About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 30 December 2017

"The Outsider" by Albert Camus

Another novel with a stunning first line: “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.” Mersault, a Frenchman living in Algeria, reacts to the death of his mother with what, to all the world, seems like a total lack of emotion. Having attended the funeral he goes back to work, meets and beds a girl, helps an old man who has lost his dog, and intervenes in a neighbour's domestic dispute with fatal consequences.

It is written in short, matter of fact sentences that feel like the stunned bewilderment of a man who confesses that physical sensations in the here and now interfere with his feelings, and who is too honest with himself to subscribe to the 'normal', socially acceptable and socially constructed, emotions of others.

But society can't tolerate someone like Mersault, someone who sees through the pageant that we like to pretend is reality.

Divided exactly into two parts by the killing, The Outsider is a perfect miniature portrait of an emptied soul.

Some wonderful lines:
  •  “But today the sun blazing down upon the shimmering landscape made it inhuman and depressing.” (p 14)
  • I felt a bit lost standing between the blue and white of the sky and the relentless darkness of these other colours: the sticky black of the blistering tar, the dull black of the morning clothes, the shiny black of the hearse.” (p 15)
  • Although actually, everyone is always a little guilty.” (p 18)
  • I thought that it was one more Sunday nearly over and done with, that Mama was now dead and buried, that I would go back to work, and that when all was said and done, nothing has really changed.” (p 22)
  • when all is said and done, no one really knows.” (p 25)
  • I replied that you can never really change your life and that, in any case, every life was more or less the same and that my life here wasn't bad at all.” (p 38)
  • Out in the street the sun was already so hot that ... it felt like a slap across the face.” (p 43)
  • All I could feel was the sun crashing like cymbals against my forehead, and the knife, a burning sword hovering above me.” (p 53)
  • I fired for more times into the lifeless body, where the bullets sank without leaving a trace. And it was as if I had rapped sharply, four times, on the fatal door of destiny.” (p 54)
  • Their muffled whispers, rising from below, created a kind of soft background music against the conversations that criss-crossed above their heads.” (p 66)
  • I didn't understand how the natural qualities of an ordinary man could be turned into overwhelming proof of his guilt.” (p 91)
  • I knew that it didn't matter much whether you died at thirty or at seventy, because in either case other men and women would of course go on living, and it would be like that for thousands of years.” (p 103)
  • He wasn't even sure he was alive because he lived life as if he was dead.” (p 109)
  • standing before this symbolic night bursting with stars, I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world.” (p 111)

I devoured this book. The aching honesty of the protagonist was devastating.

Camus also wrote The Fall

December 2017; 111 pages

Friday, 29 December 2017

"An English Christmas" edited by John Julius Norwich

This is a compilation of passages from literature describing Christmas. It is an almost relentless cosy and complacent Tory view of an English Christmas: it is all priests and monarchs and country houses. Perhaps it is inevitable: history has always been written by the literate and for most of history that has meant the rich. Perhaps you can't blame Norwich for quoting from the diaries of Queen Victoria and Samuel Pepys and he does include the occasional peep of a different perspective but bizarrely the overwhelming impression of nearly the longest night of the year is one of warmth.

I wondered when he quoted Virginia Woolf, that he might have included her to demonstrate her appalling snobbery: “I grant, says the middle-class woman [wife of a bank clerk trying to make ends meet by shopping in the sales], that I linger and look and barter and cheapen and turnover basket after basket of remnants hour by hour. My eyes glisten unseemlily I know, and I grab and pounce with disgusting greed.” (p 36) But he had the opportunity to include some editorial gloss to suggest that he found this remark distasteful.  The same situation came with the selection from Henry James in which the great writer visits a workhouse at Christmas hoping that the children will be romantic little Oliver Twists to discover that they “were all very prosaic little mortals. They were made of very common clay indeed, and a certain number of them were idiotic.” (p 65) No comment from Norwich. As for Cecil Beaton whose diary records a Duke and Duchess patronising their tenants: “The Duchess stood to attention surrounded by many ugly, grey-haired women, including a few deaf mutes. The village children, puny and unattractive, made a startling contrast to the healthy ducal offspring.” (p 235) I wanted to scream that the ducal offspring are well fed because they reap the rewards of the labour of the villagers whose own children are malnourished. But Norwich appears to condone the blind snobbery behind this thought.

