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, 24 September 2017

"44 Scotland Street" by Alexander McCall Smith

This book was written to be serialised daily in a newspaper and therefore containing very short chapters each of which has to be a mini story in itself. It spawned a series including The World According to Bertie.

Pat, on her second gap year (something dark seems to have happened during the first) shares a flat with beautiful but narcissistic Bruce; Pat can scarcely help herself but will she be seduced? She has a part-time job with art gallery owner Matthew: is the Peploe a Peploe, will it be stolen and what happens when it is accidentally offered as a raffle prize in a spectacularly rigged raffle at the world's smallest Conservative dinner dance by Bruce who has forgotten to wear underpants under his kilt and whose efforts to purloin a spare pair are almost more embarrassing than being exposed. Bertie's demanding mother Irene sends him to a psychotherapist for being naughty and portrait painter Angus explores a secret tunnel with Pat and anthropologist Domenica.


Brilliantly written and often incredibly funny. I hardly ever laugh out loud when reading. It's embarrassing. But I did on this book. Several times.

Some of my favourite moments

  • “‘Genetically programmed to have lots of boyfriends, I think.’ ‘A slut?  that's what Bruce called her to me.’ ... ‘Male double standards,’  said Dominica sharply.” (p 10)
  • something of the late afternoon perhaps, even if not quite something of the night.” (p 53)
  • They used the metaphors of electricity. I am a bit below my normal wattage. I feel like shorting out.” (p 72)
  • Irene ...  was deeply committed to egalitarianism in all its forms, but this did not prevent the paying of adequate attention to gifted children. Society needed special people if egalitarian goals were to be met. Unexceptional people ... were often distressingly non-egalitarian in their views.” (p 89)
  • We all have Proustian moments, but we don't really know about it until we read Proust.” (p 215)
  • I think our cars been lost,  said Bertie. Daddy parked it somewhere when he was drunk and forgot where he put it.” (p 223)
  • Sexual attraction....  the dark, anarchic force. More powerful than anything else. Working away, but not for me.” (p 240)
  • it is the onion memory that makes me cry.” (p 249)
  • a fiddler worked his bow through a tune.” (p 254)
  • Falling out of love is every bit as painful as falling out of a tree -  and the pain lasts far longer.” (pp 297 - 298)
  • Is an ability to play the saxophone a social accomplishment or is it an anti-social accomplishment?” (pp 304 - 305)

September 2017; 326 pages

Friday, 22 September 2017

"Meatspace" by Nikesh Shukla

Kitab, a newly published author, has just broken up with Rachel and is allowing maintaining an online presence on facebook and twitter etc to block him from writing the next book. His brother Aziz wants a tattoo of a bow tie and uses google image search to find a man in New York with the same tattoo and who looks like Aziz; Aziz decides to travel to NY to meet his doppelganger; here he has adventures as a crime-fighting superhero (all written up in his blog). Meanwhile Kitab is being stalked by another Kitab who is seeking to steal his identity and to lose his virginity at a sex party.

Normally I hate books about authors having trouble writing: it seems rather too self-obsessed. This one won me over by the fresh way in which it used language and the relentlessly modern picture of a culture in which social media and one's virtual self seems more important than the meatspace world.

Lines I loved:
  • Amazon recommends I buy the book I wrote.” (p 1)
  • They awkwardly remove each other’s clothes and fall into the patterns, Porn Grammar.” (p 9)
  • You’re just on that bloody phone making a lazy self-obsessed quotes about nothing.” (p 14)
  • We both snap poppadoms.” (p 22)
  • Dinner with my dad. He pays for the food. I pay for my lack of achievement. We both pay for the over indulgence in the morning.” (p 28) 
  • I'm glad he has someone he can talk to freely and easily. I wish it wasn't me.” (p 30)
  • I've got unfinished business in her pants.” (p 33)
  • the gentrified ghetto vintage shops, hipster bars and pound shops” (p 34)
  • that's another story for another time told by another person.” (p 38)
  • Talking about sex in front of people, it feels too intimate. There's too much focus on the meat and the flesh.” (p 70)
  • We bow tie tatt-bumped, innit” (p 98)
  • If x’s were actual kisses, I’d have glandular fever.” (p 115)
  • Life gives us nuggets everyday. Whether we choose to make them chicken or gold is up to us.” (p 115)
  • A sofa and a chair and a mattress that all looked like they'd been at the business end of a stream of piss.” (p 142)
  • All this takes up 10% of my battery, which is a currency in modern life.” (p 162)
  • I was walking with skin issues here.” (p 219)
  • The Internet is both transient and eternal and there's nothing you can hide from it once it goes online.” (p 226)
  • When you need a pilgrimage to have a long hard look at yourself, why take the bus?” (p 240)
A good read from a promising new author. September 2017; 291 pages

"Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

By the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and the utterly wonderful NW.

What makes Zadie Smith an exceptional writer is the reality of the characters. When Tracey's mum responds to the accusation that her daughter has stolen money the actions and the dialogue was pitch perfect. Each of these people, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, are three dimensional real flawed human beings. Yes, they are inconsistent. Yes, they do things that don't seem to make sense (Tracey becomes enamoured of a cult that believes the world is ruled by giant lizards). But it is their wrinkles, their highlights and their shadows, that make them stand out in three glorious dimensions from the page.

The narrator grows up with her postman father and her OU-studying mother, later to become a politician; she goes to dance classes with her alter-ego Tracey, the rebellious child from the single parent family who just happens to be a natural dancer. The best the narrator can do is to become personal assistant to mega-singing star Aimee; she is the key liaison in the school for girls Aimee is creating in Africa. Meanwhile Tracey's dancing career has stalled after minor west end triumph and she falls into motherhood. 

It didn't feel like a novel. There was little overt plot development. Things happened and lives were shaped but the usual novellic link between character trait and consequence seemed largely absent. Instead it was almost a memoir of two girls growing up and their experiences as young women; other female character trajectories that were important were those of the mother and of the superstar Aimee. Perhaps the point that the author was trying to make most of all was that we are shaped by our socio-economic backgrounds. Although Aimee and the narrator's mother may be examples of self-made women who can transcend their circumstances through their very remarkable personalities and energies, both these do-gooders are powerless to improve the lives of others. Even an international celebrity is, in the end, only able to make marginal changes in the world, for example by adopting an African baby. The school in Africa can succeed for a while but it is clear that it's long-term prospects are bleak. Like dancer Tracey, who appears on a West End stage but in the end is another embittered single mother.

It's also about how the rich can't understand the poor. The narrator never really understands Tracey, despite them being best friends; she is even more at sea in Africa where the culture is completely alien to her. And, of course, misunderstanding leads to poor decisions and poor decisions can lead to tragedy.

Some great lines:
People are not poor because they made bad choices ... they make bad choices because they’re poor” (p 49)
Rainbows passed through the wine glasses on to the wet silverware.” (p 156)
it's just so challenging to make that translation” (p 176)
Watching all that fire with so little kindling, it was of course easy to despair.” (p 225)
No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.” (p 253)
Children can be a kind of a wealth.” (p 253)
New York was my first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons, or black shadows, depending on where they stood in relation to the sun.” (p254)
Her pat phrases were like lids dancing on top of bubbling cooking pots, and all I had to do was sit patiently and wait for her to boil over.” (p 378)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

"Conclave" by Robert Harris

As Dean of the |College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli has to organise the election of the next pope. Packed with authentic detail, Conclave charts the intrigues as the secrets and sins of the front-runners knock them one-by-one out of the race to leave them with perhaps the least likely candidate.

Although the twists and turns are perhaps slightly predictable (despite the author's obvious skill in misdirection) and although the suspension of disbelief is challenged by the incredible unlikelihood of the ending, this book is so grounded in reality that it could almost be a documentary rather than fiction.

Another great Vatican-based thriller is The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell.

