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, 27 December 2013

"The Pike" by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Gabriele D'Annunzio (his name means Gabriel of the Annunciation which seems appropriate with hindsight in that he was John the Baptist to Mussolini although he probably thought he was himself the Messiah) was an Italian poet, gossip journalist and multiple philanderer with a flair for endless self-promotion and a total inability to curb ridiculous extravagance. His poems, his novels and his plays combine meticulous observation with the grand passions of opera. They are charged with erotic and often sado-masochistic imagery. They shocked and sold. Getting ever more carried away with his own rhetoric, GD'A began to glorify war in the decade leading up to WWI. Following a peace in which Italy, despite being one of the victorious powers, seemed to gain little, GD'A 'invaded' the disputed town of Fiume and declared UDI with himself as its dictator. In many ways he becomes the bridge between Garibaldi and Mussolini in Italy's anti-parliamentary history. Certainly both GD'A and Mussolini had rapacious sexual appeitites; in this way he is also a cultural ancestor of another strong-man Italian politician Silvio Berlesconi.

There are clearly many ways in which Mussolini learnt from GD'A. H-H suggests that the speech style that GD'A developed and Mussolini later used is based on the call-and-response nature of the liturgy. GD'A led the way in ignoring parliament: he persuaded Italy to join in WWI despite parliamentary disapproval. GD'A also showed the fascists that it was possible to flout the law with impunity: having declared UDI, Fiume was regularly provisioned by pirate and bandit raids on the stores of the Allied armies blockading it; GD'A was finally allowed to leave Fiume unpunished. Finally, H-H suggests that the political spectacles beloved of the Fascists, and later the Nazis, was developed by GD'A.

In this biography Hughes-Hallett acknowledges her debt to GD'A's extensive notes (he even made observations when flying in an open-cockpit plane to bomb the Austro-Hungarian empire) but shies away from a simple retelling of his life on chronological order. Rather, she seeks themes, although these are mostly arranged chronologically. And she seeks explicitly to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between the romantic poet and the demagogue obsessed with blood.

She succeeds. This wonderful book really gets to the heart of its horrible subject. GD'A was not a nice man at any time. He was vain and carried self-satisfaction far beyond arrogance to the point where he seems to have seen himself as superman and the rest of humanity as disgusting and bestial plebs and proles. He was a famous seducer: women gave up reputation, husbands, children, fortunes and titles to be with him. He broke their hearts with his regular infidelities. The only person he truly loved was himself.

He is a child in a sweetshop when it came to possessions as well. Even when his wife and children were hungry he would spend the latest earnings from the latest journalism on trinkets and objets d'art. He fled from city to city, and even left Italy, because he was pursued by creditors; still his extravagances continued. Perhaps he didn't realise that his failure to pay his debts meant that someone else suffered but I suspect he didn't really care.

Was he insensitive or was he truly cruel? Whilst having an eight year affair with a famous actress, second only to Sarah Bernhardt, he wrote a novel in which the hero is writing a play for an ageing actress, once beautiful and promiscuous, who is now pathetic with stinking breath, who suffocates him when they make love.

If a deity's defining act is that of creation" says Hughes-Hallett then GD'A was a god; one of his heroes crash-lands a plane on a deserted beach and looks around and thinks 'There is no God if it is not I'. GD'A does not fear blasphemy: even Robinson Crusoe was only Monarch of all he surveyed.

He glorified war as an act of sacrifice; the blood of those who have been slain calls out to the living to sacrifice themselves. Perhaps, as H-H suggests, this is just an overt and honest version of the way we consider Afghanistan. We can't pull out if it means that all those who have died have lost their lives 'in vain' and so we are prepared to ask more young men to die. Perhaps GD'A, for all his selfishness and blood-lust and carnality, was just us without the pretence of being civilized.

Perhaps then we should blame the Romantic movement for Fascism and Nazism. GD'A and his peers extolled Art: in war they regretted the destruction of monuments more than the death of people. 

Of course, as H-H points out, GD'A was an aviator. He was "literally an Ubermensch"; he was above men, a Nietzschean superman. He was detached from the pain and the misery created by the bombs he dropped.

Although GD'A was a Romantic author who incorporated high drama with gushings of sentiment and lashings of passion into his prose, one way in which he excelled was in his meticulous observation. There seems to be a fashion in modern fiction writing to create a convincing character or scenario by providing a great deal of detail; this is often obsessive (for example in December by Elizabeth Winthrop). But D'Annunzio's descriptions were precise, the details mattered, the adjectives used were exactly right (H-H records that he would always give the exact shade of a colour). For example, he describes "sheep grazing incessantly, like leeches sucking sustenance from the wet ground".

This is a wonderful biography about a remarkable if horrible man.

December 2013; 644 pages

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

"Another world" by Pat Barker

Barker wrote the 'Ghost Road' trilogy and this book also links to the First World War. As Nick's grandad, Geordie, dies aged 101, Nick cares for him and tries to simultaneously cope with the demands of a dysfunctional reconstructed family: his daughter Miranda who is staying with him as respite from her mentally unwell mother, his pregnant wife Fran, their son 2 year old Jasper and Fran's elder son, Gareth, who is a very moody eleven year old. Their new house is an old Victorian mansion: as they are redecorating they uncover a spitefully obscene portrait of the previous owners hidden under the wallpaper.

This book crackles with tension. Ghosts appear and the truly unpleasant Gareth develops murderous tendencies. But it is never less than honest. The characters are three-dimensional: Gareth is scared stiff about his new school and worried that he will be victimised if he wears regulation school shoes. The horrid details of the progress of Geordie's death are told with brutal clarity and honesty. Dialogue is fresh and convincing.

This is a tale of the human condition. It is about growing up and getting old and dying. It is about the divided loves and loyalties within the heart of every family: when he returns from the first world war after his elder brother died at the Somme, Geordie's mother tells him that the wrong one came back. Gareth bullies and is buliied; he is both obnoxious and vulnerable. Miranda knows that she must behave like a girl, helping her step-mother to look after Jasper, but at the same time she resents it.

This book had a single fault: it was too short and I WANT A SEQUEL.

Brilliant. December 2013; 278 pages

Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Throne of glass" by Sarah J Maas

Celaena Sardothien is an 18 year old girl who is a slave in the salt mines because she has been convicted for being Ardarlan's most notorious assassin. Then Dorian, the gorgeous Crown Prince makes her an offer she cannpt refuse: to go with him to Riftholm's glass castle to compete with 23 other assorted cut-throats to see who will become the King's Champion. But in the castle the other competitors are meeting horrible deaths and Celaena becomes involved in the magic of the wyrd.

It's fantasy. It is so unreal. Not only is Celaena a brilliant archer, knife-thrower, swords-woman, climber and martial artist, not only is she impossibly beautiful, but also she is expert at playing the pianoforte, she loves reading and she is a chess grand master. And puppies love her. The only thing she can't do is play billiards. I knew it would be too good to have any chance of suspending disbelief when I discovered that she had killed, in an attempt to escape from the salt mines, her overseer and twenty-three guards. Not two, not three, but twenty three. Whatever.

It wasn't even written well. The plot rambled, introducing new elements to keep up some sort of momentum. There was very little difficulty in guessing the identity of the killer and the only real suspense was whether Celaena would finally fall for the Crown Prince or the Captain of the Guard. And the words. I can tolerate 'dove' and 'gotten'; they are American usages and I suppose I have to accept 'obligate' in the same context. But I was disappointed by the incorrect use of 'hopefully' and I was appalled when I encountered 'It'd'.

Dreadful stuff. It has spawned sequels. I shudder. December 2013; 406 pages

Friday, 20 December 2013

"Donne: the reformed soul" by John Stubbs

John Donne was born a Roman Catholic in the late Elizabethan age. He served on a couple of sailing expeditions with the Earl of Essex, for example raiding Cadiz. As a young man he was famed for spiky love poetry which usually commemorated his latest mistress. He became a civil servant and then lost his job because of his clandestine marriage to a lady who was clearly his social superior (he was an ironmonger's son). He spent a number of years unemployed, eking out a hand to mouth existence with a small inheritance, some help from friends (and eventually his reconciled father-in-law) and occasional rewards for legal work. Then he was persuaded to take holy orders, his wife died, and he swiftly became a renowned preacher and a pillar of the establishment, despite his love poet reputation.