After all, as he tells us, he spent childhood Christmases with his uncle, Duke of Rutland, at Belvoir Castle, surrounded by footmen, valets, ladies maids (and presumably, cooks and kitchen maids and stable boys and gardeners and cleaners). How could he have seen behind the magic to the toil?

Just occasionally there is a counterbalance. He does, of course, include the sentimental poem Christmas Day at the Workhouse. Lord Shaftesbury's diary records: “Rose before six to prayer and meditation. Ah blessed God, how many in the mills and factories have risen at four, on this day even, to toil and suffering!” (p 185) And George Eliot writing about old Christmas says “His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless - fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faced had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want.” (p 123) I loved the unexpectancy of the want. The poor are so poor they have not even hope. But no comment from Norwich. And these moments are few and far between.

There is some wonderful writing:

  • Dylan Thomas: “The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves.”  (p 50)
  • Saki: “everyone ate raisins and almonds with the nervous industry of sheep feeding during threatening weather.”  (p 74)
  • Winifred Holtby: “the chill air was a sharp as eau de cologne, as icy water, on our bodies.” (p 85) 

There are other pleasures: 
  • I come constantly to Church to hear divine Service, and make Conquests.” (p 26)
  • My sister, having so much to do, was going to church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going. In his working clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else.” (Charles Dickens) (p 142)
  • All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.” (letter from the trenches about the Christmas Eve ceasefire) (p 154)
  • Edmund Gosse’s dad was anti-Christmas: “The very word is popish, he used to exclaim. Christ's mass! pursing up his lips with the gesture of the one who tastes asafoetida by accident.” (p 161)
  • George Orwell: “The only reasonable motive for not overeating at Christmas would be that somebody else needs the food more than you do.” (p 191)
  • I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all around the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise [a medieval defence against horses: a log with iron spikes like a cylindrical hedgehog], not particularly comfortable to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. the ice water stung and scorched like fire.” (A rather masochistic Reverend Kilvert) (p 199)
  • Some do fall on their faces and some do fall on their rumps. And they as do hold their selves uncommon stiff do most in generally fall on their rumps.” (p 203)
But the overall impression is that Christmas is a time of plenty and joy ... if you're rich.

It's a shame because Norwich writes great books, including The Popes.

December 2017; 262 pages

Monday, 25 December 2017

"A universal history of infamy" by Jorge Luis Borges

A bijou set of very short biographies of rascals and villains, some of them invented. Borges, who also wrote Labyrinths and The Book of Sand, is famous for his short stories. What marks them out is their scholarship (or their assumed scholarship), their invention, and the crystal beauty of his prose. A sentence like "Noons were heavy, afternoons endless." (p 48) is so short, so unfussy and yet so redolent of imagery.

Other moments
  • Bogle was no different from other men, with nothing more distinctive about him than a longstanding, shamefaced fear that made him linger at street crossings - glancing east, west, south, and north - in utter dread of the vehicle that might one day take his life.” (p 32) 
  • The neighbourhood production of some faded musical comedy, with its chorus line of obvious housewives posing as pirates and hoofing it on a briny deep of unmistakable cardboard.” (p 41) 
  • "each evening. high, shiftless flocks of airy dragons rose from the ships of the imperial squadron and came gently to rest on the enemy decks and surrounding waters." (p 48)

December 2017; 131 pages

Sunday, 24 December 2017

"The man within my head" by Pico Iyer

This literary chimaera is part memoir, part travelogue and part literary biography (of Graham Greene). It jumps about from place to place, as Iyer himself wanders the world, becoming almost postmodern in its fragmentation. It is a picaresque (that's almost a pun!), the wandering narrative matching Iyer himself as he meanders around the world. 

This gives us the chance to envy Iyer's charmed life. Born to a father who educated himself out of Bombay to become a university lecturer, Iyer as a child commutes between California and top class boarding schools in England where he learns, inter alia, Latin and Ancient Greek. Following an Oxford degree he wanders the world, writing travel pieces and literary review. I was Greene with jealousy!

The discursive nature of the book also means that Greene's books are approached thematically, although the ordering of the themes seems random and is unhighlighted. And so, apart from kindling in me a desire to reread Greene's work, I felt unsatisfied. Post-positivist that I am, I would have liked a linear narrative, starting with the first book, so that I could have traced the development of Greene's craft. Instead we repeatedly revisit The Quiet American, clearly Iyer's favourite, and a very good book indeed. But. There is (so far as I can see) no mention of, for example, Brighton Rock. Perhaps Iyer has never been to Brighton. Other books unmentioned include A Gun for Sale. You might argue that these are lesser works but you can't really write about an author without mentioning the good as well as the bad.

