1980s Booker Prize Classics Other Prizes

Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

Empire Of The Sun :

Winner of 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Shortlisted for 1984 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: Shanghai, British, boy, lost, war

It is funny how we sometimes build up a picture of a book before we’ve read it, only to have all those expectations shattered once we begin. For some reason I expected Empire of the Sun to be a dense book, describing vicious fighting between the Chinese and Japanese in the Second World War. I expected it to be dark and tough going and so was therefore surprised to discover that it was actually very easy to read – the tone was quite light (at least initially) and the central character was not a soldier, but a small boy who finds himself alone on the streets of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. In fact, the young protagonist and the simple prose could even result in this being classed as a young adult book if it were released today.

The central character, Jim, is a boy who has lived the life of luxury. His rich British parents paid for him to go to a good school and for servants to provide for his every need. But then war breaks out and Jim becomes separated from his parents. He learns to fend for himself in the abandoned mansions of Shanghai, but his situations deteriorates as the war progresses. The fact that the book is based on the author’s own experiences during WWII makes the story all the more poignant.

I loved the simple, but effective way that the surroundings were described:

Jim fidgeted in his seat as the sun pricked his skin. He could see the smallest detail of everything around him, the flakes of rust on the railway lines, the saw-teeth of the nettles beside the truck, the white soil bearing the imprint of its worn tyres. Jim counted the blue bristles around the lips of the Japanese soldier guarding them, and the globes of mucus which this bored sentry sucked in and out of his nostrils. He watched the damp stain spreading around the buttocks of one of the missionary women on the floor, and the flames that fingered the cooking pot on the station platform, reflected in the polished breeches of the stacked rifles.

My only problem with the book was the detached writing style. Jim let all the problems wash over him and failed to show any of the fear I’d expect from someone in his situation – in fact Jim seemed to enjoy seeing the planes and soldiers. This is probably a realistic way for a child to cope with war, but it meant that the book failed to have any emotional impact on me. Some people probably prefer this lighter writing style, but I like to have a strong emotional connection to the characters.

I haven’t read any other books set in China during WWII and so it was nice to learn a bit more about this lesser known piece of history. This is clearly a very important novel and there were times when I both loved and hated this book for its subtlety, but I think this is one of those books that grows on you after you’ve turned the last page. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy the reading experience that much, but I am still thinking about Jim and I am sure that I will continue to do so for some time to come.


This is my first experience of Ballard’s writing.

Do you think I’d enjoy his other books?

1980s Books in Translation Classics

The Periodic Table – Primo Levi

  Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

Five words from the blurb: chemist, element, metaphorical, human, society

Primo Levi was an Auschwitz survivor and the majority of his books focused on his experience in the concentration camp. This book is different in that the time in the concentration camp is barely mentioned, but instead we see the importance that chemistry played in his life – from his earliest school boy experiments to the difficulties of dealing with his former captors in a professional capacity. The book is made up of twenty-one short stories, each titled with the name of a different chemical element; each revealing a different aspect of the human condition.

This book is clearly very important, but as a reader I had mixed feelings. It was very hard to start – requiring a dictionary, an enormous amount of patience and a fair bit of googling to understand anything that was happening. It got easier to read as it progressed, but could never be read at any speed greater than a snail’s pace.

As a former chemist I am normally keen to read about science in literature, but I’m afraid that many sections reminded me of doing some tedious chemistry homework. The complete descriptions of various experiments bored me and I found the passion for chemistry a bit too strong.

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

Perhaps I don’t think deeply enough about things, but I always found distilling to be a frustrating past-time and so a passage like this didn’t connect with me.

The problem/genius of this book is that chemistry is a metaphor for so many different things and spotting the underlying meaning behind can be hard. Levi helps by dropping in a few obvious statements, but I’m sure that a lot of the symbolism went over my head.

The differences can be small, but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch-points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.