So Donne's life was a colourful one and Stubbs (who also wrote Reprobates, another rip-roaring tale of the early Stuarts) does it justice. This is a brilliant name-dropper of a book. All the unlikely characters from the reigns of the first James and Charles come vividly alive:

  • Donne's maternal uncle Jasper Heywood, once the schoolmate of Queen Elizabeth, who possessed as a relic half of a tooth from St Thomas More (the other half belonging to his brother: they had fought over it and it miraculously broke in two); STM was Donne's great-grandfather. Jasper couldn't settle as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford so he moved to Rome where he became a Jesuit, then becoming Professor of Moral Theology at Dillingen despite refusing to utter a word in his viva voce exam. He was captured in an England where Jesuit priests were forbidden and escaped execution only on the intervention of Queen Elizabeth; having spent some time in the Tower he was exiled and died in Naples.
  • Sir John Wingfield, tormented by past dishonour, who, despite a bullet in the thigh, charged through Cadiz on a horse as the English took the town, being shot dead by a Spaniard for his pains.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh as an MP who, when fellow member Matthew Dale complained that he had not been able to stand to vote because he had been held down by the britches, commented that he had often prevented people from voting in just the same way.
  • Harry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland, descendant of Hotspur, who was known as the wizard Earl for his "avid interests in anatomy, alchemy, cosmography and distillation" who was implicated in the sidelines of the gunpowder plot and conducted alchemical experiments while imprisoned at the Tower.
  • Izaak Walton, Donne's biographer, who became best known later as the author of The Compleat Angler. As a Royalist sympathiser during the Civil War, after the disaster of the Battle of Worcester, he carried the 'lesser George' jewel to London whence it was ultimately restored to its owner, Charles II, in exile.
  • Padre Paolo Scarpi, an Italian friar, thanked by Galileo for helping him construct the telescope, whose work also contributed to the theory of blood circulation, who negotiated with the Vatican after Venice had been excommunicated for trying two clerics in a civil rather than a theological court.
  • Robert Ker, Viscount Rochester, a young blond Scot, one of the favourites of James I, who wanted to marry the Countess of Essex which he achieved by having her marriage to Essex annulled because she was inspected and found to be still a virgin. Ker, had his pander Overbury locked up in the Tower (probably because he knew too much about the Rochester-Essex affair) and later poisoned. Both Ker and his bride ended up in the Tower themselves.
  • Edward Alleyn, actor and impresario, who in his old age married Donne's daughter. He also was the poriginal founder and benefactor of Dulwich College.
  • Frances, forced by her father to marry Viscount Purbeck, mad brother of the Duke of Buckingham, who left him to live with her lover and the father of her child. On being ordered to atone for her adultery by parading through the Savoy Church dressed in a sheet, she managed to escape by using a pageboy dressed in woman's clothing as a decoy.
  • Even Donne's doctor, Simeon Fox, was the son of John Fox who wrote the Book of Martyrs.

Then there are wonderful quotations from Donne's poetry from the erotic "Licence my roaving hands, and let them go/Before, behind, between, above, below." to the sarcastic (lacking in any sympathy for sea-sick passengers on a ship) "Some coffin'd in their cabbins lye, equally/Grieved that they are not dead, and yet must dye./And as sin-burden'd soules from graves will creepe,/At the last day, some forth their cabbins peepe." There is the original of 'Will you still love me tomorrow?' in "Now thou hast lov'd me one whole day,/ Tomorrow when thou leav'st, what wilt thou say?". and the snappy reply to his father-in-law's praise of the Sun as evidencing God's love when Donne, lying late in bed with his woman, chides the "Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,/Why dost thou thus,/Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?"

But Stubbs can write great prose himself. One of the best chapter openings I have ever read has to be that which starts chapter XVIII: "No one could quite agree how the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, came to kill Lord Zouch's gamekeeper."

There are other delights:

  • There is a rainbow by moonlight at sea
  • A lustrum is a period of five years
I simply loved this book. December 2013; 478 pages

Thursday, 12 December 2013

"Damn his blood" by Peter Moore

In 1806, the parson of the Worcestershire village of Oddingley was killed with a shotgun. The killer was seen and nearly apprehended on the spot but he escaped. Some of the local residents seemed strangely reluctant to pursue the murderer: the parson had been at violent odds with a number of the leading farmers of the town and there were rumours that they had been drinking to his damnation and offering money to someone who would shoot him.

The investigation was concluded in 1830.

This was a brilliantly told narration of these events. There is lots of background detail: we really get a feeling for the life of the village in pre-industrial England. The book would fascinate just for its window onto the contortions of English justice at this time: there were strict riles governing whether a confession was admissible in court; you could not be tried as an accessory to a crime until the principal malefactor had been convicted; there were coroner's courts, magistrates, assize judges and Grand Juries. The clues are dropped as delicately as in a whodunnit and the characters are clearly drawn.

And it was so atmospheric that I started being nervous of dark corners.

Excellent. December 2013; 322 pages.

I am still trying to decide whether this was better than Mr Briggs' hat or the account of the Ratcliffe Road murders mentioned in The Maul and the Pear Tree.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

"Harry the Valet" by Duncan Hamilton

Harry the Valet was a famous Victorian jewel thief who was celebrated for his daring exploits in which he swiped the jewels of the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland and the evil Maharajah of Alwar. Hornung may have based the Raffles books on him. Despite his humble Cockney beginnings (though his family was middle class and bourgeois) he posed as a debonair man about time, living the high life of champagne and Gaiety Girls and shooting in the season, funding it all from the proceeds of his crimes.

His modus operandi was to hang around railway stations watching the upper class travelling with the footmen and maids, wait until the maid put the jewel case down and turned her back, instantly pinch it and escape. This called for acute observation, dexterity (he learned his trade as a pickpocket), daring, and the ability to blend into the crowd both before and after the event. But it was a fundamentally simple M.O. and the wonder is that he got away with it for so long. Because he specialised in jewels he was very dependent on a network of fences and was lucky that none of them turned him in. In the end it was his recklessness in the aftermath of his most spectacular heist that earned him his first long prison spell; after that he was too old to truly be successful and too well-known to escape for long.

Although Hamilton repeatedly pads his book with tantalising glimpses of what will be revealed in the final chapter, which irritates me immensely, he is a great writer who has built a sometimes seedy life into a rattling good yarn.

Excellent. December 2013; 285 pages

Saturday, 7 December 2013

"The ministry of fear" by Graham Greene

This is a Greene thriller. As such, it has so much more depth than most thrillers. It is a world better than Donna Leon's The Jewels of Paradise.

You know that you are in the hands of a master: from the very first page we are off into typical Greene land: a world in which the familiar and the banal mingle with high drama. A church fete is set against the backdrop of the blitz. Buildings are bombed nightly and the very landscape of London changes day by day. The hero is drinking tea and eating cake when "the bomb burst half a mile away: you could feel the ground dent." Even the hero is an ordinary man until at the end of the first section of chapter two he says "I ought to tell you I am a murderer myself."

The book is set out like a film script: it contains some iconic scenes. We start with the fete and cut to Mr Rowe's sitting room which is bombed, a private detective agency, a seance, a second-hand bookshop, a funeral etc. These scenes are given fabulous flesh by the characters inhabiting them: the grubby private detective who specialises in divorce cases and is out of his depth with murder, the hunchback who tries to retrieve the cake, the medium with the deep voice, the array of weirdos at the seance. The scene that ends Book One, in which the hero and heroine are trapped in  a hotel room with the forces of evil closing in all around them, is truly sinister and classically cinematic.

Greene delights with his descriptions, with his characters, with his dialogue (always just a little uncomfortable, as if there are things that are not being said, as there always is in real dialogue) and with his language. I love the way he reinforces emotions from two different directions. For example, on the first page there is an "inevitable clergyman presiding over rather a timid game of chance": instantly one transfers the adjective to the man to see him better. Later on Rowe returns to the detective agency by a "roundabout route" because the tube is disrupted by the bombing of the night before; on the next page Rowe has to approach the detective agency "with circumspection" because there might be danger.

Rowe himself is a classic Greene character: an ordinary man who is haunted by his past. Pity is his weakness but at the same time this is why he is good: the forces of evil have ideals but no compassion: "One can't love humanity," Greene chastises them, "one can only love people." Rowe is made strong when he loses his memory. In the final reel, as he sails of into the sunset with his memory returned one knows that he can never be happy ever after. That would be a fairy tale and Greene does not deal in those.

That's why this book is so much more powerful than your average thriller. December 2013; 221 pages.

An even better (because more realistic) Greene thriller is A Gun for Sale. Stamboul Train is also well worth reading.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The jewels of paradise" by Donna Leon

Musicologist Caterina works for a shady lawyer and two dodgy cousins in a run down Foundation researching a baroque composer who may or may not have had a hand in the disappearance and probably murder of George I's wife's lover.

There are a number of nice features to this tale. Leon is a good writer if we are willing to overlook page 34 on which Caterina is "unwilling to admit to no motive higher than her own mounting curiosity"; surely this should be 'any'.  She certainly doesn't have the style and the moral ambiguity of Aurelio Zen, who is also a Venetian, and she doesn't have the sense of being immersed in the history of a Robert Goddard (eg Found WantingLong Time ComingBlood Count, or even the rather poor Fault Line). But she certainly packs in the detail, from the meals cooked and consumed by her heroine to the vaporetto number when travelling from one part of Venice to another to the careful description of the musical history and the process of historical research. There are a lot of moments which intrigue such as the size of the window in the little office (which plays no further part on the story) or the theft of the computer (which was presumably arranged for a purpose but plays no further part in the story). These things keep the reader going because you are expecting the game to be played properly in which the reader guesses the correct clues and avoids the red herrings (but they all seem to be red herrings).