I found the memoir interesting but I had a personal reason. I was at school with Pico, the "high" school whose name he isn't prepared to give, although he describes the place sufficiently so that it is easy to guess. For a man so prepared to tell us intimate details of his life this seems a strange coyness. Perhaps it is a strange game that he is playing with the reader, in keeping with the postmodern nature of this strange book.

Fragmentary and meandering: this is the structure of a dream. There are moments when this book becomes a reverie. There are magical incidents, episodes of violence and action, and Iyer is repeatedly haunted by the men within his head, both Graham Greene and his father. There are also moments when his writing achieves beauty and insight. A small selection of these include:
  • Lovers stretched out on the grass next to huge sepulchres, enjoying the one spot in the city where their whispers would not be drowned out by the role of passing buses.” (p 11) Is the ‘passing’ a bitterly morbid wordplay? Or just a pathetic fallacy?
  • Who are these figures who take residence inside our heads, to the point where we can feel them shivering inside us even when we want to ‘be ourselves’?" (p 21) 
  • The paradox of reading is that you draw closer, to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.” (p 37)
  • A dentist is really a priest in a different kind of a white robe, administering suffering as a way, he assures us, of keeping deeper suffering at bay.” (p 41) He goes on to point out how often dentists appear in Greene's works.
  • The house had been built by a fundamentalist who are taken very seriously the biblical injunction to build his house ‘upon a rock’; he had found a large boulder up amidst the brush, and without benefit of foundation - or architectural experience - laid down a two-story structure.” (p 64) The sequel is that a storm ripped part of the house off the mountainside.
  • to achieve the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” (p 65)
  • the new possibilities of our global order, and the way it allowed for multiple homes and multiple selves.” (p 135) Multiple homes and multiple selves seems to summarise the author himself as depicted in this book.
A remarkable and memorable book. December 2018; 238 pages

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

"Ghosts of the Vikings" by Marsali Taylor

Another Cassandre Lynch whodunnit. I wonder why she's called Cassandre? In the epics of ther Trojan War Cassandra is the princess gifted with prophecy but cursed in that no one will believe what she says. This could make an interesting type of whodunnit in which the detective solves the crime very early on but can't get anyone to believe her and, as a result, is endangered. But that's another book.

Cass sails to Unst, most northern island in the Shetland archipelago, to hear her Maman sing opera. But at the post-performance meal one of the other singers dies. The mystery is compounded by Cass voluntary keeping night watch over archaeological sites for  metal detectorists seeking Viking treasure. And her will she/ won't she relationship with DI Gavin (she is reluctant to have sex with him on board her boat because the mast will wobble and everyone in the marina will know what they've been doing) continues.

Although I was a little confused about the details in the end (even after the murderer was exposed I found it difficult to work out how it was done and what exactly was happening with all the other sub plots) Taylor delivers another wonderful story steeped in sailing and Shetlandish lore and set against a backdrop of the beautiful and beautifully described Shetland scenery. I want to go there!

"The whole city's dressed up like a candy store getting wed." (p 11)

The other brilliant books in this series, in order, include:
Death on a Longship
The Trowie Mound Murders
A Handful of Ash
The Body in the Bracken

December 2018; 327 pages

Saturday, 16 December 2017

"Beautiful people" by Simon Doonan

A memoir previously published as 'Nasty'.

Doonan was born in 1952 in Reading; his childhood was spent in poverty in one of the grimmest and most joyless tdecades in recent history. Child care was in the local orphanage. Family life was spent in the company of schizophrenic truth telling granny who, when Simon was five, told him there was no Santa Claus and that he would one day die, schizophrenic Uncle Ken and a weird assortment of lodgers including blind Phyllis whose skull Simon fractured.

And he was gay.

This story veers between the bleakness of his childhood surroundings and the camp fabulosity of his later life living with an assortment of men including drag queen Biddie. The characters are unbelievably brilliant and the descriptions original and exact. This is the observational comedy of an accomplished stand up comedian (he is a window display designed). It reads like Gerald Durrell's Our Family and Other Animals on speed.

