East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck.


The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

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The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Howards End by E. M. Forster

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I decided that it was time to re-read one of my old favourites, so picked E. M. Forster’s Howards End off the bookshelf.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

I first read this wonderful novel eight year ago and it had a big impact on me. I also saw and loved the 1992 film adaptation, staring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter, which to my mind is one of the very best literary novel film adaptations.

Now, as about a million people have no doubt already written lengthy and detailed reviews of this novel, I shall not attempt anything of the sort here. What I’ll do instead is just mention some of the things that I love about this novel.

A sensitive and intelligent exploration of a theme. Turn over the front cover of this novel and on the title page you see Forster’s memorable epigraph: “Only connect…” and the whole of the novel can indeed be seen as an exploration of our deep desire to truly connect with others, as well as the myriad ways in which this desire can get frustrated.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

There are also many other important themes intelligently explored in the novel, including those of sex and of class and of our quest for meaning in life.

Brilliant characters. Two of the principal characters are the half-German Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who are so vividly alive in their exploration of culture, beauty, and the arts. Their financial and intellectual independence lead them to explore many of life’s questions in bold and original ways. Contrasted with the Schlegels, are the wealthy Wilcoxes, who are almost entirely focused on practical matters and business and maintaining conventional values. Then there is the poor Leonard Bast who yearns for more out of life than his poverty allows him. The interplay between these and other characters in the novel is really what makes it so memorable.

They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.

For despite all of the many misunderstandings and strongly held opposing views, we also see these characters do come together and truly connect – at least some of the time.

A finely written plot. E. M. Forster is such a great novelist. In this, as in his other novels, he clearly has his whole story mapped out precisely in his mind from the beginning and uses every scene, every piece of dialogue, indeed every word to layer up his themes and move forward his plot. The way that the different characters move from initial acquaintance with one another to friendship then to greater or lesser degrees of trauma and separation, and then finally to closure is also superbly handled.

Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

Beautiful, passionate writing. This is a joy to read. There are many, many sections that could be quoted from this novel. Here is just one typical exchange, which exemplifies the lively exploration of life and the human condition contained within this novel:

If we lived for ever, what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love death – not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. . . . Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.

If you enjoyed this, you might also E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, or A Passage to India (which I now definitely want to re-read!)

I’ll finish with one final quote:

Science explained people, but could not understand them.

Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder


Whilst I certainly did enjoy reading books throughout my childhood and early teenage years, I think that books started to make a more significant impression on me from the age of about 15 or 16 onwards. During the two or three years before going to university I read such books as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I found each of these works extraordinary and each left me pondering their contents for a long time afterwards.

The reason I mention this here is that another key book that I read during this period was Sophie’s World, by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. If you have not come across this book before, it really is quite something. Essentially, it is a pretty large and comprehensive history of Western philosophy (there is even a 9 page index at the back), told in novel form. Now, while that might sound like a terrible idea, the incredible thing is that it really works.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

The basic premise of the book is that a middle-aged philosophy teacher named Alberto Knox appears out of nowhere and starts providing a teenage girl called Sophie Amundsen with an education in philosophy. (Things actually get more complicated quite quickly, but I won’t bother trying to outline the other narrative twists and turns here.)

The amazing thing is that the philosophical content of the book is by no means light-weight or superficial. You really do get to the meat of what different philosophers and schools of thought were all about (spread over 427 pages), yet at the same time, it is also incredibly readable. I would certainly describe the narrative as a real page-turner.

And it seems that I am by no means the only one to love this book. In 1995, which was when the English version of the novel was published, Sophie’s World was reported to be the best-selling book in the world that year. That’s quite an achievement for something that many would have imagined would only have had a very small niche market.

Anyway, 17 years after first reading the book, I decided I’d like to re-read it in the New Year, so this I did, and I found it every bit as good as I had remembered. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the philosophy of ideas.

So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…

If you liked this, you might also enjoy The Solitaire Mystery or The Christmas Mystery, which are also philosophical novels written by the same author.

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh


Around the time that I finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, it happened to start getting gloriously warm and sunny. It was staying light until gone half past nine, and then, when the sun did eventually start to sink towards the horizon, there were often stunning red sunsets. As I was considering what to read next, I saw my old copy of Brideshead Revisited sat on the bookshelf, and thought to myself: What could be more fitting than to read Brideshead on such beautiful, long English summer evenings?

And so I did just that. I sat in the evening sun, and delighted in rereading this wonderful novel: Brideshead Revisited: The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Indeed, summertime really is the time to read this classic. Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of privileged, slightly naive, hugely romantic young adults, just starting out in the world is beautifully written. The prose is sublime, the scenes well crafted, the settings evocative, and the characters brilliantly crafted. Waugh captures not only their enthusiasm and joy in exploring everything about the world around them, but also provides a snapshot of an aristocratic, feudal system that was very soon to be lost forever. It is partly this combination of youthful exhilaration coupled with a subtle underlying nostalgia that makes this tale so poignant.

