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

Friday, 16 February 2018

"The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction" (third series) edited by Anthony Boucher and J Francis McComas

When I was a kid (in the 1960s) I used to go to the library in Sunbury-on-Thames and read. They had these SciFi collections. I loved them. Now they seem quaint. They beautifully reflect the culture and concerns of 1950s America. The Bomb. A world post-apocalypse (still a concern of Sci Fi today). And interstellar travel meeting strange new creatures. This collection, dating from 1954, is a classic of its kind.

In Attitudes by Phillip Jose Farmer a gambler on a strange world observes aliens in an activity that he believes is a kind of gambling game. He joins in. But has he understood the signs rightly? The priest doesn't think so. A brilliant central scene; the obsession of gamblers is clearly shown. But the first scene seems misleading; it has overtones of Pascal's wager and Faust but it seems redundant. And the twist at the end was easy to spot.

In Maybe Just a Little One by R Bretnor a schoolteacher invents a nuclear reactor in his basement. Fuelled on beans. His community think he's mad. A very off-beat tale.

The Star Gypsies travels from town to town helping the destroyed communities with primitive technology, showing them how to make a sickle and a bicycle.

In The Untimely Toper by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt Mr Pearce is cursed by a newcomer to the bar so that each time he gets drunk he goes to the rest room and when he comes out finds that a day, or a week, has passed by; the time seems to be proportionate to how drunk he gets. This story contained some great lines:
  • "If he had ten times as much brains as he has and cheated on the entrance examination, he might be able to get into a home for the feeble-minded.
  • "A look on his face that I'd not be wanting to take to bed with me at night"
Vandy, Vandy by Manly Wade Wellman is the  story of a musician finding an old hillbilly family who were celebrated in song; the devil who is bothering their daughter is the same man as the one who bothered their great-great grandmother; he has magically been enabled to live for 300 years ...

Experiment by Kay Rogers is a very short story about a Venusian falling in love with his slave girl (an earthling) even though Venusians don't love.

  • "A faint, slanting shadow lay along either cheek subtly pointing to her lips." (p 98)

Ward Moore's Lot was the best story of them all. A man is driving his fractious family along a grid-locked road away from his Los Angeles suburb after the Bomb has dropped. He has had the foresight to pack the station wagon with all the things necessary for survival (fish hooks, needles ...) But his wife is in complete denial. She wants to phone her friends although the phones are out. She wants to stop at a gas station with clean rest rooms and at a motel for a decent bath and a nice meal. The two boys (the sixteen year old fast turning into a juvenile delinquent and a younger lad) whinge away from the back. Only his daughter understands the gravity of the situation. And all the time the radio utters reassuring messages. This story about a family on the road was brilliant; Lot, fleeing from the destruction of the Cities of the Plain.

P M Hubbard's Manuscript found in a vacuum was a very short take off of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille.

In The Maladjusted Classroom by H Nearing Jr a teacher in a military school solves a timetabling problem using the fourth dimension and a Klein bottle he has invented.

In Child by Chronos by Charles L Harness a woman, born after her father has disappeared, presumed dead, tells of her difficult relationship with a mother who makes a firtune by foretelling the future. A clever twist on time travel.

New Ritual by Idris Seabright is the story of a chest freezer with the power to grant wishes.

W B Ready's Devlin was almost unreadable. In fact I skipped lots. I think it was about the devil who arrived at a town without a piping band and helped the menfolk form such a band and then did a pied piper act.

Captive Audience by Ann Warren Griffith was the story that has (almost) come true! Little discs are placed in products by advertisers so that, after being triggered by radio, the products themselves advertise to you. Most people are hooked on this cacophony of inescapable advertising; it has actually been made illegal to possess earplugs.

In Snulbug by Anthony Boucher a wizard conjures up a time-travelling demon so that he can find out what is going to happen tomorrow and make a fortune, only to discover that time travel isn't that easy. A delightful characterisation of a surprisingly Yiddish salamander:

  • "The demon ... dived into the flame, rubbing himself with the brisk vigor of a man under a needle shower." (p 214)

Shepherd's Boy by Richard Middleton is a very short ghost story.

