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

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

"Gone for Good" by Harlan Coben

Eleven years ago Will's girlfriend was murdered. The prime suspect was his brother who went missing. Now Will believes his brother is back. And then his new girlfriend goes missing.

A classic thriller full of levels of duplicity, exotic characters including an assassin nicknamed The Ghost and a yoga teacher cum homeless charity van driver with a tattoo on his forehead, and twists all the way to the end. I thought it was a bit too twisty, to be honest. It kept up the excitement to the end but I'm not sure that I was concerned for the fate of any character.

 Technically Coben has to be the master of the pause. His dialogues are full of moments of business for the characters to think, to accentuate what they have just said, for the reader to think: what the heck, this is exciting and the writer has just pressed the pause button. Moments like: “The shower stopped. I picked up a poppy-seed bagel. The seeds stuck to my hand.” (p 206)

He has some wonderfully dry asides as well:

  • The TV stories gave it lip service that was so tongue-in-cheek you'd expect your television to smirk at you.” (p 24)
  • We took off from LaGuardia, which could be a lousier airport, but not without a serious act of God.” (p 303)


He also has some utterly unforgettable descriptions:

  • Her skin was in that cusp between jaundice and fading summer tan.” (p 1)
  • Raquel was the size of a small principality and dressed like an explosion at the Liberace museum." (p 173) [Raquel is a huge muscled black transvestite.]
  • Hospital rooms normally smell of antiseptic, but this one reeked of male-flight-attendant cologne.” (p 240)
  • The cell reeked of urine and vomit and that sour-vodka smell when a drunk sweats.” (p 244)
  • There were shades of skin colour that could inspire the people at Crayola.” (p 245)


And more great lines:

  • the thing about cliches is that they're often dead-on.” (p 10)
  • I collapsed into the chair and stared at the phone as if it'd tell me what to do. It didn't.” (p 61)
  • Taking the newbies out of circulation eliminates competition. If you live out in the streets, you get ugly in a hurry.” (p 73)
  • Gone before good-bye.” (p260)
The thing about thrillers is when they are so well written as this one they have to be good. October 2017; 383 pages

Saturday, 28 October 2017

"Out of the Silent Planet" by C S Lewis

C S Lewis is famous for his Narnia books though his Space Trilogy starting with this book predated Narnia. These are also allegories in which a character, in this case an eminent philologist, travels to another world and, after a series of adventures with talking nonhumans, meets the planet's 'god'. All the elements are there.

But it is adults. Ransom, a philology don on a walking holiday, is kidnapped by mad professor Weston and treasure hunting Devine and taken on a space ship to Malacandria, a planet where there are three species of rational beings. Quite a lot of the book is taken up with realistic descriptions of the planet and its flora and fauna. Almost exactly half way through comes the crime, or tragedy, that marks the turning point and sends Ransom on a journey to the god of the planet.

There are several moments of homage to H G Wells. At the start of the book Ransom is described as "The Pedestrian" as Wells only ever calls the protagonist of The Time Machine as “The Time Traveller"; both books end with the narrator talking direct to the reader. There is a reference to Ransom having read Wells.

There is a delightful part at the end when one of the other humans, a bad man who arrived with the narrator, is given a speech in which he justifies his desire to colonise the new planet in terms of the march of life, of civilization, and of his own species. This would be heavy going if he just droned on for two or three pages! So his speech must be translated and this opens up first the opportunity for the translator to interrupt so that the speech is broken up by 'business' and second (and most wonderfully) the opportunity for the weasel words in the speech to be explored. Thus "To you I may seem a vulgar robber" becomes "there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnau's food and - and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind." This is a very clever piece of technique.


Roger Lancelyn Green described the experience of reading Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis: "remembers vividly the thrill of excitement - the sudden moment of joy - when ... he realized in a blinding flash to what Oyarsa was referring ... it was like stepping into a new dimension." (Lancelyn Green and Hooper, 1974, 165)

Great lines:
The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuff his map into his pocket.” (p 1; first line)
Dressed with that particular kind of shabbiness which marks a member of the intelligentsia on a holiday.” (p 2)
One of those irritating people who forgets to use their hands when they begin talking.” (p 13) This allows CSL to punctuate the speech with (a) longings of Ransom to see the bottle uncorked and (b) Devine stopping talking to do another bit of the uncorking ceremony.
It, too, was in the grip of curiosity. Neither dared let the other approach, yet each repeatedly felt the impulse to do so himself, and yielded to it. It was foolish, frightening, ecstatic and unbearable all in one moment. It was more than curiosity. it was like a courtship - like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that; so natural is the contact of sexes, so limited the strangeness, so shallow the reticence, so mild the repugnance to be overcome, compared with the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational, species.” (pp 65 - 66)
A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.” (p 89)
Would he want his dinner all day or want his sleep after he had slept?” (p 89)
How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back - if we did not know that every day in a life filled the whole life with expectation and memory?” (pp 91 - 92)
I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, no love so sweet, if there were no danger.” (p 92)
A world is not meant to last for ever, much less a race.” (p 126)
They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair - or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it - like a female trying to beget young on herself.” (p 129)
What it might mean to grow up seeing always so few miles away a land of colour that could never be reached and had once been inhabited.” (p 130)

This is a fun book. Although there is too much 'world-building' for me I understand that there are a lot of science fiction aficionados who adore that aspect of sci-fi. It is a little dated: it was written in 1938 when Dons did take walking holidays and the working class really did tug their forelocks. I suppose it is a grown-up version of Narnia.

