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

Friday, 31 December 2010

"The Ask and the Answer" by Patrick Ness

Book 2 of the 'Chaos Walking' trilogy

And, as is often the way with sequels eagerly awaited, this was a disappointment.

The first book, 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', dealt with hero Todd and heroine Viola as they raced across New World away from the chasing army of Mayor Prentiss and towards the town of New Haven. As they ran they tried to understand why they had to run and the reader was encouraged onwards with the dribble of information leaking from sparse clues (it was a brilliant move that Todd, carrying a map and a book, could not read and was too ashamed of this fact to let Viola read for him). A wonderful twist was the fact that hero and heroine both succumb to temptation, both are flawed. And of course one never but never knows whom to trust.

Book 2 begins exactly at the cliff hanger where Book 1 finished. Todd is is prison, later being made to work at a Spackle farm, being corrupted by the everyday presence of evil around him. Viola works as a healer. But Viola's friends become freedom fighter, terrorists, bombers, as a resistance movement grows against the army into which Todd is being inducted. Throughout, President Prentiss manipulates Todd and Viola, tricking them into betrayals of themselves and one another.

Perhaps I was unhappy that Todd has sunk so low. Perhaps I have become bored by the minimalist prose, otherwise so fresh and exciting. But I think the reason why this was a good read rather than a great read is that it has become more predictable. I know a lot more of what is going on in New World so this is now a fight between Good and Evil (and, yes, it is still true that I am not always certain who is good and who is evil) and thus less interesting.

Still a good read though and I have already started book 3, 'Monsters of Men'.

Monday, 27 December 2010

"The Knife of Never Letting Go" by Patrick Ness

"Without a filter, a man is just chaos walking." (Chapter 4)

"A knife ain't just a thing, is it? It's a choice, it's something you do." (Chapter 8)

"Too much informayshun can drive a man mad. Too much informayshun just becomes Noise." (Chapter 36)

Wow! What a book. Read at a gallop.

Prentisstown is a settlement in a New World, a world in which all men can hear each other's thoughts and all women can hear the thoughts of every man (but female thoughts are hidden). A world where all these thoughts have turned into a never-ending Noise. A world in which animals can talk (though the stupider ones have most limited vocabularies; the sheep just say 'Sheep').

Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown is told to run from the town a month before he becomes a man. He runs with the first girl he has ever met, because all the females in Prentisstown are dead, killed by a germ from the Spackles. They flee mad preacher Aaron, Mayor Prentiss and his army and his sadistic son Davy.

This 'children's' book is all about loss. Todd has already lost mother and father, Ben and Cillian who bring him up soon disappear, and it seems that everyone Todd meets will die. He loses his innocence too.

It moves at an incredible pace (as Todd and Viola run towards the town of New Haven, where there is Hope). You can never relax because if you do you will be caught by Aaron, or Davy, or the army of Mayor Prentiss. Everyone is suspect and your Noise always give you away. The prose is sparse, and tight, and key words are repeated with surprise, and Todd is a brilliant hero because he is a boy who feels things but has certain handicaps (he can't read so the map he has is almost useless; although Viola can read he is ashamed to let her and by the time he does she hasn;t the time to read much so all the dreadful, secrets of the New World are let out little by little).

A wonderful book which ends on a complete cliff hanger so I just have to read the next one NOW...

December 2010; 479 pages

Saturday, 25 December 2010

"A Simples Life" by Aleksandr Orlov

This is the autobiography of the Meerkat entrepreneur who brought to the world the Compare the Meerkat website, as typed by his faithful sidekick (and oft-kicked) Sergei. We learn how the Orlov family left the Sahara and sailed to Russia, of how they fought Mongis Khan and his Mongoose hordes from Mongolia, how they survived pogroms and poverty, and how they finally triumphed in the Meerkat Comparison business.

Very witty with one or two laugh out loud lines. Lots of pictures. Simples.

December 2010; 123 pages

Friday, 24 December 2010

"The Survivor" by Thomas Keneally

This strange book is about an ageing Australian academic, Alec Ramsey, who is neurotically obsessed with his role in a tragic Antarctic expedition whose leader, Leeming, died. Since Leeming's body may be about to be discovered we explore the basis for the neurosis: did Ramsey and his other companion, a doctor called Lloyd, eat Leeming or abandon him before he was dead?

But on the other hand this is a story about a close-knit academic community: Kable who wants Ramsey's job and his nymphomaniac wife, the drunken 'poet', and seducer Saunders, the Professor of Physics who has just refused a doctorate to hysterical 'young' Leeming, nephew of the great explorer. These people and assorted other members of the cast bitch and philosophise with all the stagey dialogue of a drawing room comedy. Their manoeuvrings and hissy fits pad out this relatively short and simple 'did he do it' thriller into a slightly pointless tragedy of manners.

Don't bother.

December 2010; 282 pages.

"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese was born and brought up by Indian parents in Ethiopia; he qualified as a doctor and became a professor of medicine. This book recounts the saga of identical twins, born of an English surgeon who flees the scene of their birth and a nun who dies as they are born, conjoined but separated at birth, who grow up two Indian step-parents in Missing (a mispronunciation of Mission) Hospital in Addis Ababa. They both become doctors. Shiva is the 'evil' twin who shags everything in sight including his brother (the narrator) Marion's girlfriend. Forced to flee Ethiopia shortly afterwards because of (mistaken) involvement in Tigrean separatist plot, Marion becomes a doctor in the US and belatedly has sex.

This should have been a riveting read. It was very interesting about Ethiopia under Haile Selassie and later the mad Mengistu. It showed the author's intimate understanding of surgery. There was a lot of action and there were sections in which I was engrossed. And then I stopped reading and never started again for ages. Twice. Which suggests it wasn't a massively exciting read.

December 2010; 541 pages

Friday, 27 August 2010

"Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann

This delightful novelette ('Der Tod in Venedig') records how an elderly novelist on holiday in plague-stricken Venice falls in  love with a beautiful Polish boy.

The story is full of signs and portents. On the boat to Venice the hero, von Aschenbach, meets a group of young men of whom one is elderly bewigged, dressed and cosmeticised to look young, the result being a travesty. This is what Aschenbach will become by the end of his homosexual paedophilic obsession. He is also rowed to his hotel by an unlicensed gondolier in a black coffin-like gondola; this boatman reminds us of Charon the ferryman of the Styx. There are also many references to classical myth:

  • Helios the sun god (who is also Apollo)
  • Narcissus the beautiful youth who fell in love with his reflection
  • Hyacinth the beautiful boy-lover of Apollo who was killed by the west wind
  • Ganymede, the beautiful boy who was carried by an eagle to Olympus and made to serve Zeus as cup-bearer
  • Of course Apollo himself was a beautiful youth
In some ways the book contrasts the Apollo who is the god of intellect, moderation, reason, light and music with Dionysus the god of ecstasy, passion and drunkenness. Aschenbach starts as a man whose writing is severely intellectual and ends as a creature wholly enslaved to passion. But to see it as a battle between two gods is perhaps naive. Music and poetry are strict and intellectual art forms and people often see this as Apollo-like; however they also have their passionate sides and Apollo is also the god of the the ecstatic prophecies of Delphi. He is clearly linked to passionate love of both men and women. I think that Mann was playing with the duality of Apollo within Aschenbach. In another contradiction Apollo, who is father of Aesculapius the god of medicine and who is himself associated with healing is also the god who shot deadly plague arrows into the Greek camp at Troy.

Finally Mann plays with the concepts of Beauty as discussed between the old ugly Socrates and the beautiful youth Phaedrus in the Phaedrus by Plato. In this book Socrates contrasts 'being in your right mind' with the madness that comes with following an erotic desire for beauty. This is clearly the situation for Aschenbach. When a soul, says Socrates, looks upon a beautiful boy it experiences the utmost joy; when separated from the boy, it feels intense pain and longing. This is the allegory of the chariot; we are pulled by passionate horses, we need to rein them in.


