About Me

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

Sunday, 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.