Perhaps another source is Paradise Lost: the mythology of Malacandria does seem to involve the fall of Lucifer and his banishment to the earth.

This author also write two sequels to this book, the Screwtape Letters, and the seven book Narnia series as well as 'The Discarded Image', a fascinating study of mediaeval literature. He was also the subject of a biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper.

October 2017; 206 pages

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

"Artful" by Ali Smith

Wow.

The narrator is haunted by their dead lover. Viscerally haunted. This ghost tips coffee from mugs and breaks things and steals things. They lie beside the narrator in bed and snore. Their eyes and nose disappear and they smell. Although the narrator knows that all these things are simply the result of their imagination, and are caused by the grief of bereavement, nevertheless the haunting is real.

And the narrator starts to read the dead person's unfinished notes for a series of literary lectures: On Time, On Form, On Edge, On Offer and On Reflection. Witty titles! And the lectures celebrate wonderful poetry and prose. So half of the book is a meditation on art and the other half a meditation on grief and love.

Which makes it utterly and totally original.

And that makes it difficult to review. But I can say her prose is pitch perfect and her originality breathtaking. And her lecture notes are fascinating too.

One of the key texts is Oliver Twist, a book the narrator discovers and reads over the course of this book. This book ends by pointing out that, near the end, Dickens sums up what happens to the main characters but he 'forgets' to mention the Dodger. Who is, of course, Artful.

There are so many great lines, both Smith's own and the ones she quotes. This passage “Edges are magic, too; there's a kind of forbidden magic on the borders of things, always a ceremony of crossing over, even if we ignore it or are unaware of it. In mediaeval times weddings didn't take place inside churches but at their doors - thresholds as markers of the edge of things and places are loaded, framed spaces through which we passed from one state to another.” (pp 126 - 127) shows how she uses words with precision as if they were charms which can conjure us to the real world of dreams.

Other great lines (mostly Ali's):

  • Thread is a great word here, calling to mind yet more worms, and the three Fates with their sisters with the scissors ready to cut us off at the end of our stamina when the life stories all sewn up.” (p 28)
  • We'd never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we've read a book after reading it just once.” (p 31)
  • tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph.” (p 36) You can't say she isn't up to date.
  • If only I'd reimagined you without your snoring. But then it wouldn't have been true, would it? It wouldn't have been you.” (p 44)
  • When I think about what it was like to live with you ... it was like living in a poem or a picture, a story, a piece of music ... it was wonderful.” (p 50)
  • In the beginning was the word, and thw word was what made the difference between form and formlessness, which isn’t to suggest that the relationship between form and formlessness isn’t a kind of dialogue too, or that formlessness had no words, just to suggest that this particular word for some reason made a difference between them - one that started things.” (pp 64 - 65)
  • "God, or some such artist as resourceful
    • Began to sort it out.
    • Land here, sky there,
    • And sea there.” (p 65, quoting Ted Hughes translating Ovid)
  • Form is a matter of clear rules and unspoken understandings, then. It’s a matter of need and expectation. It’s also a matter of breaking rules, of dialogue, crossover between forms. Through such dialogue and argument, form, the shaper and moulder, acts like the other thing called mould, endlessly breeding forms from forms.” (p 67)
  • There’ll always be a dialogue, an argument, between aesthetic form and reality, between form and its content, between seminality, art, fruitfulness and life, There’ll always be seminal argument between forms - that’s how fors produce themselves, out of a meeting of opposites, of different things’ out of form encountering form.” (p 69)
  • Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.” (p 81 quoting Flaubert)
  • I liked how Dickens called the Dodger all his names, the Artful, the Dodger, the Artful Dodger, Jack Dawkins, Mr John Dawkins, like he was a work of shifting possibility.” (p 91)
  • "I could understand any huge bell hung high in a bell tower, hollow and full, stately and weighty, as high in the air as a bird, beginning the slow ceremonious swing of itself against itself that means any second the air is going to change its nature and become sound.” (p 105)
  • Leonora Carrington was an expert in liminal space ... It’s kind of in-between. A place we get transported to.” (p 111)
  • As it develops it plays out in full what it means to be naive, intelligent, a phoney, lying, attractive, a wanker.” (p 122)
  • Broken things become pattern in reflection.” (p 186)
  • unkissed boy.” (p 191)

Other works by this brilliant and repeatedly original author that I have read and reviewed in this blog include:
The Accidental: a holidaying family is gatecrashed by a young woman
There but for the: a set of stories linked by a man who, at a dinner party, locks himself into one of the upstairs rooms of his host and refuses to come out
How to Be Both which has two halves which can be read in either order (and some copies of the book are printed one way and some the other): one half has a teenage girl trying to cope with the death of her mother; the other half is the exuberant reflections of a renaissance artist who was a woman pretending to be a man.

Wow! October 2017; 192 pages

Thursday, 19 October 2017

"The Educated Mind" by Kieron Egan

This fascinating book traces the development of thought in a human.


