1950s Classics Novella

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: Australia, outback, survival, Aboriginal, cultures

Walkabout is a classic book about two American children who become stranded in the Australian outback after a plane crash. They are rescued by an Aboriginal boy who teaches them how to survive in this difficult climate. It is a short, easy read that is written for children, but I think this powerful book deserves an adult audience too.

Walkabout was first published in 1959. It reads like an Australian classic, but was actually written by an English author who spent time studying the country. The descriptions of the Australian landscape were superb and I was particularly impressed by the details of the Aboriginal culture, many of which were new to me.

I read it to my sons (aged 8 and 10) and they both enjoyed it – particularly the scenes involving the Australian wildlife.

On the topmost branch of a gum tree that overhung the gully, there alighted a bird: a large, grey-backed bird, with tufted poll and outsized beak. Its eyes, swivelling separately, searched the gully for food; but instead of the hoped-for frog or snake sunning itself on the rock, it saw the children. The kookaburra was puzzled. The presence of these strange interlopers, it decided, deserved to be announced. It opened wide its beak, and a continuous flow of grating, melodious notes shattered the calm of the gully.

The overall message of the book is one of tolerance and understanding between different cultures, so it was useful to use this text to explain issues around racism. The only problem was the strength of language. I was quite shocked by some of it and deliberately toned down the racist language when reading this to my boys.

This is an atmospheric little book with a simple, but engaging story. I can see why it is a set text in many schools and recommend it to those who enjoy reading about the natural world.


1950s Classics

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler (Jan 26 2010) Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: boy, family, world, awakening, growth

The Mountain and the Valley is a classic piece of Canadian literature, but is virtually unheard of in the UK. It was brought to my attention by David, a regular commenter on this blog. He persuaded me to give it a try, so I imported a copy from Canada. I can see why it is a treasured piece of Canadian literature (and why it is frequently on their school curriculum) but I fear it may be too depressing for some readers.

The book is a coming-of-age story which follows David as he grows up in a small Nova Scotian village at the beginning of the 20th century. It perfectly captures a child’s changing attitude to the world; showing how the innocence of childhood is lost as the difficulties of adulthood are slowly revealed.

I loved the first half of this book – the characters developed into engaging, but flawed, individuals and I was completely drawn into their difficult lives. It contained wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of life in this isolated community – I especially enjoyed reading about how they hunted, bartered, and supported others in times of hardship.

The writing quality was excellent throughout. Some might complain that the pace is too slow, but I was impressed by the vivid descriptions and the insight into the human psyche:

Each year marks the tree with another ring, the cow’s horn with another wrinkle. But until you were twenty, you were not marked. If one day was lost, the others closed over it so quickly that, looking back, there was a continuous surface. Everything was this side of the future. It was only when you thought back to the way you’d done the same thing you were doing now, in another year, that you could see any change in yourself.

Unfortunately the tone of the book became increasingly dark as it progressed. The unrelenting misery became overwhelming and I longed for the carefree happiness of childhood to return. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I wish the ending had been different.

Overall, this was an impressive book. It deserves a wider audience outside Canada and I hope that my review persuades a few more people to give it a try.




1950s Books in Translation Thriller

The Darkroom of Damocles by W.F. Hermans

The Darkroom Of Damocles Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

Five words from the blurb: occupation, Holland, assassinations, traitors, impossibility

The Darkroom of Damocles is set in Holland during WWII. It centres on Henri, a young man who is approached and asked to perform a series of assignments. These become increasingly dangerous, but his loyalty to the British is unwavering and he puts his job above relationships with his own family. Henri only starts to question his actions when the war ends and he begins to discover the truth behind the secrets of war. This leads the reader to question whether there can ever be a “right” side to take in a conflict situation. 

This book was very readable. Much of it felt like a fast-paced spy novel, but as it progressed it was increasingly possible to see the depth and complex moral issues that the author was trying to address. 

Unfortunately I felt the book was too long for its plot. There were several sections in the middle where I lost interest and I wish that some of these had been edited out. I’m not normally a fan of spy novels so I think this probably contributed to my boredom as after a while one chase scene seemed very much like the next:

Osewoudt turned round, the pistol in his trembling fist almost level with his eyes. He positioned himself with one foot forward while keeping watch on the door to the kitchen, which was slightly ajar. He couldn’t see into the kitchen because the door was at right angles to the passage. He should have left it open, he now realised. He listened intently, but could hear only the muffled sound of Lagendaal’s footsteps approaching.

Luckily the ending made up for some of excessive middle section. I was impressed by the way everything came together, but I was hoping for a greater emotional impact than I found.

