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Of Mice and Men (Penguin Classics)
Of Mice and Men (Penguin Classics)
by John Steinbeck
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The power and powerlessness of the American Dream, 29 July 2011
Of Mice and Men is set in California, USA, during the Great Depression. It is a short novel which follows the lives of George Milton and Lennie Small, who have been travelling across America looking for work. Theirs is an unlikely friendship: George is intelligent, earnest, and determined to keep out of trouble. His American Dream is that he and Lennie will one day own their own plot of land, be their own masters, and live happily until the end of their days. Lennie is a large man, stockily built and larger than he is aware of, which hinders the progress of the dream throughout the book. He is also mentally challenged, and a loyal and doting friend to George. Lennie is the child of their father-son relationship: he requires looking after and looking out for, and his chasing of the Dream is childlike, naïve and innocent.

We get the impression that Lennie is George's good deed when George says: "Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want. God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want... An' whatta I got, I got you! You can't keep a job and you lose me ever' job I get. Jus' keep me shovin' all over the country all the time." But as the story progresses we understand that George needs Lennie too, perhaps because George feels some adequacy in looking after him, as Lennie would not survive otherwise. "Sure, he's jes like a kid. There ain't no more harm in him than a kid neither, except he's so strong." This innocence that George cites, however, is not enough to protect them from Lennie's mistakes, and Lennie's physical strength is ultimately their downfall.

The bond between George and Lennie is both striking and touching in Of Mice and Men. The reader sees the power of the American Dream and the willingness of man to attempt to grasp it. We root for George and Lennie, willing the plot to give them the land they are seeking- they are, after all, hardworking and willing to save money, unlike their fellow men. We are aware, however, of an underlying issue that has prevented their success so far, and a sense of foreboding in George's awareness of their new situation. The book opens with George and Lennie arriving at a ranch where they will receive board and paid work. They are lonely characters despite their bond: indeed we get the impression that it is the bond that sees them through. Isolation is the status quo- we realise this when the boss of the ranch is suspicious of Lennie's attachment to George: "Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is."

The reality of their situation is summed up by George: "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place... They ain't got nothing to look ahead to." The Dream that sustains George and lie contrasts directly with the reality of their situation, yet George sums it up repeatedly throughout the book, usually at Lennie's insistence: "With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us... If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us."

Other characters are not so fortunate: Curly's wife is desperate for company and detested for it, Old Candy has only his crippled dog, who has to be put down, and Crooks, the stable buck and a black man, is isolated because of his colour: "Guys don't come into a colored man's room very much." Later in the story, Crooks and Candy join George and Lennie's Dream in a sudden bout of hyped idealism where they realise that they could live different lives. This is despite Crooks's earlier statement (reality) that "I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches... Hunderds of them. They come, an' they quit an' go on; an' every damn one of 'em's got a little piece of land in his head... An' never a God damn one of 'em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever'body wants a little piece of lan'... Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkin' about it, but it's jus' in their head." Yet he too succumbs to the power of the Dream as a means of escape.

Although George and Lennie are seeking escape from the cycle of work, and power over their own lives, their ideal is beautiful in itself, and any reader can identify with it, as the desire to possess one's own home is perhaps innate within human beings. We long for them to be able to achieve their aims, and despite their clashing personalities we see the delicacy of their relationship and also the strength on which it has been founded. These two characters have been through things together that have bonded them deeply, though we do not learn much about their lives before coming to the ranch.

What we do realise, is that Lennie loves to keep animals that are much smaller and weaker than him, and although his character is gentle he cannot translate that to his physical strength. He longs to keep soft rabbits on the farm, and he also likes shiny things. We learn that the reason George and Lennie had to leave their last abode is due to the fact that Lennie held onto a girl's shiny dress, because he liked it, and was subsequently accused of rape. We realise that this is why George is so cautious, and the reason why he has taught Lennie of a nearby hiding place in case anything goes wrong.