The Somatic phase (0 to 5 yo). This is prelinguistic. Egan argues that it carries on into later life too: "As when we become literate we do not cease to be oral-language users, so when we become oral-language users we do not cease to be prelinguistic sensemakers" (p 166)

The Mythic phase (5 to 10 yo) As language begins, so do myths. Egan points out that creation myths often include naming. Myths feature binary dualisms. Vygotsky noted that children assemble collections using contrast rather than similarity: in group, out group. Egan believes that binary oppositions are fundamental to all language eg "nouns (stasis) and verbs (change)" (p 39) "Organizing one's conceptual grasp on the physical world by initially forming binary structures ... allows an initial orientation over a range of otherwise bewilderingly complex phenomena." (p 40) Subsequently oppositions are used "to ascribe meaning to any intermediary terms" like putting warm between hot and cold. (p 40). Although some educators seem to assume that kids of this age cannot understand concepts such as "oppression and freedom, love and hate, good and bad, fear and security" (p 43) a kid couldn't understand Star Wars without such concepts.

The Romantic phase (10 to 15 yo) typified by the Histories of Herodotus which scorns the myths preceding it but tells history as the story of great men. This is the most fascinating part of Egan's thesis. He points out that aged 5 "magic is entirely unobjectionable" but aged 10 you need to know the details. (p 71) Bacchilega (1997, 8) states that "In folk and fairy tales the hero is neither frightened nor surprised when encountering the otherworld". Is this because they are aimed at an audience of five-year-olds? However, Egan understands that"In some cultures this transition from a world in which fantasy and magic perform explanatory work does not take place in anything like the form that is common in the West." (p 72)

"Romantic understanding represents crucial elements of rationality developing along with persisting features of myth" (p 80). He now makes observations about characteristics of this phase. Kids of this age are interested in extremes: "Why is the average ten-year-old so interested in who was the tallest person who ever lived?" (p 84) He thinks this is to do with self-contextualising. Similarly kids of this age collect. And finally kids of this age hero-worship because "When we are ten ... we are typically subject to endless rules and regulations - parental, societal, and , not least, natural. The person, institution, or team that the child associates with usually gives clear clues to the constraints found most problematic. ... The tension characteristic of romance comes from the desire to transcend a threatening reality while seeking to secure one's identity within it." (p 90)

The Philosophic phase (15 yo and older) is typified by Thucydides who attempted to explain history as a system (he used a disease metaphor. This is the world of the ideology. It is the world of the Enlightenment.

"Students begin to grasp that what we are does not result from romantic choices and associations but from laws of nature, human psychology, social interactions, history, and so on, which apply to our selves as to everyone else The fading of the importance of romantic associations, then, can appear more a matter of putting aside childish things; having seen as through a glass darkly, students can attain a fuller, theoretic, consciousness of their place in the world." (p 124)

"Establishing the truth about history, society, and the cosmos is serious business. When Philosophic understanding dominates the mind, it can work with powerful intensity. The seriousness of Philosophic concerns, and the focus on knowledge that supports or challenges any one general scheme, tends to reduce interest in the extremes and in the dramatic. Romantic knowledge thus is often dismissed as irrelevant, pointless, a trivial pursuit; Romantic hobbies and collections lose their interest. ... A note of earnestness common in modern Philosophic students echoes Victorian high seriousness." (p 125)

However "This form of intellectual activity can easily slip into narcissism." hence the popularity of anthropology, sociology and psychology (p 126) Furthermore, if the developed world view is seen to fail it can lead to "angst, tears, depression, suicide, pills" (p 131).

The final (?) Ironic phase: This is the postmodern world. "All generalizations are false" (p 137)
"A more common theme in the Western intellectual tradition is that without some clear foundation, come bedrock of truth, human life and our sense of the natural world are chaotic and meaningless. The fear of raw contingency has long driven the pursuit of truth. But in this century ... ironic voices have suggested that nothing much happens if we give up looking for foundations to knowledge, and even for meaning; the sky holds in place, daily life goes on." (p 139)
"What was so disturbing about Darwin's ideas was ... the mechanism of natural selection and its implication that we owe our precious consciousness not to God, framing our symmetry for some high purpose, but to blind chance, to raw contingency." (p 139)
"In the early dialogues ... Socrates lives up to his claim that he 'knows nothing and is ignorant of everything' ... he deconstructs other's claim to knowledge but offers nothing positive of his own in their place. He solves no problems, shows that all the proffered solutions are inadequate, and cheerfully leaves us to sort things out as best as we can. ... To Thrasymachus, this is merely a cheap rhetorical ploy, ensuring for Socrates that he cannot be caught in the contradictions in which he delights to catch others; but it is a ploy whose cost is often destructive and negative, establishing nothing, and as such is pointless and irritating." (p 140 - 141)
"After endless philosophical work by the greatest Western thinkers, almost nothing is agreed, nothing is uncontested. If the enterprise were possible, surely something would be secured by now." (p 153)

This is AFTER an introductory chapter in which he dissects education as having three old, incompatible ideas:
Socialization:  "to inculcate a restricted set of norms and beliefs - the set that constitutes the adult society the child will grow into. ... a prominent aim of schools is the homogenization of children" (p 11)
"Intellectual cultivation": "to connect children with the great cultural conversation" (p 14)
"Fulfilling the individual potential of each student" (p 16)

Beautifully written and powerfully convincing. But does it belong to the philosophic stage or the ironic stage?