Some great lines:
  • "As with sleep, the more one desired meaningful prayer, the more elusive it became.” (p 6)
  • Once, God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age.” (p 16)
  • The vices of courtiers all down the ages - the sins of vanity and intrigue and of malice and gossip.” (p 54)
  • The United Kingdom - that godless isle of apostasy.” (p 232)
  • Faith is a living thing precisely because it walks hand in hand with doubt.” (p 124)
A good read. September 23017; 380 pages

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Let's explore diabetes with owls" by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris' wry comments on life (also see my review of When you are engulfed in flames). If this is a memoir, Sedaris has lived a sometimes surreal life. He talks about his bringing up: the father who never encouraged him (“Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator or anywhere near it, because our parents recognised it for what it was: crap.” p 14), always praising other more athletic boys, his best friend (“With Shaun, though, I could almost be myself. This didn't mean that we were alike, only that he wasn't paying that much attention.” (p 60; “What brought us together was a love of nature, or, more specifically, of catching things and unintentionally killing them.” p 59). He writes about the contrast between doctors in the US, who pander to the neurotic hypochondriac in each of us, and those in Europe who point out that a fatty lump is not a tumour (“Either you can live in the past as a lonely, bitter paraplegic, or you can live in the present as one.” p 119). He talks about being so lonely that he moons over heterosexuals: “Johnny didn't strike me as gay, but it was hard to tell with alcoholics. Like prisoners and shepherds, many of them didn't care who they have sex with, the idea being that what happens in the dark stays in the dark.” (p 125) He talks about buying a stuffed owl as a Valentine's Day present for his boyfriend.

Life, he tells us, is like a four-ring stove. The rings are your family, your friends, your health, and your work. If you want to succeed you have to switch off one of the rings. To really succeed you have to switch off two. (pp 89 - 90)

Funny, in both senses of the word: September 2017; 275 pages

Sunday, 10 September 2017

"Millennium People" by J G Ballard

Ballard's always fecund imagination has conceived of a middle class in revolt, refusing to pay school fees or spiralling estate management charges, torching their own houses rather than let them be repossessed, manning barricades and throwing petrol bombs over parking disputes, fire bombing museums and video stores.

David, whose first wife has been killed by a terrorist bomb at Heathrow, infiltrates the shifting alliances of the middle class revolutionaries in some sort of attempt at closure on his failed marriage. But as he meets charismatic Kay and sinister Doctor Gould, has he fallen in love with violence?

A strange book. I found it difficult to accept the basic thesis that the comfortable bourgeoisie would, feeling trapped, throw it all away. The characters all did strange things; I never really identified with anyone. They seemed too much like puppets on a stage set by the author. If you want a book about middle class revolutionaries you might try Saturn's Daughters by Jim Pinnells set in the anarchist world of nineteenth century Russia, where real, well-to-do woman indulge in real crimes of violence.

The Guardian review of this book says it is "one of the most amusing novels I've read in a long time" so perhaps I misunderstood it: it was meant to be funny.

It was extremely imaginative and deeply embedded in reality. Real places were described with perfect accuracy; people were grounded in physicality. Acts of violence were full of sickening details. It made it even harder to understand how the protagonist could be seduced into complicity with the perpetration of these acts.

A book that made me think.

There were some stunning lines:
  • Not for her sake. For yours. ... You don't love her. I know that. But you still hate her. That's why you have to go.” (p 21)
  • Heathrow approached, a beached sky-city, half space station and half shanty town.” (p 25) 
  • Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police.” (p 52)
  • I told them to take their cameras into the bedroom and make a porn film. Fucking is what they do in their spare time so why not look at it through a camera lens? They wouldn't learn much about sex but they’d learn a lot about film.” (p 53)
  • Tourism is the great soporific. It's a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there's something interesting in their lives. It's musical chairs in reverse. Every time the muzak stops people stand up and dance around the world, and more chairs are added to the circle, more marinas and Marriott Hotels, so everyone thinks they're winning.” (p 54)
  • Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seams run out we’re left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software.” (pp 79 - 80) 
  • Have you noticed how vocabularies fluctuate in order to cope with our need to justify ourselves?” (p 103)
  • They see that private schools are brainwashing their children into a kind of social docility, turning them into a professional class who run the show for consumer capitalism.” (p 104) 
  • Gould withdrew into himself, retreating behind the bones of his face.” (p 128)
  • Starter homes ... rabbit hutches for aspiring marriage.” (p 133)
  • Looking for God is a dirty business. You find God in a child’s shit, in the stink of stale corridors,in a nurse's tired feet.” (p 137)
  • First wives are a right of passage into adult life . I many ways it's important that first marriages go wrong. That's how we learn the truth about ourselves.” (p 138) 
  • Sex with Kay is like a resuscitation that's gone slightly wrong. You're deeply grateful, but parts of you are never going to be the same.” (p 168)
  • The guinea pigs had lured the experimenter into the maze.” (p 220)
September 2017; 294 pages

Saturday, 9 September 2017

"Styles of learning" by Noel Entwistle

This book was mostly interesting because of how different researchers classified human personalities in different ways. For example, Wertheimer studied how students approached a maths problem The first type ducked the question by saying that they didn’t like maths or they hadn’t yet studied this topic. The second type searched their memories frantically using a strategy of saying everything they knew in the hope that something somewhere would be correct. The third type sought analogies or tried to classify the problem. The fourth type used what Wertheimer called “real thinking” (p 54)

Roy Heath in the 1960s and 70s divided students into three types the non committed, the hustlers, and the plungers. I loved these descriptions!
  • The first type “views a commitment as a possible entanglement which might reduce his freedom to get out of the way when travel threatens. When storm clouds do break he’ll hold on and hope for the best. In other words he takes a passive role in a conflict situation ... [a non-committer had a myth that] “he could do a lot of things ... if he really went all-out” (Entwistle p 67)
  • The hustler “Is a great competitor. In his relations with others he is often aggressive and insensitive to their feelings. This is unfortunate for he possesses a strong desire to be received favourably and affectionately.” He “is impatient with the status quo. He must keep moving beyond his present level.Wasting time is for him a cardinal sin, a lost opportunity ... life is a battle. People must look out for themselves, must solve their own problems ... he is a study in antithesis ... a personality that is at war with itself. He is a strong-willed man couple with equally strong inhibitions and control over his deeper impulses.” (Entwistle 1996, 68)
  • The plunger “Today he might feel on top of the world ... tomorrow might find him bitter, sad, alone ... whether high or low, he seems at the utter mercy of his feelings. He responds as strongly to guilt as he does to his urges ... he works and loves in spurts”. (Entwistle 1996, p 68)
  • The ideal is the Reasonable Adventurer who can “attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality. And he seems to do so with an air of playfulness” At times he is a believer and at other times a sceptic but he alternates these. (Entwistle 1996, 70) Rather too good to be true!
Entwistle is most famous for his distinction between 'deep' and 'surface' learning (I am always rather sceptical of any categorisation where it is obvious from the label where you 'ought' to be). He tells us that “It is impossible for a student adopting a surface approach ever to reach a deep level of understanding.” (p 79); this is partly because “Students adopting a deep approach also tended to spend longer in studying.” (p 80)

He is also slightly scornful of recently fashionable idea such as divergent thinking and holistic thinking. He points out that “The two major pathologies commonly found in learning are the failure to examine at the logical structure or the evidence in sufficient detail, and the failure to make use of appropriate analogies. ... The holist strategy involves looking at the whole area being learned, taking a broad perspective, seeking interconnection with other topics and making use of personal and idiosyncratic analogies. The examination of the logical structure and of the supportive evidence comes later when understanding is demanded, but left to himself the holist is likely to put off what he may see as the more boring parts of learning.” (p 93) Furthermore, “Imaginative thinking is important in problem solving in various ways. First it allows the problem to be reformulated, avoiding an exclusive focus on the most obvious interpretation. Then the review of possible solutions depends on a leisurely approach and a wide focus of attention which includes both likely and unlikely combinations of ideas. But the final stages of problem solving demand a return to tight, narrowly focused logical thinking.” (p 156)

There are also random facts which are just plain interesting:
The Latin word persona originally described the painted mask which an actor held in front of his face to portray the person he was playing. The word subsequently was used to indicate the ‘front’ an individual presented to other people - how he wanted to be seen. It was also used to describe ‘the player behind the mask’” (p 179)
In Greek, character meant engraving and implied a patent of traits in bothered in a distinctive life-style ... ‘characteristic’ remains a neutral term synonymous with ‘trait’.” (p 179)
A very well written book which reviews an important topic. September 2017; 272 pages

Friday, 8 September 2017

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J D Salinger

This is the classic novel of teenage discontent although to my mind the scenes set in the prep school are not as brilliant as James Kirkwood's Good Times, Bad Times and the 'brother killed himself' theme is explored in far more depth in Judith Guest's Ordinary People. But this is comparing it with two magnificent books. I only wonder why this book is the cult, the yardstick, while they both became also-rans.

The hero, Holden Caulfield, is extraordinarily privileged for a teenager; he has freedoms most teenagers could only dream of. Not only does he go to a succession of top private schools, but also his brother is a Hollywood scriptwriter, he lives in Manhattan, he can smoke both at home and at school, he has rich parents who clearly love him and look after him, he can leave his boarding school at will to travel into New York to party and to meet girls, and he has the confidence to wander into nightclubs and bars, to book into hotels, and even to ask waiters to invite singers to his table. Is he really a typical American youth facing an emotional crisis?