And George is right. Lennie has an encounter with Curly's wife and retreats to the hiding place. Even though George has done everything in his power to prevent this from happening, the book looks at the powerless of its characters to change their circumstances. All of the working men struggle with their social circumstances. Curley's wife is powerless to change her gender, and Crooks is powerless to change his race. (Curley's wife: "Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny.") Curley's character is the only one in the book who has attained some power for himself- he is head of the farm, and also very jealous of his wife, which creates a barrier of isolation between her and anyone else. In controlling other people's fortunes, Curley holds the power. Yet even he is bound to his role, as summarised by George: "I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time."

The story ends in tragedy, as George is forced to commit his final caring act towards Lennie, who remains innocent of his circumstances to the end. George's action reminds us of Candy's words earlier in the book, when he failed to take control of a worsening situation: "I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn't ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog." Just as Candy was separated from his dog through circumstances in which he was powerless, George gives up Lennie out of necessity and in order to have a small amount of power over Lennie's fate. Separation, not the Dream, is therefore the final word of the book.


The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye
by Toni Morrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not needed for this black woman's beautiful perspective, 29 July 2011
This review is from: The Bluest Eye (Paperback)
The Bluest Eye was Toni Morrison's first novel, published in 1970. The story is based in Ohio, USA, and the central figure is Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who has been convinced by her parents and society that she is hideously ugly. Her mother, Pauline, is influenced by society's perception of beauty: "all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured", hence Pecola prays for blue eyes because she believes that it will lead to a better life: "Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike."

The book is told from the viewpoint of Claudia MacTeer, as a child and an adult, and by an unknown third-person narrator. Claudia MacTeer lives with her sister Frieda, their parents, a lodger called Mr. Henry and Pecola Breedlove, as the MacTeers take her in after her home is almost burned down in a fire during one of her parents' ourbursts.

The Bluest Eye is a text rich with symbolism, hence its use in school curriculums across the world despite its graphic nature. Pauline and Cholly Breedlove are constantly at war and Pecola is often caught up in their verbally abusive and often physically violent dramas. We learn that the Breedloves have experienced immense hardship or forms of abuse that have led them to act the way they do: it seems that the pattern is in escapable. They are particularly victims of rejection: Pauline because of a deformity she has had since her youth, and Cholly because of abandonment by his mother as a young child: "They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly... No one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly."

We watch helplessly as the powerless young Pecola joins this trend when her drunken father, Cholly, rapes her while she is washing the dishes. "What could he do for her - ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter? If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him - the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn't she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How?" It seems that abuse is Cholly's only understanding of love, and his powerless leads to his self-hate and perhaps also hatred of his race.

Soaphead is another character who is a victim of his own powerlessness. He is the local psychic, but he feels inadequate when Pecola asks him if he can make her eyes blue: "Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty. A surge of love and understanding swept through him, but was quickly replaced by anger. Anger that he was powerless to help her." He tricks her into thinking that she will get her wish for blue eyes.
The plot is rife with tragedy. Pauline refuses to believe that Cholly has raped Pecola, Cholly disappears, Pecola becomes pregnant and suffers has a miscarriage. Claudia and Frieda plant marigold seeds in a superstitious vision that Pecola's baby will live if the flowers bloom, but they do not, just as, the narrator tells us, many of the seeds they plant there fail to bloom: "This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers." The baby dies, and society is glad of it, as there is little pity for the ugly girl. Pecola's tragic life seems to have no relief.

There are several poignant themes in this book. Racial and class issues were prevalent in the American South in the 70s, however there are also further issues stemming from them such as notions of beauty and self-hate, hence Pecola's innocent prayer for 'the bluest eye'. Pecola thinks that if she had blue eyes and was therefore pretty then her parents would stop fighting and people would favour her in the same way that her schoolmate Maureen is favoured for being light-skinned. Sex coupled with beauty is also a strong theme throughout the book. Pecola finds kindness in the prostitutes Poland, China, and Miss Marie, who flaunt their independence and their bodies equally. Cholly succumbs to them: "They give him back his manhood, which he takes aimlessly", and this is where their strength lies. This society feeds off each other with abuse of power, and Morrison suggests that prostitution is a black woman's only way out of the powerlessness forced upon her by society.