Other brilliant moments:
  • "The very structure of modern schools in the West ... can accommodate only a very limited range of nonconformity. ... pushed to extremes ... the socially necessary homogenizing process can become totalitarian in its demands for conformity." (p 11)
  • "The crucial feature of stories is that they end" (p 63)
  • Syllogisms "cannot be managed easily or at all by people who cannot read alphabetic script" (p 75)
  • "The archetypal romantic figure is the hero. The hero lives, like the rest of us, within the constraints of the everyday world but, unlike the rest of us, manages somehow to transcend the constraints that hem us in." (p 88) 
  • "We are born alone and we die alone, and in the short interval between, underneath our languages, histories, cultures, and socialized awareness, we live alone." (p 167)
October 2017; 279 pages

"Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell

George Orwell writes so clearly about such dreadful conditions. As with The Road to Wigan Pier he combines acute observation with insightful social commentary.

He starts by being unemployed and hungry in Paris. So hungry he starts to starve. He finds a job as a plongeur (dishwasher plus sous chef) in a Paris hotel and later a restaurant: he works long hours at breakneck speed in atrocious conditions.

Brilliant lines include:

  • The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people - people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves and given up trying to be normal or decent. poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work.” (p 3)
  • Comment ├ępouser un soldat, moi qui aime tout le r├ęgiment?” (p 6)
  • And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” (pp 16 - 17)
  • Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else.” (p 36)
  • You're not fit to scrub floors in the brothel your mother came from.” (p 68)
  • The pace would never be kept up if everybody did not accuse everybody else of idling.” (p 74)
  • It is the pride of the drudge - the man who is equal to no matter what quantity of work. At that level, the mere power to go on working like an ox is about the only virtue attainable. Debrouillard is what every plongeur wants to be called. A debrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se debrouiller - get it done somehow.” (p 77)
  • Mario ... had the typical drudge mentality. All he thought of was getting through ... and he decide you to give him too much of it. Fourteen years underground had left him with about as much natural laziness as a piston rod.” (p 77)
  • Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.” (p 79)
  • For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.” (p 96)
  • Sharp knives, of course, are the secret of a successful restaurant.” (p 116)
  • A ‘smart’ hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want.” (p 119)
  • A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good - for slaves, at least. ... I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them to busy to think.” (p 120)
  • Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some fundamental difference between rich and poor ... the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.” (p 121)
  • I saw a hang-dog man, obviously a tramp, coming towards me, and when I looked again it was myself, reflected in a shop window.” (p 130)
  • Dirt is a great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone it flies towards you from all directions.” (p 130) 
  • I noticed, too, how the attitude of women varies with a man's clothes. When a badly dressed man passes them they shudder away from him with a quite frank movement of disgust, as though he were a dead cat.” (p 130)
  • Dressed in a tramps clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.” (p 130)
  • He could pronounce the words ‘the dear Lord Jesus’ with less sham than anyone I ever saw. No doubt he had learned the knack in prison.” (p 142)
  • Flat feet, pot bellies, hollow chest, sagging muscles - every kind of physical rottenness was there.” (p 149)
  • How sweet the air does smell - even the air of a back-street in the suburbs - after the shut-in, subfaecal stench of the spike.” (p 149) 
  • De sight of all dat bloody print makes me sick.” (p 153)
  • He pined for work as an artist pines to be famous.” (p 153) 
  • You can have cartoons about any of the parties, but you mustn't put anything in favour of Socialism, because the police won't stand it.” (p 164)
  • Have you ever seen a corpse burned? ... They put the old chap on the fire, and the next moment ... he's started kicking. It was only his muscles contracting in the heat - still, it gave me a turn. Well, he wriggled about for a bit like a kipper on hot coals, and then his belly blew up and went off with a bang you could have heard fifty yards away.” (p 169)
  • The sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him.” (p 169)
  • “Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.” (p 175) 
  • Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic - indeed, it is a species of magic.” (p 178)
  • It was an evangelical church, gaunt and wilfully ugly.” (p 184)
Orwell writes so clearly; some of his descriptions are masterpieces. I loved the women "shuddering" away from the tramp "as though he were a dead cat". The verb is simple but accurate; it conveys a whole movement and emotion; the simile is spot on. There were characters in here who are as three dimensional as they would be if you met them on the street. There is no plot as such, but the everyday experiences kept me turning the pages. 

A wonderful piece of writing. October 2017; 216 pages

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

"The Sealed Letter" by Emma Donoghue

By the author of the breathtakingly brilliant and bestselling Room.

Based on a real-life divorce case in Victorian London, this is the story of 'Fido' Faithfull, a spinster proprietor of a printing press active in the 'womanist' movement, and her best friend Helen, wife of Admiral Codrington. After seven letterless years Helen returns from Malta with a young naval officer in tow; soon we discover that they are having an affair. But then the Admiral begins to suspect. What is the truth and who is telling it? Every character has a reason to tell lies; nothing is simple in this beautifully crafted tale. Donoghue's tale is full of contradictions: Fido, heavily asthmatic, smokes; she is strong in support of female rights and yet she is appalled by adultery. Everyone has secrets; this is a world in which truth, even perjury, is of less consequence than respectability. Just as steam trains with open carriages run in tunnels beneath the streets of London, so unquenchable passion surges beneath the surface of elegant matrimony.

