PAW 16 – Night Flight (182) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Penguin Paperback 182; 1940 edition

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Penguin Paperback 182; 1940 edition

Night Flight was a smash hit when it was released, but it has since been almost forgotten (at least in English literature), and rightly so. The story is of a group of men, some aviators, engineers, and a controller, whose job it is to deliver the mail along way-stations in South America. Simple enough, but the task is complicated by the fact that this is being done in the days before radar, before very precise instrumentation, and also, in this case, at night.

It needs to be remembered that Night Flight was written in 1931, a good twenty or thirty years before commercial flights became feasible to the general public. That explains most of the book’s early appeal — it was a way to experience something second-hand that would be completely impossible first-hand. For modern readers, we are able to gain an insight into what it was like for the first pioneers of the early aviation industry…

Kind of. Because this is where Night Flight really falls down. It is far too brief a book, and far too self-consciously written to give a real sense of what it’s like to fly. Descriptions are terse and abstract, so you never really get a full sense of what is being described. Characters are thinly developed and the thoughts that they have that the readers are made privy to are not really thoughts that people have. The writing tries to be philosophical, but fails; to wit:

“I tell you, Robineau, in life there are no solutions. There are only motive forces , and our task is to set them acting — and then the solutions follow.”

Well, are there solutions or aren’t there? It’s possible that a bad translator may be obfuscating the pure expression of the original, which would be a shame, but none of the elements really seem to connect emotionally. Everything seems to be being held at an arm’s distance. You feel that what the writer is trying to convey is that this heroism is an everyday heroism, one that isn’t trumpeted. But we want it to be trumpeted, and are disappointed when the author won’t. There is fear, love, hate, wonder, and joy to be found in the events of this story, but we aren’t allowed every to really feel them with the author who must have either been cynical about these qualities or, as I feel he was, too touched by all of them to feel safe in expressing them fully. Ultimately, even the fact that this is a fiction serves to distance the author even further from the subject. Since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot exactly of the type described in the book, Night Flight should have been a memoir or article; not a brief, impersonal story.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Leave a comment

PAW 15 – The Penguin Charles Addams (1845) by Charles Addams

The Penguin Charles Addams; Penguin Paperback 1845; 1962 edition. Cover illustration by Charles Addams

The Penguin Charles Addams; Penguin Paperback 1845; 1962 edition. Cover illustration by Charles Addams

The Penguin Charles Addams is one of a fun series of books that Penguin tried in the early Sixties, and that was cartoon collections. I may feature more of them in further reviews; not all of them are great. Most of them were British, at least one of them was French, and a couple were American — which Charles Addams was.

He is most famous for what spun off from his comics, the popular 1964-1966 TV show The Addams Family, and the two 1990s movies of the same name. And this collection contains many of the ‘Family’ cartoons, originally printed in the New Yorker magazine. Most of the cartoons hinge on a quirkiness bordering on the surreal — often with some sort of deformity as the pivot point — but not all of them are macabre. An artist sculpting an angel out of stone calls out the window “Same time next Monday, then, Mrs Grant?” Some are subtle, such as a row of sheets hanging outside a house with eye-holes cut out of them, and some are plain racist (less said about those, the better). Some are of, shall we say, limited humour, such as a nurse poking her head out of a delivery room door to announce “It’s a baby!”

The strength is definitely the Addams Family cartoons — a whole cinema full of people crying and Uncle Fester laughing, Pugsley and Wednesday returning from summer camp in pet travellers, and Morticia Addams’ parting advice to the babysitter “…keep your back to the walls at all times.”

The downside of this collection is that it’s rather short — you can go all the way through it in less than fifteen minutes. Its 120 pages hold about that many cartoons, but Addams’ style is so perfectly polished, and his humour so unlike anyone else, that it is a pleasure to have it on the shelf in order to pick it up and dip into it every so often.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Leave a comment

PAW 14 – Franny and Zooey (2120) by J. D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger; Penguin Paperback 2120; 1968 edition.

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger; Penguin Paperback 2120; 1968 edition.

Franny and Zooey is a very odd sort of a book. It’s a work of very uneven and unmixed parts — some of which are very good, a couple of which are very bad, but all of which have to be taken together. Definitely overshadowed by the masterwork The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey lacks thrust and is constantly self-conscious, almost self-destructive. The most bizarre and noticeable flaw of the book is Salinger’s complete and mystifying lack of ability to write prose. It’s completely unaccountable that an author who writes slick and brilliant dialogue is positively ham-fisted when it comes to describing something. Here are two of the worst offenders in the book, the first describes a restaurant, Sickler’s:

Sickler’s was a restaurant where a student and his date either both ordered salad or, usually, neither of them did, because of the garlic seasoning.