Towards the end of the book Pecola deludes herself into thinking that she has blue eyes after the trick Soaphead plays on her works. It may be that she has succumbed to madness, or that her eyes are clearly still brown in the mirror but mentally she is no longer convinced that she is ugly. I like to think that it's the latter. Blue eyes, then, are perspective, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and by accepting the power of her beauty as a black girl, Pecola gains some power in her life.

The reason I love this book, though, is not for its rich literary merits alone. I found the story to be deeply moving and the characters easy to empathise with. I also felt a strong sense of place when reading The Bluest Eye, despite never having experienced life the 1970s American deep South. Contrasting with the heavy topics of the book are Morrison's beautifully crafted tone, her poetic imagery of the South, and a unique and refreshing tone of storytelling. By the end of the novel I felt that despite the tragedy it is Morrison's eyes that are metaphorically blue, in their sharp observance of this time, their acceptance of the black American's learned powerlessness, and their willingness to overcome it. If you're planning to read The Bluest Eye, be prepared for helplessness and tragedy, but also be willing to look beyond it.


Tuesdays With Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson
Tuesdays With Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson
by Mitch Albom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars A dying man's philosophy of life, 29 July 2011
Tuesdays with Morrie is a true story written by Mitch Albom about his relationship with his previous college teacher, Morrie Schwartz. When Albom and Morrie resume contact years after Albom has left college, Morrie is suffering from a degenerative muscle disease which is causing his body to shut down gradually. Morrie is fascinating by his ex teacher's positive and powerful demeanour in the face of death and the fact that he still has so much to offer to the world. Morrie's mind is sharp and stimulated, in stark contrast to his decaying body, and he and Albom strike up a relationship where they spend Tuesdays talking about every topic under the sun.

Albom wrote this book after realising how valuable Morrie's teachings are to the world. Although Albom had become very successful and comfortable after college, he knew that he would not have fared as well mentally in the face of an illness such as Morrie's. Indeed, most of us would not.

I think this book, though not as profound as some have argued, is essential reading for any westerner due to our unhealthy perception of death. We do not have a positive mourning process in our culture, and we can sometimes be obsessed with increasing the longevity of our life spans at the expense of enjoying every day life. Morrie is one of those rare characters who has not forgotten how to appreciate life rather than fear death, and so he enjoys his last days, staring death in the face despite becoming increasingly reliant on other people to care for him, and displaying a wellbeing of mental health that is sorely lacking in the developed western world.

Morrie and Albom discuss various philosophical issues in the book, and through them we learn to identify with Morrie's perspective. His views are similar to a lot of Eastern thinking to do with letting go of control in order to find happiness, and spending more time just 'being' rather than doing anything in particular.

This book very easy to read. Albom is not the most literary of writers, but his story does not require him to be, and it remains interesting throughout. It is only a short book, but I learned a lot from Morrie (through Albom), and I really appreciated some of his insights into life. I would recommend this book to anyone, and I think it's potentially an important text for self-growth, as the reader has the opportunity to consider Morrie's perspective of life and death and shift his own views accordingly.


Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
by Jeanette Winterson
Edition: Paperback

26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A teenager's search for what else is out there, 29 July 2011
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was Jeanette Winterson's first novel, and it caused much controversy when it was first published in 1985 due to its heavy criticism of religious customs and superstitions. The main character in the book, Jeanette, is a teenage girl whose family is strongly religious of the Pentecostal faith, and who do not accept Jeannette for who she is. There are many biblical references in the text, as well as quotes, other stories, and historical occurrences.

Jeanette is more rebellious than her religion can allow her to be. She is interested in her sexuality and she experiments with her close friend Melanie, though due to their strict upbringings they are both quite naïve in this respect- neither of them really understand what they are doing. When her church community find out about their encounters, they rigorously exorcise Jeanette, and put her through several other punishments in the hope that her suffering will cleanse her. This may not be a common practice today, but it is often still a very Christian view, and Winterson is somewhat ruthless in portraying it.