To encapsulate this she uses one very striking (perhaps obvious) metaphor. The father tells his daughters: "There's a house in Bayswater that's only a false facade, constructed to cover a railway tunnel ... It looks more harmonious that way, I suppose. Otherwise people walking down that street would suddenly glimpse a train rushing past their feet."  The unspoken message is that respectability is a necessary facade built to cover our underground passions, otherwise people walking down the street would be frightened. Of course, already at this point Helen and Fido (with Helen's boyfriend) have travelled on the Underground railway. Symbolic!

One of the striking things about the way this book is written is its use of the present tense.

Lots of lovely lines:
  • The skin-tightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one.” (p 6)
  • You’re not the stuff of a chapter ... several volumes at least.” (p 10)
  • The phrases are delivered with the sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part.” (p 10)
  • If one get paid for one’s work, one knows somebody wants it.” (p 31)
  • Prigs are the worst of women; all that prudery hides lust for power.” (p 35)
  • Haven't the years done anything to soften you two to each other? 
  •         Oh you innocent ... that's not what the years do.” (p 38) 
  • The problem with deterrence is that it can only be inferred, not proved. It's like having some fat porter outside with a pistol in his greatcoat ... who shakes himself awake when you open the door, to assure you that since breakfast his presence has kept a dozen murderers from garotting the whole family!” (p 82) 
  • The happiest marriages are made up of three parties.” (p 116)
  • He's weeping like a child, weeping for all the times over the years that he's shrugged instead.” (p 128)
  • I'm not managing to plan anything: I'm running and leaping and tripping like some hunted rabbit!” (p 137)
  • The machine rolls on but squeals, the little screws are starting to loosen and pop out.” (p 144) 
  • Helen is fallen: that odd word always makes Fido think of a wormy apple.” (p 230)
  • Really bad women can move from vice to vice, like butterflies in a flowerbed.” (p 352)

But most of all, fantastic characters trapped in insoluble dilemmas. I turned the pages! October 2017; 464 pages



Sunday, 15 October 2017

"From Hell" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

This graphic novel is a fictional account of Jack the Ripper. It favours the theory that the assassin was Sir William Withey Gull, a royal surgeon, who was recruited (by Queen Victoria herself in this story) to silence a group of prostitutes who were blackmailing the Crown because they knew that Victoria's grandson, heir to the throne Prince Albert Victor Edward ('Eddy') had secretly married and had a daughter by a girl who worked in a sweet shop in Cleveland Street, later to be the scene of the famous male brothel allegedly frequented by Prince Albert Victor and investigated by Inspector Abbeline who also investigated the Ripper murders. Apparently painter Walter Sickert knew everything.

The book also lays heavy stress on Gull alleged membership of the Freemasons, on the supposed occult significances of the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, many of which are in the vicinity of the murders, and it introduces a science fiction element with Gull's spirit traversing the fourth dimension and inspiring Ian Brady, the Moors Murderer, and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, not to mention (going backwards in time) Gull appearing as a scaly fiend in a vision to William Blake.

It is an immense sweep. I was happy to take it all on board although this might have been because I have read most of the major source books including the outstanding novel Hawksmoor by the brilliant and prolific Peter Ackroyd; Ackroyd's masterful biography of William Blake, and Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution. Without such a thorough grounding I might have become quickly lost; Moore provides extensive notes for the general reader.

Even with the notes I feel that the scope of the book was its downfall. There was a moment when Walter Sickert delivered the baby daughter of prince and shopgirl to the shopgirl's parents, said girl having been incarcerated in a mental asylum. At this point the grandfather confesses to incest with his daughter. This takes several frames, a tiny fraction of the book, amounting to perhaps a few paragraphs in a novel. One would have thought such a potentially major sub-plot deserved a little more (If the grandfather not the Prince was the father of the shopgirl's daughter then the child is not a royal bastard and perhaps less drastic action might be taken). Alternatively, leave it out entirely. This sort of occurrence left a feeling that this work was just looking at the surface of a story which had potentially a great deal more; it felt shallow and unsatisfying.

I suspect it is my own inability to properly appreciate the visual arts that makes me fail to recognise that the cartoon drawings add value. I suppose that they help to add an air of menace to the whole book but I would have preferred the potential for rich description that a traditional novel might have offered. Mea culpa for being such a words man.

Is this a Gothic work? Of course it has many of the classic Gothic elements such as horribly killed corpses, dark places, and even a ghost. The secret brotherhood (in this case the Freemasons) reminds one of the controlling Catholic priests in The Monk. It also incorporates science fiction which has been suggested as the new Gothic. The idea of a monster preying on women is very reminiscent of Dracula. But does this book have any of the thresholds and their transitions that have been suggested as characteristics of Gothic literature? There is the chapter of Gull spiritually  travelling through space and time but this is scarcely fundamental to the story. There are two worlds, that of mundane Victorian London and the symbolic and spiritual Masonic London that exists in Gull's mind. This is an important theme and I suppose that if Gothic literature is equated with conspiracy theories this makes the work essentially Gothic.

