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Reading Passport

Reading more in 2017!

The Reading Passport

Social media, political changes and financial unrest have been cultural standpoints so far in the ‘Teenies’. In a fast moving decade there has also been a move towards remembrances of things passed. In our final review for The Reading Passport we will look at a novel of whaling in the northern seas. This gripping story, though, is certainly not nostalgic!  Ian McGuire – The North Water (2016)

The North Water by Ian McGuire

The pages of this novel are metaphorically dripping with blood. Sailors skin polar bears and club seal cubs. A sea captain shoots a mutineer in the head and a surgeon operates on an abscessed stomach releasing a torrent of fetid pus. This is not a book for the faint-hearted! Nor is it a book for those sensitive to bad language. There is swearing on almost every page. It is a story of a doomed Nineteenth Century whaling voyage: a voyage into the heart of darkness. The whole cruel and bloody business of whaling is so well researched that the language gives the tale an formidable reality.

The story opens violently. Drax, a brutish harpooneer kills a Shetlander and rapes a boy. Its clear when he joins his ship, The Volunteer that there will be trouble ahead. The Volunteer, owned by Baxter and captained by Brownlee, employs Patrick Sumner, wounded in the siege of Delhi, as the ship’s surgeon. He claims he wants six months’ work before he comes into property in Ireland. Shadowy motives and histories thicken around the crew of the Volunteer. Already there are rumours of risk: Brownlee has previously captained the Percival, “crushed to matchwood by a berg” with the loss of 18 lives and not a sixpence made by any of the surviving crew. And yet Baxter has now given Brownlee the Volunteer. An unlucky ship attracts unlucky and desperate men. As the story develops the men not only kill wild beasts, but also each other in a morally dead universe isolated in the treacherous northern seas.

The North Water is a fast paced and gripping tale written in a smoothly readable style with sublime descriptions of the Arctic landscapes. If you can stomach the blood and brutality, and the bleak vision where lives mean nothing, then you will find this a novel a convincing and compelling achievement.

If you enjoy The North Water you might like to read McGuire’s novel “Incredible Bodies”, a sordid and hilarious tale of sleeping on the job, sexual confusion, and terrifying departmental secretaries.

Ian McGuire lectured in American Literature at the University of Manchester, where he now teaches creative writing.

Reading More in 2017!

The Reading Passport

Noughties buzz words included globalisation and communication. In your Reading Passport Journey this week we will look at a novel by a Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk 2002

Snow is a clever thriller that explores the dangerous relationship between Western secularism and Islamic fervor, and has clear resonance today. A Kafkaesque character known as Ka is stranded by snow in a north-eastern Turkish town called Kars. Ka is a poet and political exile who plays the part of an intrepid reporter investigating the suicides of a number of young women (one of which is stopped from wearing her Muslim headscarf at university). During his investigation, Ka finds himself caught up in a political coup organised by a revolutionary actor opposed to the Islamists and supported by the dreaded “Special Operations” force, MIT. He falls in love, witnesses an assassination, meets disaffected youth and writes poems in an attempt to arbitrate between the revolutionary forces and the Islamists. His end is terrible, but he is one of literature’s most moving heroes.

The novel is full of thrilling descriptions of murder, interrogations and sudden disappearances. But, the novel is more than just a thriller, examining the volatile arguments across a range of contentious issues from police surveillance, to what it is to be a Turk or European, to love, suicide and God. The novel’s relaxed realism and intelligent provoking demonstrates how novelists can expose important truths.

If you enjoy “Snow”, you might also like Orhan Pamuk’s “White Castle”, a novel about a young Italian scholar who is captured by the Ottomans and becomes the servant of a man eager to absorb the knowledge of the West.

Reading more in 2017!

The Reading Passport


The 1990’s was a decade of multiculturalism and alternative media.  Your Reading Passport journey continues with a look at “The Emigrants” by the German writer W. G. Sebald.  Sebald settled permanently in England in 1970, becoming Professor of German Literature at The University of East Anglia. He wrote all his books in German which were then translated into English.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

“The Emigrants” is an unusual book: part puzzle, part dream. Is it a fictional novel, or is it a memoir? Are the pictures that are interspersed through the text  really taken from a family album, or are they devices to give apparent authenticity to the text? And, how do the four stories of people vaguely known by Sebald fit together into a coherent narrative.