There is more to the book than its sexual theme, however. The novel demonstrates the classic clash between an older and younger generation, particularly within a faith that is not willing to evolve with the ages. It is also a journey of self-discovery for Jeanette, and her quest to find her own truth outside of the religious conformity and authority she has always known.

Jeanette's mother has little tolerance for things she disagrees with, and she sees everything in black and white: to her, there is God and The Devil, and there is nothing in between. Hence, she tells Jeanette that 'oranges are the only fruit', but Jeanette is not convinced and is driven to seeking out other types of experience or way of life.

As a first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is strikingly original and full of literary merit. Personally though I found the book hard to follow, as the themes Winterson uniquely covered at the time of release are now prevalent in many novels, so I found them to be a tad repetitive. I also struggled with some of the language in the book. It is not difficult to read exactly but I found that it took a lot of work to get through, as there is so much to think about in it. I think Oranges is perhaps better as a studied text than a book read for pleasure. I will add however that I am a fan of Winterson, and I think some of her other works which are far more enjoyable than Oranges have been overlooked by the critics.


The Magic Faraway Tree
The Magic Faraway Tree
by Enid Blyton
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Let your imagination run faraway with you!, 29 July 2011
This review is from: The Magic Faraway Tree (Paperback)
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton follows the adventures of siblings Bessie, Jo and Fanny and their greedy cousin Dick. The premise of the story is based around a magical tree in a nearby enchanted wood which the children love to climb. On the way up the tree there are various memorable characters (who live in the tree) including Moon Face, The Saucepan Man, The Angry Pixie, Silky the fairy and Dame Washalot.
At the top of the tree is a ladder which leads into the clouds and into a different universe or land, which changes every now and then. The land might be anything from Topsy Turvey Land, where everything is upside-down, to the Land of Take-What-You-Want, which speaks for itself.

This book is the most imaginative story I can remember from my childhood. The characters are funny and easy to relate to, and there is no limit to what might be at the top of the tree in any chapter. I recall reading and rereading the faraway books with constant excitement as a child.

The language in the book is quite old-fashioned, as are the characters' names, and a lot this has been updated in modern versions of the book. I prefer the older versions however, as they provide an insight into a different time, which I was aware of even as a child reading the books.

I will definitely read the Faraway collection to my own children one day, and I recommend it to all parents with little ones. Prepare from some limitless adventures!


Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wild Swans: Concubines, dictatorship and revolutions in China, 29 July 2011
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang is a fascinating and compelling read. The book is a riveting autobiography, written by Chang after fleeing China for safer pastures. She tells three separate but related true stories in the book, the story of her grandmother's life, her mother's life, and her own life in China. These three accounts combine to tell the history of China's ruling ideologies between 1870 and 1991.

Wild Swans has been widely celebrated for its historical significance and importance. It follows the rise of the so-called 'Communist Party' in China, with Chairman Mao as the central figure. Chang tells us about her grandmother's isolated life as a concubine with bound feet, her reliance on that situation as an otherwise-poor Chinese woman, and her eventual escape from that life.

Next we learn about Chang's mother. We can appreciate why she embraced the life Mao promised Chinese citizens, one without hierarchy and with equality and opportunities for all, as we understand that he mother had had none of these things. Chang's mother joins the Red Guard, a radical youth movement, in order to protect Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution. She fights, with her husband, for the vision of a better China, only to find that the previous regime had been replaced with a more brutal one: yet Mao is so clever with his indoctrination of people that many of them do not even realise this. They believe that things are actually better than they used to be, mainly because of Mao's insistence on book-burning, altering history, and the brutal treatment of anyone who dares to preserve a true version of history.