My favourite line:

  • Policeman talking about one of the butchered women: "makes you think there's naught to us but shit and mincemeat". This reminded me of remains of the corpse after the bombing in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent: "the by-products of a butcher's shop"


Alan Moore also co-authored graphic novel V for Vendetta.

October 2017; a lot of pages

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

A dystopia? Everyone in the world is happy. Babies are hatched, genetically manipulated and brainwashed into five castes, the clever alphas and the sub-human epsilons who do the donkey work. Everyone belongs to everyone else and everywhere there is guilt-free promiscuous sex. There is no disease. There is no ageing. People work, play, and take soma, the wonder drug that just keeps them happy with no ill effects.

Some places are different. There are some savage reservations (“A savage reservation is a place which, owing to unfavourable climate or geological conditions, or poverty of natural resources, has not been worth the expense of civilizing.” p 141) where aboriginals live brutish lives. On one of these lives John, born to a mother from the civilized world who found herself trapped on the reservation by accident. And when Bernard and Lenina vacation on the reservation they bring John and his mother back. John, educated on Shakespeare, is eager to see this brave new world that hath such creatures in it. But he can't cope. There is no solitude. Life has no meaning. “Nothing costs enough here” he complains. (p 211)

And he is in love with Lenina. She wants to sleep with him. But she will do it for fun. He wants to marry her and feel the passion of love. As Margaret Attwood's foreword puts it “Never were two sets of desiring genitalia so thoroughly at odds.” (p ix)

We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe ... that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses and that immediate gratification will never be enough.” (p xvi)

It wasn't the threat of genetic manipulation that scared me, though I know that that is what the tabloids fear. For me the scary thing was that this brave new world is what we seem to have created. In the book it is immoral to mend things because throwing away and buying new keeps industry profitable. People work and shop and play games and then their sensibilities are number by entertainment that has none of the passion of great art. Even the sports they play have to use lots of expensive equipment. It keeps industry profitable. For me the scary vision of the Brave New World was the capitalist society of consumption that we have already created. Has it already stripped the meaning from our lives?

But perhaps the originality of Brave New World is that it is so hard to criticise the dystopian society presented. As Mustapha Mond, the world controller, puts it to the Savage, is he really claiming "the right to be unhappy"? “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” (p 212) Is it worth all that just to give life 'meaning'?

Lines I loved:
  • “Wintriness responded to wintriness.” (p 1)
  • The light was frozen, dead, a ghost.” (p 1)
  • Not philosophers, but fret-sawers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.” (p 2)
  • "The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.” (p 25)
  • Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, everywhere a focusing of interest, a narrow channeling of impulse and energy. But everyone belongs to everyone else.” (p 34)
  • Mother, monogamy, romance. High spurts the fountain; fierce and foamy the wild jet. The urge has but a single outlet. My love, my baby. No wonder those poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable. Their world didn't allow them to take things easily, didn't allow them to be sane, virtuous, happy.” (p 35)
  • Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.” (p 40)
  • ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ Joanna inarticulately testified.” (p 72)
  • five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present rosily blossomed.” (p 90)
  • They disliked me for my complexion. It's always been like that. Always.” (p 100)
  • It never used to be right to mend clothes. Throw them away when they got holes in them and buy new ... Isn't that right? Mending’s anti-social.” (p 104) 
  • He did genuinely believe that there were things to criticize. (At the same time, he genuinely liked being a success and having all the girls he wanted.)” (p 136)
  • One of the principal functions of a friend is to suffer ... the punishments that we would like, but are unable, to suffer upon our enemies.” (p 156)
  • As though death were something terrible, as though anyone mattered as much as all that!” (p 181)
  • You can't make tragedies without social instability.” (p 193)
  • Being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.” (p 195) 
  • Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive.” (p 198)
  • Industrial civilisation is only possible when there's no self-denial. Self Indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.” (p 209)

October 2017; 229 pages

Saturday, 7 October 2017

"The Time Machine" by H G Wells

This classic of science fiction was published in 1895 (according to wikipedia; my edition says 1898).

The Time Traveller (we never know his name, indeed the only names we are given throughout are of "Filby, an argumentative person with red hair" (p 1) and Weena, the TT's love interest of the future) discusses theories of time travel with sceptical friends, including the narrator. Inviting them to dinner he arrives late and very dishevelled; he changes and insists on eating (a brilliant bit of making the reader wait just when the tension is at its height) before telling his story.

He says he travelled forwards in time to the year 802,701. Here he met the Eloi, delicate  descendants of mankind who play in the meadows and live an incurious, fruit eating life. Soon he discovers that underground dwell the Morlocks, pale, with large red eyes that can see in the dark. The Morlocks prey on the Eloi, indeed it may be that the Eloi are kept like cattle for the Morlocks to eat. The TT theorises that the Eloi descended from the aristocrats and the Morlocks from the working classes, driven underground. But the Morlocks have stolen the Time Machine and the TT has to recapture it. In the battle to do so Weena dies.