  • "Above me in the blue pastures of the sky the cloud-sheep were grazing, with the sun on their snowy backs, and all about me the gray sheep of earth were cropping the wild pansies" (p 230)

Alfred Bester's Star Light, Star Bright is a rather poorly written story with some extraordinarily unconvincing characters which was nevertheless nominated for a Hugo Award.

The stories are interspersed with poems, many by Winona McClintic. None of the poems floated my boat.

It was fascinating what the obsessions were in the science fiction community of those days (and also how much tolerance where was for alternatives such as ghost stories). There is a clear interest in plot rather than character which makes a strong contrast with short stories being written today. I bathed in nostalgia but I was rather disappointed by the quality. This collection is not as good as the Sixth collection which is reviewed here.

February 2018; 252 pages

"The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" by Arundhati Roy

The story starts in a graveyard in Delhi where Anjum (born Aftab, a hermaphrodite s/he has had surgery to relinquish her male parts to transgender to the female she wants to be) now lives after leaving the house she lived in for years with a community of hijras (eunuchs and transgenders who are officially recognised as a third gender in some parts of India). Nimmo, a hijra in the community, tells her that God made Hijras because "He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us." And when Anjum (still Aftab) says thay the hijra community seems happy she replies "Who's happy here? It's all shame and fakery ... No one's happy here ... For us the price-rise and the school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can't." (p 23)

This is the story not of Aftab/ Anjum but of India. And India is one country at war with itself. The war is between the castes, between the Moslems and the Hindus, between the various terrorist factions and the military in the hatred-ravaged state of Kashmir. "in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one - the war of the rich against the poor."(p 392)

"How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
By slowly becoming everything." (p 436)
This is the technique Roy adopts. This story has multiple narrators and over fifty other characters. It jumps around in time. It is as chaotic and confusing as the slums in Delhi it describes. Pinto (2017) compares it with postmodernism: "This is fiction as kaleidoscope, constantly changing, and flirting with failure."

It is, I suppose, a three part structure. The first third of the book is set in Delhi and recounts the adventures of Anjum the hijra. It ends with the arrival of a baby, abandoned on the pavement, an arrival heralded in quasi-Biblical terms which leads one to believe that something special and magical is about to happen.
  • She appeared quite suddenly, a little after midnight. No Angels sang, no wise men brought gifts. But a million stars rose in the east to herald her arrival.” (p 95)
  • A thin white horse tethered to the railing, a small dog with mange, a concrete-coloured garden lizard, two palm-striped squirrels who should have been asleep and, from her hidden perch, a she-spider with a swollen egg sac watched over her.” (p 96)
Then suddenly we are into the second third of the book. Delhi and Anjum are forgotten. Now we learn, from a variety of sources, including the first hand testimony of the only first person narrator, a government official (suggesting that it is only when a representative of the government is speaking that we can use the form 'I'?) and from her childish short stories and from pages of random invective from her mother about the adventures of Tilo, a well-to-do high caste girl who is well-fancied by three men, one a Kashmiri freedom-fighter, one a campaigning journalist and the third the naforementioned government official. Perhaps the symbolism is that these are the three (male) interests who are fighting over Mother (if only by adoption of the quasi-miraculous baby) India. This part of the story explores the terror and counter-terror in which ordinary Kashmiris are slaughtered by the thousands to satisfy the political machinations of cruel and uncaring men (and one woman).

And then comes the third part of the story. Back to Delhi. Loose ends tied together. More testimonies.