None of this is enough to make up for the thumping disappointment of the climax. The denouement is preceded by a plot device so incredibly clichéd that it took my breath away. At the end one realises that nothing really happened and so what. And the intriguing details of the historical mystery are left high and dry with no solution offered at all.

Underwhelming. December 2013; 327 pages

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

"Merivel" by Rose Tremain

This tale is set in the latter years of the reign of Charles II. Sir Robert Merivel was ennobled by Charles II for agreeing to marry a woman Charles wanted as a mistress; his estate of Bidnold is funded by the King but must be ready at all times for the King's visits.

The book starts with Sir Robert, or Merivel as he prefers his friends to call him, in the company of his most faithful servant Will, who is now unsteady. Merivel knows that he can never discard loyal Will, for where would he go but the workhouse, although Will is becoming more and more a liability, and Merivel foresees that one day the tables will be turned and he will begin to nurse Will.

And so we begin to explore the character of the remarkable Merivel. His haberdasher parents died in a fire. He became a surgeon and then found favour with the King first by amusing him and then by becoming a professional cuckold. After incurring the displeasure of the King for trying to bed his own wife, Merivel fled to work with a group of Quakers who were administering to lunatics. Now he is restored to Bidnold but when his daughter announces her plans for going to Cornwall on a holiday with their neighbours, Merivel decides to travel to Versailles.

The plot is picaresque, meandering from episode to episode. Perhaps this is the point. It is like life: without purpose or direction but only a continuous muddle. He pays a treasured ring to rescue a captive bear from death but in the end the bear must still die after living in captivity. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Sir Robert's own life.

But what all the episodes reveal is the wonderful character of Sir Robert Merivel. For he is a weak mortal, marvellous in his frailty. He tries to do his best but is all too aware how often his good intentions are not enough. He is afraid of marriage because he is only too aware that he lets people down.

I have never read Rose Tremain before but I must find another book by her because I loved the way she portrayed a character and the readability of even such a wandering plot.

Packed with episodes, not all coherent, and dedicated to the study of a genuine man. December 2013; 341 pages

I have now read the first book about Robert Merivel, Restoration, which is reviewed here.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

"Star of the sea" by Joseph O'Connor

The 'Star of the Sea' is a ship taking Irish emigrants from Liverpool to New York in 1847 at the height of the Potato famine. Steerage class are on starvation rations; diseases such as dysentery claim new victims daily. Tensions are high in First Class: bankrupt David Meredith, Lord Kingscourt, ninth Earl of Carna suspects journalist and aspiring novelist Grantley Dixon of sleeping with his wife. Kingscourt's father the eight Earl had evicted many tenants, allowing them to starve during the famine. Because of this, Pius Mulvey, a cripple, has been given the task by an Irish secret society of murdering the Earl before they reach America. To complicate matters the Earl's maid, Mary Duane, has sexual and/ or familial links with the Earl, Mulvey, and Mulvey's brother.

As the voyage progresses and conditions get worse this tangle of relationships grows daily more tense.

The novel is written in beautiful prose and the story is kept interesting through numerous flashbacks explaining the back-story of each of the principal characters. This is important because one knows from the start that Mulvey intends to murder Kingscourt and that Kingscourt will die. There were times, however, when I thought that O'Connor was trying too hard to make his politico-historical points about how dreadfully the starving Irish were treated, particularly during the potato blight. These sometimes got in the way of the plot.

I also found it hard to suspend disbelief in the plot. The three main characters - Kingscourt, Mulvey and Duane - are as enmeshed in each other as in the most outrageous Victorian novel. Perhaps this was the point: Dickens plays a walk-on part when Mulvey gives him the inspiration for Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights, which Dixon suspects Kingscourt of authoring, plays an important part in the climax. The twist on the penultimate page was unnecessary and did not make the story any more believable.

The characters are, however, interesting. Each one has at least two sides. The evil Lord Kingscourt, father of the present Earl, is on the whole a thoughtful and reasonable man although the pivotal interview between himself and his son is notable for the way in which he displays an alarming tendency to flip between two sides of his character; a tendency his son also possesses although for entirely different reasons. Nevertheless, both Kingscourt's end condemned by the Irish despite all the good they do or try to do. Pius Mulvey is at times an intelligent and likeable hero, at times a rogue, at times a victim and at times an appalling monster. The surgeon is at the outset portrayed as incompetent but later is seen to be extremely competent. Kingscourt's wife Laura can be an adulterous bitch but becomes, almost overnight and with little explanation, a saint. Of the principal characters only the suffering Mary Duane maintains her purity and her sweetness despite her appalling ordeals: I was reminded of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. Having multiple dimension characters is great but sometimes their inconsistencies made suspension of disbelief even harder.

My final niggle is a moral point. I think that the novelist is trying to tell us that the poor, the weak, the unnoticed majority suffer at the hands of the few. But he does this with a cast of four principal players. The steerage passengers are, by and large, reduced to the roll-call of deaths in the captain's daily logs. We are far more concerned with the life of the Earl of Carna than that of Eileen Bulger who was committed to the deep on the 22nd day of the voyage.

Flawed but a good book, a good read. November 2013; 405 pages

Thursday, 21 November 2013

"Go tell it on the mountain" by James Baldwin

John, a black boy in 1935 Harlem, wakes up on his fourteenth birthday. No one seems to remember this until his mum gives him some money to go down-town to see a movie. When he gets back he finds his brother Roy, the apple of his father's eye, has been stabbed.

The action shifts to the Temple of Fire where his father preaches. John, his friend Elisha, John's father and mother and aunt and assorted women gather for the Saturday night 'tarry' service. As they pray the characters remember their lives: their loves, their happinesses and losses, their regrets. The lot of the Black American in this place and time is to suffer: single mothers mourn their children born our of wedlock (and in sin), boys get knifed and jailed, lynchings occur, men and women toil at menial and unfulfilling jobs.

The dialogue, with amens and Jesus, scattered at random, and with words emphasised by italicising seemingly in the wrong place, has a strong sense of African American dialect. And the language and style of the book is heavily infused with the preaching styles, hallelujah, of the Black Gospel church. And it lays heavy on the soul and on God and the need to be able to go to heaven on Judgement day.

It is a book full of prayer and guilt.

And when the hymns and the speaking in tongues have finished we are still left with the realisation that a man, even a preacher, even a preacher's son, has to struggle to be good and to climb the mountain for all his long life.

A lyrical evocation of the Gospel tradition. November 2013; 256 pages

Even better by this author: Giovanni's Room.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

"The infernal world of Branwell Bronte" by Daphne du Maurier

Branwell was the only brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. As children and adolescents and into early adulthood they invented imaginary worlds and scribbled stories and poems. Eventually the three sisters became famous authors but the boy never had a single line published in his lifetime; he died very shortly after the triumph of Jane Eyre.

Perhaps the fault lay within himself. He couldn't hold down a job. After failing to be admitted to the Royal Academy School he gave up painting. He tried tutoring but didn't like it. He became a railway booking clerk and later a station master but was sacked for his slapdash book-keeping. He then tried tutoring again but was dismissed for some sort of scandal: he later claimed it was because he had fallen in love with the lady of the house although this may have been his fantasy. Disheartened by failure he took to drink and laudanum: this may have contributed to his later failures.

Du Maurier writes biography as historical fiction: she gets inside the character and presents a narrative rather than sifting endless evidence. (She also does this in Golden Lads about Sir Anthony Bacon.) This makes for easy reading. In this case, however, the flow of the story is marred by then long quotations from Branwell's juvenilia, his poems and his letters. Some of these were, to say the least, tedious.

An interesting story of a man haunted by failure. November 2013; 231 pages

Thursday, 14 November 2013

"The loved one" by Evelyn Waugh

This is set in post-war California. Dennis, a British poet, has left a movie studio to work at the Happier Hunting Grounds pet cemetery. He meets and falls in love with a mortician at the much classier Whispering Glades, where they process human stiffs. Waugh lampoons the falseness of Californian sentiment from the way they paint corpses to the inscriptions on the fake church and the fake Scottish love seat in the Glades. Whispering Glades is a theme park dedicated to death.

But The Loved One is a brittle drawing room comedy poking light fun at the fake Californianisms. It is gentle humour. There seems to be no substance. One cannot believe in the reality of Dennis either when he falls in love with his mortician or when he loses her. It is all superficial and meaningless and so as fake as the cemeteries and as the movies that Waugh gently attacks.

Slightly humorous. November 2013; 127 pages

At least it was better than Black Mischief!

Monday, 11 November 2013

"Conan Doyle" by Hesketh Pearson

This biography of the man who wrote Sherlock Holmes and many other tales was first written in 1943 and therefore contains some inexcusable racism. It is also a biography of those times:  Pearson wastes little time worrying about scholarly research and a lot of time writing a cracking good yarn. There are moments when it seems padded, for example when he quotes a newspaper correspondence between Doyle and George Bernard Shaw over the Titanic in its entirety (pp 141-148). There are times when it seems rushed: the entire Professor Challenger tales are skipped over in less time than the Titanic correspondence. Pearson spends a great deal of ink discussing Doyle's friend Dr Budd; Pearson claims that Challenger and Holmes were both based on this man. But I was left a little confused as to Doyle's final bibliography. I would have liked a greater discussion of each story and its genesis.