There are some haunting moments:
  • Trying to flee from justice by running, in platform heels, across Blackpool's sandy beach
  • Being arrested for drunk-driving while wearing bondage gear by two LA cops who couldn't stoip giggling
  • Teddy's birthday
  • Butlins: holiday camp.
  • Blind Aunt Phyllis
  • His boyfriend dying from AIDS

A few of the ab fab darling lines:
  • She sneezed and her dentures flew out. They hit the kitchen door with a sharp clack! and then rattled sideways across the linoleum floor like a fleeing crustacean.” (p 1) 
  • In Reading, our industrial hometown, there was no shortage of dreary here and nows.” (p 6)
  • From an early age, I was excessively focused on obtaining the freedom which comes with having a bit of extra cash in my pocket, and was prepared to do whatever it took to get it.” (p 9)
  • we were suffering from a unique mixture of high and low self-esteem.” (p 16)
  • She was not one of the Beautiful People. She was one of the unsavory people.” (p 24) 
  • Edvard Grieg’s ominous, throbbing anthem ... gave our morning gatherings a distinct feeling of impending folkloric genocide.” (p 40)
  • The message was simple: the more grim life is, the more character building will be it effect.” (p 40)
  • Entering a room as if one was entering a room was so much more amusing and exhilarating than just entering a room.” (p 86)
  • We had so much more fun because we were behaving as if we were having fun.” (p 86)
  • life is a stage set, a really tacky, faded stage set.” (p 92)
  • our house resembled a crack den a full fifteen years before the advent of crack.” (p 136)
  • ‘Scrape’ is the accumulated, lard-infused, crunchy material which coagulates in the frying pan during the course of cooking other items.” (p 149)
  • Being incarcerated is such a vile experience that it is impossible to understand the whole concept of career criminals.” (p 209)
  • There is no such thing as a young fart.” (p 264)
December 2017; 284 pages

Thursday, 14 December 2017

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This tiny novel is astonishing. Starts with a hook: “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.” (p 1) What a first line! But then it more or less meanders. The narrator is a man who had been friends with Santiago and, after a gap of twenty seven years, returns to the town and talks to all the people who were there, who remembered that day. And tries to understand.

The killers didn't really want to kill him. It was an affair of honour. They told everyone what they were going to do in the hope that someone would stop them. So more or less the whole town knew what was going to happen. Except, until the last moment, the victim. Whom no one thought to tell.

This provides a theme sufficiently compelling to keep you going. This allows the author to explore. Exploration involves wandering, rambling, seeking out and turning back. This enables the author to poke his nose into so many aspects of how people live. He is forensic in his observations and he has the facility of turning the clarity of these observations into the exact right words. 

A classic. Wonderful.

  • To put the broken memory of mirror back together from so many scattered shards” (p 5) 
  • You won't have a drink of that water as long as I'm alive.” (p 8)
  • They'd placed the sick people in the archways to receive God's medicine.” (p 20)
  • “don't comb your hair at night; you'll slowdown seafarers.” (p 31)
  • a friend of a few drinks.” (p 42)
  • we were cast adrift over an abyss of uncertainty” (p 44)
  • Both were exhausted from the barbarous work of death.” (p 49)
  • She was certain that the Vicario brothers were not as anxious to fulfill the sentence as to find someone who would do them the favour of stopping them.” (p 57)
  • My sister the nun, who wasn’t going to wait for the bishop because she had an eighty-proof hangover.” (p 71)
  • On nights of high tide the toilets would back up and fish would appear flopping about in the bedrooms at dawn.” (p 89)
  • A poor woman devoted to the cult of her defects.” (p 93)
  • She told us about the miracle but not the saint.” (p 101)
December 2018; 122 pages

If you enjoy this book you might also like another book about untimely death, reported from the perspective of twenty or so years and firmly set within a community: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Monday, 11 December 2017

"Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

This book starts slowly with the baptismal party for one-year-old Franny at which Bert, a friend of her father's, meets Beverley, her mother. Soon the two families have shuffled. In the summer Bert's four kids and Beverley's two kids holiday in Virginia, where Bert and Beverley now live. But B&B are neglectful parents and the six kids roam in the fields. Because Albie the youngest is such a pain they give him pills and gin to make him sleep while they have fun. Then tragedy strikes.

Years later Franny, haunted by her memories, meets a famous author and tells him the story of their life. Which becomes a best seller.

Shifting backwards and forwards in time, told from multiple points of view, this is a forensic dissection of families. Who'd be a mother after reading this?

It is a beautifully written book because of the compelling characters it creates and the the way the author dissects families with such ruthlessness and at the same time such compassion and these few lines below don't do it justice.

