About Me

My photo
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, 16 January 2018

"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the top six novels of the year. Her first novel was voted one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by the Observer.

An old preacher with heart disease is writing a letter to his young son. He recounts the story of his life and his family and tries to explain himself, while at the same time offering advice. 

His father was the preacher in town before him and his grandfather before that, though they were very different characters and almost always argued. He married and had a wife and child who died and then, in his sixties, married again to have the little boy to whom he is writing. His boyhood friend grew up to become preacher in a neighbouring church and have a rather larger family of whom was a boy of mischief with a bad reputation who got into trouble and had to leave town.

Then half way through the book this boy returns. And the narrator is afraid that this bad boy will, from pure devilry and spite, steal his wife and child after he has died.

A book which raises profound moral questions narrated by a saint who struggles to be good. 

I thought that it was beautifully written but not very exciting. There were mysteries that drove me on. What exactly was the nature of the feud between the narrator's grandfather and his father? What exactly had the bad boy done? It wasn't much to motivate but the reward was perfect prose.

And then, at the very end, in the only bit that is arranged as a separate chapter, we discover at least some of the truth. And in the last two pages there were tears in my eyes and it was sore to swallow. It was one of those books that had none of the superficial gaudinesses but will linger as a taste (and a lump) at the back of my throat for years.

There were so many beautiful lines that this small selection seems ungracious.
  • It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over.” (p 6)
  • That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people coming to your study and tell you the most remarkable things.” (p 6)
  • There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness.” (p 7)
  • You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and then might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p 8)
  • It seems to me that some people just go round looking to get their faith unsettled.” (p 27)
  • He was always trying to help somebody birth a calf or limb a tree, whether they wanted him to or not.” (p 41)
  • “I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books that I ever had time to read” (p 45)
  • “I don't know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn't spent almost eight decades walking around in it.” (p 76)
  • These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.” (p 112)
  • Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay.” (p 114)
  • I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude.” (p 233)
  • The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, predicateur, which means profit.” (p 267)
  • As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father's house ... I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. And that's all right. There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and then need not be .” (p 272)

Beautiful. 282 pages. January 2018

Friday, 12 January 2018

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi

A woman gives birth to two daughters in an African village an a land that will become Ghana. The sisters do not know of one another. Both are very beautiful. One is captured and sold to America as a slave. One becomes the 'wife' of the English slave trader. As the African proverb says: “separated sisters ... are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.” (p 39)

This story alternates between the descendants of these two women. Each generation is given a chapter of about twenty pages. Thus the book is essentially made up of short stories, linked by the ancestry of the protagonists. This story is then intended to encapsulate the society in which they grow. Thus, on the American side of the 'pond', we have a slave, followed by a runaway in Baltimore whose wife is kidnapped under runaway slave legislation and reenslaved, followed by a convict working on a chain gang, followed by a gospel singer, followed by an angry young man who works for the NAACP and becomes a drug addict, followed by a failing PhD student. This makes the people become representative; they are icons. But it is extraordinarily difficult, in twenty pages, to introduce a character and give them a potted biography and link them to their parents and show how they reflect the history of their time and at the same time turn them into a meaningful character. At the start I was prepared to invest in the characters; they felt real. Towards the end the characters seemed just another shell rolling off the production line. They felt superficial and contrived. 

The story heads towards a resolution which, despite the little twist, one knows from almost the start that it will reach.

It is important to tell the history of colonialism, slavery and racism. Wicked things were done by ordinary men and women; terrible things were suffered by ordinary men and women. Somehow people survived. The problem with this book as fiction is that it became didactic. It was a little like watching a Brecht play. I wanted to become involved in the emotional life of the characters, I wanted to suffer with them, rage with them, triumph with them, love with them. But the instruction always kept me at arms length.

Some great moments:
  • Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” (p 38)
  • They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that are wrapped around the wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” (p 93)
  • Anna said ‘there won't be no violence in this house’. Five minutes later, Daly kicked Eurias in the shins, and Anna spanked him so hard he winced every time he sat down that day.” (p 121) A rare moment of humour. There aren't many laughs in this book.
  • Who ever heard of sweeping dust from dust?” (p 179) 
  • Maybe the Christian God was a question, a great and swirling circle of whys.” (p 186)
A drama documentary in book form. January 2018; 300 pages

A review of the audiobook by the Book Chatter blog points out the two-part structure of the book in which "The first half reads like a fable. It is vibrant with the culture of the African people. The story-telling is itself true to the culture of these people, full of their belief systems. ... The second half becomes more straight forward in its manner of relating the stories of the characters, as we get closer to modern day."