But these are faults of selection and Pearson has written an excellent narrative about a man who would be fascinating even without his place in literary history.November 2013; 188 pages.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

"Gone girl" by Gillian Flynn

Nick and Amy are redundant New York magazine writers who return to Nick's home town of Carthage by the Mississippi river. Amy, whose parents wrote a best-selling series of children's books entitled Amazing Amy, is a bored housewife; Nick opens and runs a bar. Then Nick goes home on the afternoon of their fifth anniversary to discover furniture overturned and his wife gone. The police start to hunt for a missing person. But why does Nick keep lying to them? As the story progresses Nick looks more and more like a wife-killer.

The first half of the book, in which Nick plunges deeper and deeper into the mire, is interspersed with extracts from Amy's diary in which she chronicles a marriage turning sour. This part of the story is fascinating, but the diary entries interrupt the narrative flow. Half way through (almost exactly, page 241 out of 463) comes the first major twist. From there till the end the book still flips between the Nick narrative and the Amy narrative but now both halves are equally compelling. It becomes a thriller. But it also loses something. The first half had a hypnotic reality; the second half is a story. Things start to happen that are a little further from the expectations of everyday existence; credibility is stretched a little further.

Much of the joy of the (slow) first half was the portrait of an America in terrible decline. Both Nick and Amy are made redundant by the internet: print magazines are out of fashion and they are unable to switch to blogs. The small Missouri town they return to is blighted by mortgage failure: Nick mows several lawns of abandoned neighbouring properties to keep the raccoon population down. At one point in the search for missing Amy Nick and his father-in-law and attendant friends, armed with baseball bats, travel to the derelict, bankrupt shopping mall where gangs of hoodlums, made redundant by the demise of an exercise book factory (also because of the internet) hang out, allegedly selling drugs and gang-raping women. The environment is one of abandonment and menace.

This first half was slow reading and I had to keep going but in retrospect it was the more rewarding half. The action predominates in the second half but the book loses its rooting in reality. The ending is too bizarre to believe. I would not have done what Nick ends up doing; more to the point I do not believe, despite the psychological motives advanced, that Nick would do what he ends up doing. I do not believe the police, who had been terriers till this point, would have acted so timidly at the end. So the end was disappointing.

But there were other disappointments as well. Nick is paranoid at the beginning of the book. He wakes up to find the sun staring at him: "You have been seen," he thinks. Later he is by the Mississippi and sees a "long single-file line of men, eyes aimed at their feet, their shoulders tense, walking steadfastly nowhere. As I watched them, one suddenly looked up at me, his face in shadow, an oval blackness. .... You have been seen." There is no reason advanced for this paranoia, nor does this wonderful image of the line of men seem to have anything to do with anything else in the book.

More seriously, on the second page (page 4 of the paperback) Nick wakes up on the morning of the day when his wife will disappear "in bed, which was our New York bed in our new house". On page 113, in Amy's diary, "our New York bed" stays in New York when they move away. I understand the concept of the unreliable narrator but this cannot be a simple slip: both Nick and Amy are certain about their facts about the bed and have no reason to lie except to leave evidence that they are lying. It is such a big discrepancy that it can hardly be a simple mistake by the author. Of course this issue nags at me throughout the book; I am expecting that somehow this is the clue on which the final twist depends. It isn't. The issue never gets resolved. This annoys me.

Upon reflection, I suppose I also liked the first half better than the second because the first half is a whodunnit and the second half a thriller. I always prefer whodunnits. And this is what annoyed me about the bed: you can't do that in a whodunnit. I have not read anything else by Ms Flynn but I suspect she is more of a thriller writer with an emphasis on the psychology.

A fascinating portrayal of American life in decline and of a marriage that has gone truly wrong but in the end it fails as a credible thriller. November 2013; 463 pages

Monday, 4 November 2013

"Giovanni's room" by James Baldwin

David, an American in Paris, falls for Giovanni, a beautiful barman from Italy. Their affair is doomed because of David's guilt about his sexuality; when his girlfriend returns from a trip to Spain David leaves Giovanni. But Giovanni has fallen in love...

An incredibly powerful novella about love and betrayal. We know from almost the start that Giovanni is soon to be executed for murder. The story is told by a lonely and guilty David. David wallows in guilt: he feels guilty for betraying his first boyfriend; he feels guilty about the fact that he is gay. He hates the "disgusting fairies" in the bars that he relentlessly haunts. He hates the meaningless and loveless couplings in which he indulges, with either gender; he hates his own genitals. He is unable to bring himself, even in this retrospective, to see clearly the sexual acts in which he participates: it is difficult to be sure who does what to whom. But against this background of disgust and self-disgust and guilt and hate there is the shining love that Giovanni has for him and that he would have, if he let himself, for Giovanni.

David and Jonathan. Jonathan died. There arte significant overtones of religion throughout this book.

I was also powerfully reminded of the innocent Donatello in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun: Giovanni could in many ways have been Donatello. He might also have reminded me of Gino in Forster's Where angels fear to tread.

This is almost a text book story. The prose is brilliant. The feelings of dread and shame and disgust and guilt pervade. The message is that only love can lift us above the gutter. November 2013; 150 pages.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

"Sophie's world" by Jostein Gaarder

Fourteen year old Sophie Amundsen begins receiving mysterious messages from Alberto Knox, a philosopher. He begins to teach her philosophy, starting with the pre-Socratics and ending with Sartre. As they learn, mysterious things begin to happen.

Um. 

I suppose this is designed as a course in Philosophy for children. Much of it is very well explained, although it skims the surface, and I found it hard to really understand the difficult philosophers such as Kant and Hegel. 

I suppose that the dialogue format mimics the Socratic method. Certainly Alberto Knox is a somewhat pompous teacher, rather like the portrayal of Socrates (yes, I know Plato says that Socrates is a wonderfully odd and modest man but that is not how he appears in the Dialogues) and Sophie is often reduced to a mere cypher, much like the poor people portrayed by Plato as the stooges of Socrates. Thus Sophie's contribution is often limited to "Why was that?"; "Go on."; "I can't disagree with that."; "That was a very complicated statement."; "I think I see what you mean." to take just five consecutive examples from pages 378 to 379. 

Partly as a result of this it becomes extremely difficult to suspend disbelief and see Sophie as a real person. It's hard to do this anyway: Sophie at fourteen becomes hooked on philosophy and is allowed by her mum to be in and out of the house at all times, going to spend time with an old bloke who is slightly creepy. Childcare is a lot more relaxed in Norway! (It gets stranger: when a fifteen year old and her first boyfriend roll around in the bushes at a party all the people at the party watch, including her mum and dad!)

So the story didn't really work for me. I suspect it was intended to dilute the difficult philosophy but in some ways it just made the whole book longer.

I wasn't particularly hooked by the twist near the end which is designed on a philosophical problem but seemed to hijack the book, in some ways suggesting that this is the only philosophical problem.

I did learn some things or new ways of seeing things:

  • Indo-European religions emphasise the visual: they make pictures of Gods. Semitic religions emphasise the aural: they forbid 'graven images'. Christianity is a hybrid of Indo-European (the Platonic tradition) and Jewish; whilst Roman Catholicism wallows in images, Greek Orthodox forbids them.
  • Aquinas believed that universal truths could be reached both through faith and through reason and that therefore there was no conflict between Christianity and Aristotelianism.
  • Spinoza defined freedom as having the ability to develop to one's full potential.
  • Hume denied we had a single personality. He pointed out that all we know of ourselves are snapshots like the individual frames in a film and therefore we had no underlying identity.
  • Hume suggested that we cannot experience cause and effect. We can only develop a habit of expecting that an effect will always follow a cause. Therefore the laws of nature lie within ourselves.
  • Deists believe that God created everything and then left us to it: we can only experience him today through the natural laws that he set up.
  • Kant suggested that laws of nature were always interpreted through perception and thus that the world as experienced by a cat or by a child or by an adult are different worlds.
  • Kant also believed that it was necessary to believe in God to have a morality.
  • Bohr once said "there are two kinds of truth. There are the superficial truths, the opposite of which are obviously wrong. But there are also the profound truths, whose opposites are equally right." (p306) such as life is long; life is short.
  • In order for complex molecules like DNA to develop there must be no oxygen in the atmosphere because oxygen is very reactive and would prevent the development of complex molecules.
  • When a man said to an angel that he must be very insubstantial because he walked through rocks, the angel pointed out that both the angel and the man could walk through mist, 


But he gets some things wrong. He suggests that the moon stays in orbit because there are two forces on it: those of gravity and inertia. The inertia is the force that once threw the moon out of the Earth and "will remain in effect forever because it moves in a vacuum without resistance". This is dreadfully wrong. Inertia is not a force. There is a single force acting on the moon and that is why it is in orbit.