When Aschenbach discovers that there is cholera in Venice he decides not to tell the boy's family in case they leave. This is clearly a moral lapse for which he will be punished. (It is also one of the few points at which the film differs from the novella.)


The boy Tadzio becomes aware of Aschenbach's obsessive interest and starts to play up to it, smiling at the old man and making eye contact. At the end of the book, after his family have decided to flee Venice, Tadzio walks into the sea and beckons to Aschenbach. 


A wondrous story crammed with many, many layers of meaning in 71 short pages.


It was also a brilliant film starring Dirk Bogarde as the writer.



August 2010; 71 pages

Monday, 23 August 2010

"Milton" by Anna Beer

This is a rather ponderous biography, evoking the poetry of the famous poet.

Milton was born into a well-to-do family of scriveners and property dealers. He went to St Paul's School (yards from his home) and then Cambridge (a bit further). He was extremely studious: a kind of Stephen Fry of his generation. He had a number of close male friends and rumours of his being a sodomite pursued him through his life. He wrote a little and studied a lot. The government suspended the rule that all publications must be licensed (cleared through the censors) and an explosion of pamphleteering began similar to the blogospheric explosion of our times. Milton was just another pamphleteer until he achieved notoriety with his views on  Divorce (he believed an unhappy marriage was grounds for divorce). This might have been linked to his own first marriage: a wife many years younger than himself who went home after a month although she later returned and bore him at least four children.

He weighed in on the republican side during the English Civil War, later becoming a civil servant with the new Commonwealth government. This made him persona non grata during the Restoration: he had to go into hiding for a while. Meantime he was losing his eyesight.

Blind and unemployed; becoming poor under the Stuarts; he wrote Paradise Lost. This was immediately recognised as a classic; an MP burst into the Commons wielding it and talking about the most marvellous poem ever. Later he wrote Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes ("Eyeless in Gaza") before becoming gout ridden and dying.

Interesting points:

  • Samson Agonistes is effectively a poem in praise of terrorism; by pulling down the temple on himself Samson is the classical equivalent of a suicide bomber.
  • A Civil War rumour: that "Royalist soldiers arrived in a [Somerset] village and demanded the services of a woman. In fear, the villagers handed over a particular woman who was 'given to them all'. In the morning, the woman was ostracised by the village." (p156) Shades of the disgraceful hosts in both Sodom (Genesis) and Gilead (Judges 19).
A slow moving biography. Sadly, the most interesting bits where when she described what happened to other people during the Civil War.

August 2010; 401 pages

On His Blindness
  
WHEN I consider how my light is spent 
  E're half my days, in this dark world and wide, 
  And that one Talent which is death to hide, 
  Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent 
To serve therewith my Maker, and present         5
  My true account, least he returning chide, 
  Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd, 
  I fondly ask; But patience to prevent 
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need 
  Either man's work or his own gifts, who best  10
  Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State 
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed 
  And post o're Land and Ocean without rest: 
  They also serve who only stand and waite.







Sunday, 22 August 2010

"One Day" by David Nicholls

Emma and Dexter spend the night after their graduation together in bed (but without having sex) in Edinburgh. The book then revisits their relationship every year for twenty years.Although clearly meant for one another and clearly each in love with the other, they never quite get it together ... but will they by the end. Dexter shags his way through life and becomes a shallow TV presenter; Emma becomes a teacher who wants to write.

Some brilliant one-liners include:

  • "balls of steel that's what you need to be a TV presenter and a mind like a like a well quick thinking anyway"
  • "can I just explain something about the telephone? You don't have to shout into it? The phone does that bit for you..."
  • And the best bit is when Dexter finds out that Emma has been writing poetry about him. She is very cross with him but he wants to know more: "What rhymes with Dexter?" he asks and she says "Bastard. It's a half-rhyme."


A light weight and slightly predictable comedy of our time, it nevertheless had me weeping before the end.

August 2010; 435 pages

"High Life Low Morals; the duel that shook Stuart society" by Victor Stater

This is a history book written like an adventure by a brilliant author. It really made me want to read on...

Baron Mohun (pronounced Moon) and the Duke of Hamilton are engaged in a long running court case over an inheritance that was in the Hamilton family but bequeathed to the Mohuns. Since both families were desperately hard up, the estate was needed for solvency. Since Mohun was a leading Whig politician ( member of the Kit Kat Club) while Hamilton was a Tory on the Jacobite wing there was scope for fantastic dislike. Neither man was a stranger to violence, indeed Mohun had been tried for two murders before their shocking duel.

Set against a colourful background of the Tory Whig politics of the post James II era (including the Ac of Union with Scotland in which Hamilton was the leader of the opposition until he sold out), and the dissolute life of the Stuart nobility this is a brilliantly told history.

A page turner.

August 2010; 289 pages

"Birds without wings" by Louis de Bernieres

This book took me forever to finish. I started it in June, got half way, more or less gave up for over a month, and then started again.

And yet it is delightfully written. It tells the story of a village in south west Turkey. The story starts in about 1900. The Ottomans rule Turkey but the Young Turks are about to take over and Kemal Ataturk is beginning his career. The village is a delightful mixture of Christians and Moslems who share each others' loves and houses and even religious ceremonies. The story is told by the villagers (and Ataturk). We are told from the outset that we will discover about how Iskander the Potter maimed his favourite son and how Philothei the Christian girl who is a legendary beauty died. We also learn about Drousola who appears later in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The story progresses through the first world war and the birth of modern Turkey when the Armenians and Greeks are ethnically cleansed. The wonderful world of the village is forever destroyed.

There are loads of wonderful characters:

  • Iskander the Potter makes up proverbs including 'Man is a bird without winds and a bird is a man without sorrows'. He makes bird whistles for his favourite son Karatavuk (Blackbird) and his son's best friend Mehmetcik (Red Robin).
  • Karatavuk who fights at Gallipoli
  • Rustum Bey the town's agha who puts aside his first wife for her adultery and takes as a concubine a prostitute called Leyla; they fall in love

The ethnic wars between the Greeks and the Turks and the Armenians and the Russians and the Bulgarians and the Serbians and the ... in short of the peoples who once lived in the Ottoman empire and the ethnic violence that accompanied its slow disintegration is chronicled with brutal effect particularly on pages 286-7

Rustum Bey says "if a war can be holy, then God cannot" on p299

"In the case of the Armenians there was the strong belief that they were the descendants of Noah, and that this made them special. A reasonably attentive reading of the Bible would have revealed the obvious fact that if its account is true, then absolutely everyone is a descendant of Noah." (p303)

I thought it was a boring book but on reflection I think it is a great book. The critics suggest the book is too big. Clearly the attempt has been to include as many characters as possible and when you do that you have to reduce each character's complexities. Obviously I felt in the middle that it was too long and too meandering. But actually there are moments of delight and the complexities of the true character, the village, are beautifully underlined. Many things are idyllic: each house has a song-bird outside it (the bird theme is omnipresent throughout the novel). But there are instances of idyllic violence as well: Rustum Bey kills his wife's adulterous lover and then drags his wife to the village square to be stoned, a father forces his son to kill his sister because of her infidelity. And there are lovely cross-cultural bits as well: because Philothei is so beautiful she is persuaded to wear a veil even though she is a Christian so that she will not distract too many men; this makes veils fashionable because uglier women want to be thought more beautiful. When Rustum's adulterous wife is stoned she is saved by the imam in a clear reference to Jesus.

A long but beautiful book.

Looking back in April 2016, I realise that I think about this book far more than Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the book that made de Bernieres famous. It is a deeper book, with more characters and, perhaps, more bitterness. Perhaps the Nazis are too easy as enemies.

