About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 28 June 2009

"Terrorist" by John Updike

I haven't read Updike before (another in a very long line of authors I should have read). I don't know whether this was a good book to start. I only know that it was a superb read.

As a thriller it has, perhaps, too slow a build but when the climax comes the last pages are utterly unputdownable and the will he won't he question is only answered with less than five pages to go. But it is too well written and the characters are too real and multi-dimensional to be a thriller.

It centres on Ahmad, a serious young man about to graduate from high school, the offspring of an aging hippy, red-haired, Irish, health assistant-cum-painter and an absent Egyptian father. Ahmad has been attending the mosque and studying the Koran since he was 11; he is virginal, clean-living and convinced that God is inside him and with him. His perspective on America provides Updike with pages of beautifully written condemnation of consumerism, immorality, greed and selfishness in the archetypal New Jersey town of New Prospect. Ahmad visits a church (because he is invited by African-American Joryleen whom he fancies the pants off, but stays pure) and has a near fight with Joryleen's boyfriend and talks to his guidance counsellor Mr Levy and learns to drive a truck for a furniture firm.

Updike achieves the difficult task of putting flesh and blood upon this strange religious boy. He is moved by temptation. He is afraid. He loves his mother even as he understands her weaknesses (she has a lot of temporary boyfriends). He even has doubts about his Koranic teachers (though never about being with God).

The other major character is Mr Levy, the school guidance counsellor. He is a secular Jew, born of a lapsed Jewish father who embraced communism. His wife, Beth, is a fat, lazy American woman who works in a library (but the passages written from her viewpoint make her much much more than a stock character). Mr Levy takes an interest in Ahmad (and a greater interest in his mother): he feels Ahmad is too bright to waste his life driving a truck.

There are beautiful passages from this book. The struggle for Beth to pick up the remote control she has dropped on the floor. The confrontation between Ahmad and Joryleen's boyfriend. The relationship between Ahmad and his co-driver, Charlie. The fabulous, life affirming walk that Ahmad takes to his truck: "An unseen dog in a house barks at the shadow-sound of Ahmad passing on the sidewalk. A ginger coloured cat with one blind eye like a crazed white marble is huddling close to the front screen door as it waits to be let in; it arches its back and flashes a golden spark from its narrowed good eye .... The air tingles on Ahmad's face but there is not enough of a drizzle to soak his shirt." Four pages later, however, he is less happy. "The shabbiness in the streets, the fast-food trash and broken plastic toys, the unpainted steps and porches still dark from the morning's dampness, the windows cracked and not repaired .... Women's voices rise from back rooms in merciless complaint against children who were born uninvited and now collect, neglected around the only friendly voices in their hearing, those from the television set."

This is a superb book by a writer on top of his form.

June 2009, 310 pages

Saturday, 20 June 2009

"Reading the Oxford English Dictionary" by Ammon Shea

This weird book describes the year that Ammon Shea took to read the entire, 20 volume, 21,730 page Oxford English Dictionary.

There are, unsurprisingly, 26 chapters. Each chapter gives a little background about events that happened during the year such as the Convention for Lexicographers he attended all of whom thought that reading the OED was mad. This autobiographical fragment is then followed by his favourite words for the appropriate letter.

It sounds like a dreadfully boring book but actually it is quite funny. Some of the words are delightful and some are bizarre. The little commentaries he gives on each word are often gems. Often he is delighted to find a word for something he did not think needed to be named. Sometimes the definitions are enthralling.

Favourite word: "Unbepissed (adj) Not having been urinated on. Unwet with urine." (p188). As Shea points out, one must live a strange life is being wet with urine is the norm.

A strange book with delights for vocabularians (p194) such as myself but beware: I started mentioning some of the words to my family and they did not want to know!

"The name of Isaac Bickerstaff Steele borrowed from his friend Swift, who, just before the establishment of the Tatler, had borrowed it from a shoemaker's shop-board, and used it as the name of an imagined astrologer, who should be an astrologer indeed, and should attack John Partridge, the chief of the astrological almanack makers, with a definite prediction of the day and hour of his death. This he did in a pamphlet that brought up to the war against one stronghold of superstition an effective battery of satire. " Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer by Richard Steele. Papers from Steele's Tatler by Henry Morley http://schulers.com/books/ri/i/ISAAC_BICKERSTAFF/ [Accessed 20th June 2009]


The book containing the collection of early Tatlers became known as The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff. Lucubration, which means to study or meditate, literally means to work by artifical light.

Later an Isaac Bickerstaffe was a playwright who had some success with The Hypocrite (1769), a play that starred a hypocrite called Mawworm. "Irish playwright whose farces and comic operas were popular in the late 18th century. There is no apparent connection between his name and the pseudonym earlier adopted by Jonathan Swift and also used by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele for The Tatler. " Encyclopaedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/64674/Isaac-Bickerstaffe [Accessed 20th June 2009].