Although the book is rife with brutal occurrences, it is all the more fascinating to read when we consider that people actually willingly inflicted such things on each other, out of worship for Mao. Anyone who knows about actual Communist theory will understand that it should have no central leader, especially not Mao Zedong who required so much worship and unquestioning obeisance. People were fooled by Mao's speeches and blinded to the truth, largely because Mao was so adept at empowering brutal people who could not think for themselves but who would follow his orders without question. They were real-life 'thought police': on his behalf, they ordered submission from people of intelligence such as teachers and writers, on the premise that they were somehow anti-Communist for trying to think for themselves.

Chang's mother realises that there is a gap between the values the Communist Party is meant to support and the way people are actually treated when she is heavily pregnant and working as a Party member, but requires rest. Her husband is very loyal to the Party and he sees her need for rest as a lazy excuse, and Jung realises that he is blinded by lies. However it is near-impossible to escape from the Party now that she is a member, and she has no influence on other members who she sees treating people brutally. Her husband realises his own blindness only after his wife loses their baby.

Although Chang is somewhat aware in her youth that Mao's regime does not protect her fellow Chinese people and in fact is often the cause of their deaths, she is not in a position to resist it either. Death is not even a guaranteed escape, as Mao's regime uses torture and humiliation as more effective punishments. There is no way Chang can convince the masses that Mao is a dictator who does not have their best interests at heart: even when his idea of The Great Leap Forward cause many people to starve and die, people still believe that it has been a success. The 'leap' was meant to focus on people becoming manufacturers of metal in their own homes and therefore make China rich, but when it failed and caused millions of people to starve Mao insisted that it had been victorious, hiding the statistics, lying in the newspapers and changing historical books to tells lies based on a victory that had never occurred. The rest of the world was also fooled.

Chang's parents became disillusioned with The Cultural Revolution and therefore fell from power in their roles with the Party. Chang was therefore sent to the countryside to be educated into submission by living life as a peasant. Soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution however, Mao died and do did his forceful ideology. The country began mourning, and they also began to realise the atrocities they had been inflicting upon each other for so many years, in worship of Mao.

Wild Swans is a large book, but I see that as a good thing, as Chang does not rush through important occurrences in the story, and the reader is given a very thorough account of life in China at different times. It is written in first person and I found it very easy to read.

I think this is a crucially important text in understanding the true history of China, the psyche of its rulers and varying ideologies, and why Chinese people succumbed to dictatorship and ill-treatment of their fellow beings. It makes excellent personal reading, but I also think it should be on the national curriculum alongside Anne Frank's diary, as it is so rich with historical significance (though it would probably suit older readers only).

Wild Swans also features photographs of Jung, her family and other members of the Party.

The book is currently still banned in China.


Lighthousekeeping
Lighthousekeeping
by Jeanette Winterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An unusual tale of storytelling, 29 July 2011
This review is from: Lighthousekeeping (Paperback)
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson tells the story of Silver, a young girl who is orphaned when her mother falls to her death as they climb the cliff that leads to their house. Silver moves in initially with a carer and then into the local lighthouse which is run by a man named Pew. Pew is blind but he is an excellent storyteller, and stories form the basis for their bond.

The lighthouse reflects the way Pew sees the world- in darkness: "The darkness had to be brushed away or parted before we could sit down", and also the way he finds light within that dwelling. Pew tells Silver the story of Babel Dark, a local pastor who married two women, one because he loved her and one because she was pregnant. His tale is foreboding and enchanting and Dark is revered as an almost legendary or mythical figure, however his life is based on lies and deceit and these are eventually his undoing.
Silver feeds on Pew's stories as an escape from her mother's recent death and since she has no companions besides Pew and her dog. When Pew has to leave his role as lighthousekeeper, Silver is left to fend for herself in the reality of the world and create her own stories.

Winterson's writing style in Lighthousekeeping is charmingly poetic and even lyrical at times. This is a story about stories and the importance of storytelling. This book is not an easy read as it is so rich with the nuances of storytelling, blurring fact with fiction and crossing time to bring characters from different eras to life.