But Book Chatter seems to love the book for its informative aspect: "Gyasi depicts a beautifully functioning African culture that becomes fractured by the slave trade. The horrors of slavery and it’s aftermath are put in perspective with this broadly sweeping novel. We are still dealing with the aftermath today, and Gyasi bravely posits the question of where will it end." Well, yes. As an academic work, as the PhD that Marcus is trying to write at the end of the book. But as a novel?

I discussed this book in my reading group. We identified the themes of fire (very explicit, although there were some mentions to its that some of us had overlooked) and scarring. There were a lot of characters with physical scars. There were clearly a lot of issues that could be discussed. But my reading group is made up of aspiring writers and what the book is about are of less interest to us than how it was written. We were intrigued how the prose changed from village rustic in the early chapters to more modern in the later chapters though we were uncertain whether we could distinguish individual voices. Despite the Book Chatter review mentioned above, we failed to appreciate why the book is divided into two halves except in so far as the American Civil War and the emancipation proclamation took place between the two halves. We agreed that there were passages which demonstrated that this young writer really could write. But our verdict was that she had set herself too large a challenge with the structure of this book. There were so many characters who were started but for whom there was insufficient opportunity to develop to their full potential. We wanted more depth.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

"The Dry" by Jane Harper

This is a murder mystery set in a drought-ridden small town in the back of beyond in Australia. Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and six year old Billy had been found head, gunned down. The evidence suggests that Luke, a farmer beset by debt, killed Karen and Billy (but not 13 month old baby Charlotte) before driving away and committing suicide.

Aaron Falk takes leave from his job with the finance police to attend the funeral of childhood friend Luke in the town from which he was chased twenty years ago following the death of a teenage girlfriend; he and Luke had both lied about their alibis. Was this crime anything to do with what happened twenty years ago? Falk and local bobby Raco start an unofficial investigation.

And the lack of water pervades everything.

This was a classic murder mystery with some delightful misdirection but clues were provided in time for the reader to work it out.

Some great phrases:

  • "If Luke had a dollar, he'd spend two to make sure it was gone." (p 33)
  • "call me liberated, but I've got a key to my own house." (p 52)
  • "They'll make a gymnastics team, bending over backwards to prove their investigation was sound." (p 59)


January 2018; 400 pages

You can tell it's good when you catch yourself reading it when you should be doing other things.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Fall" by Albert Camus

This strange story is told in the form of a monologue. Jean-Baptiste Clemence, lawyer turned 'judge penitent' does the Ancient Mariner thing with someone he meets in an Amsterdam bar and, over five nights, reveals the story of his life.

Despite its brevity (92 pages in the Penguin edition) it is quite difficult to read because it is a monologue and so the intensity is unrelieved. But the turning point in the life of Monsieur Clemence comes on page 44, thus conforming almost exactly to the 'turning point at the 50% mark' theory.

Intense as it is, there are many moments of profundity:


  • "Style, like poplin, all too often conceals eczema." (p 5)
  • "I always thought our fellow citizens were crazy about two things: ideas and fornication." (p 5) 
  • "Have you noticed that the concentric canals of Amsterdam are like the circles of hell? A bourgeois hell, inhabited of course by bad dreams." (p 10)
  • "A sense of legality, the satisfaction of being right and the joy of self-esteem: these, my dear sir, are powerful incentives to keep us on our feet and moving forward." (p 13)
  • "One could not meditate in cellars or prison cells (unless the later were situated in towers, with an extensive view)." (p 17)
  • "'Please accept my sympathy' comes right before 'now let's get on with something else'. It's the emotion felt by a prime minister or company chairman: you get it cheap after some disaster." (p 20)
  • "That's what men are like, sir: two-faced: they cannot love unless they love themselves." (p 22)
  • "servitude, preferably with a smile, is unavoidable." (p 29)
  • "sensuality alone governed my love life. I looked solely for objects of pleasure and conquest." (p 37)
  • "I did have principles, of course, one of which, for example, was that my friends' wives were sacred. It was just that, quite sincerely, I would stop being friends with the husbands a few days in advance." (p 37)
  • "not taking what you don't want is the hardest thing in the world." (p 40)
  • "Isn't that the finest of negative landscapes? Look, n the left we have that pile of ashes that they call a dune here, with the grey dyke on our right, the pallid beach at our feet and, in front of us, the sea, the colour of diluted washing powder, its pale waters reflected on the sky above." (p 45)
  • "There is no merit in being born honest or intelligent." (p 51)
  • "Because I desired eternal life, I slept with whores and drank for whole nights on end." (p 64)
  • He blames Jesus for the massacre of the innocents because, as God, he must have known it would happen because of His birth. (p 70)
  • "Someone I used to know would divide people into three categories: those who prefer to have nothing to hide rather than being obliged to lie; those who prefer to lie than have nothing to hide; and finally those who like lying and concealing at the same time." (p 75)
  • "they're putting make-up on the corpse." (p 76)
  • "beds that are so hard, and their immaculate sheets, it's like dying in a shroud already, embalmed in purity." (p 76)


His last completed novel, published the year before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and four years before his death at 47.

