in the end, accompanied by a beautiful woman. This was the stuff of James Bond novels and movies and other similar books. Sometimes the spy was a beautiful woman like the cool characters in ‘Charlie’s Angels‘, or like Sydney in the TV show ‘Alias‘ who did all the cool stuff. And then John Le Carré came along. He was upset with all this glamour. He decided to write spy novels in a different way, describing things closer to how they were in the real world. In his novels, the spy was a fifty or sixty year old guy, who was probably not good looking and who looked like a mid-level bureaucrat, there was less action and more thinking in the story, there were no glamorous women in the story, and there were definitely no car chases and boat chases. In one quick blow he turned the genre upside down and killed all the glamour which was there in spy novels. Unfortunately, his novels got critical acclaim (literary greats like Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene and J.B.Priestley raved about ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ when it was first published), and though James Bond movies continue to be entertaining and draw crowds even today, Le Carré’s view of how the world of spies worked has prevailed today. It is sad because we all need a little joy and glamour and escapism in our lives, but we are indebted to John Le Carré for showing how spies actually worked. So today, when Saul Berenson says ‘I’m a spy’ in ‘Homeland‘, we laugh at him, because he doesn’t look like a spy, but then we realize that this is how an actual spy looks like – like a regular person, normal and boring. And Saul Berenson looks like this because John Le Carré described spies like this 60 years back.

The story told in this book is very interesting and the first 50 pages are very fascinating. The story told in that part has been borrowed so many times in many movies and TV shows these days, but John Le Carré was probably the first to write that and so this book is pioneering. The ending is very interesting and unusual for a spy novel. I won’t tell you more. John Le Carré’s prose is simple and functional. It is not as beautiful as Alistair MacLean’s gorgeous prose. Not even as beautiful as Ian Fleming’s. But it moves the plot at a good pace and does its job well. Occasionally there is a beautiful passage. I’ve shared some of my favourites below.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘. I am glad I read it. This is my second John Le Carré book after ‘Smiley’s People‘. I have one more book of his in my collection called ‘A Perfect Spy‘. I want to read that sometime.

I have my own personal spy story which I want to share. After passing out of college, I wanted to become a spy. Don’t laugh at me 😆 Because this is true. I know I can’t sell water in a desert and a spy’s job was probably beyond me. But I thought a spy’s job was glamorous and I’ll be in car chases in exotic locations shooting bad guys with a Beretta and so I decided to apply. In my place, there was an exam held for wannabe spies and if you are shortlisted after that, there would be an interview. I wrote that exam. I thought I did well in it. But I never got an interview call. Someone who was responsible for the shortlisting must have looked at my application and decided “This guy is no spy”, and put my application into the dustbin. That was the end of my attempt to becoming a spy. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had got in. Would I have enjoyed it? Would I have been successful? Going by the way my subsequent career turned out in different fields, I think I’d have goofed up on the first day at the job, and might have ended up in a prison at an undisclosed location and my organization would have disowned me. Or alternatively, I’d have created an international incident with my goof-up and turned my bosses red-faced with embarrassment that I would have been put out to pasture in a desk job in a remote corner of the office, where I could continue with my blunders with less harmful impact 😆 So I’m glad I didn’t become a spy. Now I can put my feet up and read about how real spies went about it, while dreaming about how glamorous spies went on car chases in exotic locales.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below for your reading pleasure.

“He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it, he would make Liz find it for him.”

“It is said that men condemned to death are subject to sudden moments of elation; as if, like moths in the fire, their destruction were coincidental with attainment. Following directly upon his decision, Leamas was aware of a comparable sensation; relief, short-lived but consoling, sustained him for a time. It was followed by fear and hunger.”

“A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.”

Have you read ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘? Which is your favourite spy novel?

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My reading of the English classics continues 😊 One of my friends recommended George and Weedon Grossmith’sThe Diary of a Nobody‘ a few years back. I finally got around to reading it.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator Charles Pooter says this – “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.” Then Charles Pooter starts his diary which he shares with us. It starts at the beginning of April and runs for a little more than a year, till the July of the next year.