This is one of those books that needs to be studied to be fully appreciated. I don’t think that reading it at home, in isolation, will ever reveal the full power of the words. I’m really pleased that I completed the book, but can’t say it was an enjoyable or enlightening experience.


This is my first Primo Levi book, but I suspect that I might enjoy some of his other books more.

Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend?

1980s Chunkster Historical Fiction Pulitzer Prize

Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry

 Winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize

What an epic! I am really pleased that after nearly three months I finally made it to the end of this massive book. I originally started reading Lonesome Dove as part of Amy’s readalong, but unfortunately I failed to keep up with everyone else and so had to make do with reading their comments several weeks after I made it to the same spot.

Lonesome Dove is the first Western I’ve ever read. It contained all the elements that I was expecting in a Western (cattle, horses, guns and the big outdoors) but the atmosphere was very different. I was surprised by the gentle humor running all the way through it and, although several people were killed, it never felt dark. 

The story begins in Lonesome Dove, a small town in Texas, and follows a group of men who decide to take some cattle to Montana. We see the dangers that they face from both animals and other men, but also the complex relationships that they have with each other. Lonesome Dove crosses so many genres – it is a romance novel as well as a vivid piece of historical fiction. It is a shame that it is called a Western as I think the term is quite off-putting to some people.

The book started off very slowly – it took me about 300 pages to begin to engage with the characters, but once this happened I found them to be some of the most vivid I’ve ever read about. There was very little forward momentum anywhere in the book, so I never felt compelled to pick it up and start reading again. This made it feel much longer than its already imposing 940 pages.

The characters were very well developed, but there were many points when I wished that the book would stop fleshing out the characters and get on with the story. The plot picked up in the final section, but I was a bit frustrated by the number of loose ends left unresolved.

I’m really pleased that I made it to the end of this classic, but I wish it had more pace and a less meandering plot. There was a lot to enjoy and I do think that it is one of those books everyone should try at some point in their lives. Recommended.

Opinions are divided on this one:

…..both funnier and sadder than I’d ever anticipated. Whimpulsive

…life is too short to spend my reading time in the company of people I don’t like who are doing things I find repulsive. Semicolon

Lonesome Dove is on my all time favorites list. Capricious Reader

Can you recommend any Westerns which have a faster pace?

1980s Classics

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

I hadn’t read any Angela Carter, so when I saw that Claire was creating a whole month dedicated to celebrating her work I decided it was time to give Angela Carter a try.

Nights at the Circus centres on Fevvers, an extraordinary character who claims she was hatched from an egg. During an interview she explains that she was a normal child until she hit puberty, when wings grew on her back. Fevvers is a famous circus performer and one of the most vivid characters I have ever read. Raised in a brothel, with a distinctive Cockney accent, her presence just leaps from the page – I loved her!

Her voice. It was as if Walser had become a prisoner of her voice, her cavernous, sombre voice, a voice made for shouting about the tempest, her voice of a celestial fishwife. Musical as it strangely was, yet not a voice for singing with; it comprised discords, her scale contained twelve tones. Her voice, with its warped, homely, Cockney vowels and random aspirates. Her dark, rusty, dipping, swooping voice, imperious as a siren’s.

Unfortunately the rest of the book didn’t capture my imagination in the same way. I’m not a big fan of magical realism and so its heavy presence in the book wasn’t a positive for me.

The book also contained little plot. Lots of things happened, but there was never that forward momentum compelling me to read on – it was more like reading several individual scenes instead of one connected story. I had hoped that everything would be brought together at the end, but instead I found the last page very irriating – I think I just lack Angela Carter’s sense of humor!

I’m really pleased that I read this book, as I think it is an important novel that has influenced many other authors, but I’ll have to leave all the Angela Carter promotion to Claire! 

Highly recommeded to fans of magical realism.