Plot Spoiler alert; this section has spoilers (although “I’d tell you the rest of the story, but I might puke if I did. It isn’t that I’d spoil it for you or anything. There isn’t anything to spoil, for Chrissake.” ,p 125)

The plot seems to divide into four sections; like Acts; each Act is almost exactly one quarter of the book. The first act recounts Holden at prep school. The second act follows him to New York where he takes a hotel room and goes to a night club. He tries to pick up some girls but in the end he has a hooker come to his room. This act finishes with him being beaten up by the hooker's pimp for an extra five dollars. If this is Holden's descent into hell, he descends a long way. But in Act Three he leaves his hotel and starts to roam around New York. He persuades a girl friend to watch the movies with him; he insults her and she leaves. He persuades an old friend to have a drink with him; again Holden's behaviour sends the lad away. Holden is now drunk and lonely. He decides to go to see his sister. In Act Four he sees his sister than he goes to the house of an old teacher to sleep the night but he becomes afraid that the teacher wants to sleep with him and so he ends up sleeping in a station waiting room. He is homeless and getting ill.

Breaks the rules. He uses a lot of repetition. No kidding. A lot. And italics. Uses the phrase “It really does” a lot. Especially (?) when he is lying.

He uses the word “old “ to describe people.

He uses the phrase “it killed me” to mean it tickled me pink: talking about a film:

What's it all about?
  • Holden, the kid who hates phonys, is the biggest phony of them all. He's a spoiled rich kid who thinks he can use his money to buy people, like a prostitute, or old the girls from Seattle, or his friend old Luce; he gives them money and presents and he buys them drinks but he can't buy their love. The only love he gets is from Phoebe his sister; he buys her a record but he breaks it before she gets it. 
  • Holden, the kid who hates phonys, who is "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life".
  • Holden, the virgin who is desperate to get laid, who can't take advantage of the young prostitute, who gets into a fight defending the honour of a girl he has never slept with.
  • Holden the naive innocent, who gets beaten up by a pimp and nearly seduced by his teacher.
  • Holden, the spolied brat with the unrealistic dreams of escaping to the countryside to chop wood and pump gas.
  • Holden, the adolescent who misses his dead brother, who can't study at school, who enters the hell of New York and descends into his own private hell of depression and loneliness, ending up sleeping in the station.
  • Contradictions abound. Even his dream of being a 'catcher' in the rye is based on his mishearing a song about meeting someone in the rye.

Great lines:
Then this girl gets killed, because she's always speeding. That story just about killed me.” (p 16)
Holden is very concerned with not being a ‘phony’; he hates phonys. “Grand. There's a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.” (p 8)
They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.” (p 3)
almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.” (p 46)
Mothers are all slightly insane.” (p 49)
He was one of those guys that think they’re being a pansy if they don’t break around forty of your fingers when they shake hands with you.” (p 79)
Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while he was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.” (p 89)
My big trouble is, I always sort of think whoever I’m necking is a pretty intelligent person. It hasn’t a goddam thing to do with it, but I keep thinking it anyway.” (p 95)
Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.” (p 102)
I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do.” (p 105)
A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.” (p 117)
All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to.” (p 142)
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” (p 192)

Great book (though there are better); September 2017; 192 pages

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

This story is narrated by Eleanor Oliphant, an office worker in her early 30s. She lives alone, so alone that she drinks vodka to block out the weekend. Why? At first we don't know but she drops little clues about her scar and the sinister Mummy who calls her every Wednesday. Eleanor hasn’t a clue how to fit in with normal social life; she makes faux pas because she takes things literally. This is a source of the book’s humour. It really is very funny; in many ways it reminded me of Adrian Mole. But the humour is two-way. We enjoy Eleanor’s acerbic comments about the strange things people do; she is like a Martian observing and wondering. But we are also laughing at Eleanor for her gaucheness.

But the hints keep coming about Eleanor’s troubled past and we are soon wondering whether she is not, actually, a little mad. Will she find love with the gorgeous pop singer or will she settle for scruffy Raymond from IT? Or will Mummy’s hate drive her to destruction? This book is a masterclass in foreshadowing.

Do I have a criticism? One tiny point of pedantry. Eleanor is a classics scholar and a pedant. So why does she use the phrase “the hoi polloi”? Hoi polloi is Greek for ‘the people’ so Eleanor is saying “the the people.” Inelegant. Oh, by the way, the Telegraph is NOT the best crossword; that honour belongs to the Guardian.

A stunning debut novel. So much humour, so much perception, so much horror.

Endless favourite bits:
  • That palpable sense of Friday joy, everyone colluding with the lie that somehow the weekend would be amazing” (p 9)
  • If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’” (p 13)
  • His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown.” (p 24)
  • I feel sorry for beautiful people. Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral.” (p 28) 
  • The goal ultimately was successful camouflage as a human woman.” (p 30)
  • My face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” (p 30)
  • Terrible people danced in a terrible way to terrible music” (p 41)
  • It’s always nice to hear my first name spoken aloud by a human voice.” (p 51)
  • What was a muse anyway? I was familiar with the classical allusion, of course, but in modern-day practical terms, a muse seemed simply to be an attractive woman whom the artist wanted to sleep with.” (p 84) 
  • I have often noticed that people who routinely wear sports wear are the least likely salt to participate in athletic activity.” (p 99)
  • She looked at him with so much love that I had to turn away. At least I know what love looks like, I told myself. That's something. No one has ever looked at me like that, but I'd be able to recognise it if they ever did.” (p 106)
  • Imagine having to micturate in a row along side other men, strangers, acquaintances, friends, even? It must be dreadful. Just think how odd it would be if we had to display our genitals to one another” (p 202)
  • Go and sit in your empty little flat and watch television on your own, just like you do Every. Single. Night ... I sat down and watched television alone like I do Every. Single. Night .” (p 217)
  • It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I'm still something of a work in progress.” (p 236)
  • I was ready to rise from the ashes and be reborn.” (p 255)
  • Was I alive? I hoped so, but only because if this was the location of the afterlife, I'd be lodging an appeal immediately.” (p 273)
  • The lift had transported me back in time to that least belle of epoques - the 1980s.” (p 286) 
  • Such a strange unusual feeling - light, calm, as though I'd swallowed sunshine.” (p 314) 
Brilliant. Sept 2017, 383 pages

Monday, 4 September 2017

"The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind" by Julian Jaynes

Jayners wrote this book in 1976 when he was professor of psychology at Princeton University and so, on the face of it, not a nutter. His thesis is, on the face of it, nutty. He believes that consciousness evolved in human minds somewhere between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey when all around the world people began to mourn that they had lost their gods, the voices they had heard commanding them to do things in their heads. These voices were the voices of gods. In other words, “before the second Millennium BC, everyone was schizophrenic.” (p 405)

The bicameral mind itself evolved: Archaeological evidence suggest early human tribe size like gorillas of about 30. "And it is the problem of this limitation of group size which the gods may have come into evolutionary history to solve." (p 129) Social control was effected by individuals hallucinating the voices of gods and kings. "The bicameral mind is a form of social control and it is that form of social control which allowed mankind to move from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural communities. The bicameral mind with its controlling gods was evolved as a final stage of the evolution of language." (p 126)

What was that like? He presumes that the Iliad describes humans well: "the gods were organizations of the central nervous system ... The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact the gods never step outside of natural laws. ... The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be." (p 74)

But then a further evolution took place. Language had ushered in bicamerality, now writing ushered it out again.  The world (middle east) became anarchic and a socially useful control that ran small city states was no longer an evolutionary asset; consciousness had to evolve. The change factors were:
  • writing weakens auditory brain
  • control using hallucinations is inherently fragile
  • The massive social upheaval throughout the ancient world consequent on the eruption of Thera making it more difficult for social control to be via hallucinated gods
  • Social mixing causing people to observe differences in others and thus to hypothesise internality
  • epic poetry introducing narrative
  • deceit becoming socially useful
  • natural selection
The major gods became invisible. "We have the beginning of hybrid human-animal beings as the intermediaries and messengers between the banished gods and their forlorn followers. Such messengers were always part bird and part human ..." (p 230). The epic of Gilgamesh has later interpolations: a "barmaid" (late interpolation, c650 BC) in Gilgamesh story speaks to her heart. (p 252) Gilgamesh has sadness in his heart (p 253). "God Utnapishtim, the Distant ... is looking into the distance and speaking words to his heart, asking it questions and coming to his own conclusions." (p 253) "The literature on the loss of gods is an unquestionable change in the history of Mesopotamia, unlike anything that preceded it. It is indeed the birth of modern religious attitudes and we can discover ourselves in the very psalm-like yearnings for religious certainty" (p 253) 