On the whole there is a lot of good in this book but... I'm not the target market but I thought I preferred Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy

November 2013; 427 pages

Monday, 28 October 2013

"The fist of God" by Frederick Forsyth

This thriller is set in the first Gulf War: Saddam invades Kuwait and SAS man Mike Martin goes undercover into Kuwait to organise resistance. Meanwhile his stay-at-home brother, an Arabist, investigates the secrets of Saddam's secret Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Mossad have a high-placed source at the top of the Iraqi government and Mike Martin is transferred into Baghdad to run dead letter boxes and transmit information back to the waiting troops. Will Saddam's secret weapons be neutralised before the Allied invasion?

There are a lot of characters and a lot of threads and all of them run together: there are rather too many coincidences. Did Mike Martin, practising dressing as a Bedouin on the day before the invasion, really have to have his photograph taken by the mother of the USAF pilot who he would later rescue who is also the pilot who kills one of his old schoolfriends who just happens to be behind Saddam's WMD programme? And does it have to be his brother who is the brilliant Arabist who solves the conundrums in London while Mike does the derring-do? All a little too convoluted and unnecessary: some tighter editing would have made this a better book. And there is a great deal of detail. At times this reads like a lecture on the history of the War and its associated military technology and the military structures of the various parties. Detail adds verisimilitude but there were times when yet another page of information rather got in the way of the story.

I was perhaps most interested in the sub-plot of the Mossad agents trying to steal security details from a Viennese bank by seducing the secretary. But that was a totally unnecessary sub-plot and could have been removed without damaging the story in any way.

And I am still not convinced by the unmasking of the villain. Clearly it couldn't be who we thought it was because that was revealed far too early but pinning it on someone else at the last moment leaves too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, once I had got into it I read it in a great burst. But it is just a thriller. There is little concern for character. Even with all the details and the weaving in of real persons and events it is difficult to suspend disbelief. It is so much less convincing that his earlier works: The Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War.

Disappointing. October 2013; 492 pages

Monday, 7 October 2013

"The towers of Trebizond" by Rose Macauley

What a strange and delightful book.

It is a novel though I thought it was a travel book and indeed it reads very much like one in that it meanders and there is no carefully constructed plot and there is no reason as far as I can tell why she first goes to Istanbul and then to Trabzon which is what the Turks call Trebizond which used to be the final outpost of the Byzantine Empire but is now a little fishing port and the citadel quite overgrown and then she travels deeper into Turkey near the Russian border and two of her companions cross the border ("crash the Curtain") so she is alone and running out of money so she goes down to Jerusalem and meets her mother (this is quite by chance) and then she comes to England once again and lives in London and then Oxford where she teaches a monkey to drive a car and then something awful happens and that is the end.

But the real beauty of the book is the way it is constructed in long, meandering sentences like the one above. She chats of all the things that interest her (Circassian slaves are an obsession). The whole thing is quite off the wall. Much of the travelling is done on camel-back. Aunt Dot is dotty and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg the highest of High Anglicans. There is a lot of religion in it. The narrator is a lapsed High Anglican ("the Church met its Waterloo ... when I took up with adultery") but she is obsessed by it and perhaps by her guilt at lapsing and her fear of Hell.

In many ways this is a stream of consciousness travel novel. And there are many nuggets of wisdom in her gushing thoughts:

  • "I went on musing about why it was thought better and higher to love one's country than one's county, or town, or village, or house. Perhaps because it was larger. But then it would be still better to love one's continent, and best of all to love one's planet."
  • "We all have our price ... but we don't all get it."
  • Adultery is "a meanness and a stealing, a taking away from someone what should be theirs, a great selfishness, and surrounded and guarded by lies lest it should be found out. And out of this meanness and this selfishness and this lying flow love and joy and peace, beyond anything that can be imagined."


Well I loved it. She rambles on about life and nothing really happens until the end and her sentences and long and her paragraphs longer but then that is the way with paragraphs and somehow you get a picture of beauty and a love of life: "After all, life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times nobles and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again."

And you could say the same about this delightful book. October 2013; 222 pages

Sunday, 29 September 2013

"A handful of dust" by Evelyn Waugh

Tony Last is the quintessential English squire. He lives for the family home, spending all he has to keep it going. He goes to church twice on Sundays and hosts the local hunt, although he does not ride himself. He enjoys his quiet life even though it bores his wife.

So Brenda starts an affair with the totally worthless John Beaver, a boy who lives with his mother and tries to persuade people to let him come to parties as an alternative to working; his mother arranges interior decorating  for her society friends for outrageous commissions. But Brenda becomes obsessed with Beaver.

Tony trusts her. When, in tragic circumstances, he discovers her betrayal (this is about the middle of the book), he seeks to arrange an honourable divorce but she tries to double-cross him seeking outrageous alimony and he decides instead to go abroad. He goes on an expedition into the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city (I was irresistibly reminded of the 'Lost city of Z' which chronicles the obsession with Amazon exploration between the wars). Will he return?

This was an odd sort of book. It started as a typical Waugh comedy, poking fun at the manners of the upper classes. Half way through it lurches into tragedy as Waugh explores the consequences of Brenda's casual infidelity. Even then, as Tony seeks a divorce, we enjoy farce. The last section, exploring in Brazil, is no longer funny. Although the situation, and the people, are absurd and ridiculous, it is a life and death struggle and too sinister for Waugh's normal superficial touch.

In many ways this makes the book. The comedy is witty but insubstantial but Waugh is able to handle the horror behind the clown's mask. His characterisation of a father reacting to the death of his son, whilst in one sense poking fun at the British stiff upper lip, is sensitive and beautifully drawn. There are some marvellous descriptions ("He was prematurely, unnaturally stout, and he carried his burden of flesh as though he were not yet used to it; as though it had been buckled on to him that morning for the first time and he were still experimenting for its better adjustment"). It is slightly marred by racism ("This place stinks of Yids, said Baby" and later descriptions of niggers). But generally this is a great and well-written story.

September 2013; 221 pages

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

"Stamboul Train" by Graham Greene

This is one of Greene's 'entertainments'; he did not consider it worthy of the title of novel.

It is based around a journey on the Orient Express from Ostend to Constantinople. Carleton Myatt is a Jew who trades in currants; he is travelling to explore a proposed takeover of another firm. He meets Coral Musker, a dancer. Also on the train is the mysterious Doctor John who, though a doctor, is not what he seems.

At Cologne the train is joined by lesbian reporter Mabel Warren and her 'companion' Janet Pardoe. Miss Warren recognises Doctor John for what he is. A criminal on the run joins in Vienna. As the train travels into the Balkans a rebellion erupts with tragic consequences.

These characters are thrown together by chance for the journey. The plot brilliantly shows how they weave together and then untangle, although a knot or two are left. For the most part things are unresolved as they are in life: we rarely know what happens to those people that we meet in the course of our life.

Is it a thriller? It has all the characteristics of one but the quality of the prose life it head, shoulders, chest and waist above the normal thriller. Greene creates real characters with hopes and fears and purpose and pointlessness. His settings are luxuriously described: "small flakes of snow were falling; they were blown against the windows like steam." Even the action scenes are vividly described; even the minor characters have quirks and peculiarities and, in particular, inconsistencies that put flesh on their bones. This is writing of the highest order.

At the outset, I was slightly alienated because it is so very clearly of its time. Like many writers of the period, Greene assumes that physical characteristics encapsulate character. One person has fingers that show no "sign of acute sensibility. They were short, blunt and thick." This leads Greene on to what would now be regarded as racism. When one character asks "'ow did you know I was English?" the other replies that he is "always thinking the best of people." More seriously, the character of the Jew is portrayed as extremely mercenary and cunning; the predatory lesbian is ugly, cruel and mannish. And yet, Greene seems fully aware of the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe that would, within months of publication, become a serous problem (the book was published in 1932; Nazi Germany's first laws persecuting Jews were enacted in 1933.) Myatt the Jew is a real human being whom we understand, though he is flawed. The lesbian report Miss Warren is more of a stock villain. In this, Greene reminds me of Shakespeare who could create the villain Shylock whilst still evoking sympathy for him.

This is a very good book indeed. September 2013; 216 pages

More Greene: if you liked Stamboul Train you will like The Ministry of Fear and you will love A Gun for Sale.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

"Berlin" by Antony Beevor

This book recounts the final months of the Nazi regime. It starts in January 1945 when the Soviet forces invade Eastern Prussia and cross the Vistula to liberate the rest of Poland. It finishes when Berlin is captured and the Germans surrender.

