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

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"The clashing rocks" by Ian Serraillier

This is a retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. They brave adventures to sail to Colchis in the Black Sea (the first Greek fleet to enter the Black Sea through the eponymous clashing rocks) to recapture the famous Golden Fleece. But they need the help of witch Medea who falls in love with Jason and requires him to mary her as the price of her help. But part of her help involves the murder of her brother. Later when Jason is safely back home Medea poisons his uncle the King which revolts the people and means that Jason and Medea need to flee. Finally in exile Medea kills two of Jason's children and leaves him.

Which is perhaps the most distressing story in the whole of the Greek pantheon (although the Oresteiad) is perhaps as dark.

It was simply told by Serraillier. He added very little although there were little touches to add reality to such things as Medea's love and the way ordinary people reacted to the tale. But it is still mostly a bald myth.

Monday, 24 November 2014

"Carrie's War" by Nina Bawden

Widowed Carrie takes her children back to the Welsh village where she lived as a wartime evacuee. The first chapter contains a classic teaser in which we learn that Carrie did something awful, the worst thing she ever did. The second chapter then goes back to her arrival with her brother as evacuees.

We meet mean Mr Evans the grocer who is very chapel and strict and his sister Louise who is scared of him and of her own shadow. Things are grim until Carrie and Nick are sent to get a Christmas goose from the farm owns by the estranged sister of Mr Evans. There they meet Hepzibah the cook and Mister Johnny who is a little slow and fellow evacuee Albert Sandwich. This is a magical world with scary creatures in it and enchanting creatures. Carrie is easily able to mix up bad and good; she is ruled by her impulsive heart and her perceptions are usually wrong. In contrast ten year old Nick is wise beyond his years.

The final chapter reverts back to the present but the magic hasn't finished.

A classic kids story with a beautiful construction and some wonderfully three dimensional characters.

November 2014; 159 pages

Sunday, 23 November 2014

"Lila" by Robert M Pirsig

I first read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my second year as an undergraduate at Cambridge; I was studying the History of Philosophy of Science so it was perfect timing. I found the book unbelievably brilliant. It is about a narrator on a motorcycle trip with his son Chris, travelling across America. As he travels he remembers his past life as a person he calls Phaedrus who was a lecturer and  student at University, a period which led to his discovery of a new concept in philosophy and to his nervous breakdown. The concept is Quality. When we look at a work of Art, he argues, we can see whether it has Quality or not. This Quality does not reside in the Object but in our Subjective response to it; at the same time it cannot be purely Subjective because there is a wide inter-personal agreement as to what great Art is. Therefore Quality is found in the interaction between a Subject and an Object.

Now in Lila, Phaedrus is a famous author who is sailing a boat from the Great Lakes to Florida. He picks up Lila in a bar; they have sex and she joins him on his journey. But his friend Richard Rigel, who knew Lila in the past, warns him to keep away and asks, in an attack on Phaedrus and his book, whether Lila has Quality. Yes, replies Phaedrus, but he then spends most of the next few days, sailing down to New York with Lila, whether she does or not.  This then leads him to develop his Metaphysics of Quality.

Sequels can rarely live up to the original. Zen and the Art is probably my favourite book ever so Lila didn't really have a chance. After the initial shiver up my spine when I encountered the magic name Phaedrus on the third page, I realised that there was a certain amount of sameness: a journey across America while the narrator spouts philosophy. While the concept of Quality was liberating the development of the Metaphysics of Quality seemed rather laboured and sometimes a little silly.

However, there are passages in the book where the story takes over, and there was genuine dramatic tension here. Furthermore, there were innumerable insights along the way which made the philosophy full of sparkles even if it did not convince as a system. Regrettably the end was rather weak (whilst the end of Zen and the Art is stunning).

A good book, worth reading for the philosophical insight, but it was inevitably unable to live up to the magic promise of its progenitor.

November 2014; 443 pages

Sunday, 9 November 2014

"The Lambs of London" by Peter Ackroyd

Some of Ackroyd's books are wonderful (Hawksmoor and his biographies of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens); I struggle with others. This novel avoids the time shifting and mysticism of The House of Doctor Dee and tells a straightforward tale (based on historical fact) ) of literary forgery; a theme he has previously covered in Chatterton. William Henry Ireland, to please his bookseller father, 'discovers' papers in Shakespeare's hand including fragments of poetry, a love letter to Anne Hathaway complete with a lock of hair, and a missing play, Vortigern. As he grows bolder, the doubts about the authenticity of his forgeries grows; Ackroyd provides some beautifully subtle dialogue which hints the the speaker has doubts while never making it obvious.

