September 7th, 2011

book and cup

#90 Mrs. Miniver - Jan Struther (1939)

Shortly before the Second World War, a column by 'Mrs Miniver' appeared in THE TIMES, the first of many recounting the everyday events of a middle-class Chelsea family: Mrs Miniver's thrill at the sight of October chrysanthemums; her sense of doom when the faithful but rackety car is replaced; the escapades of Vin, Toby and Judy, her unpredictable young children; visits to the Kent cottage and, as war becomes a reality, the strange experience of acquiring gas masks and the cameraderie of those unsettling early days. Mrs Miniver enchanted the public with her sympathy and affectionate humour, capturing ordinary lives and values now darkened by war. First published in book form in 1939 and later an enormously successful film, MRS MINIVER became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic -- with Churchill exclaiming that it had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships.

I think Mrs. Miniver becomes one of those characters in fiction, that, like Sherlock Holmes, readers can't quite believe is not real, or at least never lived. Although some stories are loosely based on incidents in Jan Sturther's own life, this is a charming work of fiction that rings very true indeed. It is no wonder that upon its appearance it was so instantly popular. With honesty and gentle humour, Jan Struther examines the everyday occupations of an upper class wife and mother in an England on the brink of war. Upper class she may be, but Mrs. Miniver is totally approachable, a sensible,likable woman. Her world may be unknown to us in one sense, yet in another it is totally familiar.
Mrs. Miniver first appeared in a column in The Times, and so it does not read like a novel, nor is it meant to. It is an episodic series of chronological short stories, each of them wise and charming, moving us closer to September 1939.

Books 40 to 42

"The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga

“Your Excellency, I am proud to inform you that Laxmangarh is your typical Indian village paradise, adequately supplied with electricity, running water, and working telephones; and that the children of my village, raised on a nutritious diet of meat, eggs, vegetables, and lentils, will be found, when examined with tape measure and scales,, to match up to the minimum height and weight standards set by the United Nations and other organizations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attends.
Electricity poles – defunct.
Water tap – broken.
Children – too lean and short for their age, and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India .
Yes, a typical Indian village paradise, Mr Jiabao. One day I'll have to come to China and see if your village paradises are any better.”

Although "the White Tiger" is an amusing read, the narrator Balram - murderer, ex-servant and entrepreneur - does not see India through rose-tinted spectacles. His India is split into two very different worlds, the Darkness (the poorer interior of the country, still oppressed by the brutal landlords) and the Light (the richer coastal areas where there is the possibility for a poor man to better himself). Balram sees himself as a white tiger, a rare beast who has managed to break out of the Rooster Coop and leave the Darkness, moving into the Light and reinventing himself as an entrepreneur in Bangalore.

Really enjoyable.

"Startide Rising" by David Brin

* Creideiki leads us-
Is our master
* Yet we imagine-
Secret orders *

Tom sighed. There it was again, the suspicion that Earth would never let the first dolphin-commanded vessel go out without disguised human supervision. Naturally, most of the rumors centered around himself. It was bothersome, because Creideiki was an excellent captain. Also, it detracted from one of the purposes of the mission, to make a demonstration that would boost neo-fin self-confidence for a generation.

The first ship commanded and crewed by uplifted dolphins, has discovered an ancient fleet of derelict spaceships that may be linked to the Progenitors, and has crashed on an ocean-covered planet while attempting to evade the Galactics who are determined to discover the secret of its location. As the Galactics fight a space battle other above the planet, making and breaking alliances in their efforts to come out on top, surprising discoveries are taking place on the planet below, which has supposedly been uninhabited for millions of years.

It was easy to sympathise with the neo-dolphin crew, with their tendency to revert to atavistic behaviour when stressed, and often exhibiting a lack of confidence in their own abilities, and deferring to the few humans on board. There seems to be a bit of anti-scientist theme, as Dr Metz's tinkering with the make-up of the crew leads to disaster, and the neo-chimp planetologist Charles Dart is equally as arrogant, obsessive and self-absorbed.

"Startide Rising" is a much better story than the first book in the series, being both more exciting and more complex rather than a straight mystery story, but it's still a good idea to read "Sundiver" first, as it explains about uplift and man's status in the the galactic civilisation as a wolfling species without a patron. And it is their wolfling attitude, refusing to use any galactic technology that they are unable to understand, and using initiative rather the age old tactics documented in the Galactic Library, that gives the Streaker's crew the edge.

"Good Behaviour" by Molly Keane

That winter when he grew up, I enjoyed myself for the first time. I acquired consequence. To be needed and liked by two such popular characters as Papa and Hubert lent me an interest rather better than second hand. Maybe I was a parasite-but what a happy parasite, happy in their admiration and their kindness, happy in being their new joke.

I first read this book in the 1980s, but apart from feeling sorry for the large and unattractive Aroon, the only thing I remembered was the incident with the rabbit dish. But I remembered enjoying both the book and the television series based on it, and was looking forward to a re-read, even though it does hit some of my buttons. It's a sad book, She may not be the most likeable protagonist, but Aroon is stifled by her upbringing in a family of poverty-stricken Anglo-Irish gentry, and always seems unlikely to escape it through marriage, but she doesn't deserve to be treated as a figure of fun by her family, even if she often seems unaware of the mockery. I don't think that Aroon's description of events is deliberately misleading, but she often misreads what is actually happening, and there are some things, such as her father's relationships with Rose and the Crowhurst twins, that I think she won't allow herself to see.