November’s Reading – my 300th book of the year and some novels with problems

November has ended and the turn of the year is in sight. I read 30 books in November which avid readers of this blog (and there are one or two) will realise is pretty average for me. The total for the year is now 326 so I should achieve more than 350 books read during the year unless anything major happens between now and 31 December to change that.

This month I read my 300th book of the year which was Crusaders by Dan Jones. I listened to this on audiobook. It is a popular history of the Crusades and I found it very accessible. Last year I read the author’s book Templars which I also enjoyed. I recently heard Dan Jones speak at a conference about his book on the crusades which encouraged me to buy and listen to it now although I think that I would have bought it eventually. I enjoy history of all sorts and this book helped me to understand a series of events I know surprisingly little about given my interest in religion and its effect on history.

Most of the books I read this month are not published this year and many are classics or modern classics. Reading older books does expose you to attitudes and points of view that can make you wince because they are no longer acceptable. A few books this month did that, although I still enjoyed them. It is a difficult issue because you don’t want to fill your mind with outdated and racist/sexist views but they were often perfectly acceptable at the time when the book was written. I wonder what attitudes in our contemporary fiction may engender the same response 50 or 100 years in the future ! Here are the books I read this month where there were issues and how I felt about them :

  • The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (originally published 1915). I listened to this on audiobook read by Robert Powell and really enjoyed it. The book is well paced and hangs together well but as it progressed I realised that there were no women characters at all – one is occasionally mentioned but none speak. I cannot imagine a modern thriller with no women at all. This book also has some rather nasty descriptions of Jews and the usual stereotype of some sort of Jewish financial conspiracy – those bits were rather unpleasant to listen to. I think that this book is now more of a curiosity than a classic and the film versions which avoid both these issues are possibly better than the book (and it is not often that I say that).
  • Ruined City by Nevil Shute was originally published in 1938. This is an author who was once very popular but has rather fallen out of fashion and I think his best known book is A Town Like Alice which despite having a great title is now mostly known because of the film adaptation. This book is about a shipbuilding town that has fallen on hard times in the depression and a city financier who takes it upon himself to do something about it. A lot of the action is set in the local hospital and there are sad reminders of the days before the NHS when people had to pay for treatment and hospitals had to balance their books on what they earned or rely on philanthropy. The bit that attracted my attention was that when the main character’s wife had an affair with another man it was somehow even more reprehensible because he was foreign and not European – a British adulterer would somehow be more acceptable. There were also a few comments about Jews although not in the same vein as the Buchan. This is an interesting book, however, because of its themes and how you can see echoes of the modern industrial collapse in the story.
  • The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby was written in 1927 and has the best title of the month. It is the story of a young woman, Joanna, who marries just before WWI and has great ideas about travel and seeing the world which are ruined by her husband’s return from the front with TB and their loss of capital when their farm fails. This is a book which treats foreigners badly and reeks of class prejudice but I feel that these are necessary parts of the story and, unlike the books above, the author actually wants you to judge these opinions and find them wanting. The couple’s life and future is greatly affected by the people around them and their views and they trap Joanna in a life she doesn’t want. It is definitely a more enlightened book than either of the above because the author challenges the prejudices in her writing rather than accepting them.
  • Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell was originally published in 1969 but is autographical and about events which happened just before WWII. This is the second in the series which began with My Family and Other Animals. I find these books captivating. They are very funny and the author’s obvious love for nature and his descriptive powers lift it above the average. I think that we don’t need to take all the events too seriously as the book is obviously meant to be entertainment but I did find, on occasion, the author’s attitude to the local people very dismissive – for example he often uses the word “peasant” to describe ordinary working people. It isn’t rife in the book but it does strike an unpleasant note from time to time.
  • The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope is my second audiobook and was narrated excellently by Timothy West. This is also the oldest of the books in this list having been first published in 1875. I really enjoyed this story of London society and its corruption and found it very funny. I did find, however, that the regular castigating of Jews became wearing. I think that the author means it as satire because, in fact, the only identified Jewish character is about the only honest man in the whole book but the continual mentioning of Jews and why our female characters cannot marry them is rather overdone.

I offer these thoughts in case you want to try any of these books. I have never really resolved my issues with novels that contain outdated views because of when they were written or because of the author’s attitudes. All of these books are very readable despite these problems and one or two are definitely classics. I think we probably each have to come to our own accommodation with this issue.

Keep reading.