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

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