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, 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:
  • "In folk and fairy tales the hero is neither frightened nor surprised when encountering the otherworld" (p 8) I've just been reading Kieran Egon's The Educated Mind and he suggests that this is developmental; he states that for a kid aged 5 "magic is entirely unobjectionable" but when he reaches 10 he wants to know the details. So perhaps this feature of folk and fairy tales identified here is due to them being aimed at a young audience. 
  • "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

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

"Reaper Man" by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld novel. Other reviewed in this blog include

  • Carpe Jugulum in which Lancre is invaded by a family of vampires
  • Going Postal in which Moist has to reform the postal service for Lord V.
But there are lots of others and all those I have read have been great.

In this DEATH, wj=ho always speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS, is retired. This causes an unfortunate disruption to normal services. In other words, Ankh Morpork is in chaos.

Pratchett maintains his usual blend of twisted metaphysical insight with jokes ranging from wonderful to brilliant:

  • "seconds, endlessly turning the maybe into the was."(p 8)
  • "there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone." (p 11)
  • "gently slicing thin rashers of interval from the bacon of eternity." (p 15)
  • "It's the difference between morning dew on a cobweb and actually being a fly." (p 33)
  • "If you could do a sort of relief map of sinfulness, wickedness and all-round immorality, rather like those representations of the gravitational field around a Black Hole, then even in Ankh-Morpork the Shades would be represented by a shaft." (p 47)
  • "Mrs Evadne Cake was a medium, verging on small." (p 73)
  • "Doing it without the right paraphernalia is like taking all your clothes off to have a bath." (p 101)
  • A funeral is "a reverential form of garbage disposal". (p 122)
  • "that long nasal whine which meant that folk song was about to be perpetrated." (p 168)
  • "JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS A METAPHOR DOESN'T MEAN IT CAN'T BE REAL." (p 194)
  • "Cities - big sedentary creatures growing from one spot and hardly moving at all for thousands of years. They breed by sending out people to colonise new land." (p 202)

But this is just a taste of the brilliance. He can by funny and wise, and funny and touching at the same time. Wonderful. August 2017; 285 pages