Dr Henry Selwyn, whom Sebald meets when renting a flat in Norwich was originally a poor emigrant from Lithuania. He became wealthy after moving to England. He married but became increasing estranged from his wife, and committed suicide with an old hunting rifle kept from his African hunting days. Paul Bereyer, Sebald’s gifted teacher in Germany also commits suicide by throwing himself under a train after suffering bouts of claustrophobia since the war. Sebald’s Great Uncle Ambros was butler to the Solomon’s of Long Island before committing himself to a Sanatorium in Ithaca. And, Max Ferber, a reclusive German artist Sebald met in Manchester kept quiet about his parents until , as he was dying, he gave Sebald his mother’s journal for the war years before she was sent to a camp.

Sebald’s prose style is very precise, and although cautious seems to simmer with implications. He writes of the small things that stick in the mind, building inexorably into a picture of catastrophic loss. Although the Holocaust is never mentioned by name, and the book is neither a novel, nor history, nor a witness statement, it becomes a powerful invocation of the private devastation’s of Jewish experience that lingered long after the war.

If you want to read more Sebald after “The Emigrants” try his book “Austerlitz”, the story of Jacques Austerlitz, a Jewish refugee child during the war trying to trace the fate of his father in Prague and Paris. Like his other books, it is a blend of history, reportage, memoir and fiction.

Reading more in 2017

The 1980s was a decade of technologies, music and fashions sparking a renewed vigour towards consumerism. New political thinking was creating new social structures, reflected in the literature of the decade. The feminist literature of Margaret Atwood marked the political mood. This week we take a look at her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale uses her sensual intelligence and rigorous narrative gifts to portray in beautifully descriptive prose the life of an enslaved woman in a puritan dystopia ruled by men. Its a novel full of incendiary discussion and extraordinary scenes.

 Handmaids, Guardians, Angels, Eco wives, Marthas and Commanders all have defined roles in the Republic of Gilead, a bible oriented North American State established in reaction to the late twentieth century sexual permissiveness. Offred is a handmaiden, a woman capable of bearing children in a nation of plummeting birth rates. Her own husband and daughters are forbidden subjects of the past as she has to try and conceive a child with her Commander. But, even in an age of absolute submissiveness there are underground movements of protest.

 Offred’s account of her repressed life is a detailed description from some surviving cassette tapes found in a house two centuries later. Its a tale of her mental and physical degradation, and her fears of what has happened to her family and what will happen to her if she rebels. Some critics claim that the anger of its feminism dates it, but it is still a powerful evocation of the necessity of emotions.

 If you enjoy The Handmaid’s Tales, you might also like “Oryx and Crake” where she imagines a world in which humans are almost extinct and replaced by humanoid Crakes.

Reading more in 2017

Disco dancing and dilemmas encapsulated the mood of the 1970’s. In a decade that saw Britain’s first female prime minister, novelists strove to effectively capture the mood of unrest. Your Reading Passport journey continues with a look at a novel by a South African writer, Nadine Gordimer.


Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer is a political novelist who devises absorbing situations to dramatize the spirit of her times. Her novel, “Burger’s Daughter” is a highly detailed record of the anti-apartheid politics of South Africa in the 1970’s. It is also the story of a young woman, Rosa, coming to terms with herself. Her father, Lionel is a white radical who has just died in prison. His death drives her to make a painful attempt to fit the personal to the political: to discover her own meanings of commitment, betrayal and freedom.

The novel avoids big set pieces and instead uses the small domestic details of politics to make its point. There are chattering arguments about Marx and Mandela at dinner parties, gatherings in front rooms and prison visits that are all seen through Rosa’s eyes, interwoven with insights, private musings, childhood memories and adult desires. In Pretoria she avoids her father’s friends.

In Nice she has an affair with a married man. In London she unexpectedly encounters her black childhood companion after years apart. Everywhere she seeks to both confirm and escape her father’s influence.

The novel is often poetic and sensual, but always true to the rhythms of ordinary thought – a wonderfully acute portrait of a woman in crisis. If you like Burger’s Daughter you may also like Nadine Gordimer’s “The Conservationist”, winner of the Booker Prize. Its the tale of a rich and complacent white South African farmer whose insensitivity alienates the people around him so that he ends up losing everything.

Reading More in 2017!

The sixties were a decade of social revolution where the spirit of “free love”, rock and roll and the mini skirt prevailed.  Some writers wrote coming of age tales that give alternative views of freedom and the battles for social justice. Your Reading Passport journey continues into the 1960’s with a look at Harper Lee’s classic – “To Kill a Mocking Bird”.


To Kill a Mockingbird is a one off. For decades it was Harper Lee’s only book, (Go Set a Watchman was only published after her death), and the novel hovers between a children’s book and an adult one. It creates a shifting and mysterious world of childhood fancy and adult folly, which its narrator,  nine year old “Scout” Finch will never see in the same way again.