He notes the change in the character of God within the Old Testament: “He walks in his garden at the cool of the day, talking to his recent creation.Adam. He is present and visible at the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, shuts the door of Noah's Ark with his own hand, speaks with Abraham at Sechem, Bethel, and Hebron, and scuffles all night with Jacob like a hoodlum.” (p 301) “There is no question of virtue or of justice. So He-Who-Is prefers Abel to Cain, slays Er, the first-born of Judah, having taken a dislike to him, first tells Abraham to beget a son, and then later orders him to kill the son even as criminal psychotics might be directed today.” (p 304)

He notes that words that are key in the Iliad change as we move to the Odyssey:
  • thumos: activity, movement, agitation (perhaps caused by adrenaline) (p 262)
  • phrenes: lungs, breathing (p 263)
  • kradie: later kardia, cardiac, heart (p 265); "originally, I suggest, it simply meant quivering, coming from the verb kroteo, to beat." (p 266)
  • etor: belly, guts (p 267)
  • ker: trembling, perhaps from kradie, perhaps from cheir, hand (p 268)
  • noos: "from noeo = to see, is perception itself" (p 269) "The coming of consciousness can in a certain vague sense be construed as a shift from an auditory mind to a visual mind". (p 269)
  • mermerizo: divided into two parts, in two minds (p 259)
  • psyche: from "psychein = to breathe", life
From Iliad to Odyssey these terms increase except for thumos which decreases. (p 274) "The Odyssey shows an increased spatialization of time ... there is also an increased ratio of abstract terms to concrete" (p 276)

And oracles which were once everyday now become specialized. He sees six stages in the development of oracles: (pp 329 - 330)
  • Place
  • Prophet
  • Trained prophet
  • Possessed prophet
  • Interpreted possessed prophet
  • Erratic
Nowadays he sees the vestiges of bicamerality in those with Tourette's syndrome, in schizophrenics and in religious group ceremonies like Voodoo and the glossolalia experienced in certain charismatic churches.
  • Hallucinations are dependent on the teachings and expectations of childhood” (p 410)
  • The memoirs of Schreiber a German suffering from schizophrenia mention that “as he slowly recuperated, the tempo of speech of his gods slowed down and then degenerated into an indistinct hissing.” (p 416)
  • The patient in trying to keep some control over his behaviour repeats over and over to himself ‘I am’ or ‘I am the one present in everything’ ... another patient may use only single words like ‘strength’ or ‘life’ to try to anchor himself against the dissolution of his consciousness.” (p 420)
I didn't find it convincing. Clearly there were profound social and cultural changes at these times and the nature of godness changed (and has changed again more recently) but these are surely much easier to explain as cultural changes. We all (?) hear voices in our heads and some interpret this as voices from outside their heads. Perhaps that interpretation was more common among pre-literate people. Perhaps, also, hallucinations were more common in ancient times: the ancient Greeks were always watering their strong wines, perhaps before modern methods of food production it was quite common to ingest psychoactive substances with your bread and your beer. It just seems a step too far to postulate that bicamerality evolved into human brain architecture and then evolved out again in favour of consciousness.

One of the troubles with this thesis is his use of language. For example: "The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener." (p 73) The use of "most certainly" suggest to my bullshit detection faculty that he is using rhetoric to bolster a weak argument. If the argument is strong enough, don't add superfluous qualifiers.

He also makes claims that are just plain wrong. "The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history." (p 76) But of course it is imaginative creative literature. It is historical fiction. It is like saying the Shakespeare's Richard III is not drama but biography. Furthermore, the analysis of words used in the Iliad which Jaynes undertakes later is a type of literary criticism. 

But a fascinating read and there were lots of side snippets some of which I have recorded below.

By products:
  • If you continually mistype 'the' as 'hte' you should practise typing 'hte': "the mistake drops away - a phenomenon called negative practice" (p 34)
  • "Poems are rafts clutched at by men drowning in inadequate minds." (p 256)
  • Time is “spread out in a spatial succession ... The before and after of time on metaphored into a spatial succession.” (p 280)
  • When I am melting I have no hands, I go into a doorway in order not to be trampled on. Everything is flying away from me. In the doorway I can gather together the pieces of my body.” (p 425 )
  • The word psyche originally meant life and only later came to mean soul. (p 291) “So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. ... So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins it's huge haunted career through history.” (p 291)
  • The word for vagrants in Akkad, the language of Babylon, is khabiru, and so these desert refugees are referred to on cuneiform tablets. And khabiru, softened in the desert air, becomes Hebrew.” (p 294)
  • "You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness." (p 60)
  • "the most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors". (p 48) He gives huge numbers of examples that use the human body such as the head of the household, the face of a clock, the brow of a hill, the teeth of a comb, the lip of a crater, the arm of a chair, the leg of a table ... (p 49) 
  • All the tablets from Hammurabi "are apparently incised in wet clay by the same hand" (p 198): H himself?

Cuneiform poetry: (p 225)

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment
My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

September 2017; 446 pages

Sunday, 3 September 2017

"The Origins and Growth of Modern Education" by Elizabeth Lawrence

This is an extraordinarily comprehensive account of the development of educational thought in western Europe, particularly Britain.

The author displays her bias clearly, applauding those who, hundreds of years ago, had views which might be interpreted as being support of Lawrence's educational ideals: for example: "Pestalozzi expresses clearly what is now accepted, if not acted upon, as an educational truth: that education can force nothing into children, but only draw out what is already there. ... This was not theory. It was put into practice and it succeeded, as anyone who has tried it knows that it does succeed." (p 199) Notwithstanding Socrates and his scripted tricks with Meno's slaveboy, I am not convinced that education can never be anything more than drawing out what is already inside and the uncompromising and unevidenced way in which she advances her doctrine seems unacademic at best. This is a rather whiggish view of the history of education in which progress is always progress. It rather assumes that "modern education" is now as good as it is going to get.

And certainly some of the practices of the old days (eg trying to beat knowledge into children) seem wrong although perhaps the biggest improvement is that nowadays, instead of having philosophers pontificate about what they believe about education we actually have people observing children and their learning.

It was interesting that some of the metaphors for learning are used time and again:
If you pour a liquid into a narrow necked bottle it will overflow (Quintillian, Comenius
(Erasmus says you shouldn't feed a child more meat than he can take which is similar)
Teaching is like igniting flames (Plutarch, Alciun,
Teaching is like gardening, tending plants (Plutarch, Origen, St Anselm, Vives, Sir Thomas Elyot, Francis Bacon, John Dury, Pestalozzi, Froebel
Learning is like digesting food
Curiosity is key: (St Augustine of Hippo, Montaigne, Locke, Fenelon, Rollin, Isaac Watts, Rousseau
Timing is important (Vives, Isaac Watts, Froebel, Piaget
You need to know the kids (Sir Thomas Elyot
Kids need to have things to do (Comenius, Locke, Rousseau, Robert Owen, Dewey

Selected quotes:
"Going to school has become accepted as a kind of sentence imposed on all, which must be served before one can be let free into the world." (p 9)
"In primitive societies ... children learn all they need to know in the life of the tribe, by imitating and taking part in its work and rituals. ... It was only with the invention of writing that a new kind of education arose ... which gave rise to schools, since the work of teaching was now too skilled to be carried out at home." (p 12)
"The future of the State, and indeed its survival, depend on the quality of its education." (p 19)
"In the story of the slave in the Meno he [Plato] showed that, before one can learn anything, it is necessary to know oneself and to realize the extent of one's ignorance." (p 27)
Clement wrote: (The Pedagogue 4:5): "To become as a little child - does not mean that adults should be unlearned or childish, but that, loosed from the world, they should touch the earth on tiptoe. That is the secret of the life-long springtime of youth." (p 49)
Peter Abelard (Sic et Non, Prologue) said "through doubt we are led to inquiry, and by inquiry we discern the truth." (p 55)
Comenius thought  that "Too much sitting still ... is not a good sign" (p 100)
"If they will put a Man's coat on a Child, the Child may yet be cumbered with his long and loose Habiliments, and yet be starved with Cold." Isaac Watts; (p 143)
"Children generally acquire speedily and certainly whatever they are not pressed to learn" Rousseau (p 164)
"Children are always in motion: quiet and meditation are their aversion" Rousseau (p 164)
"Education ... should enable the child to live in and make his own contribution to society." Rousseau (p 166)
"Education must be active experience"  David Williams (p 175)
"it is one thing to have learnt, and another to be able to teach" Arthur Hill (p 223)
"those brought up under the severest discipline should so frequently turn out the wildest of the wild." Spencer (p 282) 
"The child who teaches another ... teaches himself" Seguin (p 297)
"The first function of education is to lead the child to independence" so don't do things for kids Montessori (p 328)
"Most political newspapers are bristling with hate ... too many are socialistic because they hate the rich instead of loving the poor." AS Neill (p 347)

"We should never do for children what they are able to do for themselves." Edgeworth (p 206)
RLEdgeworth and novelist daughter Maria (who wrote Castle Rackrent, reviewed here) wrote Practical Education (1798) based on transcripts of children's conversation. They advocated learning by doing: "Children ... work hard at play" (p 205) though they advocated the use of the right toys.