Lighthousekeeping is both experimental and unusual. I felt that it slipped into the fairytale genre halfway through the book, and left a lot of its plot for the reader's imagination to unravel. It is a short read and by the end I felt nourished by its refreshing method of storytelling.


White Teeth
White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Subtle Study of Contemporary Multi-Cultural Britain, 29 July 2011
This review is from: White Teeth (Paperback)
I first read White Teeth by Zadie Smith when it was published in 2000, and I was blown away by it. I read widely and yet I had never before come across anything as observant as Smith's ability to capture cultural nuances, as she does in White Teeth. The depth of this novel is astounding. It is easy to read yet it is rich with memorable characters and a gripping plot. White Teeth is a contemporary British novel that encompasses family life and cultural traditions and influences in today's London, which is perhaps why it has been so widely celebrated.

The story focuses on the friendship between Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi now living in London, and his friend Archie Jones. Their history stems from their companionship during WW2, and both of them are now settled-down pub-goers who are striving for other things in life. Samad is a bitter character, unable to reconcile his Britishness with his religion and unhappy with his marriage, whilse Archie is a dutiful friend and somewhat simple Englishman. Archie is married to Clara, who has a Jamaican heritage that is reflected in her speech and her mother's extremely religious nature. Samad had an arranged marriage to Alsana, who is fierce despite being younger than Samad- often they fight physically, an observation rooted in the truth of an unhappy marriage, yet one that it comically told in White Teeth.

Samad and Alsana have two twin sons, Magid and Millat. Magid is sent to Bangladesh as a child as Samad wishes him to retain their culture and religion, whilst he inwardly struggles to define these things himself. It is actually Millat however who converts to Islam and becomes a member of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (or KEVIN); Magid, meanwhile, rejects God and writes to his family with attempts to convert them to his atheism. In Millat's religious extremism, Smith takes a potentially culturally sensitive topic and reveals the underlying causes of it; Millat's confusion and need to cling to something extreme in order to have an identity, the harmless nature of KEVIN and the potentially disastrous consequences of rebellious hormones and anger in youth. We learn that moreso than Islam and the Muslim brotherhood, Millat is devoted to gangster films, and styles his entire image on them, which is a constant source of humour throughout the book.

Meanwhile, Archie and Clara have a daughter called Irie, who is embarrassed by her bickering and unsuccessful parents and also confused by her mixed race. Through Irie, White Teeth deals with issues of mixed heritage and cultural and religious differences that are indeed found on the streets of London, yet White Teeth is not a serious or preachy novel: Smith deals with her topics with a shrewd eye for wit and humour throughout. What the reader gains more than anything is an insight into these very different families' ways of life, conveyed via a unique writing style.

Smith also explores class differences in White Teeth, in the form of an English Jewish-Catholic family called the Chalfens. Marcus and Joyce Chalfen are middle class, well-educated intellectuals, whose success is inherited by their son Joshua. Joshua however rebels against his father, who is a geneticist, by joining an animal rights group called FATE and planning to undo his project 'FutureMouse'. He is not the only one against this project however; so are FATE and so is Clara's mother. As the plot lines begin to link up at the end of the book we are held in suspense of what will happen to our characters when FutureMouse is unveiled at a grand opening event. I thought that the ending was powerful and unpredictable, and somehow also entirely believable.

Having read so many reviews of White Teeth before reading the novel for myself, I was initially cynical about the way Smith might portray different cultures in London in White Teeth. I was sure that she would exploit the old stereotypes and be unfair to her characters. Instead, I found White Teeth to be a pleasantly enjoyable cultural study of youth, family, relationships and life in London in general, particularly the pressures of youth growing up in that city. Culture, then, is not the point of this book, but it is subtly captured in the stories of the families, and it is an integral part of White Teeth's success. I could not help but relate to the characters in the book due to my own experience of growing up in England as a British Asian, and I would urge anyone interested in life in modern Britain to read, if not study, this book.