The novel contains one of the most famous court scenes in fiction when Scout’s father, Atticus defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama small town in the early 1930’s. The scene outside the courthouse where Atticus is confronted by a lynch mob has concentrated power.  But the novel isn’t just a courtroom drama. Its also a tender and comic evocation of childhood, where the scenes of the half-scared and half-swaggering pranks on the reclusive Boo Radley have atmosphere and charm. The narrative has both dramatic force and plenty of variety.

If you like “To Kill a Mockingbird” you could try the first novel by Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote called “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, a haunting story of a boy sent to live with his unknown father in the Deep South


Reading more in 2017!

Following the hardships of World War Two, writers began to open up new , and largely unexplored subjects. Your Reading Passport journey continues with the 1950’s, a decade that saw the ‘rise of the teenager’. This week we look at a novel by the American author J D Salinger who explores the not-belonging of adolescence in his enduring classic “The Catcher in the Rye”.


The Catcher in the Rye is the great tragi-comedy of troubled adolescence. Holden Caulfield, 17 years old, is highly strung, fragile and unpredictable. His voice in the novel is rapid and excited, and relates all the “madman stuff” that happens to him after he ran away from his expensive school the previous year and holed up in New York with the last of his grandmother’s birthday money. He has increasingly bizarre encounters with suspicious cab drivers, a menacing hotel elevator guy, some “whorey-looking blondes”, some old school friends, and assorted “tiny kids”. All these encounters link together to create an accelerating drama of emotional chaos that ends up with him planning to go out West as a deaf-mute.

The novel is written in an adolescent voice full of jokes, ramblings and complaints about “phoney” adults. Holden Caulfield’s tragedy is that he is trying himself out in various situations, but doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere; not with adults, or the tiny kids, or even with his older brother and kid sister. Salinger is able to define with clarity and sensitivity the adolescent’s feeling of not belonging.

If you like The Catcher in the Rye why not also read Salinger’s Nine Stories/ For Esme with Love and Squalor (1953), a collection of wry, funny and tragic stories.

Reading more in 2017!

The 1940s saw a world once again embroiled in war and a changing society. This week your Reading Passport journey continues with a look at a classic from George Orwell who created a dystopian future in the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

1984 by George Orwell

George Orwell was reacting to the creation of the totalitarian states of the 1930s. He was an astute political commentator and had in mind the example of Stalin’s USSR. Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare has given us some recurring cultural jargon. Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police and Doublethink are ideas so common that many don’t realise they came from Orwell’s imagination. His functional plots and plain prose give these ideas special power in creating the horrors of the ultimate police state.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is nightmarish and drab where dissatisfied citizen Winston Smith has a brief liberating affair with fellow rebel Julia, but soon finds that the true price of freedom is betrayal. What holds readers is the fate of the books protagonists, and their doomed attempt to taste freedom. The book succeeds because it an absorbing and deeply affecting story. The novel creates a world so plausible, so complete that to read it is to experience another world. And what higher goal can fiction reach for than that?

If you enjoy the dystopian world of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” then why not try Orwell’s novella “Animal Farm”, an allegorical tale of animals taking over the farm, published in 1945.

Reading more in 2017!

Last week we reviewed a book from the 1920’s. This week your Reading Passport journey continues with a look at one of the defining books of the 1930’s. This decade brought an attitude of austerity following the Great Depression captured in all its tragedy and hardship in the writings of John Steinbeck and his classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck wrote a detailed record of the the unbearable hardships of the share-croppers whose livelihoods were destroyed by the dust storms that hit the Midwest in the 1930s. When Tom Joad is released from Oklahoma State Penitentiary he heads back to his old farm, only to find it abandoned and his family driven out, like so many other tenant farmers, by an environmental catastrophe and unsympathetic landlords. When he catches up with them he shares their arduous journey to California where they have been promised work as fruit pickers, only to find that life in the west is every bit as bad as the life they have left behind.

The novel is like the depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, able to show ruined landscapes in wide angle shots as well as highly detailed close-ups of individual characters. The effect is hugely emotional. From the beginning the novel is full of bold, but disciplined pathos. There are documentary sections on life in the migrant camps interspersed with the Joad’s narrative story. Desperate men and women think aloud, and there are many memorable scenes such as a nail-bitingly tense birth in a storm, and one of the most haunting final images in fiction.

If you like John Steinbeck’s style and gritty realism you might also like to read his 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men”, the friendship between two itinerant farm labourers – George Milton and the feeble minded Lennie Small.


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