In his diary, Pooter describes his everyday experiences – life at home with his wife, the people they interact with often like the grocer, the milkman, and the carpenter, his friends who come visiting, his relationship with his colleagues at work, his grown-up son who is a little eccentric – Pooter describes these and other things. So, it is just a description of everyday life. But ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ was originally published in ‘Punch‘ magazine (that great British institution which closed down in 2002, after being in print for nearly 160 years, because of the vagaries of the market). So, there has to be humour, right? And there is. The humour is not sharp, as a modern reader might expect. The humour is light and gentle, the way it is in the real world. There are funny situations, like in the real world. For example, in one scene, a friend invites the main characters for dinner at his place, but when they turn up, he is not around. In another scene, the main characters go to a party and they are invited to dinner by one of the people there and a few more join them at the table, and after a lovely dinner, all of them except the main character go to the main hall to dance, and when the main character tries to leave, he is presented with a hefty bill, and he discovers that the food is not free 😊 There are funny situations like this described throughout the book, and it is almost as if the authors included actual real experiences and just changed the names of the people involved. Sometimes the humour is based on wordplay and it is fun to read. The humour in the book is different, is old-fashioned, but once we get into it, it is charming and a pleasure to read. Carrie, the narrator’s wife, was my favourite character in the book. She was cool and awesome, kind and loving with a wonderful sense of humour, but ready to fight and not back down when the situation demanded it.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Diary of a Nobody‘. I am glad I read it. I discovered that George Grossmith has also written two volumes of his memoirs. I’d love to read that.

Have you read ‘The Diary of a Nobody‘? What do you think about it?

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When I was a kid I loved adventure novels and I read many of them which were originally published in the second half of the 19th century, books like ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘The Coral Island‘ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines‘. The one book I missed was ‘Moonfleet‘ by J. Meade Falkner. I’m still a kid at heart, and so I thought I’ll read it now.

John Trenchard lives in Moonfleet village with his aunt. His parents are no more. One day when he is at church with other people from the village, strange noises come from below the ground. The people who had come for the service get scared and leave. The bottom of the church has a vault which is closed. People believe that it is haunted by ghosts. John is curious and goes to investigate. Then one surprising thing happens after another and unexpected secrets are revealed and John Trenchard’s life changes beyond recognition. Or as a modern writer might put it more stylishly – it is the end of life as he knows it. To find out what exactly happened, you have to read the book.

The second paragraph in the first page starts with this line – “My name is John Trenchard, and I was fifteen years of age when this story begins.” I smiled when I read that 😊 There was no beating around the bush here, with long descriptions and vague sentences, trying to make the reader guess the identity of the narrator. It was simple and straightforward, getting the details out of the way at the beginning, so that we can get on with the story. I loved that. I knew then that I was going to like our narrator, the wonderful John Trenchard.

Moonfleet‘ is filled with mystery, adventure, romance, sea voyages, storms, hidden treasure, cursed diamonds, treachery, bad villains. It is entertaining from the beginning till the end. But if we think that it is just filled with exciting adventures and the main characters get the treasure, become rich, get married and live happily everafter, it is not exactly that. I was surprised that the last three chapters defied this convention with the events flowing differently, taking a darker turn. The last chapter was very beautiful and elevated the book to a level beyond a conventional adventure story. I loved it and I’m glad I read it. J. Meade Falkner has written just three novels and one of them ‘The Lost Stradivarius‘ sounds like a fascinating mystery. I want to read that too.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It was almost like reading a Wordsworth poem.

“…being well content to see
      the dawn tipping the long cliff-line with gold,
and the night walking in dew across the meadows;
      to watch the spring clothe the beach boughs with green,
or the figs ripen on the southern wall :
      while behind all,
is spread as a curtain the eternal sea,
      ever the same and ever changing.”

Have you read ‘Moonfleet‘? What do you think about it? Do you like adventure classics?

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I was inspired by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) to get Robert Gibbings’Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. The title was very beautiful and I couldn’t resist it.

Robert Gibbings decides one day to travel down the Thames by boat and observe his surroundings, enjoy the view, and look at how other denizens who are not humans are living their lives. He wants a flat bottomed boat which is not readily available and so he takes the help of a friend who builds him that boat. Then he takes the boat out to the river, and avoids humans, and lives a calm, serene life for a while. At the end of his journey, he puts down his experiences which results in this book.

Robert Gibbings was a very interesting person. He went to university to study medicine and ended up studying art. He become an engraver and founded the Society of Wood Engravers. He bought a publishing company and published beautiful books which he illustrated with his own exquisite engravings. He also travelled and explored nature and wrote books like this and became one of the first natural history presenters on the BBC.