But she can write. Her descriptions bring life to her characters and the city of Delhi is just another wonderfully colourful and complex character:

  • "She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches." (p 3; opening lines)
  • "When people called her names - clown without a circus, queen without a palace - she let her hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain." (p 3)
  • "He laughed. She laughed at his laugh." (p 4)
  • "Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty." (p 6)
  • "The first time she made her way past the crowd - the sellers of ittars and amulets, the custodians of pilgrims' shoes, the cripples, the beggars, the homeless, the goats being fattened for slaughter on Eid and the knot of quiet, elderly eunuchs who had taken up residence under a tarpaulin outside the shrine" (p 11)
  • "God's carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred." (p 13)
  • "brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own hubris." (p 15)
  • "it was the only place in his world where he felt the air make way for him." (p 19)
  • "The fan had human qualities - she was coy, moody, and unpredictable. She ... wasn't young any more and often needed to be cajoled and prodded with a long-handled broom and then she would go to work, gyrating like a slow pole dancer." (p 20)
  • "Anjum began to rewrite a simpler, happier life for herself. The rewriting in turn began to make Anjum a simpler, happier person." (p 34)
  • "They were buried in unmarked graves that disappeared over time and contributed to the richness of the soil and the unusual lushness of the old trees." (p 58)
  • Shadows just a deeper shade of night” (p 61)
  • Nothing scared those murderers more than the prospect of bad luck. After all, it was to ward off bad luck that the fingers that gripped the slashing swords and flashing daggers were studded with lucky stones embedded in thick gold rings. It was to ward off bad luck that the wrists wielding iron rods that bludgeoned people to death were festooned with red puja threads lovingly tied by adoring mothers.” (p 62)
  • Around her the City sprawled for miles. Thousand-year-old sorceress, dozing, but not asleep, even at this hour. Grey flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze. Sleeping bodies of homeless people lined their high, narrow pavements,, head to toe, head to toe, head to toe. looping into the distance. Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each Street a carnival. Each arthritic joint a crumbling amphitheatre where stories of love and madness, stupidity, delight and unspeakable cruelty had been played out for centuries. But this was to be the dawn of her resurrection. Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore.” (p 96)
  • Shit was just processed food” (p 107)
  • “The sharp smoky smell of stale urine” (p 112)
  • They had told their stories at endless meetings and tribunals in the international supermarkets of grief, along with other victims of other wars in other countries. They had a wept publicly and often, and nothing has come of it. The horror they were going through had grown a hard bitter shell.” (p 115)
  • A part of the city they oughtn’t to be in. No signs said so, because everything wash a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold.” (p 135)
  • People crowded the counters of the all-night chemists, playing Indian Roulette. (There was a 60:40 chance that the drugs they bought for genuine and not spurious.)" (p 136 - 137) 
  • I could picture the string of pearls she sang about being broken in the urgency of love making, her voice languorously following the beads as they skittered around the bedroom floor.” (p 171)
  • I am being made an escape goat.” (p 203)
  • She thought of the city at night, of cities at night. Discarded constellations of old stars, fallen from the sky, rearranged on Earth in patterns and pathways and towers.” (p 224)
  • R.C. often dropped his voice mid-sentence and spelled out random words, as though he was hoodwinking an imaginary eavesdropper who didn't know how to spell.” (p 232)
  • Friends turn into foes. If not vocal ones, then silent, reticent ones. But I've yet to see a foe turning into a friend.” (p 268)
I just don't know. Is this the classic Indian novel to rank with the greats such as Finnegan's Wake and War and Peace? Or is it a mess?

I suppose I am really asking whether the Delhi pavement is the epitome of vibrant, vigorous, chaotic life or whether the chaos overwhelms and it becomes a hellish horror of over-activity.

Your call.

February 2018; 437 pages

Saturday, 10 February 2018

"What Happened" by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Clinton is the wife of Bill Clinton, former president of the United States, who went on to become a Senator for New York, US Secretary of State under Barack Obama, and Democrat candidate for US President in 2016 in a race in which she gained more votes than her rival Donald Trump but lost to him because of the archaic US Electoral College rules. This book tries to explain how her campaign, which everyone (including herself and, it appears, Mr Trump) thoughtshe would win, failed so spectacularly.