M De Fellenberg's School of Industry at Hofwyl in Switzerland taught kids, including an ex beggar boy, after they had laboured all day in the fields; they wanted to learn and refused to go to bed
Massively comprehensive and written well enough to read without falling asleep. September 2017; 370 pages

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

"Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world" by Michael Holquist

Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin was a student during the Russian revolution; his brother who fought for the White Guards took English exile and died a professor of linguistics at Birmingham University in 1950. Philosopher Bakhtin survived the turbulence of post-revolutionary Russia, Hitler's invasion, and the Stalinist regime and wrote (sometimes under borrowed names) a series of works in which philosophy merges with literary criticism under the doctrine of Dialogism. 

He was therefore a neo-Kantian who believed, with Kant, that "The world, the realm of things-in-themselves, really exists, but so does the mind, the realm of concepts. Thought is the give and take between the two." (p 4) Bakhtin understood "perception as an act of authoring" (p 7). This means that there are "Problems that confront anyone seeking to heed Socrates injunction to 'Know thyself!'": is there a single 'self'? (p 12); "How can I know myself? ... How can I know if it is I or another who is talking?" (p 13).

I read this book because The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough had mentioned Bakhtin's heory of Dialogism and made me interested. Holquist's explanation was so well written that what might have been an impenetrable explanation of a highly complicated doctrine was actually fun to read. Some of the fascinating insights included:
  • Existence itself is seen as a dialogue and one which involves necessary limitations. "You can see things behind my back that I cannot see ... cognitive time/space ... is the arena in which all perception unfolds." (p 21)
  • "Dialogism's master assumption is that there is no figure without a ground. The mind is structured so that the world is always perceived according to this contrast." (p 22)
  • "Dialogism is the name not just for a dualism, but for a necessary multiplicity in human perception." (p 22) Dialogism is a library of novels like Borges 'Library of Babel' (p 30)
  • Dialogue "is present in exchanges at all levels - between words in language, people in society, organisms in ecosystems, and even between processes in the natural world. ... dialogue is carried on at each level by different means." (p 41)
  • "Bakhtin maintains that in cognition the time of the self is always a present state without beginning or end." (p 45)
  • Infancy is "a stage without speech in which organisms have difficulty with otherness not directly tied to their biological needs" (p 52) Infant comes from Latin in = not fans = "present participle of fari 'to speak'" (p 93)
  • Autism and schizophrenia involves "the inability to mediate between inner speech and the social dimension of language" (p 52) "Official discourse is autism for the masses" (p 52) 
  • "In the totalitarian state, language seeks to drain the first person pronoun of all its particularity." (p 52)
  • "An utterance ... is always an answer to another utterance that precedes it" (p 60) "The utterance is always on the border between what is said and what is not said." (p 61)
  • Bakhtin shares with Hegel and Lukacs "a vision of history conceived as the history of consciousness". (p 73) He should have read Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind!
  • For example, "the Homeric Greek heroes ... do not sense a distinction between themselves, their society, and nature ... modern men ... seem to wander the world alone, alienated from themselves and their culture" (p 74); the novel is "an expression of transcendental homelessness" (p 74) Sounds interesting to compare the Odyssey with Ulysses! Perhaps M should also have read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson.
  • "In Bakhtin's history, the criteria by which higher degrees of consciousness can be judged are not singularity and unity as in Hegel and Lukacs, but rather multiplicity and variety ... dialogism conceives history as a constant contest between monologue and dialogue ... it is a sequence that has no necessary telos built into it." (p 75)
  • "In Hegel's dialectical version of history there is an iron law of entelechy [the realization of potential] at work ... similar to the theory of cognitive development ... found in Piaget." (pp 77 - 78). Lukacsian cognitive development like Piaget's has irreversibilities. (p 78) "The novel 'arises' suddenly in the modern period because the cognitive conditions that make it possible were lacking in earlier ages." (p 78)
  • "Given Bakhtin's emphasis on inner speech" his theory closer to Vygotsky than Piaget.
  • Piaget: a genetic innate pre-fixed approach to development: "Individual children were conceived as local instances of a general algorithm." (p 80); Vygostsky assumes nurture rather than nature, culture, social milieu.
  • "Both Bakhtin and Vygotsky ... assume that thought is inner speech" (p 80)
  • Bakhtin talks about "the dark chaos of my inner sensation of myself" (p 81)
  • Bruner points out that the way a mum talks to a kid tends to follow a pattern: (p 81)
    • Attention grabber: "Oh look, Richard!"
    • Question: "What's that?"
    • Answer: "It's a fishy."
    • Affirmation: "That's right."
  • "The adventure novel of ordeal ... the main body of the story consists of a potentially endless number of adventures as the hero repeatedly attempts to save the bride from monsters, brigands, and so on; and in the conclusion the two lovers are united. ... The time is 'empty' in the sense that events are not connected to each other in any causal relation; none of the events is linked in a sustained consequence." (p 109) "No matter how frequently the hero rescued his intended bride ... he gets no older or wiser: 'These hours and days leave no trace'" (p 110)
  • "The 'adventure novel of everyday life'" is more realistic and the "hero bears some responsibility for the changes in his life. These changes may be abrupt metamorphoses ... but ... they create a pattern of development in the biography of the hero as he moves from guilt through punishment to redemption." (p 110)
  • "Some kind of correlation exists between the characteristic plots inside Greek romances and the world of experience outside those texts" (p 111) although the adventure plot type goes right through to Sir Walter Scott: "Bakhtin provides a long catalogue of such recurring patterns (the chronotype of the road, of the trial, of the provincial town, and so on)." (p 112) 
  • "Most so-called 'formula fiction' ... is formulaic precisely in the degree to which it deploys what Bakhtin calls 'abstract adventure time'" (p 118)
  • "St Augustine in his Confessions ... told his life before conversion as a temporally sequential narrative that ceases on the day when he hears the voice of God in a Roman garden: after that point in his twenty-first year he gives no more chronology, but an unplotted meditation on the mystery of time." (pp 136 - 137)
  • "Bakhtin is saying that Kant was right to emphasize the central role of time/ space categories in perception ... Time and space do indeed work ... as the shaping tools by which the potentially infinite variety of the world is molded into specific forms." (p 151)
  • "Because consciousness cannot have a (consciously perceived) beginning or end, it is experienced as 'infinite'" (p 165)
  • The Great Gatsby:
    • Oxymoron is "the most characteristic feature of Nick's narrative voice" (p 170)
    • "A grotesque incompatibility dominates all the incidental features of the narrative" (p 171)
    • "No discrepancy felt between the improvisatory nature of jazz and the linear nature of history". (p 178)
I thought this would be dry philosophy but I loved it. August 2017; 181 pages

Friday, 25 August 2017

"Kansas in August" by Patrick Gale

Starts brilliantly when Henry (short for Henrietta), a doctor sleeping in her room in a mental hospital, discovers in her bed the Y-Fronts of last night's junior doctor; meanwhile Rufus, lover of Henry's teacher-wannabe-tap dancer brother Hilary, wakes beside a drug addict on a mattress and travels to a military base to give a 'piano lesson' to a military wife who pays him so she can play to him before they have sex. Then Henry meets Rufus and they each lie about who they are and they have uncomplicated casual sex. Add to this weird triangle a schoolgirl with a crush on Hilary and the baby Hilary finds in an underpass and decides to keep to the joy of his landlady the schoolgirl's mum, and we have the strangest of characters. The setting is London going to the dogs. It rains or snows in almost every scene. The flats suffer power cuts and Henry's patients either hold her up in the car park with a gun or summon her to the top flat in a dark and deserted tower block. The phones rarely work and the transport services are either on strike, or breaking down, or the conductor just throws everybody off the bus. There is rubbish all around because the bin men are on strike and every street is haunted by gangs of muggers. The school where Hilary teaches has a staffroom in the centre of the playground which is under constant attack from the anarchy of the playing youths.