The early chapters see our young protagonist, Charles Ryder, approaching the end of his first year at Oxford, when he makes the acquaintance of the charming, aristocratic, and entirely singular Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, and enjoy an intense period of pleasure and discovery as they drink champagne, eat quails eggs, party and philosophise – all against the backdrop of the ancient spires of Oxford during a glorious English summer.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Towards the end of last year I decided that in 2015 I really must try to read some of the many books that I have been given but not yet read. One such book was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

I was given a lovely hardback edition of this novel by my mother-in-law back in 2009, yet for some inexplicable reason, I had never got round to reading it. This is especially odd given how much praise the novel has received (winning the Man Booker prize, amongst other accolades) – and the fact that my wife has been telling me to read it ever since she fell in love with it about three years ago!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

However, I have now finally made amends and read this acclaimed novel – and I am certainly glad to have done so.

For anyone who has not heard of the book before, or who knows little about it, it is a historical novel focusing on the extraordinary life of Thomas Cromwell, who was born the son of a drunken blacksmith, yet rises to ever greater levels of success and power in the court of Henry VIII.


Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald


If you’re in love it ought to make you happy.

I read Tender is the Night some fifteen years ago, but, to be honest, I could remember very little about it, other than that I had thought highly of it at the time. So, I decided recently that I would dust off my old copy and re-read this Fitzgerald classic.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As with Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, this is a book peopled by rich, glamorous, successful Americans, enjoying all the thrills that the Jazz Age had to offer them. Fitzgerald also explores some similar themes in this novel, such as the hollowness and lack of meaning that exist beneath all the glamour of the lives of the idle rich.

In other ways, however, this is a very different book to Gatsby. For a start, it is about twice as long, and offers a much more detailed study of the lives of its central characters over a long period of time. In Gatsby, most of the action takes place within a few months; here we observe the life of Dick Diver over a dozen or so years.

The prose style is also somewhat different. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald famously produced extraordinarily beautiful, finely crafted, and memorable prose; here the effect of the narrative is much more subtle. The text is undeniably powerful, but its force is built up slowly over time, scene by scene. In this sense, it is not until you have finished the novel that its full impact hits you.

The novel focuses on the lives of Dick and Nicole Diver – a celebrated couple amongst the fast set living on the French Riviera between the wars. In fact, when we first meet Dick, he is a talented young psychiatrist, just starting out in life, with everything going for him. He has intelligence, a talent for his chosen profession, good looks, impeccable manners, and a lot of charm. On top of this, he is also a good man: kind, generous and friendly.

Dick first meets Nicole as a patient in a Zürich clinic. Nicole has been brought to the clinic by her rich American family in the hope that the doctors can help her overcome her schizophrenia-like symptoms (brought on as a result of abuse from her father). Nicole does indeed improve, and against his better judgement, the young doctor allows himself to fall in love with his beautiful young patient.

In the next part of the novel, we observe the happy couple living in the south of France. The Divers seem to have everything, spending their time in glamorous surroundings, enjoying the high life with plenty of friends around them. In fact, the couple act as a kind of nucleus around which other rich and successful people gather. There are countless parties hosted by the Divers, with fine food and wine, music, and dancing. Their guests are treated like royalty and everyone seems to be living the dream.

…to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.

However, even from fairly early on in the tale, there are also quiet, niggling hints that all if not quite right in this apparent paradise.

One day, the Divers and their friends meet a beautiful young American actress called Rosemary Hoyt on the beach. Characteristically, they immediately invite Rosemary and her mother to join them all for dinner that evening. The beauty and glamour and charm of the Divers powerfully impacts young Rosemary, and she becomes somewhat awestruck of the couple. This later develops into an infatuation for Dick, something which he initially tries to brush off.

However, as the summer days roll on, further cracks start to appear in the structure of this seemingly perfect Mediterranean bubble. Over a period of time, friendships dissolve, Nicole suffers further breakdowns, Dick starts drinking too much, the two drift further apart. Then, after a chance meeting back in America, Dick and Rosemary start a doomed love affair.

They were both restless in the night. In a day or two Dick would try to banish the ghost of Rosemary before it became walled up with them, but for the moment he had no force to do it. Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure, and the memory so possessed him that for the moment there was nothing to do but to pretend.

There are many parallels here with Fitzgerald’s own life. His wife Zelda was also glamorous and rich; she too was hospitalised with schizophrenia and then drifted in and out of health over the years; the pair lived a decadent life with other American ex-pats in the south of France; and Fitzgerald drank too much. Clearly this is a tale that draws heavily on its author’s own life.

There are many moving scenes in the novel, including several that chart Dick’s slow descent into drink and dissipation, as he struggles to find meaning in his relationships and in his broader life. There is real poignancy in certain scenes as Dick and others come to realise that he has now lost much of the vitality and purpose that he possessed so abundantly in his youth. In fact, by the end, Dick is a mere shell of his former self, and yet we do not despise him; rather we recognise in his story many truths about our own world.

But Dick had come away for his soul’s sake, and he began thinking about that. He had lost himself – he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year.

For me, this is the real genius of the novel: Fitzgerald presents us with a charismatic yet flawed human life, and skilfully and perceptively shows us the beauty but also the tragedy within. This is indeed a brilliant piece of literature.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

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