August 2010; 625 pages

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birds_Without_Wings_(novel)
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3620456/Trouble-in-Arcadia.html
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A02E5DA113AF932A05753C1A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2

"Alexander the Great" by Robin Lane Fox

This is, apparently, the book that inspired Oliver Stone to make the biopic. It was first published in 1973. I found it slightly heavy going.

Interesting things
  • It starts with the drama of the assassination of Phillip of Macedon; was it organised by Olympias, the wife from whom he had separated or by her son Alexander, his heir but soon to be supplanted by a new born baby to Phillip’s new wife?
  • We learn how Alexander tamed Bucephalos, the horse whose head looked like that of an ox, who would be Alexander’s faithful mount almost to the end of the Earth.
  • We discover that the Macedonian court, whilst on the fringes of civilised Greek society, attracted the great people of the day: it was probably in Macedonia that Euripides composed his Bacchae.
  • Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor and also probably taught Hephaistion, the fellow pupil with whom Alexander had a homosexual relationship which lasted until Hephaistion, now a general, died.
  • “’Sex and sleep’, Alexander is said to have remarked, ‘alone make me conscious that I am mortal.’” (p57). Hmm. Sex is what makes feel divine.
  • Cleopatra was the daughter of Olympias who was Alexander’s mother. Does this make Cleopatra his sister or his half/step sister? (91)
  • The Suez canal was d]created by the Pharaohs (96)
  • Alexander followed the Royal Road into Persia, following the route previously written about by Xenophon (103)
  • Persians called their gorgeous gardens paradeisoi (103)
  • The Babylonians were compliers, the Greeks analysers: the Babylonians recorded the heavens for nearly 2,000 years but it was only after 330 BC and Alexander’s conquest that the Greeks began to develop a theory of the heavens and calculate a more accurate value for the year (248)
  • Alexarchus, son of Antipater, Alexander’s regent in Macedonia, followed a faith healer called Menecrates. Alexarchus called himself the Sun and after Alexander died founded a religious community on Mount Athos (446)
  • In Babylon, if an astrologer foretold the death of the king, the king chose a substitute who would reign for 100 days. If the king died in the meantime the substitute, even if he was a gardener, would become king (p459)
  • Ice-cold water from the river Styx was believed to be poison although the modern Mavroneri falls suggest this is not so (463)
  • Alexander’s coffin was carried in a chariot which resembled “the ritual chariot of the god Mithras” (p478)
  • The Greeks were responsible for much technological invention when they came to India. “A simple cell for electroplating silver on to copper has been found in Parthian Babylonia and it is natural to credit its invention to a Greek.” (p491)

Thursday, 5 August 2010

"The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

In 1945, in a Barcelona still devastated by the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, 10 year old Daniel is taken by his widowed father, a bookseller, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Told to choose a book to adopt and love, Daniel chooses 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Julian Carax. He is enthralled by reading it and tries to discover more about the author. But someone is trying to acquire all copies of Julian Carax's books so he can burn them. The mysteries deepen and the shadows threaten as Daniel grows to manhood, persecuted by Javier Fumero, a Civil Guard, and assisted by Fermin Romero de Torres, a mad tramp.

This book is structurally so like Don Petro de la Hoz that I wanted to weep. Even some of the plot devices are similar. Yet somehow I was disappointed by it. Although a deep and gothic mystery, somehow the crux of the matter, the book, seems not important enough for all the evil that takes place. And somehow the passionate love affairs seem shallow.

Disappointing but still a good read.

August 2010; 506 pages

"Brixton Beach" by Roma Tearne

I expected little from this book other than a potboiler. I really got rather involved and charmed.

Alice is born in Ceylon to a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother. The Tamils are beginning to fight for equal rights with the Sinhalese. It is not a good time to be of mixed parentage. Alice's idyllic life with her painter grandfather on a beautiful beach is disturbed by violence and by her imminent emigration to England. This book tells of her life in Ceylon and England and what happens to her family.

An excellent read.

July 2010; 408 pages

"Hilaire Belloc" by A. N. Wilson

I knew Belloc from his poems: Tarantella, Lines to a Don, and the cautionary tale of Matilda. I discovered he was rather more than this. Not only a prolific writer (over 150 books including history and fiction) and a journalist (working for the Edwardian version of Private Eye that spilt the beans on the Marconi scandal involving Lloyd George) but he was also a politician serving as a rather too independent Liberal MP under Asquith.

A fascinating biography.

July 2010; 386 pages

"Fopdoodle and Salmagundi" selected by Edward Allhusen

This is a selection of words and their definitions from Dr Johnson's dictionary. Some of the words are no longer used and some are used rather differently then they are today. Sometimes a surprising definition of a word gives you insight into how we use the word today. For example, knuckle means to submit because of "the custom of striking the under side of the table with the knuckles, in confession of an argumental defeat." Nowadays we say 'knuckle under'.

There were lots of good words of which my favourites are:
above-board: because gamblers used to keep their hands above the table to show they weren't cheating
buxom: obedient
curtain-lecture: a kind of reproof given by a wife to her husband

July 2010: 208 pages

Saturday, 19 June 2010

"The dogs of Riga" by Henning Mankell

The second Inspector Wallander mystery.

Two men are discovered drifting in an anonymous life raft. They are embracing. Each is shot through the heart. Their expensive jackets have been added after their death. They have been tortured.

Quickly, Wallander establishes that the corpses come from Riga in Latvia where the Russians are still in control (I think it is 1991). He travels to Riga where he becomes embroiled in political sheenanigans in which one of the two Colonels of Police is involved. Illegal undercover espionage end in a shop top shoot out.

We never get a satisfactory answer to the problem posed in the first pages.

This is much more James Bond than Hercule Poirot. The real mystery is why these books are called mysteries.

June 2010; 340 pages

Friday, 18 June 2010

Tooth and Nail" by Ian Rankin

An Inspector Rebus book.

Rebus comes down from Edinburgh to help the Metropolitan Police investigate a serial killer. There are some brilliant descriptions of police procedure and some naive touristic impressions of London (mostly the traffic jams). There are some nice character descriptions of the tensions between the London and the Scottish policemen and there is some cliched denouements. Rebus, using hunches and very little evidence, eventually gets the killer after a high speed chase which ends in Trafalgar Square.

Poor stuff; extraordinarily disappointing. Rebus is so much better than this.

June 2010; 275 pages.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

"Faceless killers" by Henning Mankell

Recommended by James.

This is a whodunnit with a touch of the thriller. Inspector Wallander is a Swedish policeman in a reasonable sized town. A farmer and his wife are attacked and killed one cold January night. The attack is blamed on foreigners and there are revenge attacks on the local refugee camp.

The prose style is brutal. The sentences are short. There is little description. There is a lot of action.

In classic whodunnit style the hero's wife has left him and his daughter has left home. His father is going senile. These domestic things add to the burden of his days. He cannot sleep (not that he has time to sleep with round the clock police activity) and he drinks too much. The classic cop.

The other policemen at the stable have their foibles. My favourite is Rydberg who is incredibly methodical and likes to do things by the book.

The story has large amounts of nothing happens routine police work punctuated by boy's own adventure. Wallender is involved is fighting a fire, is beaten up, is shot at, and (on a surveillance) falls from scaffolding and is left hanging by a leg upside down.

It was a massive page turned but I am not sure I enjoted it.

AND on page 11 Wallender sees that the dead farmer's left thigh is shattered. On page 27 the autopsy mentions that the right femur is broken. AHA!!! I think. I'm not sure what this means but it is a massive clue. Somehow this confusion between left and right is the answer to it all. Then on page 269, nearly at the end, Wallender muses: "Somewhere there's something I'm not seeing, he thought. A connection, a detail, which is exacxtly the key I have to turn. But should I turn it to the right or the left?" Obviously this is the thought that will lead Wallender to crack the mystery.

It didn't. The answer to the mystery has NOTHING to do with the left thigh and the right femur. I can only presume that this was a MISTAKE.

A page turner but disappointing at the end.

June 2010; 298 pages

Saturday, 12 June 2010

"The file on the Tsar" by Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold

This book tells the story of the killing of the Romanov's in July 1918 in a downstairs room at Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. Or it tells of the escape of at least the tsarina and her four daughters (the Grand Duchesses; the book is full of meaningless titles and reverence for aristocracy) and their removal to Perm, from where Anastasia escaped and was recaptured, and from where they were again taken never to be seen again. The book inclines to believe the second story.

Throughout there are rumours reported as fact, facts dismissed as rumours, selective choice of what to believe and character assassination of anyone who believed differently from the authors. Enigmatic pronouncements ("I don't have to see [the woman claiming to be Anastasia]; I know") are italicised and treated as statements of incredible historical importance; single discrepancies in witness statements are used to demolish everything else. For example, an odd scrawl on the massacre wall is revealed to b the letters LYS', written in mirror writing, clearly short for LYS'VA, one of the places on the way to Perm, even though the Russian alphabet is different from the English. Th eyewitness statement given by Medvedev is undermined because the witness was a red guard who gave himself up to the whites and then died during interrogation. Another contradictory statement is believed even though it claims to be written by a person who did not exist; the authors leap over this problem by claiming it was written pseudonymously.

Essentially this is a catalogue of evasions, rumours and contradictions through which they weave the path they clearly wanted to travel in the first place.

The third edition, however, deals in a postscript with the bodies that were found in the woods, whose DNA gave a 98.5% probability that they were Romanov. The authors start by dwelling on the possibility that Science has got it wrong; no less a person than a Russian Orthodox priest is quoted in support of this. They even find a scientist who claims that the techniques used only give a 70% chance. Clearly the fact that someone was shot in Ekaterinburg and that bodies were found in a wood nearby where peasants saw soldiers on the night of the alleged massacre and these bodies have been identified as the Romanovs would shoot even 70% chances up well beyond the 90% mark but this is still not enough for Summers & Mangold. They point out that only 9 bodies have been discovered and that the missing ones are the tsarevich and one daughter. They ride of triumphant.

I enjoyed reading the book; it is a real page turner. However, it is nonsense.

June 2010; 368 pages

Sunday, 23 May 2010

"Solar" by Ian McEwan

For me, McEwan is a man who writes tight dramas with a single motif: a moment when something happens and the implications of that moment ripple across the lives of the participants. Thus, Saturday, his Ulysses, which celebrates London as Joyce did Dublin, is set within the framework of a single day. Atonement traces the consequences of a single misunderstanding on an evening. Chesil Beach deals exhaustively with the effects of a premature ejaculation.

But Solar rambles. It is a sort of picaresque, a Don Quijote, except that its hero, Michael Beard, is a man who can't restrain his appetite for either sex or food and whose life is in essence messy.

Which is strange because he is a physicist whose moment of Nobelian glory came with a few sparse equations; who celebrates the economy and beauty of the succinct form of the Dirac equation. In terms of thought here is a man who has trained his mind to be amongst the sharpest in the world. But he is a fat glutton and a lecher.

He reminds me of the hero of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps he was created to encompass every single one of the seven deadly sins. As a result he is a mesmerising though comic creation. He is also fat: in a cosmological joke his belly is described as The Expanding Universe. But more properly he represents fallen mankind whose weaknesses are propelling us, headlong and blind, into the disaster of global warming.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the trip that Beard makes to Spitzbergen. On a ship frozen into the ice he confronts those obsessed with global warming. But in the Boot Room they cannot even organise their own clothes; when they lose a glove they steal someone else's. How can such flawed humans prevent ecological catastrophe?

Not to mention the fact that Beard, who becomes a prophet of the greenhouse disaster, travels everywhere by plane and reaches Spitzbergen on a petrol guzzling skimobile. His very fatness is a metaphor for the Earth: greed leading to destruction.

Other funny scenes include the irony of the climate scientist who dies after slipping on a polar bear rug; the true traveller's tale which Beard recounts only to be told he has stolen the anecdote from an urban myth; and the denunciation of Beard by feminists and relativists who claim that genes are "in the strongest sense, socially constructed" and who condemn science as 'hegemonic' (how a dominant power seeks to preserve its dominance) and 'reductionist' (something that tries to explain a system in terms of its simpler parts, which is of course the essence of science).

McEwan pokes fun at a lot of arty types and social scientists. Beard as an undergraduate at Oxford notes that arts graduates are lazier than scientists (this anti-laziness doesn't seem to last him into later life) and that, for example, English literature is not difficult (compared to Physics): he spends a week learning about Milton to impress a girlfriend and carries off the deception so well she later marries him (as the first of his five wives).
I read it quickly, though not avidly. A fun book but I think I prefer McEwan in his control freak mode.

The Guardian reviews it here.

The Telegraph reviews it here.

May 2010; 283 pages

Thursday, 20 May 2010

"The Path to the Spiders' Nests" by Italo Calvino

This is the story of Pin, an urchin whose sister is a whore, during the Second World War when Italy was occupied by the Germans and communist partisans fought in the hills.

It is a strange book, with curiously mannered and slightly stilted prose (which could be due to the translation) about this odd little boy who wants so much to be part of the adult world and who can't be a part of the world of children. His adventures are magical, like the adventures in a fairy tale: he meets Red Wolf, a hero of the resistance, in prison; he falls in with a partisan brigade containing the oddest misfits in Italy; his compulsively bad behaviour leads him to the sort of self-destruction worthy of a greek hero. And yet curiously nothing really happens.

Strange but fun

May 2010; 185 pages

"50 Physics Ideas you really need to know" by Joanne Baker

Since I am a Physics teacher I am perhaps not the expected audience for this book.

There were some sections which I felt were rather poorly explained such as the Ideal Gas Law. And the section on Hooke's Law seemed to muddle other ideas in with it. And the book opens with Mach's principle which I have always understood to be essentially about the strange equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass whereas Baker is linking it to frames of reference.

So I was disappointed at the start.

But when it got into quantum theory and strong theory and cosmology I was much more interested and I believe I started learning things I hadn't know before. Now I was frustrated that there wasn't more detail in the explanations.

You can't win!

May 2010; 203 pages

Sunday, 16 May 2010

"The Road to Oxiana" by Robert Byron

This is a delightful travel book in which Byron travels in 1933-34 through Persia and Afghanistan towards (but never actually reaching) the Oxus river. He is intensely (and sometimes boringly) interested in Mohammedan architecture and its influences. His intended companions are The Charcoal Burners (who are driving an experimental charcoal powered car to India) but they let him down; eventually he meets up with Christopher who accompanies him for many miles. Nowhere is his relationship with Christopher stated; Byron was gay but Christopher Sykes later got married and had children.

The writing is lyrical and enormously beautiful in places. His descriptions of place are superb. His characterisations of some of the strnage and eccentric characters he meets (such as the man who speaks pianissimo, then mezzo forte, then fortissimo, then piano etc) is sometimes hilarious.

Interesting bits.

He suggests that Shiraz in Persia from whence derives red wine may be the originaotr of Sherry rather than Xeres in Spain.

He meets Jews expelled from Russia. He is aware of the problem with Jews and Germany and of the increasing fascism of Germany. Persia itself is under the despotic rule of the Shah whom he calls Marjoribanks.

He meets fire altars and the tomb of Zoroaster near Persepolis.

He hears (pp184-5) a story of a donkey who wears a 'loin' skin which sounds extraordinarily like the model for the donkey in the lion skin from The Last Battle by C S Lewis.

He plays a game using "a high net over which any number of people divided into two sides, can fist a soft football" (p 252) in the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan. Although Volleyball was invented in 1895 and an Olympic sport in 1924 (Paris), Byron seems not to recognise it.

He sees the two giant Buddhas in Shibar that were later destroyed by the Taliban but he is by no means impressed with them as works of art.

Links to Byron's photographs here.

A lyrical travelogue.

May 2010; 276 pages

"Hamlet, Revenge" by Michael Innes

Written and set in the 1930s this book is a mixture of whodunnit and spy thriller. The country house is no less than a ducal palace; the guests have assembled to stage an amateur production of Hamlet. The Lord Chancellor (playing Polonius) is the victim.

The mixture of highest society and academia (there are an awful lot of literary references betokening an England in which all aristocrats were superbly read in the classics; even the duchess frequents the Reading Room of the British Museum) makes for rather dated dialogue. The denouement was not exactly open to being guessed. As per usual the sidekick (a don who pseudonymously writes mystery novels as a sideline just like Michael Innes himself!) lays out the solution to the assembled company and gets it wrong; the sleuth (a Scotland Yard inspector called John Appleby) gets it right at the very end.

The most delightful moment came when one of the guests/ suspects tries to persuade the Duke to call in a detective: a rather odd but superbly successful foreign gentlemen who must be Hercule Poirot.

Dated potboiler

May 2010

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

"Delta of Venus" by Anais Nin

This is a Penguin Modern Classic. The blurb calls it a "glittering cascade of sexual encounters .... Her vibrant and impassioned prose evokes the essence of female sexuality in a world where only love has meaning." It is a dirty book. The short stories cover more or less every conceivable sort of sex including necrophilia, lesbianism, homosexuality, fetishism, voyeurism, bestiality ... Basically it is pornography. I certainly didn't get a feel for character or "a world where only love has meaning". Mostly it was a boring list of bits and who did what to whom; it was rarely arousing. Sometimes there was pretentiousness: "the famous Parisian chic" that gives a "Parisian woman a trimness, an audacity, that far surpasses the seductiveness of other women."

Perhaps it was shocking and groundbreaking when it came out, revealing that women had naughty thoughts on a par with those of men, but today it is a slightly boring dirty book.

Hard to finish. April 2010; 225 pages

Friday, 16 April 2010

"The Great Wave" by David Hackett Fischer

You wouldn't have thought that a book subtitled Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History would be a great read but I really enjoyed this. His thesis is that economics goes through periods of stability, when prices reamin stable, and periods of voltatility when prices rise. The four price revolutions are the Mediaeval (around Black death time and the Peasants' Revolt) in which prices rose by 0.5% pa, the 16th Century (English Civil war; Thirty Years war etc) when they rose by 1% pa, the 18th Century (French revolution, Napoleonic Wars etc) when they rose by 2% and the Twentieth Century (WWI, WWII etc) when they rose by 4%. These were interspersed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Victorian period and ... we haven't got there yet. You will have noticed that periods of inflation are marked by wars and revolutions; H-F believes that they start when populations rise and commodities run short  and food and fuel prices start to rise and wages fall and rents rise so that inequalities in socieities get worse and that is why it ends with revolutions. Meantime the periods of stability are times when there are great advances in learning.

Except that the time at present when there is high inflation and lots of wars but learning has improved dramatically but so has the population. Are we presently having a price revolution or are we in a period of stability? H-F believes that the fall of the communist world suggests the end of this price revolution; perhaps we have then enjoyed twenty years of stability but clearly food and fuel prices are whizzing up at the moment so perhaps another revolution is about to start. Or maybe if you look at the misery elsewhere in the world we are still in a long revolution.

Interesting points:

The monetarists are wrong. Price revolutions are not started by increases in the money supply. The post renaissance revolution is oftem blamed on the Spanish importation of Gold and Silver from the Americas but it started thirty years before the first shipments and before the discovery of the silver mountain of Potosi.

On page 84 I discover that Nicolaus Copernicus invented a monetarist model!

On page 135 the Seven Years War starts nine years before it ends when George Washington is defeated (did he ever win a battle) by the French in a scrap in western Pennsylvania.

On page 252 "the laisser-faire prescription, 'let the free market take its course' has in the past eight hundred years created human suffering on a scale that is unacceptable. It is also unnecessary.  .... In economic history, equilibrium is the exception rather than the rule. A free market restores equilibrium only to break it down again .... In the full span of modern history, most free markets have been in profound disequilibrium most of the time."

On page 255 he quotes from the New York Times (Oct 4th 1995) "if government does not know what it is doing it will be tempted to meddle less with private industry .... More likely, it will still meddle, only less wisely."

Great book

April 2010, 258 pages

Monday, 12 April 2010

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving

Not quite sure why there is so much hype about this novel!

This is a family saga about Jenny Fields, a nurse who wants a child without a man; she straddles a dying airman and has a son whom she brings up at a posh New England boarding school. She writes a best selling autobiography and becomes a hero of the new feminist movement; her son, Garp, becomes a minor novelist kept by his wife, and a very anxious father. He and his wife love one another and their sons but they have infidelities which (er) climax in death and mutilation. Convalescence, rehabilitation and a best-selling novel lead to a further wave of deaths and mutilations.

A book about anxieties in which your worst fears really do come through; a book about feminism, rape, mutilation and death. Lots of horror and occasional humour.

April 2010; 570 pages

Friday, 2 April 2010

"Summer of Blood" by Dan Jones

This is the history of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Richard II was the son of the Black Prince and only a boy when his grandfather Edward III dies and he came to the throne. The country was facing bankruptcy as the Hundred Years War dragged on (the French were raiding the South coast and the Scots were raiding the north of England) and government was haphazard and dominated by John of Gaunt, the young king's uncle. The social order had been seriously weakened by the Black Death; labour was scarce but the law forbade labourers from charging too much for their services whilst compelling them to work. During a parliament in Northampton (when King Richard stayed at a manor in nearby Moulton) a poll tax was declared: even the poorest labourers had to pay. The scene was set for rebellion.

The revolt seems to have started in Essex around Brentwood or possibly Fobbing where poll tax collectors were said to have looked up a young girl's skirts to see if she was a virgin (and thus exempt from paying). But the unrest soon spread to Kent; Abel Ker lead the rioters to sieze Rochester Castle and march on Maidstone; at Maidstone Wat Tyler took charge. Inspired by the Lollard preacher John Ball the Kentishmen marched on London. H

ere they confronted the boy King Richard on three separate occasions: first at Rotherhithe where he refused to get out of his barge. After this the rebels stormed across London Bridge (the Londoners let the drawbridge down), destroyed the Savoy Palace and beseiged the Tower.

Then Richard rode to Mile End where the Essex rebels had encamped to talk to them in the hope of providing a diversion so that the most hated people in the Tower could escape. This failed but at Mile End he was presented with a charter requesting that all men should become free (ie not bound serfs), that there should be a land rent limit and that no one should be required to work. He granted this, and then said they could catch and punish traitors.

They spilled across London "catching traitors". They entered the Tower (some one let the drawbridge down) and killed the Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury; Henry of Derby, later Henry IV, was saved by being hidden by a guard. One man was dragged from sanctuary at Westminster Abbey and killed. There was rioting and looting.

Finally Richard met the rebels at Smithfield. Wat Tyler rode out to meet him; the Mayor of London accused Wat of insulting the King by his coarse manners and stabbed him. The boy King then took charge, riding out to the stunned commoners and leading them away from Smithfield while the Mayor and his men found enough armed men to force the Kentishmen to leave London.

The rebellion continued across Britain for a fortnight, largely in the South East (including Cambridge, St Albans and Huntingdon) but as far afield as Bridgwater and York. John Ball fled north, writing letters as he went, until he was captured at Coventry. One of his letters mentions Piers the Plowman!

This book was an absolutely gripping read.

April 2010; 211 pages

"The Decisive Moment" by Jonah Lehrer

Lehrer is a neuroscientist who wrote Proust was a neuroscientist. He also writes a blog called The Frontal Cortext

His essential thesis in this book is that we are not the rational beings that we like to think we are, nor can we be. Our emotions are essential to us being able to make decisions and to make the right decisions. Many micro decisions are made faster than we can think (for example a batsman hitting a cricket ball that was bowled at a speed that makes it impossible to react by thinking. These decisions are made by our subconscious which has learnt how to make the right decisions based on long practise. He gives the example of a radar operator during the Gulf War who spotted a blip on his screen moving towards an aircraft carrier. The blip was moving in the same place and at the same speed as a friendly plane; nevertheless he took the decision to shoot it down. Later it was found to have ben a missile. No analysis of the tapes could provide evidence of why his hunch had been correct; his decision was made essentially on his gut feeling. But later it was realised that the blip had first appeared 3 sweeps of the radar later than a normal plane and it had been this (and the hours of staring at radar screens) that had aroused the fearful feelings in his subconscious.

But Lehrer also provides examples of situations where rationality has conquered emotions (thank goodness), for example the firefighter who, realising that he couldn't outrun a fire, decided to set the hillside in front of him alight and then lie down on the smouldering remains, thereby creating his own firebreak. Then there was the pilot whose plane lost all hydraulic control to ailerons, flaps, undercarriage, everything. The only way he could steer the plane was to fire the two engines at differential rates. He worked this out by a process of careful rational thought while the plane was falling through the air.

Things I learned and linked with:
  • The Dweck experiments in which students praised for their intelligence on a first test chose easier subsequent tests and scored worse on a final test than matched students praised for the efforts on the first test who chose harder intervening tests and therefore challenged themselves and learned faster. (p5-57)
  • A quote from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics: "Anyone can become angry, that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." (p107)
  • ADHD as a manifestion of the retarded development of the pre-frontal cortex which renders the sufferer unable to resist the temptation for immediate gratification. During adolescence the pre-frontal cortex of an ADHD sufferer can be 3.5 years behind 'normal'; however they usually catch up by the end of adolesence. Teenagers find it hard to resist temptation if the consequences are delayed; the solution may be to make the consequences immediate. "When West Virginia revoked driving permits for for students who were under the age of 18 and who dropped out of school, the dropout rate fell by one-third in the first year." p113
  • 'Choking' happens when you start to think about an action that has moved into the unconscious competence arena, like a golf player who starts thinking about the swing that has become natural to him. Moving something back from unconscious competence into conscious competence means that the rational mind starts to interfere with processes that have been filed away into the subconscious; this causes mistakes. p135
  • Too much information can distract and confuse experts who have learned to act using instinct. "College counselors were given a vast array of information about a group of high school students. The counselors were then asked to predict the grades of these kids during their freshmen year in college. The counselors had access to high school transcripts, test scores, the results of personality and vocational tests and application essays from the students. They were even granted personal interviews .... The counselors were competing against a rudimentary mathematical formula composed of only two variables: the high school grade point average of the student and his or her score on a single standardized test .... the predictions made by the formula were far more accurate than the predictions made by the counselors .... While the extra information considered by the counselors made them extremely confident, it actually led to worse predictions." p155 This makes me think of our sixth form interviews!
  • "Being certain means that you aren't worried about being wrong." p202
  • There are two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes (there is a Greek saying that the fox knows many thinfs but the hedgehog knows one big thing). Hedgehogs are certain. They ignore contrary information. "The fox relies on the solvent of doubt. He is skeptical of grand strategies and unifying theories." p231
  • CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) is the training programme that tries to convince air cockpit crew to dissent from the view of the pilot. p242-3. Using it during cardiac surgery at Nebraska Medical Centre has raised the percentage of 'uneventful' surgeries from 21% to 62%.
A fascinating book, not as magisterial as Irrationality but a quick light read through the mechanisms of decision.

April 2010; 247 pages

Saturday, 27 March 2010

"Fifty Mathematical Ideas you really need to know" by Tony Crilly

This book starts simple and interesting with stuff about zero and prime numbers and rapidly becomes challenging (Bayes theory) and then incomprehensible (the Riemann hypothesis). It left me with an appreciation of G. H. Hardy, the more or less utterly unknown mathematician who features in "The Indian Clerk" as the bloke who invited the fantastic mathematician Rananujan to England. In fact Hardy was a tremendous mathematician who work went from primes to genetics.

But the book was a disappointment. I suppose the problem was that the ideas, presented in their four page format, were either too easy or, if they were interesting and challenging, contained too little information for me to truly appreciate what they were about. It sort of skimmed the surface and left me either confused or wanted much more.

March 2010; 203 pages

"Found Wanting" by Robert Goddard

I love Robert Goddard books. I think I have read them all. His classic story revolves around a man whose life is somehow in crisis who is thrust into a mystery which harks back into the past and who finds a new life through the adventures he experiences on his quest. I love the historical aspect and his heroes are classic examples of shabby disenchantment.

But I was the disenchanted one with this book.

His hero is a foreign office bureaucrat who is neither convincingly shabby and fed up with life nor has he any particular FO skills or connections. He agrees to take a locked briefcase to Amsterdam to meet an old friend who used to be a drug dealer (without thinking of looking in the briefcase). From this unconvincing start he gradually becomes more and more the thriller hero, rescuing people, shooting guns, risking his life because he is too dogged to give up, and falling in love at first sight.

The mystery itself alternates between the obvious (the bloke who bleeds to death is obviously a haemophiliac and therefore descended from the last Tsar of Russia) and the downright stupid: why on Earth is the bloke in charge of a massively profitable organisation prepared to spend millions and kill many to retrieve some letters??? The explanation is far from satisfactory.

Cardboard characters and a formulaic plot: this is decidedly not one of Goddard's best. However, his best is very, very good and even this carries you along.

March 2010; 474 pages

Monday, 22 March 2010

"A most wanted man" by John le Carre

This book reminded me of another le Carre book The Mission Song because it so humanises the characters. Some of his Smiley books are games and the characters are pompous public school chessmasters. Yet in this book, with its background of the war against terror, the main protagonists all seem to be decent people. Even the spies have ideals and are trying to gently persuade people to cooperate with them whilst setting up their target. The cynicism of the old le Carre books seems to have disappeared. All the characters are human from the lawyer Annabel to the banker Tommy to the mysterious Christ figure Issa.

An easy read; probably not one of le Carre's best.

March 2010; 416 pages

Saturday, 27 February 2010

"A Room with a View" by E M Forster

This was a great book!

I though for the first 100 pages that it was an elegantly written light comedy. There were some delightful characters; chiefly the unbearable Miss Bartlett who is Lucy's chaperone and is that sort of spinster who sets more store on respectability than life and who manages to selfishly control everyone and get her own way all the time by the device of always insisting that she lives her life for the benefit of others.

The book is written as a two act play: the first act is Florence and the second act is the Surrey village of Summer Street where all the main characters coincidentally meet. Here Lucy, who encountered and was kissed by George near the end of act 1, is engaged to the hideous Cecil who sneers at the humble considerations of the simple folk of Summer Street because they are not so prententious as he is.

Charlotte Bartlett and Cecil Vyse are wonderfully written characters; perhaps it is easier to write bad people than it is to write good. Certainly the muddling clergyman Mr Beebe, Lucy's mother Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy's nemesis George, her brother Freddy, and George's father are all less well written. 

There are a number of wonderful passages:

"George and I both know this, but why does it distress him? We know that we come from the winds, and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice." (Chapter Two)

"Mr Beebe was, from rather profound reasons, somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex, and preferred to be interested rather than enthralled." (Chapter Three) is a beautifully discreet way of saying that Reverend Beebe is gay. Later Mr Beebe suggests that Cecil, Lucy's erstwhile fiance, is also gay; he is quoted by Freddy as saying "Mr Vyse is an ideal bachelor ... He is like me - better detached." (Chapter Eight). Still later, George (Lucy's squeeze) himself says of Cecil: "He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman." Forster, a gay man when to be so was illegal, writes a pivotal scene of Freddy and George, "radiant and personable" young men, and Reverend Beebe, bathing naked in a pool and being surprised by the women: at least Mr Darcy kept his breeches on!

"For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it" (Chapter Seventeen, beautifully misquoted from Macbeth).

Another aspect of Forster's craft is his ability to show the substance behind the stereotype. Both Mr Vyse and Miss Bartlett, though never engaging the reader's sympathy, redeem themselves by actions which show their essential humanity. Thus they escape being caricatures. And the whole scenario of the careful manners in the Florentine pension and the bloodlessness of the Edwardian village Anglican scene is mitigated by the boys who do not want to go to church (nor does the parson's neice) and the vicar whose passion is tea, and Lucy's mother who transcends the 'silly little mother' character by being quite forthright when she detects cruelty and pomposity, and the details such as the 'horrid' little cottages that are constructed by a builder who makes them ugly because he is following the dictates of Ruskin and the ugly house that Lucy's father built on the proceeds of being a solicitor and the fact that George works as a clerk in a railway office (at least he isn't a porter!).

But after the elegant writing and the delicate characterisation and the tres amusante drawing room comedy I was suddenly gripped by the apprehension that Lucy, having chucked one fellow, would NOT go on to marry her true love but allow society's manners to make her into an old maid. The last sentence of Chapter Eighteen states "The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thrity years before." That I was so distraught at the possibility of a sad ending to the novel shows how much I had entered into the life of these characters.

And in a lovely endpiece written fifty years after the publication of the novel, Forster speculates about his characters as they progress through World Wars One and two in which George discovers that "away from his wife he did not remain chaste." This is the glory of Forster, he understands the weaknesses that are human beings.

Brilliant

Also read Howards End and Where Angels Fear To Tread and Maurice.

February 2010; 230 pages

Thursday, 25 February 2010

"Dickens" by Peter Ackroyd

This is the paperback, abridged version of Ackroyd's biography of Charles Dickens and there were times when I was grateful for the free flow of the prose and there were times when I wanted a little more detail. So I suppose that means that Ackroyd got the mix about right.

I don't know which was most interesting: the childhood; the early working life when, all at once, he became a household name; the early novels when he was writing two at the same time whilst simoutaneously editing magazines; the later novels when he had developed his craft much more highly.

Books like Pickwick, Twist and Nickleby (the last Ackroyd describes as Dickens funniest book) were written as monthly serials. Dickens wrote prodigious amounts each day. He wrote using a quill!!! He was writing comedy and tragedy simultaneously (it seemed to help him) and he was writing even when he was in rooms with other people. His energy was fantastic. He did not seem to need a plan to his writing; he relied on his invention.

For the later books he had established a writing routine and he was massively well organised and disciplined, usually knowing exactly how many words he had to write. He would write for hours in the morning and then do other things in the evening. As well as writing a lot of massive novels he also edited (and contributed to) magazines for most of his working life. Some of the later books were serialised in weekly, rather than monthly, parts; this was the way he wrote; he never seems to have indulged in the liuxury of writing a novel entire and then publishing it, even when he was getting massive advances. He always seems to have been desperate for money.

One of his themes was clearly the virgin: little Nell, little Dorrit etc. Having married his wife he went into an extended morbid mourning when her 17 year old sister died. Much later, having separated from his wife, he seems to have had a Platonic affair with an actress called Ellen Ternan. He was a bit weird about young women.

He also saw life a s a perpetual battle against illness and time and ... He struggled with obsessive energy (in this he reminded me a little of myself) to escape his poverty stricken background.

His speciality was always creating characters. It was only in the later books that he learned to plan and his fiction began to mature.

I have never read Our Mutual Friend or Martin Chuzzlewit (or the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood). I must.

A superb biography. I wish I had the energy and drive (and the organisation) of Dickens.

February 2010; 578 pages

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific author: he writes both fiction and non-fiction; he specialises in London. I adore some of his books such as the brilliant Hawksmoor and I have found others (such as Thames) very tedious. If you enjoy Dickens then I recommend his biography of another great Victorian novelist and friend of Dickens: Wilkie Collins. Alternatively you could read Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Dickens.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

This is a beautiful book.

I have now read 4 Steinbecks: The Pearl, a book I read too soon at school and never appreciated; the blockbusters East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath, both of which I read in my early twenties; now this. He is a wonderful writer and I should read more and more!

Lenny, big and stupid, and George, small and clever, make a most unlikely pair but George is Lenny's protector in the world, getting him out of all the trouble Lenny gets into. The other characters: self-possessed and astute Slim, the mean little feller Curly, Curly's wife (jailbait), Candy the old fellow, Crooks the crippled negro stable buck make a perfect cast. Men who have no future; men who only dreams. The writing is lean and elegant; the descriptions poignant and placed so that there are breathing places in the thriller dance. There is nothing in the plot that doesn't contribute to the terrible climax.

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Mice_and_Men) points out that every character has a dream (although as Burns said "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley"). They have these dreams because they are lonely: "Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley's wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you." .... The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means "solitude" in Spanish."

Of Mice and Men reads like a play and is structured in 3 'acts' each of two 'scenes': certainly the first pages are like stage directions, first describing the scenery before the two mian characters appear on stage.

Tiny but perfect.

February 2010; 121 pages

Also reviewed on this blog the tiny but perfect, haunting and elegiac Cannery Row by the same author.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

"The Owl Killers" by Karen Maitland

A Norfolk village in 1321 is ruled by the church, the manor and the Owl Masters. Nearby is a beguinage (a sort of cross between a commune and a convent). The climate is poor, disease and famine destroy the village. The gay vicar and the manor and especially the owl Masters take battle against the beguinage. Who will win?

The plot is a bit predictable and a bit of a pot boiler through which I struggled but there are a host of enjoyable characters:
  • Agatha the lord of the manor's raped daughter who becomes a beguine and uses her intelligence to question even the sacrament;
  • Servant Martha, the head of the beguinage, who feels the weight of her responsibilities;
  • Healing Martha, the nurse; (and Kitchen Martha, the cook, and Merchant Martha, the saleswoman, and Tutor Martha, the teacher, and Shepherd Martha, the shepherdess, and another Marhta I've forgotten because there are supposed to be seven)
  • Beatrice, a beguine whose married life ended after a string of still-births and whose bitterness eats away at her;
  • Pega, ex trollope, now a beguine, very free with love;
  • Father Ulfrid, who has been exiled to this miserable village after being caught with his boyfriend. Father U is one of the more interesting characters because he is sometimes a goody, very much on the side of the down-trodden villagers, and sometimes a pathetic weakling, besotted by his lover and scared of discovery, and sometimes the blackest of black-hearted villains;
  • as opposed to Phillip, nephew of the Lord of the Manor, who is supposed to be the blackest of black-hearted villains but who is so black he is reduced to caricature.

It was all right but I'd rather have read something else.

February 2010; 550 pages

Saturday, 6 February 2010

"Engleby" by Sebastian Faulks

Wow!

The start was spooky. Mike Engleby who surname is mine except for the first three letters, went to grammar school, as I did, and then to boarding school, as I did, where he got put up a year because he was clever, as I did, and then went to Cambridge, as I did. Other items in the biography are not the same: the story is set four or five years before me, his father has died, he steals and sells drugs, he is a loner. He becomes obsessed with a girl student who disappears; he is quizzed by the police. We presume he is in some way responsible. He goes to London and becomes a journalist. Then the girl's body is discovered.

He has a phenomenal memory enabling him to recite large pieces of text (including the diary he has stolen) verbatim which is one hell of an asset for a novelist's narrator! But he is utterly lonely. The first time he talks about sex is in his late twenties. Even his intelligence serves only to isolate him from others.

He has a bleak view of humanity. He believes the speciating moment at which humans split themselves off from the apes is the arrival of consciousness. This he likens to the moment that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and became self-aware. They were expelled from paradise. Consciousness is self-awareness; that faculty which means that men cannot be blissful in ignorance like animals.

“Homo sapiens, this functional ape with the curse of consciousness – that useless gift that allows him, unlike other animals, to be aware of his own futility. The story of Adam and Eve put it with childish but brilliant clarity: Paradise until the moment of self-awareness and then … Cursed. For ever cursed. (Christians call it ‘fallen’, but it was the same thing: the Fall was the acquisition of consciousness.) …. Miguel de Unamuno …. ‘Man, because he is a man, because he possesses consciousness, is already, in comparison to the jackass or the crab, a sick animal. Consciousness is a disease.’”

chapter 10 p256
At the same time Jen, the student he stalks, enjoys life in a "funny low euphoria" brought on by just being 19 and alive and living in a Cambridge of "dirty brick of the miniature terraces and the mist from the river and the cold mornings .... and then the sudden huge vista of a great courtyard ..."(p217).

An enthralling book which took me into the mind of a very strange person and made me realise how similar I am to him.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

"Company of Liars" by Karen Maitland

As the Black Death strikes England a group of travellers (a relic-seller, a magician, two runaway lovers, a story-teller, a mid-wife, two musicians and weird wyrd rune-casting albino girl) flee before it. They all have a secret (they are all liars) and before their journey is through some will pay for it with their lives...

A very well-written historical ensemble novel with a bit of magic in the mystery. The characters are well drawn and the plot keeps moving. The details of the journey are engrossing, especially the shrine of John Shorne at North Marston which is a real place in Buckinghamshire just south of Winslow; the holy well is still there. The other places mentioned are also real.

I enjoyed the book and was interested to see how deftly she sketched the characters. I think the secret is to know the back story inside out and then the characters will begin to speak and interact for themselves; the plot then drives them through situations but they respond as real people.

Monday, 25 January 2010

"Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Why anyone would want to be a Politburo member given that most of them spent every day and most nights terrified that the KGB would take them, torture them and murder them and if not them their wives. Whenever they talked to Stalin there was a risk they would say the wrong thing. Amazingly, many of them did dare to disagree and some of those got away with it. But many of them were terrified much of the time. Is power really that alluring?

How on earth they got any work done given that Stalin would invite them night after night to dinners which went on till the early hours in which they all got drunk. But at the same time they were running huge ministries and fiefdoms.

Some times they competed for Stalin's approval beyond decency. His chef de cabinet was so proud when his daughter was chosen to present a bouquet to Stalin on his seventieth birthday, despite that fact that Stalin had murdered the girl's mother, the chef's wife. The little girl, now an old woman, still admires Stalin.
 
This book is a fascinating description of the courtiers of power, those who are willing to debase and humiliate themselves, to lie, cheat and kill, and do anything to stay close to the centre of power. Stalin's court was a gangster mob of brutal thugs who were terrified of him and yet unable to stop themselves looting, stealing, having orgies.
 
It is also an amazing chronicle of the madness of torture and the gullibility of those who believed that there might have been smoke behind fire. One KGB boss, arrested and tortured, confessed to having sex with his son and his daughter, and his KGB boss, and breaking into the British Embassy and having sex with the Ambassador!
 
I hadn't realised that Stalin's secret police used the crude torture method of beating people until their eyes popped out. I thought they were sophisiticated a la Darkness at Noon.
 
As well as all the evil, the book is a tribute to the endurance of people. Men and women who slaved in labour camps for ten years. Soliders who were tortured and then called back during the war to fight alongside their torturers.
 
And survivors. Molotov survived Stalin, Khruschev and Brezhnev, dying after Gorbachov had gained power. Stalin's daughter Svetlana spent some time in sheltered housing in Bristol. Mikoyan, who had carried Lenin's coffin, attended JFK's funeral.
 
But my favourite is Lenin's chef who had previously cooked for Rasputin and later cooked for Stalin. He became Vladimir Putin's grandfather!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

"Hideous Kinky" by Esther Freud

Hideous Kinky is a charming short novel published in 1992 but clearly set in the days of the Hippy Trail to Marrakesh. Perhaps the author, who was 5 in 1968, was the little girl who tells the story. Esther Freud is the daughter of Lucian Freud, the painter (and thus the neice of Clement Freud and the great granddaughter of Sigmund Freud); she travelled with her Mum until she was 16 and then went to drama school.


The girl travels with her mother and her sister, Bea (and John who owns the van, and Maretta, John's mad wife who doesn't talk, and Danny who does magic) to Marrakesh. Danny jumps ship in Tangiers and very quickly John and Maretta go home. Following a magical interlude with the fabuolously wealthy Luigi Mancini (who claims to know her father who wore silver and gold waistcoats; Mancini's house later vanishes in the manner of the Arabian nights) Mum shacks up with Bilal. Running out of money (they are clearly living on maintenance but it is irregular and, given the Moroccan postal service, extremely irregular) they move to a lodging house. They become poor and hungry. Bea goes to school and starts to learn Arabic. They holiday by a lake, sleeping in the open. They hitch or travel by bus. They are dirt poor (at one stage they are reduced to begging) but there is a lot of life that is magical and colourful and exciting. Mum is utterly irresponsible (at one stage she leaves Bea with friends for months; when she returns the friends have gone and they have to search Marrakesh for Bea) but she never seems short of a boyfriend.

The main delight of the story is the reconstruction of the sights and sounds and smells of Marrakesh. My picture was taken in the main square at night when it turns into a bustling market with many food stalls: the narrator often ate there when Mum's money had arrived. But my favourite line is when Mum has joined a religious community; the circle of men and boys around the holy man sing hymns "in a chorus that rose to a violent crescendo and then sank to a sigh ... leaving a soft silence hanging in the air with no noise but the whisper of perspiration trickling down the walls."

A lovely story; it has been made into a film starring Kate Winslett.

January 2010; 186 pages

Saturday, 9 January 2010

"The Fatal Englishman" by Sebastian Faulks

This is a collection of "three short lives"; short in the sense that each is less than 110 pages long and short in the sense that none of the three men lived past 32.

Christopher Woods was a promising young English artist who knew Picasso and Cocteau whilst living in Paris in the 1930s. Whilst developing his art he travelled round Europe with his sugar daddy. He painted a portrait of Constant Lambert who named his son 'Kit' (Christopher's nickname). With Ben Nicholson he discovered Alfred Wallis at St Ives and decided to set up an artists' colony there (although he never actually settled there himself, preferring Brittany. Back in London and contemplating marriage he threw himself under a train.

Richard Hillary was a pilot in the Battle of Britain. Having been horribly burned in a crash he was given plastic surgery, wrote a book about his experiences, then talked his way back into RAF flying, crashed again and killed himself and his navigator.

Jeremy Wolfenden was the brilliant son of Jack Wolfenden, a headteacher and civil servant who became famous for chairing the Committee which recommended the repeal of the law against homosexuality. Jeremy was a Colleger at Eton and then, after National Service, went to Oxford. He lived a promiscuous gay life whilst it was still illegal; his friends included Kit Lambert who later managed The Who. He became a reporter for the Times and subsequently the Moscow reporter for the Telegraph. In Moscow he got mixed up with the Secret Intelligence Service (he was friends with and later married the maid who worked for the embassy couple who ran spy Godfrey Wynne who ran Russian Oleg Penkovsky) and the KGB (following a honey trap with a Polish boy or possibly a Russian waiter or possibly both). Later he went to Moscow; after the FBI reactivated him as a spy he drank himself to death.

On Green Dolphin Street by Faulks (also reviewed in this blog) is clearly based on Wolfenden's life.

Faulks writes beautifully and I found this a fascinating book.