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Flamingo modern classics)
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Flamingo modern classics)
by Robert Tressell
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Literature in its Own Right, 29 July 2011
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written by Robert Tressell and published posthumously by his daughter Kathleen. Tressell was a house painter in the early 1900s and the novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the town of Hastings where Tressell lived.

Tressell tells the story of several 'philanthropists': working-class men who are struggling to support their families whilst being taken advantage of by their employers and the present system. They are convinced that they should accept this as their lot. Frank Owen, the main protagonist in the novel, disagrees, and he seeks to convince his fellow workers that they spend all their time working to make money for fat cats who get rich off their manual labour and do not need to treat them so badly. Since most of the men Owen works with have families to support and are generally struggling to afford enough food for them to eat despite working all the hours they physically can, in often dangerous conditions and with no employee rights, you might think that they would take Owen's cause on board. Instead however they ridicule his arguments, calling him a madman and making fun of him for trying to act 'above his station'. Owen, however, never gives up in his dream of a better system, where all mouths are fed equally, work is enjoyable, and no man has authority over another based on the current monetary system.

At the time that Tressell wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Socialism was not a commonly understood ideology (indeed it is often still misunderstood today), but Tressell was struck by the poverty of those surrounding him and he wished to help better their situations rather than accepting their unfortunate lots as fated. That he was able to write about worker's conditions and rights with such foresight is impressive and deserves recognition. However, I do feel that the 'political' nature of this novel has meant that it has been neglected as an observant and touching work of literature in its own right. Although The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is widely referred to as a political text, it is also a novel capturing the essence of 20th century Britain and the social changes taking place at that time, and the story of Tressell's own plight.

As readers we must also consider the plight of a man in Tressell or Owen's position who is struggling to help his fellow men yet unable to communicate with them about an essential issue. Almost 100 years later, Tressell's arguments still hold their own in modern society, so in a way Tressell crosses time with his story- consider perhaps the recent western debacle with the banks and the lack of change to come about in spite of it. Although Owen's arguments in the book may sound like tedious preaching to us now, we can still appreciate that without arguments such as these there would have been no unions and therefore no workers' rights- meaning no weekends, no paid holidays, no protection in the workplace, no sick leave, etc. This is easy to forget in modern-day society, but in Tressell's day it was a dream that only the brave dared to dream, and for that reason we must admire his foresight and his passion in this book.

But it is not the only reason to enjoy it. The characters in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists are unique and memorable, and the overall story, though tragic, is rooted in history and takes us through several journeys. Crass is one of the more venomous characters in the book. He is jealous and suspicious of Owen and challenges him to 'prove' the cause of poverty to the workers, which Owen believes is money. In response to this, all the workers - or philanthropists - laugh aloud at Owen, and when Owen launches into an in-depth explanation of what he calls 'The Great Money Trick', his words fall largely on deaf ears. 'The Great Money Trick' however is now a well-known a passage still selected for study and quotation by students of history, sociology, politics and economics alike.

On a political note, I did find Owen's explanation of Socialism intriguing, as his way of presenting it to the reader demonstrates the common sense of such a system. Owen states the simple fact that he is not against work, progress or money, but the way those things are used in 20th century society to control manual workers. Owen argues that such things can easily continue in society, to the benefit of all, so long as all money that is earned has an 'expiry date' on it, meaning that the worker is free to spent it as he pleases but not free to amass it and therefore gain a monopoly of power over other human beings. I studied Sociology A Level for two years and I found it to be an intriguing subject, however never was Socialism explained in such a simple manner. After reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, I felt that I could easily relate to Tressell's plight, as I myself have since come up against good-natured ridicule when attempting to cite something from the book. We have not come as far from Tressell's day, perhaps, as I had originally thought.