  • He looked like one of those gargoyles perched on a high corner of Notre Dame that's meant to scare the devil away.” (p 61)
  • Luggage: that which is to be lugged.” (p 72)
  • the bony protrusions of her vertebrae and clavicles were so clearly displayed she could have found work in an anatomy class.” (p 76)
  • In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.” (p 77)
  • The nuns had led her to believe that God gave preference to people who did things the hard way.” (p 125)
  • He rubbed his hands together to warm them up and then sank them deep into his pockets.” (p 135)
  • It made Albie want to take off his skin.” (p 171)
  • Life, Teresa knew by now, was a series of losses.” (p 245)
  • Theresa was shocked by the roaming idleness of her mind, as if she was sifting through trash on the side of the freeway and was stopped, enchanted, but every foil gum wrapper.” (p 290)

Patchett also wrote the wonderful Bel Canto, a faster paced book with less normality but a searingly passionate love story. I want to read more of this wonderful author.

December 2018; 322 pages

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

"Rabbit stew and a penny or two" by Maggie Smith-Bendell

A memoir of her childhood as a Romani Gypsy traveller on the road in the 1950s. They picked snowdrops and daffies and sold them door to door; they picked peas and beans for farmers; they bought and sold scrap metal. This is a fascinating record of that transient life including the hardships, the fights, the premature deaths.

There is quite a lot about the dreadful racism suffered by the Romanis and many of us house-dwellers should be ashamed of ourselves. There was one point on which I disagreed, however. During the Second World War Romani men (and their horses) might be conscripted. She seems to regard this as persecution. Of course, house-dwellers were also conscripted and it might be argued that the Romanis should have been exempted because the war was not being fought 'in their name'. Although, of course, the fate that Romanis suffered in Nazi Germany, where they were exterminated in gas camps, might suggest that at least to some degree the war was being fought 'for' them. Which brings us to an interesting 'social contract' type question: to what extent does a person who cuts themselves off from benefits from society nevertheless be obliged to contribute towards society?

There are some great stories. I found the funniest the one in which young Maggie, at school, played her first game of hockey. She understood the basics - you had to hit the ball with the stick - and ran up and down the pitch scoring goals. There was a commotion. The teacher pointed out that she should only score goals at one end because she was in a team. She hadn't understood the concept of teams.

Some great lines that possess sometimes a very different metaphor or perspective:

  • "A good, big fire would put the frost in its place wherever we  pulled in." (p 30)
  • They would go through the breeding of the horse, chamming [boasting] on for what seemed like hours.” (p 104)
  • I know what you’s like with the lush [alcohol] down your neck.” (p 111)
  • He got as drunk as a handcart.” (p 155)
  • We were not young enough to be put to bed, not old enough to be treated like adults.” (p 171)
  • If a stranger has come upon us they would’ve thought we'd been touched by the moon.” (p 186)
  • She would’ve laughed if her granny’s arse had caught fire.” (p 235)
  • To other travellers, my name became bigger than me body.” (p 250)
  • Retrospective was the new way forward!” (p 251)
  • I ... know me run as good as any rabbit in his warren.” (p 259)
Well told with some great stories, simply written. I could feel the pleasure in an outdoor way of life, knowing about badgers and pea plants, whilst at the same time regretting the hardships. I loved the integration of Romani words. But most of all I enjoyed her unique perspective on life.

December 2017; 276 pages

Sunday, 3 December 2017

"A dedicated man" by Peter Robinson

Set in a valley in the Yorkshire Dales, idyllic when the sun is shining, DCI Banks investigates the murder of a local historian amidst the usual crowd of suspects: the dead man's wife, an author of whodunnits, an internationally renowned and stunningly beautiful folk singer, the archaeologist's publisher, the medallion-wearing local entrepreneur who wanted to redevelop a field that was once a Roman camp, the folksinger's ex-Army father, the local doctor and a local religious nut. Everyone tells the police that the dead man had no enemies which is ipso facto untrue. Are the roots of the crime in the present day or ten years ago when some of the same characters gathered in the same places?

A well-written whodunnit with, mirabilis dictu, a happily married detective (pipe smoking, into opera and choral music, ex London).

Plenty of red herrings although I worked out whodunnit sometime before the end and it didn't seem to twist after that.

"The room was flickering with tiny bright flames that made the walls look like melting butter." (p 61)

December 2017; 288 pages