RRS: The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

RetroReadingSunday
The Day of the Triffids is Book #526 on the 1001 Books List, Book #120 on the BBC Top 200 section of my Booklitzer 200 challenge and this review was first published back in March 2012.


First published in 1951, this is a classic cold war, post-apocalyptic novel.  The triffids of the title are large, mobile, carnivorous plants.  They are supposedly the creation of biotechnological tinkering by those dastardly Soviets.
The oil men of the capitalist states are more than happy to pay for the illicit shipment that will result in farm upon farm of triffids producing cheap, high quality oils, though.
We first meet the novel’s protagonist, Bill Masen, as he wakes up in hospital with bandages over his eyes.  He has been working with the triffids for some time when he takes a sting that nearly results in him being blinded.  While he is lying in hospital unsighted the “comet” comes along and creates a spectacular light show that everyone watches.

The comet brings the apocalypse.  Bill wakes up the following morning to find the world and its inhabitants have been rendered sightless, while he is ironically able to see once he removes his bandages.  This is where the story begins with the great opening line, “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

Indeed there is.  It is the start of the end for civilisation as we know it.

While puzzling it out and stopping at various pubs along the way, Bill meet Josella Playton.  Josella has been captured and tied up in order to be the “eyes” of another person.  Bill helps to rescue her and they form a bond in the aftermath of the disaster.  There is discussion on whether to stay and help the masses of people who can no longer tend to themselves, or to leave the city for the countryside where things are less dangerous.  There follows a meandering story of the few sighted people’s response to such a disaster and how the prevailing morals and attitudes play out against a pragmatic and hard nosed alternative world view.

I thought it would be menacing to read this book.  It wasn’t.
The triffids are not particularly scary, although they are meant to be semi-sentient and organised.  They clearly have some good weaponry at their command, but they are not really the centre of the story.  It is how we create things that go on to have unforeseen consequences that takes centre stage.  The menace is ourselves and the arrogance that “nothing can go wrong” with our experimentation.  The menace is what we can turn into when things get unpleasant.

I found the story to be very easy reading.  It did not feel menacing to me despite the clearly nasty situation that the characters and the world was facing.  I put that down to Wyndham’s style of writing.  This topic in another pair of writer’s hands could have my blood running cold.

The language and the social mores are of their time (late 1940s, early 1950s) and that adds to the soft edge this novel has.  We have become considerably harder and more cynical over the years, but the questions raised sixty years ago are still valid.  How would we all cope if something of a worldwide magnitude catastrophe occurred?  What choices would we need to make?  How would we reconcile those with our existing morals?

One of the oddest things it made me think of was self-sufficiency.  If push came to shove, could I support myself and my family?  Do I have the skills if there was no one else to do it for me?  We are so interdependent now that this aspect of the breakdown of society was perhaps the most chilling for me, not the scientifically engineered giant venus flytrap-style threat.

Although not at all what I was expecting to read, I did enjoy it and it did provide some food for thought.  It also gave some very nice quotes to share.  Here are some that I think give good voice to Wyndham’s thoughts.

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.

There are plenty of people living in various parts of the world, my own included, who have had a year from hell that was totally unexpected.  The idea that it can’t happen here is a very strong one and it is a pertinent observation on his part, even now.

And on the thinking that would be required in such a post-apocalyptic time,

The simple rely on a bolstering mass of maxim and precept, so do the timid, so do the mentally lazy – and so do all of us, more than we imagine.  Now that the organization has gone, our ready-reckoners for conduct within it no longer give the right answers.  We must have the moral courage to think and to plan for ourselves.

Coker, another of the main characters mid-way through the book also has something of a rant about this default to non-thinking.  In the context of the era, it is a gender based rant about dependence, but could easily apply to all of us who quite happily sit back and rely on others to cover our (self-induced) skill shortages.

Times have changed rather radically.  You can’t any longer say: “Oh, dear, I don’t understand this kind of thing.” and leave it to someone else to do for you.  Nobody is going to be muddle-headed enough to confuse ignorance with innocence now – it’s too important.  Nor is ignorance going to be cute or funny any more.  It is going to be dangerous, very dangerous.

I would recommend this book on the strength of those questions alone – it could be read somewhat like a rousing civil defence advertorial.  But I think it unlikely to feel menacing, from a fear of triffids perspective, after so many years and such literary and film-based nasties as the human mind has created in that sixty year gap.

Enjoy a classic view of the world.


RRS: Kim – Rudyard Kipling

RetroReadingSundayWelcome to Retro Reading Sunday, this review was first published back in June 2012 over at 1001 Books Blog.
Kim is Book #783 on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.


Before we begin on the review proper, I must confess to being an unabashed lover of the Just So Stories, with a lovely copy sitting on my bookshelves. Kim is the first full length work by Kipling that I have read.

