Nobel Prize Pulitzer Prize

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

The Good Earth  Source: Personal copy

Winner of 1932 Pulitzer Prize

Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938

Five words from the blurb: China, farmer, changes, wealth, family

The Good Earth is set in pre-revolutionary China and shows how the fortune of farming families is dependent on the weather, good planning, and the whims of those in power. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, but I presumed it would be difficult and so put it off for many years. When I finally started I was surprised to discover how readable it was. The accessibility of the writing is its main strength and I recommend this classic book to everyone.

The Good Earth tells the story of Wang, a farmer from a rural community who becomes rich through hard work and good investment. The vivid descriptions give a full picture the surroundings:

Pulling this rickety, wooden wagon on its two wheels behind him, it seemed to him that everyone looked at him for a fool. He was as awkward between its shafts as an ox yoked for the first time to the plow, and he could scarcely walk; yet must he run if he were to earn his living, for here and there and everywhere through the streets of this city men ran as they pulled other men in these. 

This book does not gloss over the darker side of life. Some people may find the descriptions of prostitution and child slavery too disturbing, and I suspect that many will object to the seemingly endless misery that the family is subjected to. This wasn’t a problem for me because I didn’t become emotionally attached to the characters. There was a fable-like quality to the writing which meant everything was kept at a distance. In fact, this was probably the biggest drawback of the book – it contained many fascinating bits of information about life in rural China, but I didn’t care what happened to Wang or any other member of his family.

Pearl Buck was an American citizen who spent much of her life in China. This means the book has a different feel from the Chinese books I’ve read. The mindset of the characters felt Westernised and the reader must bear this in mind when thinking about this book. I’m sure it is a fairly accurate portrayal of what happened to the people, but I think you need to read Chinese texts to really understand how they felt.

This book didn’t have the emotional power to become a personal favourite, but is deserving of its status as a classic. Recommended.



1950s Classics Nobel Prize

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies: Educational Edition by Golding, William Educational Edition (2004) 

William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983

Five words from the blurb: boys, marooned, island, transformed, savages

There are several large holes in my reading history and Lord of the Flies was one of the biggest. It is so entrenched in our culture that I felt I knew what it was about, but when I heard it mentioned twice in one day I decided it was time to fill the gap and so got a copy from my local library.

I knew that Lord of the Flies involved a group of boys marooned on a desert island, but didn’t realise it was set during a nuclear war. Most of the rest of the plot was known to me; in fact I think this might be one classic better left unread as I had a far greater opinion of it and its cultural significance before I opened the cover.

The book began well, with some good character development and wonderfully vivid descriptions of the island, but as it progressed I became increasingly frustrated with it. The depiction of life of a desert island was unrealistic and there was no real knowledge of the way the body reacts in a survival situation. I also thought the reactions of the boys was unlikely and the plot became increasingly implausible as it progressed.

I can see why it has become a classic and there are some good messages within it, but I think this is one of those books that might be best read when young as it doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny.

Overall, it’s a good concept and there are lots of strong, enduring images, but I’m afraid I found it lacked the insight to be convincing.


Nobel Prize Other

Abandoned: The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White

The Twyborn Affair (Vintage Classics)

Patrick White is an author I’ve wanted to try for a long time. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973 and I’m sure I’ll love some of his work, but unfortunately I think I started with the wrong one.

The Twyborn Affair was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1979, but the author withdrew it from consideration. The book centres on Eddie Twyborn, a bisexual woman, and is set in the Australian Outback, France and London.

Unfortunately I can’t really tell you what happened because:

  1. I was too confused
  2. I abandoned it after 100 pages
  3. I’m not sure anything actually does happen

The writing quality was immediately obvious and I was initially impressed by the vivid scene setting. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I lost the plot!

A stream-of-consciousness writing style, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, began to dominate and I struggled to follow what was going on, let alone its relevance to the plot (if there was one). I can see that this is an intelligently written novel and I’m sure that anyone with the patience unravel this complex novel will be rewarded, but I’m afraid I couldn’t stomach 430 pages of slow confusion.

Have you read anything written by Patrick White?

Are all his books written in a steam-of-consciousness writing style?

Do you think I’d enjoy any of his other books?

1950s 1980s Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Two Abandoned Nobels

The Piano Teacher Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004

Five words from the blurb: Vienna, emotional, self-destruction, intensity, porn

The Piano Teacher is an unrelenting, intense tale of one woman’s self-destruction.

Erika is a piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother. She begins an affair with one of her young students, but he cannot save her from her destructive cycle of self-harm.

I initially loved the gripping, emotionally charged narrative, but I quickly found I needed space to breathe, wishing there were some breaks from the darkness. I then began to find the narrative style, with its capitalised pronouns, irritating:

SHE only has to glance at this scene, and HER face instantly becomes disapproving. SHE considers her feelings unique when she looks at a tree; she sees a wonderful universe in a pinecone.

As the book progressed it became increasingly dark and sexually explicit. I found the scenes of her self-harm uncomfortable to read and her trips to watch pornographic shows held little interest.