Most people seem to love this book, so I’ll leave you to have a look at some wonderful reviews:

 ….a dizzying and magical journey… Things Mean a Lot

Carter’s style is scandalously generous with brilliant descriptions, stunning word portraits that pack every event out with jewel-bright glimpses into the different layers of her fictional world. Tales from the Reading Room

Do you love Angela Carter’s books?

Do you enjoy magical realism?

1980s Nobel Prize

July’s People – Nadine Gordimer

 Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991

July’s People was our latest book group choice. Unfortunately I was unable to make the discussion, which is a shame as I think this is a book which benefits from being discussed.

July’s People is set in South Africa. The book follows the Smales, a white couple and their three children, as they are rescued from the violence taking place in their city. Their servant, July, takes the family back to his native village where they have to learn to cope in a world very different to the one they have left. The small rural community uses little money, finding everything they need in the forest. The Smales have to adjust to the reversal of power, relying on the black community to both  protect and provide for them. The book gives a fascinating insight into the difference between the black and white communities of South Africa and the delicate relationship between the two.

Unfortunately July’s People wasn’t an easy read. The prose was confusing and this meant that I often has to re-read entire sections in order to work out what was happening. There were no speech marks so it was difficult to tell who was speaking – sometimes the speaker even switched mid-line. This meant that I found myself concentrating on the words rather than what was happening. The effort it took to understand each page meant that any emotion that might have been present was removed. I felt very detached from all the characters and because I often didn’t know who was talking they lacked a unique voice, all seeming to merge into one. I found myself having to invent their feelings based on the situation, but this felt fake as I don’t really know how things must have been for them.

The premise for this book is fantastic, but the complexity of the prose ruined it for me.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys studying books rather than reading them.

The other members of the book group seemed to enjoy this book much more than me and they also found out more about the background of this book. I recommend you read their insightful reviews:

Kim’s Review, Simon’s review, Claire’s review, Polly’s Review

Have you read anything by Nadine Gordimer?

Are all her books difficult to understand?

1980s Novella Recommended books

When I Was Five I Killed Myself – Howard Buten

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is a fantastic little book! It was first brought to my attention by Scott from Me and My Big Mouth and I’d like to thank him, as I don’t think I’d ever have discovered this little gem without him.

The book has a very interesting history. It was originally published in the US in 1981 under the title Burt, but sadly failed to take off there. It then became hugely popular in France and ended up becoming a classic in the country; it is claimed that 1 in 10 French people have read this book. It is a real shame that When I Was Five I Killed Myself is virtually unknown in the English speaking world, as it is wonderful and deserves to become a classic in all languages.

The book begins with Burt letting us know he is in a Children’s Trust Residence Centre for the terrible thing he did to a girl called Jessica. The centre appears to be a cross between a mental hospital and a children’s home, but it is never made clear exactly what kind of institution it is. The entire book is narrated by 8-year-old Burt, who is clearly troubled and suffering from Asperger’s syndrome (as with the central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.)  The crime Burt committed is revealed gradually, but we know from the beginning that it was serious enough to leave Jessica in hospital.  

I loved every page of this emotional novella. In many ways the book reminded me of Flowers For Algernon, questioning they way in which we treat those in society who behave differently to everyone else. The child’s point of view was realistic and disturbing. I really empathised with Burt and found his confusion at the outside world insightful and traumatizing.

Dr Nevele shook his head slow, like my dad once did when he had to put our dog to sleep. “Please don’t put me to sleep,” I whispered. I looked at the floor but there weren’t any more buildings on it, just carpet. Dr Nevele shook his head.”Are you talking to me now, Burton?” he said. And I said “I don’t know.” Then I started to cry.

I should mention now that my oldest son is suspected of having Asperger’s Syndrome, so this book had an added depth of meaning for me. I don’t think I have ever found so much emotion in such a short book.

The ending surprised me, but also left me begging for the sequel, which unfortunately doesn’t exist.

I highly recommend you find a copy of this little book.

I’m planning to read Marcelo in the Real World soon. Have you read any other books which contain a character with Asperger’s Syndrome?