June 2009, 223 pages

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

"The Immoralist" by Andre Gide

The hero narrator, Michel, is a student of archaology and paleography. He gets married (one feels it is an arranged match) and travels into North Africa for his honeymoon. On the journey he discovers he has tuberculosis. He nearly dies. As he convalesces he realises that there is more to life than thoughts and ideas; there is a world of sense and feeling. He begins to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the Arab boys in it. After recovering and returning to his old life he becomes more and more drawn towards sensuality. Then his wife becomes ill...

It is a strange tale. The "story in a story" device dresses it up as a true story yet the author carefully contrives an artificially symmetrical plot. The other main character is his wife; she is a goody two shoes but a cipher; she has no character of her own (perhaps this is because the narrator is so absorbed in himself). It is a tale based on the idea that the world of ideas is not enough; he uses words (beautifully) to convey sensations. The implication is that the narrator plunges into immorality although his actual actions are remarkably chaste (he even blushes when accused of preferring boys to his new wife). Perhaps this was racy in 1902.

The basic idea is that we are sensuous animals which the civilized world covers with a veneer of respectability. Why? Most people "believe that it is only by constraint that they can get any good out of themselves" (p 100). Yet "of the thousand forms of life, each of us can know but one" (p105). Even memories fade, shrivel and decay. Live for today! "Let every moment carry away with it all that it brought" (p107).

But these interesting and controversial ideas are in a book of elegant prose and devastating beauty. Shadows are "transparent and mobile" (p 38). "The song of the flute flowed on" (p 41). "The regular palm trees, bereft of colour and life, seemed struck for ever motionless" (p 47). "This African land ... had lain submerged for many long days and was now awaking from its winter sleep, drunken with water, bursting with the fresh rise of sap; throughout it ran the wild laughter of an exultant spring..." (p 46).

He is particularly lyrical about male beauty. Although the only sex acts are heterosexual there is little doubt where the author's interest lies. Lachmi showed "a golden nudity beneath his flowing garment" (p 42). Moktir "did not irritate me (becuase of his good looks perhaps)" (p 44). Charles is "a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made..." (p75). A Sicilian boy is "beautiful as a line of Theocritus, full of colour, and odour and savour, like a fruit" (p 144).

A book of fascinating ideas and gorgeous prose.

June 2009, 158 pages

Sunday, 14 June 2009

"Iron Kingdom" by Christopher Clark

Iron Kingdom is subtitled The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. It tells the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty and beyond from their days as Electors in Brandenburg, the Mark around Berlin through their becoming kings in Prussia, one of their possessions which lay outside the Holy Roman Empire and so could become a Kingdom, through the Bismarckian conquest and unification of Prussia into Germany and the Hohenzollerns becoming Kaisers of the new Reich, through the dynasty's end with the closure of the First World War, to the decreed abolition of Prussia after the Second World War.

It is a well written book in that it alternates my kind of history (kings and battles) with social history so that I never got too bored by the latter. It is however, long (688 pages); despite this there were times when I wanted to know more. There were moments when I felt the author assumed I knew more than I did: for example, he talks about thalers and groschen as if I can understand their relative values. At other times he is simply too brief. There is almost no mention of either the First or Second World War as if these were German events which did not affect Prussia. I would have liked to know more about Kaiser Bill and the Franco-Prussian war.

There are times when the language departs from academic and becomes more compelling: his description of a poetic epic containing fragmented scenes as being like a film shot with a hand-held camcorder is evocative.

The author does not like Hindenburg! Hindenburg was c-in-c of German forces on the Eastern front during the First World War. "He blackmailed the Kaiser, to whom he professed the deepest personal loyalty .... it was a systematic insubordination born of vast ambition and an utter disregard of any interest or authority outside the military hierarchy he himself dominated ... Hindenburg deliberately cultivated the national obsession with his own person, projecting an image of an indomitable German warrior .... Although Hindenburg was among those who urged William II to abdicate and flee to Holland in November 1918, he subsequently shrouded himself in the mantle of a principled monarchism .... In the last days of September 1918, Hindenburg urgently pressed the German civilian government to initiate ceasefire negotiations, yet he later disassociated himself entirely from the resulting peace, leaving the civilians to carry the responsibility and the opprobrium. On 17 June 1919, when the government of Friedrich Ebery was deliberating over whether to accept the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Hindenburg conceded in writing that further military resistance would be hopeless. Yet .... he claimed in November 1919 ... that the German armies in the field had not been vanquished by the enemy powers, but by a cowardly 'stab in the back' from the home front .... As a military commander and later as Germany's head of state, Hindenburg broke virtually every bond he entered into. He was not the man of dogged, faithful service, but the man of image, manipulation and betrayal." (pages 653-4)

June 2009, 688 pages