I skimmed over several sections and then decided to give up entirely. This book has a grippingly original narrative voice, but it was too harsh for me.

Recommended to those with a strong stomach.


The Tin Drum (Vintage Classics)Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999

Five words from the blurb: Germany, Nazis, dwarf, scathing, horrors

The Tin Drum is one of those classics that had intimidated me for far too long. Inspired by German Literature month I decided to set my fears aside and give this imposing chunkster a try. Unfortunately, in this case, the intimidation was justified and I failed to finish this complex, multi-layered masterpiece.

The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar, a dwarf with learning difficulties who calms himself by beating his toy drum. I’d love to be able to tell you what happens, but I’m afraid I can’t:

a) because very little happens
b) I didn’t get that far into the book

The writing was impressive and I loved Oskar’s character, but the book had very little narrative drive. It skipped from one scene to the next and I struggled to see the connection between them.

I crawled at a snail’s pace through the first 100 pages, becomingly increasingly bored. After another difficult 20 pages I decided to abandon it. I’m sure that this book is a masterpiece and everything makes sense in the end, but I don’t think I’m in the right stage of life to appreciate it. I think I’ll give it another try in twenty years.

Have you tried reading either of these books?


1950s Books in Translation Classics Nobel Prize

Independent People – Halldór Laxness

 Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, epic, sheep, independence, masterpiece

I first heard about Independent People when David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, recommended it. He seems to have a very good taste in books and so I now snap up anything that he highlights.

Independent People focuses on Bjartur, a sheep farmer living in an isolated part of Iceland. His beliefs are totally different from any other culture I have read about before and I found it fascinating to learn about them. Bjartur’s main aim in life is to achieve independence.

The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. If I can keep my sheep alive through the winter and can pay what has been stipulated from year to year – then I pay what has been stipulated; and I have kept my sheep alive. No, it is freedom that we are all after, Titla. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace.

He wants to be able to survive without having to rely on anyone else and the lengths he goes to are a bit extreme. For example, he finds it rude to ask anyone for help, to the extent that in a life or death situation he offered to help someone with a mundane task until that person was grateful and asked if there was anything they could do for him.

This book is beautifully written and packed with quotable sentences and amazing descriptions.

“She peeped out from under the blanket, and there he was, still sitting on the edge of his bed, when all the others had gone to sleep, mending some implement or other. No one stirred any longer, the living-room fast asleep; he alone was awake, alone was chanting, sitting there in his shirt, thickset and high-shouldered, with strong arms and tangled hair. His eyebrows were shaggy, steep and beetling like the crags in the mountain, but on his thick throat there was a soft place under the roots of his beard. She watched him awhile without his knowing: the strongest man in the world and the greatest poet, knew the answer to everything, understood all ballads, was afraid of nothing and nobody, fought all of them on a distant strand, independent and free, one against all.”

I admit that there were several slow sections, but this is one of those books where all effort is rewarded. It was wonderful to be able to gain an insight into a culture so different from my own. I now have some appreciation for the harshness of life in the Icelandic countryside and am just a little bit more grateful for my centrally heated home.

Highly recommended.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

….brilliant in a depressing, downtrodden sort of way. BookNAround

His language is poetic, touching and authentic. Caribou’s Mom

It is not an easy read, but is well worth the effort. Musings

Have you read anything written by Halldor Laxness?

Which of his other books do you recommend?


Nobel Prize

The Elephant’s Journey – José Saramago

  Translated from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998

Blindness is one of my favourite books and so I was looking forward to reading José Saramago’s latest novel – especially as he sadly died in June this year and so this will have been the last book that he wrote.

The Elephant’s Journey is based upon the true story of an elephant who travelled from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551, after being given by the King of Portugal to the Hapsburg archduke as a wedding present. The book details the journey, showing the problems the convey faced and frequently meandering off into bizarre, brief asides.

As usual Saramago showed his sharp insight into the human condition and I found many snippets of wisdom within the pages.

The absence of curious onlookers and other witnesses could be explained by the extremely early hour and the secrecy that had shrouded the departure, although there was one exception, a royal carriage that set off in the direction of Lisbon as soon as elephant and company had disappeared around the first bend in the road. Inside were the king of portugal, dom joão the third, and his secretary of state, pêro de alcáçova carneiro, whom we may not see again, although perhaps we will, because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

The plot is almost non-existent, but as usual I loved Saramago’s writing style. The absence of punctuation took a few pages to get used to, but then I started to wonder why anyone bothers with it! I was a bit confused by the capitalisation of various words throughout the book. For example, Lisbon has a capital letter in the passage above, but doesn’t on other occasions. I’d love to know if there is any significance to this or if Saramago was just being random.

This book wasn’t as unique or thought provoking as many of his others and for this reason I recommend that you avoid The Elephant’s Journey until you have fallen in love with some of Saramago’s other books. But if you are already a massive fan then then I think you will find a lot to like in this simple fable.