It is compelling reading. Although I found it very difficult to keep track of which army was attacking where and who was defending against whom (and the maps at the front are frankly inadequate) one cannot miss the broad sweep of the narrative. Using individual and eye-witness accounts, Beevor touches the human horror of war and then multiplies it into an utterly shocking yet believable narrative. This we go from individual accounts of gang rape into the realisation that a staggering 100,000 German women are estimated to have been exposed to these awful experiences. He describes the confusion of troops attacking through forests and he emphasises the futility of sending scarcely pubescent boys into battle. There are scenes of hell as mis-thrown grenades blow a feet off and moments of utter weariness as shell-shocked and exhausted soldiers stumble through mud, falling in front of and being crushed by tanks. There are scarcely credible accounts of women queuing for water: when a shell kills some the others just close ranks a little closer to the front of the queue. There are also moments of pathos: the eighteen year old broadcaster announcing that the Fuhrer is dead in the last broadcast before the aerial is destroyed and others who tried to continue with normal life as bombs exploded around them.

Why did the Nazis fight on? They were massively outnumbered by an a]enemy whose equipment and supplies were better in every way. Often they had insufficient ammunition. They threw into the battle inexperienced and unfit soldiers, often armed with antiquated and useless weapons. They must have known that they were going to lose. At then end they were fighting from building to building and they were dying for no purpose. Why did they not surrender sooner?

Beevor believes that the Battle for Berlin reveals "the incompetence, the frenzied refusal to accept reality and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime." It is difficult to insert a cigarette paper between the inhumanity of Hitler and that of Stalin but these inhumanities often went right down the line to each general who attacked when he knew he would lose many, many men. What doomed the Nazis was probably their incompetence. It seems difficult to brand a regime that ran Germany so successfully for five peaceful years as incompetent but it is difficult to understand how any system that deliberately set up duplicate bureaucracies so that they could compete with one another can possibly be competent. The leadership fought one another at every opportunity, even while hiding in a bunker.

The Nazis were massively inefficient in almost every way. They were especially wasteful of human talent. But they never had anything like the resource potential of the USSR. Invading Soviet Russia and declaring war on the USA were mistakes born of monstrous vanity. And Beevor suggests that the tragedy of fighting to the bitter end had its genesis in Hitler's  own vanity. He had no future after the war and he refused to consider the possibility that other people might be better off without him. He delayed his suicide until Berlin was destroyed and Germany devastated.

The Nazi leadership would have been laughable if they had not been so wicked and if they had not caused so much suffering to so many people.

One of the refreshing things about Beevor's book is how he is able to step aside from the faux objectivity of the scholarly historian and condemn wickedness and stupidity when it occurs. He highlights the moral deficiencies of the Nazi regime and many of those who followed them, even if they claimed to be ordinary soldiers or civilians following orders. "The Third Reich, in its death throes, revealed its frenzied rage against both common sense and common humanity."

This is a terrible tale in many ways. At the same time it makes gripping reading. Beevor's narrative, though confusing at times, has moments of genius. In the end it reassures. The Third Reich could not have survived because hatred is doomed to destroy itself. To build you need cooperation, you need to share, and you need trust.

Harrowing but brilliant. September 2013; 431 pages.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

"A canticle for Liebowitz" by Walter M Miller Jr

Another 'classic' sci fi novel but very different from The man in the high castle by Philip K Dick.

It follows the fortunes of a monastery devoted to preserving knowledge in the lattermath of a nuclear holocaust. It is divided into three periods, each several centuries apart. In the first, a fasting novice called Francis is guided by a mysterious desert wanderer to discover a fallout shelter which may contain relics of the life of the Blessed Liebowitz, an engineer before the holocaust to whom the novice's monastic order is dedicated. The knowledge in the world is similar to the scholaticism of our mediaeval period (although God's Philosophers might disputer this). In the second segment, which explores the moment when science's renaissance clashes with some in the church and when nation states begin to re-emerge, a brilliant scientist comes to the monastery and deplores the fact that the ancient texts are not more available. The abbot chats with the wanderer. The third segment is set as the world trembles upon the brink of a second nuclear war: will the princes be so foolish or so evil as to repeat Armageddon, especially as they cannot escape seeing the mutant inheritance of the first 'Flame Deluge'?

This was so much better written than the Dick book. Firstly, the author spent very little time explaining the basis for his imagined world: the necessary details emerged for the normal interactions of characters with the plot. Secondly, the plot was about the interactions of the characters and they interacted as humans always have and always will interact despite the strangeness of the setting. Thirdly, the characters were well drawn. The three abbots were all recognisable and recognisably different. Others range from a delightfully wimpish Brother Francis whom circumstances forged into well-tempered steel, a viciously iconoclastic Poet, and a Doctor who has to find a way to excuse euthanasia. There is a great deal of humour. The reader is allowed to puzzle through some of the mysteries at the start even though their solutions may occur centuries afterwards.

There is also a great deal of discussion of really profound issues:
"Wise fool!" mimicked the hermit. "But you always did specialise in paradox and mystery, didn't you, [abbot] Paulo? If a thing can't be in contradiction to itself, then it doesn't even interest you, does it? You have to find Threeness in Unity, life in death, wisdom in folly."
This was a light, enjoyable, fun read which restored my faith in science fiction. The best sci fi is real human interactions in an alien world.

September 2013; 356 pages.



Wednesday, 4 September 2013

"The man in the high castle" by Philip K Dick

Nazi Germany and Japan won the Second World War. The USA is divided into three: the west coast a puppet state controlled by the Japanese, the east coast a Nazi dominion and a central buffer zone. (One's first impression is that the buffer zone is poor and down at heel but later in the novel it appears quite affluent and it is difficult to understand why all the miserable people in the West don't move to it.) Most of the action takes place in San Francisco. The characters are all interconnected although Juliana never meets any of the others (she was once married to Frank).

A book has been published in this dystopian world which explores the what-if future had the Allies won WWII. This book is subversive (banned in Nazi controlled areas) but a cult classic. Perhaps one of the themes of this book is an exploration of what is reality (later another character is transported into a different reality San Francisco).

The Bible in San Francisco, however, is the I Ching. A number of the characters base the decisions they make in their lives on their interpretations of the commentaries on the patterns they obtain by throwing coins, or yarrow stalks. Again, Dick seems to be suggesting that there are multiple different future realities and they can be accessed by the random tossing of coins or yarrow stalks. Perhaps here he is exploring the Many Worlds hypothesis of quantum physics.

A third theme is racism. The Nazis have exterminated the Jews and most of the blacks in Africa. In San Francisco, the whites feel inadequate compared the the Japanese although they try to copy their behaviour and their I Ching and they even think like Japanese: their interior monologues are stilted and light on articles to sound more like Japanese speech: eg, "Stupid inability on their part to grasp alien tongue .... But such is way it goes." But this sometimes got in the way of the fluent reading of the book.

I was a bit ambivalent about the racism because I felt that Dick was not above racist stereotyping. There are times when you might feel his racism is ironic, such as when he describes Jews ("ugly. Large pores. Big nose.") and "drunken, dull-witted poles". But the Nazis are the baddies and there is no irony evident when "He felt, strongly, for a moment, the unbalanced quality, the psychotic streak, in the German mind." Not just Nazi mind but German mind.

I was not very happy with the use of interior monologue. There were a lot of occasions when you were told what the character was thinking, sometimes almost as in a rather stilted and jerky stream of consciousness, rather than deducing their thoughts from their dialogue and their actions. Perhaps because of this, I found many of the characters flat.

One of the problems with the genre is that Dick needs to spend a lot of time explaining the background. There are a lot of details; for example. we learn that Hitler went insane, that Roosevelt was assassinated, that Churchill lost power after the Nazis captured Malta. Many of these details are irrelevant. Had Dick sketched out a few broad outlines, the reader would have been happy filling the rest of the detail in themselves.

The plot bumps along but nothing is properly resolved. Presumably Dick was deliberately leaving the ending open so that every reader could consult the I Ching and construct their own version of the future.

I don't think this is written well. For it to be a Penguin Modern Classic astounds me. To call it "one of the very best science fiction novels ever published" is ridiculous: War of the Worlds, Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dhalgren, Never Let Me Go, Brave New World, 1984, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are just a few of the books that knock Dick's into a cocked hat.

Unsatisfying. September 2013; 249 pages




Monday, 2 September 2013

"Waiting for sunshine" by William Boyd

I have never read William Boyd before and somehow in my mind I had confused him with Wilbur Smith. This was unjust: Boyd is better.

Lysander Ulrich Rief is an English actor whose widowed mother married a lord; his dead father's brother is an explorer who has a VC. So he is an ordinary chap.  At the start of the novel he is waiting to see a psychoanalyst in Vienna in 1913. In the waiting room he meets a British diplomat who later recruits him as a spy and a drug addicted sculptress who later seduces him. An unlikely tale of espionage during the First World War unwinds.

My initial point of reference was Graham Greene who wrote thrillers (which he insisted were 'entertainments' rather than novels) such as Our Man in Havana) but I think that the psychological depth beneath Greene's entertainments is somewhat more profound than this work. I wondered whether it was like Robert Goddard but Goddard plots his historical thriller-mysteries much more tightly than this. Rather, this is a John Buchan-style book and Rief is a modern rewrite of a hero such as Richard Hannay.

