Saturday, July 14, 2007

Coming Up For Air: a Review

Yesterday, I finished reading a novel I enjoyed a lot. Entitled "Coming Up For Air," it was written by George Orwell and first published in 1939. Orwell is world famous. He is known for his two most famous books, "Animal Farm" and "1984." I had never heard of "Coming Up For Air," but found it amongst a pile of books that were going to be donated to a charity shop. My evil ex-mother-in-law, the Black Queens mother, used to let me look through books that people gave to her to sell in the shop for some charity she worked with. If I wanted any, she'd let me have them, before carting the rest off to be sold. When I saw Orwell's name on this book, I decided to grab it. Since then, it's spent over five years sitting on my bookshelf. Until, that is, a couple of weeks ago. Then, looking for something to read, I spotted the old paperback and decided to try it out.
As I began reading the book, I became hooked. I don't think I could have appreciated this book if I had read it when I was a teenager. The main character, George Bowling, is 45, fat, feels trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, working a job to pay a mortgage on a home in a suburb of London. Being 48 myself and divorced, I was able to feel a lot of empathy with the character. Orwell spends the first half of the book describing Bowling's childhood, which was spent in a town called Lower Binfield. Ironically, Binfield is a suburb of Bracknell, where I live. This made the book even more fascinating for me. That's one of the pluses about living in England. I get to become familiar with many of the places written about by many of the famous authors of English literature.
We follow Bowling as he grows up and joins the Army. He sees action during World War I. Bowling keeps anticipating World War II during the book, which is interesting because Orwell wrote this between the wars. The main character experiences anxiety over the future after the expected World War II. He is more bothered by what he thinks society will be like after the war, than he is about the prospects of war, itself. In response, he tries to re-capture something of his past; of his childhood. He decides to secretly spend a week visiting his old home town of Lower Binfield. What he discovers is that it's all changed from how he remembers it. In essence, you can't recapture the past.
Another element of the book which fascinates me is the glimpse it gives of life back then. George Bowling engages in extra-marital affairs. He also recounts an example of teen pregnancy, from his childhood. These things, which we tend to consider modern problems, were already occurring before 1940. Orwell's writing is superb and I am tempted to re-read both "Animal Farm," and "1984," as I suspect I would get much more out of them now, than I did when I was a teen. When looking for a title to read, I think it's useful not to forget the works of old, talented authors. Instead of reaching for the latest book from today's pop fiction, commercial authors, why not try something from the vast treasure of works in English literature? If you can find a copy of this book, and you are over 25, you may find it as enjoyable as I did. Also, for fellow Americans amongst my readers, if you have not already done so, try travelling outside of the USA. Seeing places in Europe, Asia, and Africa, which you read about in books and see in films, adds a dimension to those works which only heightens the experience. There is so much to the world beyond Disney and Las Vegas, make sure you take the time to sample it.

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