Presumably this is an allegory of the afterlife (literally after the Time Traveller has lived, at least on Earth). The Eloi are the dwellers in the Edenic Elysian fields of heaven; the Morlocks are the devils in their subterranean hell.

The TT, reunited with his Machine, travels forwards to a future when tidal drag has stopped the rotation of the earth, when the sun is swelling into a red giant, and when the seashore is populated by giant crabs and octopuses. Then he returns to the present.

But they don't believe him. The next day, in an attempt to secure proof of what he has seen, the TT sets off again. He never returns.

Wells writers a simple straightforward story to illustrate his theories of social Darwinism: that we shall evolve to reflect the way we are. He achieves suspension of disbelief by having one central unlikelihood (time travel) bolstered by a great deal of mundane realism, such as the dinner party guests and the manufacture of the machine and the buildings in the world of the Eloi.

A classic frame structure: the bulk of the story is the Time Traveller's account of his adventure but it is both topped and tailed by the unknown narrator.

Is this in the Gothic tradition?  According to Aguirre (2008; p 2) Gothic literature abounds in liminality, as does science fiction. Perhaps the perceived incoherence between science and fiction predisposes one towards liminality. Wisker (2007; p 412) describes both thresholds: "doorsteps or windows through which you do or do not invite the ghost or vampire” and zones: “the liminal spaces of existence, hovering between being and unbeing, dead and undead." (AGUIRRE, M., 2008. Geometries of Terror: Numinous Spaces in Gothic, Horror and Science Fiction. Gothic Studies, 10(2), pp. 1. WISKER, G., 2007. Crossing Liminal Spaces: Teaching the Postcolonial Gothic. Pedagogy, 7(3), pp. 401-425.) This suggests that the Gothic element is the crossing of the threshold between the everyday mundane world and the world of dreams and nightmares. It isn't really about the tunnels (though that is a clear element in Gothic literature, for example in The Monk by Matthew Lewis, the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, (A Sicilian Romance by Anne Radcliffe). The crossing of the threshold is, of course, a necessary structural element in much science fiction: what is the TARDIS of Doctor Who but a Time Machine (and don't forget all those endless corridors!)?

Aguirre also says (pp 2 - 3) that "Gothic can be said to postulate two zones: on the one hand, the human domain of rationality and intelligible events; on the other hand, the world of the sublime, terrifying, chaotic Numinous which transcends human reason (but which may not be supernatural). These are separated by some manner of threshold and plots invariably involve movement from one side to the other - a movement which, most often, is presented as a transgression, a violation of boundaries." (Aguirre 2008; p 2-3) No violation as such in the Time Machine (although the Time Traveller does pay for the Travel with his life) but the cotrast between the everyday world of eating dinner and the Time Traveller's adventure world is phenomenal. 

Aguirre also claims (p 5) that narrative forms of Gothic literature often involve a labyrinth (provided by the underground passages of the Eloi) and a tale within a tale. Looks a pretty convincing case for placing this book within the tradition of Gothic literature.

Great lines:

  • "night followed day like the flapping of a black wing." (p 11)
  • "That is the drift of the current in spite of the eddies." (p 19)
  • "certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure." (p 20)
  • "That has ever been the fate of energy in security: it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come langour and decay." (p 20)
  • "We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity" (p 21)
  • "the devil begotten of fear and blind anger was ill curbed." (p 24)
  • "The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility." (p 36)
  • "intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. ... There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change." (p 49)
  • "The Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everyone knows now, he has never returned." (p 58; final sentences apart from the Epilogue).


A very short classic. Easy to read. October 2017; 58 pages


Friday, 6 October 2017

"A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess

A masterpiece by the man who wrote so many other masterpieces including:



There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry." (p 3) 

Alex and his three droogs are thugs and robbers in a dystopian world. Although some aspects of society are rigidly controlled in a mirror to soviet society in which everyone lives in tower blocks and everyone has to either go to school or work, the police have lost control of the night and youth gangs roam the streets. 

And Alex inhabits an alternate reality. He and his droogs have their own argot, nadsat: it is the language that first excites when you read the book. At the start it is overwhelming: “Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchok some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four.” (p 3) is one of the easier sentences. But it is surprising how swiftly one learns the lingo. Then, having entered the mind of Alex through being able to understand his inner voice, we enter also his world of violence. In the first few pages Alex and his droogs beat up an old man and vandalise his library books, rob a “sweets and cancers shop” (p 9), and steal a car and drive out to the countryside to break and enter and beat up an author and gang rape his wife. The film was condemned at the time for its violence but it is all there in the book. And the book ensures that you, sharing the language of Alex, are aware of his joy in violence. He loves it. It turns him on. It excites him. It fulfils him. He is overwhelmed by it.

He also loves and is overwhelmed by classical music. “Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.” (p 26) is a reaction to just a few notes he hears sung. He comes home from the gang rape and lies in bed listening to a violin concerto. The next day, truanting from school, he meets two young girls at the record shop and takes them home, gets them drunk and brutally rapes them to the last movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, the Song of Joy: "then these two young ptitsas were not acting the big lady sophisto no more. They were like waking up to what was being done to their malenky persons and saying that they wanted to go home  and like I was a wild beast. They looked like they had been in some big bitva, as indeed they had, and were all bruised and pouty. ... They were creeching and going ow ow ow as they put heir platties on, and they were like punchipunching me with their teeny fists as I lay there dirty and nagoy and fair shagged and fagged on the bed ... Then they were going down the stairs and I dropped off to sleep, still with the old Joy Joy Joy crashing and howling away." (p 36) Thus with this distinctive narratorial voice sex and violence and classical music are combined.