Sweet Thames Run Softly‘ is a beautiful book. The title is borrowed from this line from the Edmund Spenser poem ‘Prothalamion‘ – “Sweet Themmes! runne softly, till I end my Song.” In the book, in his gentle soft prose, Robert Gibbings describes nature, the trees, the plants, the river, the grass, the insects, the birds, the animals, the frogs, the lizards and all kinds of fascinating beings whom he encounters during his trip down the Thames. In between he takes detours into classics and talks about what Greek and Roman writers thought about a particular topic. There were so many beautiful passages in the book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The book has a beautiful introduction by Luke Jennings in which he describes the book as – “This is science filtered through an artist’s eye, and the result is wonderfully strange.” Yes, it is wonderfully strange, in a beautiful way 😊 Robert Gibbings undertook this journey down the river just before the Second World War. This book was published in 1940, in the first years of the war, when things were bleak for England and much of the world. The readers of that time loved the book, because they probably thought that the gentle life and beautiful scenes that the book described were probably over and never to be seen and experienced again.

The book is illustrated by Robert Gibbings own engravings and they are exquisite. I’ve shared a few below – please have a look and take pleasure in their beauty.

The edition I read is published by Little Toller Books and they seem to know one or two things about how to make a beautiful book, because this edition is exquisite. I checked their catalogue and it is filled with wonderful books on nature writing – I found W.H.Hudson’sA Shepherd’s Life‘, H.E.Bates‘ ‘Through the Woods‘, a few books by Oliver Rackham, and a biography of J.A.Baker, who wrote the famous, ‘The Peregrine‘. I want to read all the books in their catalogue.

I loved ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’m so happy I discovered it.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“During my travels on the river I did not bother much about the time of day. When it was light I woke up, and when it was dark I went to sleep, and when I was hungry I prepared myself some food. And thus I lived as peacefully as any old badger in his earth. I could, of course, have consulted the flowers – the dandelion which opens at five o’clock a.m. and closes at eight o’clock p.m., the white water lily which spreads its petals at seven in the morning and folds them together again at five in the evening, or the marigold whose short day lasts but from nine till three, but I soon learned to ‘feel’ the hour, and when occasionally, out of idle curiosity, I did inquire the time I rarely found that I was more than half an hour out in my surmise. Fog, of course, makes the calculation more difficult, but even mainline trains do not run to schedule in a fog.”

“One of the saddest sights I ever saw in my orchard was at a place where a mown path divides two patches of longer grass. Across this track a field mouse was wont to lead her young, but, one morning, as she did so, a hawk swooped down. It lurched through the trees, fanning out its tail and wings for an instant as it dropped over one of the little ones, and, without interrupting its flight, seized it in its claws and carried it away. I watched to see if the mother would return, but she never appeared again. If I seem to sentimentalise over what must be inevitable it is only because I am so conscious of the wealth of beauty destroyed by every stroke of fate. A fly, exquisite, and in every detail formed beyond the imagination of man, is but a mouthful for a frog. A frog, whose system is so complicated that it can be considered as a prototype of our own construction, is swallowed whole by a duck. A duck is but one meal for a fox, or a human being.”

“I am more and more surprised at man’s presumption in allocating to his own body the prize for beauty. Regarded dispassionately, this ungainly frame of ours must be far down in the aesthetic scale. Why, even our zenith of feminine beauty, the Venus de Milo, is the better for having no arms. And the artist was compelled to drape her legs so that the torso might have a semblance of architectural design. We are, of course, interested in our own construction, and more particularly in that of the opposite sex, but only because our strongest instinct colours every aspect of our existence. If, however, we can for a moment forget that urge and compare ourselves with other forms of life which we see about us we may get a true perspective on the subject. When, for instance, we compare our naked skins with the feathers of the chaffinch or the yellowhammer, ours must seem a poor covering. When we think of the graceful movements of any of the cat tribe, of the speed of even a rabbit or a hare, or of the muscles of the horse or ox, we must realise how inferior we are in agility and strength. Only in brain power are we superior. And to what miserable ends has that superiority been directed!”

“..my friend’s chief obection to my remarks was that without a garden one couldn’t have cut flowers. As he rightly observed, few wild flowers survive for long after they are picked. To this I replied that cut flowers at any time are a barbarism, and that if any one really appreciates a growing flower he cannot get any but the crudest form of satisfaction from seeing a bunch of drooping heads in a vase. No flowers, however carefully or even lovingly they may be arranged, can look as well when cut as they do when growing. If we have a garden there is less need than ever to decapitate the plants in order to enjoy them. The memory of a bed of lupins in full sunlight is far better than the sight of a dozen of them sagging from a glass jug in the glare of an electric lamp. Tulips, which started this discussion, are some of the worst sufferers. God knows, in spite of what I have said, they are my favourite garden flower, but it gives me little pleasure to see them drooping over the edge of a piece of oriental pottery planted on a grand piano, or hanging from a vase on a photo-laden mantelshelf.”

Have you read ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘? What do you think about it?

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