Kim is a young orphan when we meet him at the start of the story. Born Kimball O’Hara, his father is an Irish soldier stationed in India and his mother a nursery maid. Both die when he is young and he is brought up by a half-caste Indian woman in the bazaar of Lahore. He is known as ‘little friend of all the world’ to those in the bazaar. He is much more a native than the Sahib he was born to be, more comfortable with the trappings and behaviours of various Indian castes and religions than he is with his own heritage.

He leaves his happy bazaar roots when he meets Teshoo Lama, a Tibetan lama in search of a mystical Buddhist “River of the Arrow”. They meet by Zam-Zammah, outside of the House of Wonders in Lahore, where Kim decides to become his disciple or chela. This is how the novel opens,

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah, on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.

They set off on an adventurous journey that takes in the vast sub-continent, it’s varying peoples and cultures and eventually leads to his induction into The Great Game through his friendship with the Pathan horse trader, Mahbub Ali. He ends up getting caught by members of his father’s regiment and is reintroduced to his Sahib roots by way of an English education at St Xavier’s, a top school in Lucknow, much to his initial disgust.  There he starts his training to become a surveyor (or spy).

When his formal education comes to an end he cannot wait to reunite with his lama, and he takes his first steps in to the real world of espionage with a trip into the Himalayas in search of two Russian surveyors. The ending of the novel is sufficiently vague as to his future, however. Does he continue down the espionage road, or does he take to the spiritual endeavours of the Buddhist Way?

This is a rather wonderful picaresque novel that combines the story of a friendship, a coming-of-age and a bit of boy’s own romping spy fiction on the side. Kipling rolled it all together into one glorious book. I enjoyed this immensely, even with all the thees and thous throughout. Not to mention the OOS generated by flicking between the text and the references at the back of my copy of the novel.

Kipling is often reviled for his views on imperialism. Personally I didn’t find this work particularly condescending or oppressively rah-rah. Instead I found it extremely evocative of British India and the variety of its peoples. It was touching, funny, beautifully written and took me right in to the life and times of a young street rascal turned spy. The characters are sympathetic and you feel that you want to follow them to their fates. Kipling clearly loved India and its people. I think it is obvious in every part of this book.

If you have enjoyed any of Kipling’s short stories, then I can highly recommend Kim as your first venture into his novels.  For a little more background once you haveread the novel you may find this article interesting, especially with regards to the mixing of fiction and reality.

The eternal optimist

In many ways I am not an optimist.  That would be because I have a strong streak of cynicism running from top to tail.  Hand me a library card, however, and I could out-Pollyanna Pollyanna.

It seems fairly traditional that I start off each new year with this re-invigorated spirit of reading, and this year is no different.  My bookish challenges remain a central feature of my yearly goals – that’d be the Booklitzer 200, the 1001 Books, the Off the Shelf and my Goodreads challenge.  Thankfully many overlap.
Unsurprisingly then I have started my year off with a large pile of library books with which to challenge my persistence and possibly my sanity.  One alteration to my usual behaviour is the fact that they now live on a shelf of their own rather than in a stack by my bedside, thereby reducing my tendency to jump from one to another and back to the first again.  Multi-task-reading begone!

So what am I planning to read, ever so optimistically?  These.

Books - Jan 2014

As you can see they nearly all tick off one or more challenge boxes.  Right now I am on the home-straight with Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides To Die, and am enjoying it so far.  Not quite as much as I did with The Devil and Miss Prym but then, I’m not finished yet.
You will have also realised that I have become fascinated with the noir period and the hard-boiled detective fiction thereof.  For those that know me this won’t be a surprise.  I’ve always loved the films that these books inspired, or were translated in to.  I’ve also slipped in a Waugh.  It’s been a lifetime since I read Vile Bodies and feel it is overdue that I return to that style of satire.

Books and books and books

Book ImageYes, I love books.

It was the one really big let down of last year.

I began to loathe reading.  The pressure of wringing out a review every couple of weeks throughout the year took its toll and by the end, I would happily have given away reading anything for a very long time.

As it stands, we’ve rejigged things and now there is a tiny bit less pressure on review writing – and I’ve had a relatively book-less holiday – so I am beginning to look with fond affection at my shelves again.  They are no longer full of colourful spines giving me the evil eye as I walk by.  I am also sensibly going to try and get a back-up of written reviews before the blogging season begins again.

Along with that I am making some changes here in the evenings that will impact on my reading time, in what I am hoping will be a positive way.  With that in mind, I will continue to work on my Booklitzer 200 challenge and will again tackle Bookish Ardour’s Off the Shelf Challenge since I now have something of a backlog of books on my shelves that I have acquired but not read.  And to fill in those non-existent gaps I will be reading from the 1001 Books list as well.
If I manage to even do some of this I should reach my Goodreads goal of 52 books for the year.

Crazy?  Why yes I am, thank you for saying!

Do you have any bookish goals for 2014?
Feel free to unburden your soul in the comments if you do.