This sentence is a mess of contradictions that leaves you with absolutely no sense of the restaurant, it’s atmosphere, or even how, logically, two people can not usually order a salad — or even why any of this needs explaining. Try this next one on for size:

This was the first time in almost seven years that Zooey had, in the ready made dramatic idiom ‘set foot’ in Seymour’s and Buddy’s old room. Discounting a totally negligible incident a couple of years earlier, when he had methodically dragged the apartment for a mislaid or ‘stolen’ tennis-racket press.

For a start, I’m not convinced that ‘set foot’ actually is an idiom, and second, why would you draw attention to it? And what business does that second sentence have being in any book anywhere? If it was so negligible, why bring it up? And isn’t that descriptor at odds with the adjective ‘methodically’? What is needed here is a confident editor to take a red pencil and strike out every word in that paragraph except ‘This was the first time in almost seven years that Zooey had set foot in Seymour’s and Buddy’s room.’

Perhaps one of the reasons that the prose is so clumsy is because very little happens in the stories. What they are both about are conversations — scintillating, fascinating, vastly intelligent conversations, relayed in a Socratic fashion, first between Franny and Lane, the Zooey and Bessie, and then Franny and Zooey. It involves the Glass family, who are clearly an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s ‘Royal Tannenbaums’, a family of famous academic overachiever ingenues whose heyday has passed and are now trying to find meaning for their lives. The dialogue is incredible in what it enables to communicate without saying, revealing far more than the characters are aware that they are telling to each other. It’s rich and colourful, and also brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for pure luxuriousness of readability and invention. And this betrays the fact of why Catcher in the Rye is so enduring while the descriptive passages in the rest of Salinger are so clunky — Catcher is written in first person.

If this was a longer book I wouldn’t recommend it, but at a scant 157 pages, it’s a worthwhile weekend diversion.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Leave a comment

PAW 13 – The Ministry of Fear (1897) by Graham Greene

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1897); 1974 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1897); 1974 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Ministry of Fear is one of Graham Greene’s ‘entertainment’ novels, but that’s certainly no reason to pass it up, it is just as insightful and complex as his other, more theological works. The story centres around Arthur Rowe who carries a dark secret — he help his wife commit euthanasia when she was extremely ill. This weighs on his conscience, making him him feel less heroic than broken, but seeming to us the other way around. But as he stumbles onto a villainous espionage tale that lacks a James Bond, he’s the hero that Greene must make do with.

The setup itself is quite fun. You know those weird question/response passcodes that spies purportedly relay to each other in movies — “It is unseasonably warm this month”, “But the ice in Krakow is still thick” — this book starts with the main character unwittingly answering the correct responses to a fortune teller at a town fete, resulting in him winning a prize cake. On the way home, someone tries to steal the cake from him, apparently there is something in it that he wants, but our hero hasn’t figured this out yet. Then, just as he is about to investigate it, his house is bombed. This is wartime Britain, so the event is less of a plot than a stroke of fortune (or misfortune). That’s chapter one…

The Ministry of Fear satisfies in so many respects. It is extremely intelligent, witty, insightful, emotional, and moving; a wonderful antidote to the reflexive two-dimensional Hollywood spy stories. This story attempts to mix as much real-life complexity into that genre as possible, and that gives what might be the story’s one criticism — that it isn’t really satisfying as a spy thriller. It’s too evolved and complex. But it absolutely does satisfy as a wonderful Graham Greene classic.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Leave a comment

PAW 12 – The Comforters (1911) by Muriel Spark

The Comforters by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 1911; 1963 edition, illustration by Terrence Greer

The Comforters by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 1911; 1963 edition, illustration by Terrence Greer

The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first book and it is instantly impressive, if meandering, inscrutable, and autobiographical in a delusional, surreal sort of way– like much of Spark’s best work.

The central plot is a sort of Ealing Comedy jewel heist, involving some unlikely characters just like an Ealing Comedy, and a young author, Caroline, who becomes entangled in their affairs. However, the interior character of the author is where most of the drama happens, since she is fairly delusional (or is she?) in a harmless way that people in one of the comfortable British classes were thought of. Caroline’s boyfriend Laurence would probably be the lead character in any other book written by a male author, and here he serves as a catalyst to many of the interactions in the book. There is also the literally larger-than-life Mrs Hogg, who is reminiscent of G K Chesterton’s Sunday in The Man Who Was Thursday. In the same way as that character she embodies a kind of cosmic inscrutability, yet she certainly has her flaws and bears feet of clay.

Spark, like Chesterton and Greene, was a Catholic writer who manages to combine the playful imagination and experimentalism of the former with the sharp insight into human nature of the latter. And of course all three, being Catholics, were well at home with mystery and philosophical tension.

Spark apparently had experience with hallucinogens in the form of dexedrine which was used as a dieting aid in the Fifties. She wrote the book and lent it to friend and author Alan Barnsley who passed it on to Evelyn Waugh (another fine Catholic novelist) and he sent it to Macmillan who published it that same year.

It’s not the first book of Spark’s that I would recommend someone to read (that would be Loitering With Intent), but if you are a fan of Muriel Spark, it would be a mistake to give this hard-to-find volume a pass.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Comments Off