This story is interwoven with the equally true story of Mary Lamb who lives with brother Charles and, stifled by the limits imposed upon her by her mother, goes mad.

So the theme of the book is the irrational responses of children to the expectations created by their parents: R. D. Laing would have loved the argument.

The book is carefully written. Mary's father suffers from dementia and makes comments from time to time which sometimes seem to be full of wisdom but this reader was always unsure whether or not they referred to the action of the novel, or the subtext, or neither. This left me somewhat unsettled which was probably eactly what the author intended. There were occasions when he seemed to quote from other books that had not been written at the time of the action, so this was even more interesting. Mary's mother is wonderful for inserting the mundane into dialogue ("Tizzy! More hot water.") which keeps conversations from getting too serious, makes them seem more realistic and emphasises her role as the guardian of the everyday which is exactly what is driving Mary mad. And when Actor-Manager Sheridan turns up he is the model of a thespian, a practitioner, sir, of the sacred art which belongs to the muses Thalia and Melpomene.

This was an easy to read and very enjoyable entertainment. November 2014; 216 pages

Friday, 7 November 2014

"Therese Raquin" by Emile Zola

I saw the play of Therese Raquin recently at Malvern Theatre with the inimitable Alison Steadman as the older Madame Raquin. The play was brilliant, bringing alive the characters: Mme Raquin domineering, first turning Camille into a weak-willed invalid whose attempts at being a man lead to spiteful bullying and insisting that wild-child Therese marries him. The affair between Laurent and Therese is inevitable. The bit parts were also well done, particularly the stupid and insensitive Grivet.

In the play there are moments of sheer horror as the ghost of Camille rises from the bed and marches in and out of the room.

I was sceptical how the book would do the haunting scenes, given that Zola was an exponent of realism. And he carries it off! Everything is, or could be, in the imagination of the two murderers. Indeed, the book is a deep analysis of the psychology of two people who conceive of killing, who carry it out and who are then tormented by their guilt. Their uncontrollable passion for having sex with one another disappears as soon as Camille is dead. By the end, when they are married, they tear one another to pieces. He batters her and she sleeps around.

This book has the usual overwriting of the Victorians and is always inches away from melodrama. But it is compelling and its characters are believable. It chronicles the step by step degradation this is the consequence of sin. And Zola was an atheist!

Superb. November 2014; 194 pages

Monday, 3 November 2014

"Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev

This delightful book starts with Arkady taking his hero, nihilist medical student Bazanov, home to meet his doting father who has a small estate where the serfs have recently been freed and are supposed to pay rent. Once home, Arkady discovers that he has a baby half-brother: his father has impregnated a servant girl who is scandalously living in the house but they are not yet married. Bazanov pursues his scientific hobbies, mostly dissecting frogs, and angers Arkady's elegant ex-roue uncle with his politics. After a while the pair go to visit friends and stay with widow Anna and her sister Katya. Bazanov falls in love with Anna who rejects him and they go off to Bazanov's equally doting father. Bazanov hates being back at home: he is embarrassed by his parents although his father is always telling his mother to cool her ardour for the boy. So they go back to Arkady's house.

This is a brilliant book. The characters come alive through their dialogue: I particularly loved Bazanov who spouts his nihilist rubbish and scarcely takes a breath. It is especially brilliant because no character is quite what it seems. The contradictions within Bazanov's philosophy are clear from the start, sometimes subtly inherent in what he says and sometimes pointed out by one of the other characters, especially the devoted disciple Arkady who ends up getting quite fed up with his friend. But other characters have quirks. Uncle Piotr is the ultimate bachelor, elegant and polite, but he once trailed round Europe with his lover. Arkady's rather wimpish Papa has a new child. Arkady's love affair with Katya is a matter of slow and gentle discovery; Arkady is at first in love with Anna and it is only gradually, without him being aware (though the reader is) that his easy friendship with Katya blossoms into something more. His hesitant proposal is a masterpiece.

This is a brilliant book and really short (for a Russian novel!) and easy to read. A fabulous master-class in the art of writing characters.

November 2014; 224 pages