It is written in a very straightforward style. As is typical of US books it is obsessed with facts, in particular poll ratings, the names of people, and what she eats. She would appear to read a lot of inspirational books especially those written by religious people.  I found that these details tended to get in the way of the narrative.

It's not a rant. There is a lot of careful policy. Clinton comes over as extremely thoughtful, searingly honest, and very caring, although it is interesting that the norms she accepts (such as self-help, reducing taxes, being the world's policeman) are really rather right wing in the context of European politics.

Some interesting comments:

  • "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle." (p 9; quoting Timothy Snyder)
  • Attempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism.” (p 9)
  • It wasn't all yoga and breathing: I also drink my share of chardonnay.” (p 27)
  • There is an opioid epidemic in the US. In 2015 over 33,000 people overdosed and died. “A woman in treatment [for opioid addiction] told me, ‘We're not bad people trying to get good. we're sick people trying to get well’.” (p 62)
  • Gun violence ... is the leading cause of death for young black men [in the US], outstripping the next nine causes of death combined.” (p 178)
  • Change might be the most powerful word in American politics. It's also one of the hardest to define.” (p 197)
  • “Service is the rent we pay for living.” (p 215; quoting Marian Wright Edelman)
  • President Obama once compared Vladimir Putin to a ‘bored kid at the back of the classroom. ... he's got that kind of slouch’.” (p 327)
  • De Tocqueville ... wrote that revolts tend to start not in places where conditions are worst, but in places where expectations are most unmet.” (p 442)

February 2018; 464 pages

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

"Artemisia" by Alexandra Lapierre

Artemisia Gentelleschi was a woman artist during the Baroque. She worked for Popes and Kings. Her art, which often depicts Biblical women at violent odds with men, is recognised as among the best of this period. She's in the Uffizi, Seville Cathedral, the NY Metropolitan Museum, and the Prado amongst other places. She was the first woman artist to be elected to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence. And she was the victim in the first ever fully-documented rape trial.

This is a historical novel although it is firmly based on the evidence so it is perhaps more of a fictionalised biography. The events, we are led to believe, occurred. The sense that is made of them, the feelings of the actors in the story, are speculative.

Growing up in her father's art workshop in Rome, Artemisia showed a precocious talent. Aged seventeen she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a specialist in perspective and trompe l'oeil who collaborated with her father and gave her lessons. For the next nine months Artemisia and Agostino conducted an affair; the excuse given is that Artemisia, having been deflowered and dishonoured, could only hope that Agostino would marry her. She thought he was free. His first wife had died (he had been accused of hiring assassins to murder her) and she didn't know that he was living with his wife's sister (technically incest) by whom he was having children. When she discovered that he had no intention of marrying her (and later that he couldn't, since the assassins had failed and his first wife was still alive and paying him off) she accused him of rape. The trial proceeded according to the laws of Italian justice. Agostino was jailed, awaiting sentencing (time in the galleys, or exile, or death), while the witnesses were tortured. So Artemisia had her fingers crushed but maintained her story. Meantime a young boy, working for Agostino, falsely accused her of sleeping around and maintained his story during the strappado, being strung up and hung by his wrists while his arms were tied behind his back which was not only excruciating but led to dislocation of the shoulders; this boy was willing to undergo this ordeal twice because of the promise of a pay off from Agostino. Finally the verdict was against Agostino and he was exiled but, pulling strings, never actually left Rome. Instead Aretmisia found a husband and left for Florence where she mingled with Buonarotti, the great-nephew of Michelangelo and a famous playwright, and Galileo as well as the last embers of the Medici clan. She had four children, three of whom died. 

In her later life, after her good-for-nothing husband finally disappeared, she divided her time between Venice, London and Naples, having affairs with Nicholas Lanier, a musician at the court of Charles I, and the Spanish Duke of Alcala, one time governor of Naples, by whom she had an illegitimate daughter.