Alex is captured and jailed and given experimental aversion therapy to brainwash him into being good. But when he is released he discovers that not only can he not stand the thought of violence but also he can't stand his music. Rejected by his parents and his droogs, subjected to violence from his victims, he is used by political subversives in a battle against the government and it is only through a suicide attempt that his brainwashing is undone.

There are some nice parallels between the start of part one and the start of part two: The first line, “What's it going to be then, eh?” (p 3) is repeated four times over the first few pages. It is then repeated four times at the start of part two and four times in part three although one of those is left until the last few pages. “In out in out” is how Alex refers to sex. But when he is in prison at the start of part two the chaplain asks “is it going to be in and out and in and out of institutions?” The three parts are carefully structured: Alex as vicious teenage tearaway; Alex in prison and undergoing experimental treatment to make him good; Alex trying to survive in a post prison world. It is a morality play in three acts. The message? Young people go through a naughty phase? There is only morality if there is a choice? A totalitarian society is bad because it takes that choice away?

More brilliant lines:
  • Then out comes the blood, my brothers, real beautiful.” (p 7)
  • He said nothing for fear of being called gloopy and a domeless wonderboy.” (p 9)
  • We went back to town, running over odd squealing things on the way.” (p 20) 
  • I felt all the little malenky hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again.” (p 22)
  • I got more razdraz inside, calmer out.” (p 24) 
  • This biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don't go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop?” (p 31)
  • Civilized my syphilised yarbles.” (p 32)
  • And so I lead my three droogs out to my doom.” (p 43)
  • That was everything. I’d done the lot, now. And me still only fifteen.” (p 56)

A stunningly brilliant book pushed into stratospheric orbit by the language. Overwhelming. A masterpiece.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

"Legends of Alexander the Great " translated and edited by Richard Stoneman

This compilation of legends about Alexander the Great is set in India. He and his army encounter terrible monsters including hippopotami, gold-digging ants, scorpions, dragons, and the terrible Odontotyrannus; they hear of dog-headed men and men whose head is beneath their shoulders. Alexander meets the Brahmans, naked philosophers who have no possessions and who lecture him on his greed and his ambition. There are extracts from better known works which refer to Alexander, such as the Confessio Amantis by John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer who plays a bit part in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a play co-written by Shakespeare based on a work by Gower, and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Good fun. It was particularly interesting to note how these different works quoted (with citation) one another.

Some great lines:
    • A chapati is best eaten from the edges inwards rather than from the centre outwards.” (p xvii)
    • Once you have started inventing strange hybrids it is not hard to go on.” (p xix)
  • from Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle
    • A soldier named Zefirus discovered some water in a hollow rock; he filled his own helmet with it and brought it to me [Alexander], being more zealous for my life than for his own. Then I called together the whole army and in the sight of them all I poured away the water. I thought that if the army saw me drinking it would only make them feel even more thirsty.” (p 6)
  • from On the Wonders of the East [Pharasmanes to Hadrian]
    • There are found ants the size of dogs, with feet like locusts. They are red and black and they dig for gold.” (p 21)
  • from Palladius On the Life of the Brahmans
    • How many kings of foolishness do you think rule over fools? Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, tongue, stomach, genitals, the entire flesh of your body. There are many of them within, like implacable mistresses and insatiable tyrants, making endless demands; desires, avarice, love of pleasure, murder, assassination, meanness, dispute: to all of these and more men or enslaved, for these they kill and are killed.” (p 40)
    • Your mind is your tongue and your brains are in your lips.” (p 40)
    • You surround yourselves with many possessions and take pride in them, blind to the fact that none of them can help you to the truth: gold does not sustain the soul, nor fatten the body; quite the contrary, it darkens the soul and emaciates the body.” (p 41) 
    • Every human desire ceases when it is satisfied, because this is inherent in nature. But the desire for wealth knows no satiety, because it is against nature. That is why you adorn yourselves with it and glory in it, regarding yourselves as superior to other men. And that is why you take as your own what belongs to everyone” (p 41) 
    • The groans of the wronged will be the punishment of the wrongdoers.” (p 43)
    • Desire is the mother of penury ... It is miserable because it never finds what it seeks, is never content with what it has, but is tortured with lust for what it does not have.” (p 45) 
    • I do not eat fish like a lion, the flesh of other animals does not rot within me, I do not become a grave of dead animals.” (pp 45 - 46)
    • He who wishes to please everybody must be the slave of everybody.” (p 51)
  • from The Correspondence of Alexander and Dindimus
    • If one man would carrying a lit torch and other men were to come and light other torches from the first: it would not lose its own light.” (p 57)
    • We are not dwellers in this world here as if we expected to be here forever; rather we are sojourners, here for a temporary visit.” (p 64)
    • The only glory to be found in blindness and poverty is that blindness does not see what it lacks and poverty has no way of getting it.” (p 66)

October 2017; 104 pages