He has a powerful imagination and the urban decay was vivid although it sometimes teetered near to caricature. My biggest problem was that so much was started and unresolved. It reminded me of an episode of Hill Street Blues, a groundbreaking US TV show in which storylines might be introduced purely for the pleasure of not finishing them. After all, real life is like this. And Gale's work was a fascinating mixture of gritty reality, often beautifully described, and fantasy.

And the title? Well it isn't set in Kansas and it is set in winter. A search on Google tells me that a song in South Pacific starts "I'm as corny as Kansas in August".

  • "At the far end of the street the bulb in the telephone kiosk was flickering out a lonely code." (p 38)
  • "The poignancy of removing carefully chosen underwear in solitude, however, was insufferable." (p 64)
  • "It said 'Kingfisher' on it, but the kingfisher transfer had rubbed off, leaving only the bird's head and a snapped-off beak." (p 100)

I'm not sure I have read anything quite like this remarkable book. It's detailed description of a fantasy world reminded me of the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake or Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney.

August 2017; 155 pages

Sunday, 20 August 2017

"The Birthday Boys" by Beryl Bainbridge

The story of Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, told by each of the five in the final party. Each one is brought to flesh and blood life through their own words and through the opinions of the other s who tell their story. Evans is the working man who is in awe of Scott. Wilson, the doctor, is the man in whom Scott confides but his story is from the voyage down before Scott joined the party. Scott's story tells of his weakness and his struggle to make sure that no one in the expeditions learns of his weakness and his self-doubt; nevertheless he makes mistake after mistake though arrogance and narrow-mindedness.  We begin to see, through the story of Bowers who undertakes the "worst journey in the world" to collect the eggs of the Emperor Penguin, that Scott is a liability. Finally the story of Oates with the disappointment of getting to the pole and finding they had been beaten, confirms the growing realisation that Scott's leadership was fatally bad and that the men were doomed.

A wonderful, brilliantly written book. Wow! Must read some more of this author.

Great lines:
  • "Living ashore hits men differently. Some shuffle back into it like they've found an old pair of slippers and others can't walk easily, no matter how they're shod." (p 7)
  • "To be cold is when the snot freezes in your nostrils and your breath snaps like a fire-cracker on the air and falls to ice in your beard." (p 9)
  • "Some time in the small hours the clock on the landing stopped and the silence swelled up louder than the ticking. I thought of how in the morning Hugh Price would start it going once more, and how when my heart ceased to beat it would be for ever, there not being a key invented that could wind me up again." (p 28)
  • "It never ceases to puzzle me, that, while men's and women's bodies fit jigsaw-tight in an altogether miraculous way their minds remain wretchedly unaligned." (p 29)
  • "Better to say nothing than to condemn, and to laugh with than to criticise." (p 54)
  • "Abiding by the rules is a great help, you know ... it does away with introspection, leaves one free to get on with the game." (p 71)
  • "One only has the energy to die for one man at a time." (p 72)
  • "Bill held that the reputations of the remembered dead, from the insignificant mannikin to the most illustrious subject, underwent a change from the very moment of departure." (p 96) Nice foreshadowing
  • "Unlike Bill, who's been trained to dissect the dead, we three have been schooled to provide the corpses." (p 104) Nice bit of double meaning there!
  • "Any man who spends years trying to find out why grouse fall sick of a parasitic disease, and is tickled pink at discovering it's to do with some blob clinging to dew on the bracken, must have a very limited love of life." (p 166)
August 2017; 189 pages

"Postmodern fairy tales" by Cristina Bacchilega

This fascinating book examines modern versions of Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and Bluebeard and offers a postmodern critique. At best this opened up entire new vistas for turning old tales into fresh delights. In many ways this was an inspiring book. He points out, for example, that the use of a third person narrator in a fairy tale and the absolutist "Once upon a time" etc suggest that there is only one version of truth: "'There was', 'there are', 'she was' - such statements present the narrative's vision as the only possible one. Like the mirror, the narrator knows all" (p 34)

My favourite chapter was the one about Snow White in which the author focuses on the mirror, mirror on the wall, asking:
Who made it and why?

  • "Whose desires does it represent and contain?" (p 28)
  • Whose voice is the mirror's? Queen, SW, Father, Narrator: "the mirror's judgement as unquestionably authoritative" (p 33)
  • "Mirrors should reflect more deeply." (p 47)

But he also asks about the Happy Ever After bit. What, for example, did Snow White think when she comes out of her coma to discover that she is naked with a strange man. In one tale the prince's response is to stick the needle back into her arm to make her unconscious again and give him the chance to think what he does next. And why does the Prince appear to adore a dead body? Creepy!

And SW is a liminal story: "Snow White has three parts, a structure which perhaps re-produces on a narrative level Snow White's three-fold nature and three-part initiation process (separation, liminality, and aggregation)." (p 43): in short: she is taken into the forest and left for dead, she lives with seven dwarfs, she eats the poisoned apple and has to go through death to be reborn.

This continues in the other tales. For example, one postmodern version of Red Riding Hood has a sad werewolf. Well why not? And Angela Carter has Beauty willingly undergoing transformation into a Beast. Well why not?

Great lines:
  • "On folk and fairy tales the hero is neither frightened nor surprised when encountering the otherworld" (p 8)
  • "Magic is invoked through the tale's matter-of-fact, artfully simple narrative that relies on dialogue and single strokes of color to produce a feeling of familiarity and wonder at the same time." (p 28)
  • "The ambivalence of the word 'to fuck' in its twinned meanings of sexual intercourse and despoliation: 'a fuck up'" (p 52)
  • "Cupid ... as boy with no manners or respect, as erotic god of love, as invisible presence in the dark, and as faithful husband in the end" (p 74)

A thought-provoking perspective on a well-thumbed genre. August 2017; 146 pages

Saturday, 19 August 2017

"The Body in the Bracken" by Marsali Taylor

This is the fourth in a series of murder mysteries set in Shetland and starring Cass Lynch. The first three are:
Death on a Longship
The Trowie Mound Murders
A Handful of Ash

They're all brilliant.

In this one Cass sails to Scotland to meet policeman boyfriend's family for Christmas; walking on the hills the pair discover a body. Is it that of missing Ivor who has vanished from the Shetlands and if so who killed him? Is the njuggle (mythical water horse) real and what has any of this to do with the removals business owned by the bullying Councillor? And who is trying to kill Cass? Another stupendously satisfying murder mystery.

But the real joy about these books isn't the plot but the fabulous descriptions of Shetland scenery and the everyday nature of life. Cass goes to college, shops at the Co-op, waitresses in a local cafe. The people around her are everyday fold with strengths and weaknesses, the mother with her little boy, the old-timer with his bootleg whisky, the crofter with his antique shop selling trinkets mostly on eBay. A wonderful portrait of a community lends this book such reality and the way people react to horror and murder is so true to life. Almost my favourite moment was the two old women gossiping in the Co-op. The love tussle between solid dependable Gavin and stunningly good-looking Anders was alos great as was the description of the Up Helly Aa festival.

Some of my favourite lines:
  • "Ice-hardened brown kelp silvered the sea's edge." (p 1) A hallmark of the books is the beautiful descriptions of the Scottish scenery. 
  • "a hesitant way of spacing his words, as if he was translating from Gaelic in his head" (p 3)
  • "a fourth cousin, who was so like me that I could have shaved by him" (p 7)
  • "I hated those awful railway platform moments" (p 18) when saying goodbye. So do I!!!!
  • "I swallowed my natural daughterly desire to say black to dad's white" (p 74)
  • "The sky was mottled with racing clouds" (p 85)
  • "The returning moon was tipped on her back, with the black disc of the new moon caught in her arm." (p 106)
  • "The low sun danced on the water, turning it to whisky gold." (p 111)
  • "The house was surrounded by sheds which gave a very good impression of drink men holding each other up." (p 156)
  • "Her eyes flared, as if she knew something I didn't." (p 167)
  • "I found the words uncoiling in my throat" (p 191)
A very well written murder mystery. August 2017; 223 pages

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

"The world according to Bertie" by Alexander McCall Smith

This is one of the '44 Scotland Street' series of novels which were originally published in the Scotsman in daily instalments; hence it retains very short chapters (there are 100 in this book) which each explores a short relationship. it therefore reminded me of the BBC Radio 4UK soap opera The Archers which has six fifteen minute episodes every week (for over 65 years) and in which each episode has a maximum of six characters or, alternatively, of the Sex in the City series of books.