She was a stunningly talented artist and she lived in a world of struggle, hardship, early death. She fought against the society-imposed disadvantages and restrictions of being a woman and, despite the patriarchal attitudes towards female sexuality she had a number of lovers. She mixed with popes and kings. But most of all her work makes her immortal.

Some of my favourite lines:

  • "A galley cuts through the mist over the Thames and docks heavily to the accompaniment of a De Profundis, lugubriously intoned by Capuchin monks" (p 3) The opening sentence seems perfect for a book about a Baroque artist.
  • Her father "put her to work, observing her progress with the dread that she would not succeed, and the fear that she would succeed too well." (p 46)
  • "She loved him as people loved their sins." (p 137)
  • "Did he die of the French malady - syphilis - from which so few recovered that the hospital in the Corso, charged with admitting its victims, bore the extremely optimistic name, Hospital of the Incurables?" (p 138)
  • "You cannot have happiness in this life and immortality for all time to come. You have to choose." (p 191)
  • A display at the Pitti Palace in Florence in 1615 showed the moon "with craters and volcanoes, areas of light and shade. One could also see Jupiter and its four satellites, which Galileo had recently baptised the Medicean Stars." (p 208)
  • "Artemisia had learned many things in the Via della Croce. Tassi, who boasted everywhere of having taught her how to 'handle a brush', did not mean these words merely in the painterly sense." (p 280)
The biography of a fascinating artist, with a useful dramatis personae and useful maps and colour plates of her paintings. A wonderful insight into an interesting time made all the more vivid by the clever device of turning it into a novel. 

January 2018; 442 pages

Monday, 5 February 2018

"The Long Shadow" by Mark Mills

For a thriller, this book starts slowly. Although it is very early when Ben realises that the producer who has bought his film script is an old school friend, a billionaire, living under a new name, and this discovery intrigues the reader, there is a long while before the book develops from here. In the meantime Ben tastes a high life which he is sufficient of a connoisseur to recognise: the very best vintages of wine and whisky, the most beautiful works of art. This is the usual thriller fare of a hero who knows everything and is just masquerading as an ordinary guy. With just a day surfing the internet he is able to effortlessly negotiate the purchase of a speedboat. He is more than competent at both tennis and cricket. Plus a beautiful woman throws herself at him on first sight and another promises a more fulfilling relationship for later. Inevitably we later discover that Ben is a wonderful lover.

What redeems this book is the hero's moments of vulnerability. The moment he looks at the road beneath the wheels of his motorbike and worries about whether the engine will seize up and fling him off. There is a beautiful depiction of his relationship with his son, who lives with his mother, the hero's divorced wife. When Mills is writing about the hero's relationship with his son, or with his ex-wife, there are moments of tenderness and reality. This was entrancing writing which deserved to be in the foreground, rather than serving a slightly unconvincing plot.

Even when this plot gets going it burns slowly. Ben is drawn into the world of the super-rich. There are hints that all is not as it seems. The main story is interspersed with flashbacks to the two boys at a rather feral prep school; these also suggest that the apparent friendliness of 'Victor' (ex-Jacob) might have ulterior motives. But development of these ideas is left very late and the denouement, when it arrives, is rushed. In the end I didn't believe that Victor, with all he had to lose, should seek out Ben.

But there were some great lines:

  • "the creeping caution that comes with age, the same anxiety that had rendered his parents all but housebound." (p 22)
  • "When you boil it back to the bones, what else is there? ... Just death, and the foolish hope we can somehow cheat it."(p 54)
  • "Ben knew he had spoken - he had felt his jaw move - but it was as if the word had been uttered by another." (p 99)
  • "Plato was right when he said an old man may become twice a child, but I don't see there's any earthly reason why he shouldn't be a good child - polite, intelligent, considerate." (p 352)

Overall a good read but the wonderful human interest story was inappropriately shackled to the shallow thriller format. February 2018; 453 pages