Although the plot of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is tragic, I did not feel that the book was depressing. It is a touching story is many ways, including the fact that the reader clearly cares for the figures who ridicule him. Owen has a caring nature and a beautiful bond with his wife, and although their life is a struggle they maintain a positive relationship throughout the novel based on love. They also offer sanctuary to other characters in the novel at different times. The characters who are more infuriating in their disagreement with Owen's arguments which he expounds as a means of bettering their situations, such as Crass, can be infuriating, yet they are also amusing and therefore enjoyable to read. My advice about this book is, don't overlook it as a 'political text', because whatever your politics may be, it is much, much more than that.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 23, 2011 1:45 PM BST


Cosmos: The Story of Cosmic Evolution, Science and Civilisation
Cosmos: The Story of Cosmic Evolution, Science and Civilisation
by Carl Sagan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.79

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cosmos: A Taste of the Apple Pie of the Universe, 29 July 2011
I did not come across Carl Sagan until I was in my mid-20s and was tutoring at a secondary school in Devon. I occasionally helped out in one teacher's science lessons, and this teacher had been inspired to teach Science by a man called Carl Sagan. She was one of the most enthusiastic teachers I have come across, and her students were always motivated and eager to learn. She would occasionally show them excerpts of Sagan's TV programme, Cosmos, during her lessons, and she also had a picture of him on her 'wall of inspiration'. You might say that she was a die-hard fan! When she recommended that I read Sagan's book, also titled Cosmos, I did not hesitate as I was intrigued to find out more about him.

Sagan was a very intelligent scientist- an astrophysicist, cosmologist and astronomer- yet he also had a powerful flair for writing. He wrote Cosmos in 1980 and it was an immediate success, causing a wave of other authors to follow him in writing on science-related topics (eg Hawking's A Brief History of Time). Fans around the world still state today that Sagan was the man who made science accessible to the average person- and exciting. Indeed, I was never inspired by my science lessons when I was at school, but I became fascinated by it while reading Cosmos, and still have that interest to this day. As a literature-geek I found his poetic writing style compelling and nourishing, as well as easy to follow- MUCH easier, in fact, than I found A Brief History of Time. I think this is what stands Cosmos apart from other scientific or factual books: it is so well-written that when reading it I didn't feel overwhelmed with facts and information, even though the book is largely based on those two things, which are required in order to explain some very in-depth subject matter.

Cosmos is a guide to the universe and Sagan expands his readers' minds by capturing the immensity of the universe with his vivacious language. "We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it's forever", he writes of the insignificance of human life- and yet he also celebrates this life and humankind's ability to evolve, grow, nurture, and so on. Equally, he writes "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe"- and this is the journey he takes us on: a comprehensive guide from the birth of the cosmos, through consciousness, to civilisation, and the valuable part science plays in continuing that journey without boundaries.

Although this book is over 30 years old now, the ideas in it are not dated. First, all of his theories are still held to be true, and there is more evidence to support them now than there was in his lifetime. Second, Sagan was well before his time with his foresight. For example, he saw in the 70s and 80s the way people were beginning to treat the Earth and based on this he theorised about climate change long before it was on anyone's radar. He was also deeply aware of the threat of nuclear weapons to mankind's progress, and was prematurely outspoken about it. He had various theories as to why these things exist, ie why humans create war and conflict, and how they can be overcome.

For me, this book opened up my mind philosophically and also spiritually. As I thought about the way mankind has evolved, as well as Sagan's ideas and theories of the cosmos, I began to ask my own questions, and I am still fascinated by this subject matter today. Cosmos is, without question, science at its best, not just because Sagan was a genius in his time but because his writing is so accessible as literature. Sagan himself writes: "Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were.." His words are eloquent and riveting, yet also humble in their generosity as Sagan was so strongly aware of his own insignificance as a writer- even as writing this magnificent book.

Sagan was not afraid to launch into the unknown, and to take his reader with him. It seems that his imagination allowed him to go beyond the scope of the average scientist, and this is what makes Cosmos so inspiring and eye-opening: his brave ability to imagine infinite possibilities based on reason.

I now recommend and lend this book to absolutely everyone, and have not yet found a reader who wasn't affected by it in a profound way. In Sagan's words, "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." So why not take the leap into discovering a bit more about it?


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