I’m pleased I’ve read this Dutch classic, but I wish it had been half the length.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Though The Darkroom of Damocles is full of action, it was the parts where nothing was happening that I liked best. The Asylum

The action is thrilling, the detail grounded and real, the prose (and the exceptional translation) deceptively simple and fluid. Lizzy’s Literary Life

It’s a book to make you think, and go on thinking for some time after you’ve put it down. Fleur in her World


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.


1950s Books in Translation Historical Fiction Uncategorized

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Fish Can Sing (Panther) Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955

Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson

Five words from the blurb: Reykjavik, childhood, singer, fisherman, ethos

A few years ago I read Independent People and loved it. The Fish Can Sing isn’t quite in the same league, but it is still an impressive book and I’d recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed Independent People.

The Fish Can Sing is set at the start of the twentieth century and follows Álfgrímur, a boy who has been abandoned by his mother and raised by an elderly couple who live on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Álfgrímur is convinced that he will grow up to be a lumpfish fisherman like his adopted grandfather, but his cousin becomes a world famous singer and introduces him to the higher members of society, changing his outlook on life forever.

The Fish Can Sing has many impressive sections and I found the ending particularly striking, but the lives of Reykjavik’s elite didn’t interest me anywhere near as much as the isolated farmers of Independent People. This lead to a divided book where I loved the sections in which their rural life was explained, but the central sections in the city often left me cold.

Although I was bored at several points this was all made up for by Álfgrímur’s grandfather, Björn, who was one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever read about. He believes that it is immoral to earn more money than you need and he dedicates his life to helping others. His house is open to anyone who needs a roof over their head and he often looks after the dying. His attitude was inspiring and the world would be a much better place if everyone shared his moral beliefs.

This book also contained several political sections and whilst most were of little interest to me, some were entertaining and I especially loved the debates around whether barber shops should be allowed:

He said that those who wished to be in fashion in these matters ought to be content to shave once a month, and to do it, what’s more, quietly and unobtrusively, each in his own home, without calling in perfect strangers from town – for shaving was a private matter….

and the counter argument…

No sane or healthy man had ever grown a beard. There was no conceivable work at which a beard did not get in the way. The only people who grew beards were men with tender skins, and the only cure for that ailment was to seize them by the beard and drag them back and forwards through the whole town.

The quotes above demonstrate the humour of this book. It is far lighter in tone than Independent People and shouldn’t shock or depress people in the same way.

This book is like nothing I’ve read before. It challenges the reader with new perspectives on life, gives an insight into the lives of Icelanders a century ago, and has a very clever ending. If you are willing to work through the slow sections you will be rewarded for your effort.


 The thoughts of other bloggers:

At times I felt physically stunned by cunning revelations in the structure of the threads running through the book. Dangerous Ideas from the Wood

At any rate, this is a most peculiar novel, and while it kept me entertained and chuckling, as it came to its strangely airless end, I was left with the most peculiar feeling that the joke had been on me — and that I hadn’t gotten it at all. Kate of Mind

If you want to walk the trodden path when reading a book, chose another one. Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

1950s Classics

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury







Five words from the blurb: fireman, burns, books, media, insight

Ray Bradbury is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, so when I was offered a Folio Society edition of Fahrenheit 451 I jumped at the chance to review it.

The book is set in the near future and depicts a world where books are banned. Any books that are discovered are burned by special firemen:

And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in that assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our piece of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior: official censors, judges, and executors.

I’m pleased I’ve read this classic piece of literature, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. My main problem was that it was overly verbose. It was difficult to understand the meaning of any given paragraph and I frequently found myself re-reading sections in order to work out what was happening. This meant reading was more of a chore than a delight.

I also think that society has unfortunately reached a stage dangerously close to the one described by Bradbury. Our attention span has been reduced, we enjoy Twitter’s 140 characters and like everything as simple as possible. So, although I was impressed by his predictive powers, I don’t think it had the impact it would have done had I read it 50 years earlier. (I can also see the irony of the complaint in my previous paragraph – it just proves how society has corrupted me!)

On a positive note, there was some fantastic imagery in this book and I can see why it has become a classic. Now I’ve made it to the end I can appreciate all that Bradbury was trying to achieve and think I’ll remember it for a long time. It is one of those classics everyone should read, even if the experience isn’t entirely positive.


A note on the Folio edition
The book comes in a study slip case and is well constructed with quality paper. The illustrations were beautiful, but I was slightly disappointed to discover that there were only six in the entire book. This was my favourite: