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

Monday, 28 May 2012

"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

This was the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize. It is set in the Indian state of Kerala where they speak Malayalam. Befitting this palindromically named language, Estha(ppen) and Rahel, two egg twins, often speak words backwards. They way children see the world through different eyes, with innocence, is captured in the author's nursery rhyme approach to language and the repetition of certain words to capture misunderstood ideas.

The book starts with Rahel coming back to India to meet her twin brother Estha who has returned from where he was sent (to be with his abusive father). Estha has returned to the family home as an elective mute. Rahel watches him and explores the past. And we become aware of a great mystery in the past that is the secret reason why the twins are traumatised and dysfunctional. A secret that involves their Baby Grand Aunt.

Sophie Mol, the daughter of their jolly fat Uncle and his English wife, died on her short visit to their home when she and they were children. At the same time something happened to Velutha the Untouchable Odd Job man. Ammu, their mother, who tried to right whatever wrong was done, has died.

I read this story with a growing sense of dread. Something terrible has happened. Something awful. I wanted to know what had happened and I hoped that discovering the truth would set the twins free, but I feared that I would learn that they were guilty of terrible things. With deft dance steps the story moves around the truth, sometimes a little nearer, weaving a spell.

And the prose evokes the colour, the chaos, and the fecundity of India. And the characters are dazzlingly real, though mythic archetypes. And the narrative is hauntingly sad.

This was a book that I wanted to rush through to find out what had happened but I wanted to read slowly and savour every word because of the richness of the language.

Wonderful.

May 2011; 340 pages

Friday, 25 May 2012

"50 Political Ideas you really need to know" by Ben Dupre

This book puts Politics into perspective. It shows that the latest ideas have been around for centuries. It points out that one's least loved ideas have something to be said for them and that their is a valid alternative viewpoint to one's core values. Politics is really the art of running society so that it functions. What works in one country or age or context won't work in another. No cows are sacred; we just have to find the next compromise.

May 2011; 203 pages



Tuesday, 22 May 2012

"A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder" by James de Mille

This is a short allegorical novel. It is told in the format of the 'story within the story'; a group of indolent Victorians becalmed in the Atlantic on their yacht, find a copper cylinder bobbing about on the waves and discover a manuscript written on papyrus in it. This framing device enables the author to explain and analyse the rest of the story (and to debate whether it is fiction, fact or philosophy).

The narrator of the manuscript is a sailor named Adam More. Accidentally abandoned by his ship (shades of Robinson Crusoe) he travels to a mysterious land (Gulliver's Travels) at the South Pole where the inhabitants love darkness and death and hate light and life (there is a clear influence here of Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket). He is befriended and honoured (the people love poverty so adore finding someone they can give things to) and meets Almah. At the point where they fall in love the carefree existence becomes a nightmare: they re condemned to the highest benefit the land can offer which is the benefit of death. Thus Adam's idyllic Edenic existence is destroyed by tasting the fruit of love which condemns him to death. They are transported from that land to the 'Amir' where wicked Layelah falls in love with Adam and schemes to flee with him.

At one level this is therefore Paradise Lost. At another level this describes (Adam's surname is More) Utopia: a nowhere land where possessions are a curse so that every man does his best to do his best for his neighbour. But utopia has its dark side too.

This book is partly a cheap romance of the Lost World/ Lost Horizon ilk and partly a work of ethical philosophy. Intriguing and weird.

May 2012; 203 pages.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

"Medieval Intrigue" by Ian Mortimer

Subtitled 'Decoding Royal Conspiracies' this book is an attempt by Ian Mortimer to defend his controversial theory that Edward II was not murdered at Berkeley Castle by having a red hot poker thrust into his anus as popularised by Christopher Marlowe but survived imprisonment at both Berkeley and Corfe Castles to become a hermit in exile and later as 'William de Galeys' secretly to meet both son King Edward III and new born grandson Lionel of Antwerp.

To support these ideas he explains his technique of interpreting information streams (for example on the original reports of Edward II's murder at Berkeley and the narratives of the Earl of Kent's subsequent attempt to 'spring' Edward II from Corfe Castle which seems stupid if the king, Kent's brother, was already dead) and speculates on Edward III's relationship with Italian bankers. Edward acknowledged debts that these bankers could not possibly have supplied, given their limited capital. Mortimer hints that these were payments partly to keep his father captive abroad and partly blackmail (because if his father was alive then Edward III was complicit in the fraudulent death narrative). He also considers stories of royal pretenders in an attempt to suggest that they are somehow different from the Fieschi letter which was sent to Edward III describing the purported survival of his father although the story of Harold II surviving Hastings and travelling abroad as a hermit seems remarkably similar to the Edward II tale.

This book's misleading title led me to expect rather more conspiracies and I was disappointed. I also thought Mortimer fell between the two stools of academic and popular history writing. He is a brilliant popular historian and clearly an excellent if controversial academic historian; I just felt the academic side would have been better restricted to the academic journals.

From my point of view, Mortimer's least interesting history so far.

May 2012; 345 pages

Saturday, 12 May 2012

"City of Sin" by Catherine Arnold

I suppose I was naive to be quite so surprised at how rude this book was. It is an explicit history of sex (mostly in London but Arnold is happy to spread her wings when necessary) focussing mostly on prostitutes and rent boys. She is very good on words:

  • because Roman prostitutes satisfied their clients in the open air under arches (fornices) the practice became known as fornication which became the Germanic fokken which led to another word
  • wed means payment; Saxon wives were bought by their husband; the payment being symbolised by a ring
  • gay was the street slang for prostitute in Victorian days


Other discoveries included:

  • Gropecunt Lane was the haunt of cheaper prostitutes, It was later changed into Grape Street and later Grub Street "reminding all those who live by the pen that there is more than one way to prostitute oneself". 
  • The mistress of Edward IV, Jane Shore, survived both Richard III and Henry VII and is buried in Hinxworth Church.


My only criticism is that Arnold's historical research is sometimes suspect. She repeats urban myths as more or less true. She also dwells overlong on familiar stories such as Oscar Wilde and the Profumo Affair.

Well written, interesting and a real page-turner.

May 2012; 333 pages

Thursday, 3 May 2012

"The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

I still can't quite understand why I loved this book so much. In 1417 Poggio, a Florentine, having lost his job as Apostolic Secretary when his boss, Pope John XXIII was deposed and imprisoned, finds an old manuscript in an anonymous monastery. The manuscript is the lost poem De Rerum Natura by Roman poet Lucretius and it outlines the atomic theories of Democritus embedded in the atheistic philosophy of Epicure. These powerful ideas spell the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern world.

It sounds like a cheap thriller by Dan Brown or a dry as dust history. It is fact and I loved it. It is a wonderful book, beautifully written, and full of some mind-bending ideas of which the Epicurean philosophy is just a gourmet taster.

"Humans, Aristotle wrote, are social animals: to realize one's nature as a human then was to participate in a group activity." On page 69 Greenblatt debunks the Enlightenment idea of the lone genius in favour of a distinctly modern 'team work' approach to collaborative learning.

On page 71 Greenblatt quotes Flaubert: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." Perhaps that moment has returned to us today.

"Epicurus thought it mad to think that divine beings would be interested in human activities. Why should God take human form rather than that of an ant or an elephant? "Christian are like a council of frogs in a pond, croaking at the top of their lungs, 'For our sakes the world was created'." (p98)

"As every pious reader of Luke's Gospel knew, Jesus wept, but there were no verses that described him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing pleasure." (p105)

"The pattern of dreaming and deferral and compromise is an altogether familiar one: it is the epitome of a failed life." (p151)

"The quintessential emblem of religion .... is the sacrifice of a child by a parent." (p194): Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Abraham and Isaac, God and Jesus.

Amerigo Vespucci described the life of the natives of Brazil as Epicurean. Vespucci was a Florentine and part of the humanist circle who read De Rerum Natura. Thomas More used Vespucci's book as a source for Utopia.

Thomas Harriot observed sun spots and the lunar surface and the sine law of refraction etc etc before others but did not publish for fear of being accused of atheism.

And there is so much more in this wonderful, wonderful book.

May 2012; 263 pages