The story meanders from one character to another, chronicling the trials and tribulations of their daily lives, avoiding the high drama of most books but weaving a fascinating tale of everyday Scottish folk. It works because it has some terrific characters:

  • Angus the painter whose beloved dog Cyril has been impounded and may be put down for biting.
  • Incredibly handsome and vain parasitic Bruce who moves in to the flat of rich heiress Julia. But she plans to entrap him as her husband.
  • Bertie the 6 year old stat saxophonist whose life is dominated by his mother Irene who insists that he practises, that he plays with girls, and that he regularly visits his psychotherapist (who looks eerily similar to his new little baby brother Ulysses). Irene (one of the few characters who doesn't have her own voice) also dominates her husband Stuart by the simple technique of fiercely insisting on that which is not true ie that she is always in the right and he is always in the wrong.
  • Student Pat and Matthew, the millionaire in whose art gallery she works. Will they, won't they?
  • Anthropologist Domenica and her friend and neighbour Antonia who has an affair with her polish builder Markus even though the only English word he can say is 'brick'.

Brilliant or beautiful bits:

  • "Perhaps her mind had filled in the rest, filled in the hair with the gel" (p 13)
  • "In the interstices of the big things of this world ... were the hidden, small things; the small moments of happiness and fulfilment." (p 33)
  • "People fell in love in all sorts of places; anywhere would do - amidst the noise and fumes of the daily world, in grim factories, in the most unpromising of offices, even, it would seem, amongst the din and dirt of roadworks." (p 33)
  • "We are here whether we like it or not, and by and large we seem to have a need to continue." (p 42)
  • "Some strange English accent; you know how they mutilate the language down there." (p 103)
  • "Then all those stories about Edinburgh being full of icy types are false?
  •        Absolutely, said Angus, frostily." (p 133)
  • "Wolf and Bruce were sexy; they dripped with sexual appeal, if one can drip with such a thing. Dripping came into it somewhere" (p 135)
  • "The average boy, he knew, had the average mother, and his mother was not that." (p 155)
  • "It did not do to think about sex on Heriot Row." (p 174)
  • "a city of cultivated, outward respectability beneath which there lay a world of priapic indulgence." (p 174)
  • "if you took the middle-class away the city would die ... just as it would if you took away the people who did the hard, thankless jobs, the manual work that was just as important in keeping things going. That ... was why class talk was so utterly pointless: everybody counted." (p 199)
  • "There's a hearth from which freedom has been excluded." (p 204)
  • "He had endured long periods of being uncluttered, and, on balance, he preferred to be cluttered." (p 268)
  • In the middle of a wonderful chapter full of tension in which a female student is entertained for afternoon tea by a lecturer and his wife, who seem weird in that they are so refined and so normal and so nice, so that you are constantly expecting something dreadful to happen, as the student leaves she meets a boy on the stairs: "She looked into his face, a face full of freckles, and saw that he had grey eyes. For a moment, both stopped, as if they were about to say something to one another, but then the boy looked away and continued up the stairs. Pat felt uneasy. It was as if she had seen a fox." Fabulous!
  • "There were plenty of studies on debt bondage patterns elsewhere, but few, if any, on such bondage in urban, Western societies." (p 318)
  • "What tyrant has had a happy childhood?" (p 327)
Charming. I think I might be sold. I might have to read the others in the series. August 2017; 329 pages

Saturday, 12 August 2017

"Why fairy tales stick" by Jack Zipes

This scholarly essay on fairy tales seemed a little muddled. I was never quite sure why Zipes believed that fairy tales stuck. There are, he tells us, 50 to 75 fairy tales in the western literary canon that are told over and over again ... but he never lists them. There is a theory of memes that he mentions without ever espousing. A few fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Blackbeard, and Hansel & Gretel) he goes into in detail and he discusses a huge number of versions in both literature and film. But there seems no coherent message. He suggests, from time to time, that these tales are "overtly patriarchal and politically conservative in structure and theme and reflect the dominant interests of social groups that control cultural forces of production and reproduction", and almost in the same breath he points out that "paradoxically, the fairy tale creates disorder to create order" (p 15) so that these tales can be subversive of established social order. If there is a message it is that these tales are "survival stories with hope" (p 27) and explore issues such as rape (RRH), step-relations (Cinders), the displacement of the young by the old and the old's reaction to that (Snow White), domestic abuse (Blackbeard) and child abuse (H&G)  and by so doing prepare children for these possibilities in the world, presumably on the ground that forewarned is forearmed. 

Along the way he told me many fascinating things. 
  • Many early collections of stories were framed by a 'frame tale' such as Boccaccio's Decameron Sercambi's Novelle, Sarnelli's Posilicheata, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
  • A successful meme must be: "capable of being copied in a faithful way", fecund so that "many copies can be made", "able to survive a long time" (p5); "a meme must be relevant to stick" (p 7); to be replicated a meme must be assimilated in a mind, retained in a memory, uttered, transmitted (p 8)
  • Red Riding Hood has been around since at least the version of Egbert of Liege (1022 - 1024) in which  a 5 yo girl who wears a tunic of red wool given to her by her godfather "goes out at sunrise, footloose and heedless of her peril" and is attacked by a wolf
  • Fairy tales "have sought to uncover truths about the pleasures and pains of existence" (p 42)
  • "There is no evidence that a separate oral wonder-tale tradition or literary fairy-tale tradition existed in Europe before the medieval period." (p 44)
  • "The plot generally involves a protagonist who is confronted with an interdiction or prohibition that he or she violates in some way. Therefore, there is generally a departure or banishment and the protagonist is either given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction or prohibition." (p 49)
  • "names are rarely used in a folk tale; characters function according to their status within a family, social class, or profession; and they often cross boundaries or transform themselves. It is the transgression that makes the tale exciting; it is the possibility of transformation that gives hope ... Inevitably in the course of the action there will be a significant or signifying encounter." (p 49)
  • "The protagonist, endowed with gifts, is tested once more ... the success of the protagonist usually leads to marriage; the acquisition of money; survival and wisdom; or any combination of these three. ... At the centre of attraction is the survival of the protagonist under difficult conditions." (p 50)
  • "In the oral wonder tale, we are to marvel about the workings of the universe where anything can happen at any time ... Nor do the characters demand an explanation - they are instinctively opportunistic and hopeful ... The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life ... those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted, naturally good, and can recognize the wondrous signs." (p 51)
  • Perrault's tales 1694 - 1697 (and this is some output!) included:
    • Puss in Boots
    • Thumbelina
    • Bluebeard
    • Cinderella
    • Sleeping Beauty
    • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Anatole France wrote a version of the Bluebeard legend in which the hero is always unfortunate in marriage: his wives are mad, strange or stupid, and each time the wife dies in an accident. The 7th wife marries him for his money and plots with her brothers to murder him.
  • "The storyteller is ... a thief who robs treasures to give something substantive to the poor." (p 242)

An interesting book but I was confused as to its thesis. August 2017; 243 pages

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

"Name to a face" by Robert Goddard

Another classic Goddard mystery, narrated by the protagonist but, rather disconcertingly, in the third person. After a prologue in which a murder occurs long ago we land in modern day Monaco where small business owner Tim Harding is persuaded by a millionaire friend to spend a week in Penzance bidding for a family heirloom. While there he meets someone whose face he is sure he recognises from the past but she has never met him. Nevertheless they fall in love as theft and mystery begin to surround them. For the heirloom is a dead ringer for a ring stolen from the body of a shipwrecked Admiral in 1707 and somehow it relates to a diving death, a long forgotten murder and a mysterious monk at the time of the Black Death.

Goddard is back on form and when he is on form the result is a cracking read.

