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Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson

One of the books I read in April – Waterlog by Roger Deakin – mentioned Tarka the Otter in glowing terms. This is a book, which has remained mostly unread on my bookshelf since my youth. I always felt disappointed that I had not been able to get into it. Other people said it was a wonderful book.

I decided that the time had come to have another go at reading it. There were two things going on in my mind while I read it. The first was following the story. The second was recognising why I had been unable to read it as a young teen or pre-teen.

Although the book was published by Puffin (the children’s books from Penguin) in 1949 and reprinted several times through the 50s and 60s, it had originally been published in 1927. According to Wikipedia it has never been out of print. The author had fought in WW1. Having returned to Britain, he preferred to study the countryside and write about it than to mix with people.

By the time I first tried to read it, the language was already a little old-fashioned. I grew up in the London suburbs. Apart from visits to friends and relatives in the countryside and walks on commons, I had little experience of nature. (Nature study had been one of my favourite subjects at primary school, but my bird-watching was confined to looking out of the window at the garden birds. We did not have a television for me to watch documentaries about Nature.)

Henry Williamson used many dialect words to describe living creatures. The standard names for them were introduced several sentences later. It is quite hard work to follow this style of writing. Also the word for the footprint (seal) of an otter is the same as for a marine animal, so it really is necessary to concentrate on the context.

After all these years I found that I had the relevant experience to be able to visualise the creatures and some of the places described in the book. For example, I have seen a tree-creeper. I have visited Croyde Bay, Baggy Point and Woolacombe, which appear on the map in the book. (At the time I visited these I did not realise that they were Tarka country.)

So what is my opinion of the book?

I am glad I have finally read it; it no longer sits reproachfully on a shelf. It is not one of my favourite books. I have enjoyed the other books in this genre, which I have read this year, more than I enjoyed Tarka. However I would encourage other people to read it as it is an iconic book. In my opinion it is not really a children’s book.

Incidentally there is a strap line, which does not appear on the cover. The title page of my copy reads, “TARKA THE OTTER HIS JOYFUL WATER-LIFE AND DEATH IN THE TWO RIVERS”.

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What I read in April 2017

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Apart from reading extra blog posts during the Blogging from A to Z in April Challenge I also finished reading five books. Regular readers of this blog may be glad to see that normal service has now resumed with hopefully one post a week.

Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury is particularly suitable for reading during Lent. I began reading it in March and finished it before Easter. I found it interesting, but not altogether what I expected. I have recently heard of a similar book by John Ortberg, which perhaps concentrates more on things than money. It would be interesting to compare the two books. It would also be interesting to look at Dethroning Mammon with a group of people. Reading it while resting after lunch did not help my concentration!

 

 

I bought The Old Ways a journey on foot by Robert Macfarlane at Wordsworth House. It is part of a trilogy, but can be read on its own. I had not read the earlier books, but thoroughly enjoyed this one. I had walked part of some of the long distance footpaths mentioned at various times, which added to my interest.

 

 

 

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a novel set during the Great War of 1914 to 1918, but with some detective work done by a more recent character in the story. It is a very gory book. The plot has variations in pace and all the loose ends are satisfactorily tied up. I enjoyed reading a second-hand paperback copy.

 

 

 

 

 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an unusual novel having Death as the narrator. It is set in Germany during the time of the Nazis. There are two short books within the book. I had been warned about the language (profanity) in the book, but did not find it was a problem. There are many more important ideas expressed through the telling of this story. Another second-hand paperback I bought.

Waterlog by Roger Deakin is a book which I discovered in hubby’s ‘to read’ pile. It is one of the books featured in Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. Roger Deakin recorded his experiences during a year or so, when he went “wild swimming” all over the British Isles. He made many literary references.  This book prompted me to try again to read Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, which I struggled to read it in my teens and gave up. That may require a post to itself. In any case I read it in May!  Waterlog had a great deal about East Anglia, a part of the UK I have hardly visited. However there were other places with which I am more familiar, not least Tooting Bec lido, where I swam a few times in my childhood. It is a well-written book, showing keen observational skills.

So in April I read five books, all of which I recommend.

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What I read in March 2017

I decided to reread some books from my bookshelf. Most people are familiar with CS Lewis’ imaginary land of Narnia since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was made into a film. Lewis’ science fiction trilogy is less well-known.

Science fiction trilogy

Science fiction trilogy

I decided to read it having read The Shadow Doctor in which the hero, Ransom is mentioned. Ransom is a philologist, a student of words and languages. This is necessary for the plot (unless a device such as Douglas Adams’ babel fish is used).

Although I have long been a fan of Lewis’ writing, I felt that one of the reasons his science fiction books did not gain the same popularity as, for example, the works of his friend JRR Tolkien was the language used. There were words, which I should have looked up in a dictionary.

The books are imaginative and the struggle between good and evil is a constant theme in these stories. The evil at times begins in subtle ways and draws people in to a point where it is extremely hard to escape.

I have read this series before, but the details of the stories had not remained with me. Out of the Silent Planet begins in an ordinary way and suddenly has echoes of HG Wells. Perelandra is a satisfactory sequel and has some of the best descriptive passages. That Hideous Strength is in some ways a grown-up parallel to The Last Battle in the Narnia series.

My copies were printed before the revolution in the printing industry. I had forgotten the typos. I am sure a professor of English would not have used metal for mettle – perhaps he dictated to a secretary and the editor missed it. There were a couple of other errors, where spaces in the wrong place left real words, but no sense. The number of errors was about usual for books of that time (and better than many newer books I have read recently).

It would be interesting to learn what was going on in Lewis’ life as he wrote this series. The human interest increased in the final book. Perhaps he had met the lady he married late in life by this time.

Another book I read in March was by an author, who also wrote children’s books. Tove Jansson was well-known for The Moomins. I found a copy of a novel she wrote in a second-hand book sale. It is called “fair play” and was translated from Swedish in a delightful style by Thomas Teal and published by Sort of Books. Although it was published in Swedish in 1989, it was not until 2007 that it appeared in English.

It is a gentle novel about two unconventional women, who are a writer and an artist. Their conversations are totally convincing. A book to enjoy.

I recently read Holloway by Robert Macfarlane and others. It may need a post to itself as it is part of an interesting story about how blogging and social media are enriching my life.