It takes a long while to get going. For the first hundred pages, Rief consults his shrink, has a passionate affair, chats to a Slovene officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and wanders round Vienna (meeting Freud and, possibly, Hitler). The excitement starts on page 111; more than a quarter of the way through. Then it fizzles out again while Rief goes back to England, regenerates his acting career and meets some relatives. Another hundred pages pass before the spy story begins. It stops and starts and stops and starts. On the whole I felt the book would have benefited from some tight editing and I wondered whether Boyd's previous nine novels had persuaded his publishers rather to indulge him.

I also had a problem with the character. Apart from the fact that there is no-one normal, Why on earth would even the amateurish British intelligence of WWI ask Rief to spy for them? He can act, so he can go in disguise. He can speak German fairly fluently. He owes them (although they seem to have selected him and groomed him and put him into the position where he owes them). But as a spy he is pretty incompetent: one disguise offends his dress sense so he takes time off and goes out in different clothes; he tells his real name to the first real professional spy he meets; later he blurts out secret information.

At the end the story is resolved with lots of massive loose ends. I was expecting a really tight web of lies and deceit; in the end most of the possibilities were frittered away.

Boyd has a pleasant writing style. He swaps between narrators, starting and finishing the book in the second person, moving regularly from third person intimate to first person and breaking into play-script dialogue on a couple of occasions. He can draw a character with a few lines, although sometimes he does not go beyond this leaving a cartoon portrait. Some of his descriptions, particularly of colour, are good (though I don't think I have ever seen ox-blood). But these are not enough to lift the book into the literary fiction category.

In short, this fell for me between several stools. It didn't work as a thriller and it wasn't literary fiction. It was a pleasant story but it never rattled along and I found it difficult to suspend my doubts about the authenticity of the leading character. It entertained but it didn't excite, nor did it move me.

Light reading. September 2013; 429 pages

PS: Reading around the book:
Jill on GoodReads points out that Lysander is one of the mortal dupes in Midsummer Night's Dream and as such the "victim of misapplied magic". Possibly the whole book could be read as a comedy in which Lysander's true love is confused by his romantic liaison in the 'forest' of Vienna. But ultimately I think Tony Mac's review sums the book up.


Saturday, 31 August 2013

"The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason

In 1887 Edgar Drake, a Londoner who tunes Erard grands, is recruited by the War Office to travel to the Burmese frontiers of the British Empire to tune a piano for Dr Anthony Carroll, a British Officer who commands a remote outpost.

Immediately one suspects parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the inspiration for the film Apocalypse Now). Is Carroll another Mr Kurtz, gone native and megalomaniac and perpetrating unspeakable evil on those he autocratically rules?

The journey to Burma is delightful. Drake, who has never left England before, travels by boat and train and pony, recording his impressions in letters to his much-loved wife. The descriptions are brilliant and bring an exotic flavour of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the East. Drake loves Burma. He adores the hill-top village of Mae Lwin in the Shan Hills where the Doctor lives. The Doctor is very civilised and believes the music will bring peace to this troubled region; certainly the natives in the village are peaceful and happy and seem to adore the Doctor. Edgar falls in love with the people, the countryside, and especially Burman woman Khin Myo. He has tasted the lotus and stays longer than he should.

But there are darker undercurrents. The Shan princes have formed the Limbin Confederacy which may oppose British rule. Enigmatic dacoit warlord Twet Nga Lu lurks in the jungle, ready to pounce. Who attacked the village before Drake arrived? And where does the Doctor go on his many diplomatic missions?

This is a haunting and lyrical evocation of Burma. There are seductive descriptions of the beautiful sights of town and countryside. As a piano tuner, Drake is particularly sensitive to sound and the description of notes and tunes are wonderful and exotic. Mason uses a particularly interesting technique of reporting some dialogue as though it were stream of consciousness.

Beautiful magic. August 2013; 348 pages

"Spain 1469 - 1714" by Henry Kamen

Spain was unified under the joint monarchy of Ferdinand of Aragon and devout Isabel of Castille. Their rule was so unified that everything was officially done jointly, even if they were apart: one day it was reported that "the king and queen ... gave birth to a daughter". The secret of their monarchy was that they travelled ceaselessly: their mediaeval style of monarchy depended upon the visibility of the monarch(s). In their annus mirabilis of 1492 they completed the Christian reconquest of the peninsula by capturing Granada, they expelled the Jews, and Columbus discovered America on their behalf.

But their only surviving daughter, Juana, had married a Habsburg and was mentally unstable. On the death of her husband she went completely bonkers. So the throne passed to her 17 year old son Charles who was also Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Naples and the Netherlands. With Spanish America, Spain was now a super-power, although one whose empire was inherited rather than deserved. The heartland of Castille was simply not rich enough to sustain the imperial demands. Gold and Silver from the Americas helped Charles balance the books but a financial disaster was waiting to happen.

When Charles' son Philip (who had once been married to Mary of England) became king he immediately restructured his debts. Although he no longer ruled the Holy Roman Empire, which had been passed to Charles' brother, Philip still ruled the Netherlands which now revolted. The costs of fighting this rebellion spiralled. Despite adding Portugal to his realm (another dynastic inheritance although one he had t, briefly, fight for) Philip went bankrupt. More than once. The destruction of the Spanish Armada didn't help.

Financial instability continued under his heirs; the country continued to decline. The last Habsburg king was the victim of genetic in-breeding: his jaw protruded so much that he found it difficult to eat and he was probably infertile and possibly impotent. He had no legitimate heirs of his own body so he bequeathed the throne to the French Dauphin and so started the War of Spanish Succession. This ended with the loss of most of the rest of Spain's European possessions so the new Bourbon dynasty was able to concentrate on rebuilding the land.

Thus a patchwork of mediaeval states became an accidental empire which declined into a nation state. This fascinating tale rarely flags. There is so much of interest; much is relevant today. The concept of convivienza, for example, in which Spanish Moors and Jews coexisted with the Catholic population was replaced with the racist limpieza de sangre (cleanliness of blood); even converted Moslems and Jews were persecuted. The medieval monarchy was based upon personal rule but the Hapsburg Empire had to develop bureaucratic and ministerial rule. And a country receiving previously unheard of wealth from the New World plunged into debt and inflation.

A wonderful tale, well told. August 2013; 275 pages

"The Guardian" by Nicholas Sparks

Newly widowed Julie has to choose between sophisticated engineer Richard and late husband's best friend, grease monkey Mike. Singer, the dog bequeathed by the late husband, obviously prefers Mike to Richard and we all know dogs can't be wrong about things like that because they have instinct. Then on page 16 Julie thinks of Mike while showering: "Now there was a guy who would make some woman happy one day."

If you are going to use a cliché to signal your happy ending you might as well do it before too many pages have gone. You wouldn't want your readers to suffer suspense, would you?

Singer keeps growling at Richard and Julie begins to worry why she doesn't feel anything for him, despite his charm. Obviously he is bad news. Then on page 93 Richard asks Julie why she is not wearing a locket he has given her. He has a "plastic expression" but he suddenly "seemed to snap out of the spell he'd been under". He is clearly a classic weirdo.

Many authors would now play with your beliefs. They would offer alternative villains. They would suggest alternative reasons for Richard's behaviour. Richard might do something truly altruistic. Not Sparks. By page 140 Julie is in love with Mike (no surprises there), by page 177 we suspect Richard killed his father, on page 206 he beats up two kids with a baseball bat and then pretends they stabbed him so they go to jail instead of him.

The book then turns into a thriller powered by the fact that the police can't imagine that Richard might be using a false name or that he might have stolen a car.  One male police officer is so small town and stupid that he makes Amos from the Dukes of Hazard look like a Nobel Laureate.

To be fair, Sparks writes some great one liners and he has a nice turn with dialogue (when he skips the clichés). But the plot was unbelievably predictable and the characters either goodies or baddies with absolutely no shades of grey.

A light read. August 2013; 431 pages

"Thinking, fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman

This book is a sort of retrospective of the life's work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics by replacing the rational agent of classical Economics with a real person.

It seeks to divide human thinking into two systems; there are three ways he does this. In part one he compares the fast, intuitive ways in which we think with the slow, effort-full, rational ways of thinking. Because rational thinking is hard work we lazt humans tend to default to intuition which makes us more gullible. In part two he compares the rational agent of Economics (the 'Econ') with Humans. Part three pits the present against the past and shows how what we remember about what we experienced is rarely the same as what we experience.

Kahneman recounts the hundreds of experiments he has conducted during his long career. Many of them offer profound insights into how humans operate. It is clear that if one wishes to improve communications, improve pedagogy, or manipulate people better, there are lessons to be learnt.

One little quibble: many of these experiments were conducted with someone called Amos. Because I had skipped the introduction (I often read introductions at the end because I believe that if a book is strong enough it should stand without the introduction) I did not know who he was talking about. It was Amos Tversky, a long time collaborator, now dead. In some ways this book is Kahneman's tribute to Mr Tversky.