Also reviewed in this blog are:

"The dead are dead. You can't bring them back. And you can't avoid joining them sooner or later." (p 223)
"Gary appeared to be locked in some fierce debate with himself, the darting of his eyes signalling the trading of points." (P 271)

A pretty good thriller. August 2017; 472 pages

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

"The Voices Within" by Charles Fernyhough

This very accessible book is about thought. Many (all?) of us seem to have a voice within our heads talking to us. Sometimes these thoughts conduct dialogues. For some people these voices seem not to be their own thoughts; sometimes this sort of voice-hearing is pathologised and voice-hearers can be labelled as schizophrenics or mystics. Fernyhough tells us the very latest research on our inner voices. But he also considers non-academic sources including:
  • Literature especially 'stream of consciousness' fiction (Fernyhough himself writes fiction): 
    • In Chaucer's Book of the Duchess the 'Man in Black' "spak noght/ But argued with his owne thoght," (p 93)
  • The difference between the commandments of the gods in the Iliad and the dilemmas of Ulysses in the Odyssey
  • Sports stars commanding themselves out loud to eg focus on the ball
  • The private speech of children playing
  • Silent reading (first observed  being done by  St Anselm by the not-at-the-time-Saint Augustine)
  • Guardian angels

The four voices many of us hear are: (all p 44)
  • "Faithful friend (associated with personal strength, close relationships and positive feelings)"
  • "Ambivalent Parent (combining strength, love and caring criticism)"
  • "Proud Rival (who was distant and success-oriented)"
  • "Helpless Child, distinguished by negative emotions and social distance"
Many many fascinating moments:
  • We are so committed to the privacy of our inner thoughts that "its alternatives - mind-reading, telepathy and thought invasion - can be sources of humour or horror." (p 4)
  • "having a brain gives you: a ringside seat for a show meant for you alone." (p 4)
  • "Thoughts are typically coherent: they fit into chains of ideas which, in no matter how haphazard a fashion, are connected to what has come before." (p 7)
  • "Some of the mysteries of inner speech become more comprehensible when we rcognise that it has the properties of a dialogue." (p 15)
  • "establishing a shared language ... rather than squeezing people's varied experiences into pre-existing categories" (p 29)
  • "Dialogic thinking seems to be a useful tool for creativity" (p 107)
  • "Self-talk gives us a perspective on ourselves that might be a key ingredient for thinking in a flexible, open-ended manner." (p 113)
  • "Very strong evidence for a link between hearing voices and early adversity, particularly childhood sexual abuse. ... A does-response relationship was also observed ... good evidence that an effect is causal" (p 206)
  • "People who live through horrific events often describe themselves dissociating during the trauma. Splitting itself into separate parts is one of the most powerful of the mind's defence mechanisms. ... Bentall's analysis is consistent with (although doesn't prove) the idea that trauma ... causes dissociation ... which then causes hallucinations." (p 208)
  • "Voices, then, might give us important clues about the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self." (p 209)
  • "Doing that internal speaking silently will also have clear evolutionary benefits. Talking to ourselves won't be much good if it betrays out position to a predator ... One reason why private speech 'goes underground' in middle childhood is probably that talking to yourself out loud is rarely sanctioned in Western schools. " (p 250)
  • "I myself am most likely to experience a full-blown inner conversation when I am grappling with a dilemma. There is almost no research on this topic." (p 252)
This is a great introduction to a fascinating topic. August 2017; 259 pages

Sunday, 6 August 2017

"A certain smile" by Francoise Sagan

This novel is billed as the sequel to Bonjour Tristesse but works perfectly in its own right.

The narrator, Dominique, is a student at the Sorbonne in Paris; her boyfriend and lover is Bertrand, another student; she is getting bored by the rather possessive Bertrand. She meets Bertrand's uncle Luc and his wife Francoise; she very much likes them both but she falls in love with Bertrand and spends two weeks of the summer holiday with him at a hotel in France. If anyone learns their secret Francoise and Bertrand will be hurt. And can Dominique give Luc up after two weeks?

The joy of this book is the perfect way she describes a relationship with another person: the irritation and the awkwardness, the lust and the disgust, the hopes and the anxieties. It also says what it is to be young: to be hopeful, to be fearful, to be bored, to be easily amused, to treat time as if it was unlimited, to be aware of one's own mortality and one's own powerlessness, to turn frustration into cynicism.

There are so many flashes of light' These are but a few:

  • "She talked, I listened; she gave advice and I ceased to listen." (p 15)
  • "I realized there were many people who ... treated their bodies like precious playthings to use for their amusement." (p 21)
  • "My life was slipping away, and I did nothing except sneer."
  • "Listen to the trumpet. It's not only free from worry but it is necessary to the band." (p 49)
  • "I confined myself to kissing his eyes, his mouth, all the features in that new face which the lips discover after the eyes have feasted on it." (p 64)
  • "We would drift slowly ... towards death, always talking of the temporary nature of our stay." (p 67)
  • "The pale dawn over an inhuman sea, the motionless boats, the mad, grasceful crowd of gulls roosting on the hotel roof." (p 67)
  • "I entwined my hair with his." (p 70)
  • "Happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks." (p 72)
  • "I would be falling from a great height, and during my descent I would be alone, terribly alone." (p 72)
  • "What does a human being think about on an empty beach, facing an empty sea?" (p 74)
  • "I had believed it was my story." (p 110)
  • "I was a woman, and I had loved a man. It was a simple story; there was nothing to make a fuss about." (p 112; last lines)

August 2017; 112 pages

Friday, 4 August 2017

"The Gustav Sonata" by Rose Tremain

Other books by this author that I have read are Restoration and its sequel Merivel, which I very much enjoyed. She seems to enjoy writing plots which meander gently through a life, allowing the reader to slowly construct the identity of the protagonist. This is much of the same.

Gustav in a young Swiss boy in the aftermath of the second world war growing up with his mum. His dad was a policeman who died. They are poor. His best friend is Anton, a piano prodigy, whose father is a banker; they are rich but they have a mysterious background having moved from Bern and perhaps having been refugee Jews. His mum is bitter and twisted and Gustav has a loveless childhood.

Part two goes back to before Gustav's birth and explores how his mum met his dad, the ups and downs in their relationship, and why his dad was a hero. To some extent it shows why his mum is like she is.

Part three moves us to the 1990s. Gustav and Anton are now grown up, their characters formed by their upbringings. Will anyone find love?

In a Guardian podcast Tremain points out that the book has a sonata structure: act one is the exposition, act two the development, and act three is the recapitulation. Certainly there are mirroring moments such as when Anton takes a girlfriend to Davos which really upsets Gustav; he was similarly upset when his mum stopped him going ice skating with Anton and Anton took a girl instead.

A lot of this book is about self-control. In an interview with Waterstones, Tremain says "We live in such an angry world. Even domestic dramas on the TV are framed around confrontation, loss of control and feelings of inadequacy and hatred. These are disastrous cultural paradigms to offer to the next generation. I really fear for what my grandchildren will perceive ‘normality’ to be. I hope my novel reminds people that stoicism, kindness and self-control can often be a better route to arriving at a longed-for destination – both public and private - than hair-trigger fury." When Gustav first meets a weeping Anton at kindergarten he tells him: "My mother says it's better not to cry. She says you have to master yourself." Gustav has to be like Switzerland. Gustav has learned this lesson so young that it never leaves him. There are only one or two times in the whole novel that he loses control. Anton, in completer counterpoint, is brilliant but spoiled, the archetypal romantic genius, whose music career is ruined by stage fright, who has lovers but never stays with them for long, who throws up his career as soon as he gets the belated chance of fame. Is this why they are such good friends?

In the Waterstones interview Tremain says that she tried "not to reveal all of what is in Gustav’s heart, but to just give the readers enough indicators to enable them to work it out. It’s my belief that readers love to do a bit of work and not have everything spelled out and underlined for them. Honour the readers’ abilities." In my book group we were very appreciative of that.

There are some beautiful and profound moments:

  • "A hesitant way of moving ... as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects - or even people - she had not prepared herself to encounter." (p 3)
  • "There was silence in the room for several minutes and this silence felt like a kind of suffering." (p 25)
  • "That's the thing about the world ... you just don't know why the things that happen happen" (p 65) and I suppose this book is trying to explain them.
  • "it was easy to project this forward into the future - as though there were no future for him, but only this: a man crawling along, growing older year by year, searching for things which other people had cast aside." (p 73" Foreshadowing!
  • "the world in which people deserve things or do not deserve them is passing away. Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning." (p 149) As if it ever was for Gustav!
  • "He looks down at the wooden floor, where the butts of cigarettes from last night's drinkers still lie, and he thinks how shabby the world is and how tired and old and full of discarded things." (p 180) Gustav as a man. But as a boy he used to help his mum clean a church and picked up discarded fag ends and extracted the tobacco from them. He has always been the man on the margin, living with the remnants of other people's lives.
  • "Wasting time changes the nature of time." (p 213)

This is a sad book but it speaks profoundly about the lives of those who are not at the centre of the stage but, like Prufrock, are attendant lords.

August 2017; 308 pages