One thing I loved was the evidence base. Many of these experiments prove counter-intuitive conclusions. This hammers home the fact that we are not who we think we are. This book has a massive evidence base for Kahneman's view of humans, in contrast to the scarcely visible evidence base of Roger Scruton's The Uses of Pessimism.

A lot of what Kahneman has to say I have encountered before, for example in Nudge which was written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunnstein, both former colleagues of Kahneman. For example, I knew about anchoring and that algorithms give better long-range forecasts than expert opinions. Nevertheless, this is a brilliant introduction to these ideas  if you are new to the topic and possibly the most comprehensive text I have encountered (but also try Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland). My only real quibble is that Kahneman does not go into sufficient detail about Bayes Theorem (for which you need The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver).

Not only is this a book full of fascinating ideas but it is also extrememly readable. August 2013; 418 pages.

Friday, 30 August 2013

"The uses of pessimism" by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and a proponent of conservatism. Perhaps he is principally revered for his aesthetics: I can't comment on this. The present book is essentially philosophical and summarises some of the reasons why he so dislikes the opponents of conservatism.

This is the only Scruton book I have read so I can't generalise my comments but from my limited evidence it seems to me that this work is essentially reactive. He describes and attacks what he hates. He hates utopians and revolutionaries. Thus he attacks the French Revolutionaries and Mao.. In so doing it appears that he is guilty of the fallacy of the straw man. By attacking the worst excesses of his opponents, such as Hitler, terrorists and post-modern gobbledygookers, he seeks to undermine the moderates. But he doesn't seem to defend his own proposals.

However, my main concern with this book is that Scruton never provides any evidence for his assertions. He justifies nothing. For example, he supports 'free exchange' (free enterprise?) and the 'invisible hand' (Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market, one presumes) but he never defines these terms, he never provides any evidence as to why they are good (except that they are somehow opposed to what is bad and that they are 'traditional') and he certainly never explores the limitations of his ideas. He seems blind to the fact that the invisible hand of the markets does not always work perfectly, that theft and predation are a type of free enterprise; he seems blind to the fact that if 'America' does not enjoy global support there may be some reason other than the stupidity and wickedness of his opponents.

I came to Scruton from reading Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature and Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both hammer home every point with evidence: Pinker usually uses 'real' statistical data and Kahneman usually employs evidence from psychological experiments. But Scruton's arguments against transhumanism, for example,  come from Huxley's Brave New World, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Capek's The Makropulos Case. These are all works of fiction. They may be dystopian visions but they are not hard evidence. Again, he suggests that we only need originality "when circumstances change" (p 21) but he gives no evidence for this assertion. I look at the evolving world and see that nature continually creates novelty even when circumstances stay the same. Evolution may be massively wasteful but at least it seems to work. I worry about a world where we can stagnate and yet believe we can turn on originality as needed. Please, Mr Scruton, give me some evidence for your point of view.

A lot of his arguments rest on rhetoric using boo-words to damn. He criticises "the worst kind of optimism" (p37); presumably the worst kind is necessarily bad just as the best kind of optimism is good. He criticises "unscrupulous optimists" (p38) (does he applaud scrupulous ones?) because they create "folly and wickedness" (p37) and fall into fallacies which leave them "forever in darkness". He certainly knows how to lay extreme language on thick. At the same time, apparently without the slightest concept that there might be a speck of wood in his own eye let alone a beam, he tells us that these unscrupulous optimists damn their critics as "not just mistaken ... but evil." (p38) Scruton, heal thyself!

On page 49 he contends, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that "it is only in a society governed by the 'invisible hand' that true equality can be achieved: not an equality of property, influence or power, but an equality of recognition." Where is the evidence for the 'only'? Where is the evidence that 'equality of recognition' is the 'true equality'?

On page 50 he contends that we acquire freedom through "obedience" but he doesn't explain why or how and he doesn't explore whether it is possible to acquire freedom through any alternative method.

Again and again he builds a tower of conclusions, each one based on his own arguments and beliefs unsupported by external evidence. The result is a philosophical house of cards.

I was terribly disappointed by this book. Something is seriously wrong if this is the best philosophical justification that conservatism can muster. This book is little more than a list of unsupported assertions. The arguments lack evidence and lack depth. This book reads like the rant of a bar-room bigot seeking to convince by shouting reason down.

Embarrassingly weak. August 2013; 232 pages

"The Cleaner of Chartres" by Salley Vickers

I have already enjoyed Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel (five out of five) and Mr Golightly's Holiday (4.5 out of 5); she is an excellent novelist with an unusually lyrical style and an interestingly religious perspective on the world.

In this book, Agnes cleans Chartres Cathedral and private homes for a variety of interesting characters. Her story is interwoven with flashbacks to her history: her foundling origin, her convent upbringing, her illegitimate child, her alleged crime and her stays in mental hospitals.

In the present a variety of individuals, from villainous Madame Beck to heroic Abbe Paul, interact with Agnes and with one another. The past haunts the present. The tragedy builds. Will the holy innocent become the sacrificial scapegoat?

If you have read Vickers before you will recognise themes and characters. As in Miss Garnet's Angel there is a good-looking young man on a scaffold restoring art. As in Mr Golightly's Holiday and Miss Garnett's Angel, religion is an important theme; people consider and reconsider the nature of their relationship with God. Organised religion gets a bad press: the convent probably does more harm than good and most of the priests and nuns question their vocation. Paganism comes out well: there was a Platonic school at Chartres and Agnes cleans the famous labyrinth.

Some characters develop and grow but others (the good Abbe and the villainous Madame Beck are the obvious) are stereotypes.

All in all, therefore, this book disappointed me a little; it seemed to be a reworking of ideas Vickers had already explored. Nevertheless, it is a good read; I finished it within a day. Most of all it retains flashes of the Vickers beauty: the luminous and numinous prose which makes one want to slow down to savour.

August 2013; 297 pages


"Golden Lads" by Daphne du Maurier

The famous novelist does fact rather than fiction. This is the first part of the biography of Anthony and Francis Bacon. Written in the 1970s, Ms du Maurier brings her story-writing skills into the telling of history, creating characters and speculating on feelings while marshalling her material into a clear plot-line.

Wordsworth stated the "the child is father of the man" and Ian Mortimer in The Perfect King has suggested that "childhood is the most important" stage in life and therefore essential to a biography even though the early years are least likely to be well-documented. This biography starts on page one with their mother, Ann. She was a remarkable, a formidable, woman! Intensely protestant, she became a minor best-seller in Calvinist circles for her translations of Italian sermons. Fanatically protestant, her letters to her sons repeatedly warn them of the dangers of Roman Catholicism lurking in every foreigner and anyone else who might not conform to her strict ideals. Instead she insists that they behave in accordance with her highly limited and puritanical code. She moaned a lot! Not that it seems to have done any good at all.

Anthony spent most of his young life abroad, especially in France, mingling with Papists and fondling young pages. There is evidence that his Romish connections may have been because he was spying on behalf of Walsingham. There is also evidence that he probably was homosexual: he broke off an early engagement and never subsequently married, there are a number of reports about the young boys, and while in France he was accused of sodomy and only escaped being burned alive by the intervention of the future Henri IV of France.

Back in Britain he was more circumspect, at least in this respect. Becoming spymaster to the Earl of Essex was not in hindsight a brilliant career move. The Earl repeatedly fell out with Queen Elizabeth, once being placed under house arrest for laying his hand upon his sword after she boxed his ears for turning his ack on her and finally being executed for treason following an abortive coup.

Meanwhile Francis spent most of these years as a lawyer. He redeemed himself (and his brother?) following the fall of Essex by being part of the prosecution team at the Earl's trial. This despite the Earl repeatedly trying (although failing) to help him in his career: many historians have seen this as base ingratitude on the part of Francisd although it might have just been his way of extrication the Bacon brothers from the tricky situation in which the anyway-doomed Earl had already placed them.

Du Maurier highlights the crazy way in which Elizabethan finances worked. Both Bacon brothers spent huge amounts of their own money in pursuit of their patron's interests. Anthony paid many of Essex's spies from his own pocket; he also subsidised his brother because Francis had inherited nothing from their father. As a result of both brothers' expenses, they had to borrow, top mortgage and to sell much of their inheritance. This draw predictable and repeated complaints from their mother who was expected to live from the income of at least some of these properties; clearly this income dwindled with time. The Bacon's were not alone. The great Walsingham died in poverty because he had pauperised himself running and paying for Elizabeth's secret service. Given she escaped repeated assassination attempts and plots against her life and throne, this does seem somewhat ungrateful of her.

One thing that really annoyed me about this book is du Maurier's habit of quoting in French and Latin without offering a translation. I have ranted about this before! It seems to me that the author is saying: 'I am fluent in foreign languages and if you aren't then perhaps you are too stupid to read my book'. I beg all future editors not to allow this practice.

Despite this flaw, this is an interesting tale, engagingly told. I read it in a single sitting (albeit I was a captive audience on a ten hour flight to Cuba not forgetting the two hour train ride to the airport and the two hours sitting in the departures lounge).  It was particularly illuminating about Anthony, of whom I had not previously heard.

August 2013; 260 pages