Camus also write The Outsider

January 2018; 92 pages

Friday, 5 January 2018

"Mythos" by Stephen Fry

Fry takes us through the earlier Greek myths, including the creation, but not including the labours of Hercules, the siege of Troy and its Oresteian and Odyssean aftermaths, or the story of Theseus etc. Perhaps there was just too much.

But what he has given us is his own retelling of some of the less-well-known stories. The ones that lurk in the corners of the cultural subconscious (or did for those of us with some sort of traditional British education). As such it enlightened many dark pockets of my ignorance. I had heard of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with the statue he had carved, the classical reference underpinning the GBS play that metamorphosed into My Fair Lady, but I had never read the story. I was dimly aware of the story of Hero and Leander, one of whom drowned swimming the Hellespont, but I knew no details. Again and again Fry fleshed out the bare bones of my knowledge. And told me how these stories had passed into our culture by, for example, citing the poems by Byron or Keats or the passages in Shakespeare that had referred to them.

There was a huge western European culture built around these ideas. Young people today are ignorant of much of it (although the themes are often reprised without their knowledge in computer games, sci-fi serials, and soap operas). It is sad that so much cultural heritage is slipping away although of course it was only available to the public-school educated elite and there is a great deal of wonderful culture that is replacing it. I was ashamed of my ignorance. After all, I am a few months older than him, we had similar educations (although I wasn't expelled) and our times at Cambridge overlapped. But I studied science and that is a huge culture in itself. Life is too short for everything.

The real joy of this book is the way that Fry writes. He retells these stories of Gods and mortals in the most human way possible. For example, Ganymede is such a beautiful youth that both men and women are lovestruck on meeting him. “When they got home they wrote and instantly tore up poems that rhyme ‘thighs’ with ‘eyes’, ‘hips’ with ‘lips’, ‘youth’ with ‘truth’, ‘boy’ with ‘joy’ and ‘desire’ with ‘fire’.” (p 306) It is the "instantly tore up" that makes the imagery so quotidian, so mundane, and so real you can touch it, poke it, prod it and squish it. These are humans. “A compound of village gossip, nosy neighbour and over-solicitous best friend, Echo found it impossible to hold her tongue.” (p 333) I know Echo. She lives down the street.

And then there is the erudition. Legend, we are told,  “derives from the gerundive of the Latin legere, meaning ‘to be read’. Interestingly, the absolute origin of the verb legere and its supine form lectum bears the meaning of ‘gather’ - as in ‘college’ and ‘collect’.” (p 403 & fn) This single example will have to suffice for the learning that is displayed on every single page of this brilliant book.

Other moments I loved:
Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn. As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.” (p 3)
In time you will abandon your trousers - not yet, I hope - and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned.” (p 4)
It was a sickle. An enormous scythe whose great curved blade had been forged from adamantine, which means ‘ untameable’. (p 16)
Our word ‘hearth’ shares its ancestry with ‘heart’, just as in the modern Greek for ‘hearth’ is kardia, which also means ‘heart’.” (p 59)
If that makes her seem a spoilsport, well, sometimes sport needs to be spoiled and the children called in from the playground.” (p 67)
The blameless majority, whose lives were neither especially virtuous not especially vicious ... were guaranteed a pleasant enough afterlife: before they arrived they drink of the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe so that a blithe and bland eternity could be passed, untroubled by upsetting memories of earthly life.” (p 144)
In this story, as in so many others, what we really discern is the deceptive, ambiguous and giddy riddle of violence, passion, poetry and symbolism that lies at the heart of Greek myth and refuses to be solved.” (p 227)
Perhaps narcissism is best defined as a need to look on other people as mirrored surfaces who satisfy us only when they reflect back a loving or admiring image of ourselves.” (p 344)
Gods of this kind are created in our image, not the other way round.” (p 403)

There is only one thing missing from this book. All the other stories! Please, Mr Fry, let us have the stories of the heroes, Theseus and Hercules and Achilles and Ulysses and Oedipus and Orestes and Antigone and Medea and Jason and ...

And then perhaps you can move to the Viking gods who are just as much fun.

January 2018; 410 pages


Monday, 1 January 2018

"London's Strangest Tales" by Tom Quinn

This is a compendium of stories, most of them one or two pages long, set in London. It is arranged historically, starting in 950 and ending in 2007, although the 2007 story seems to relate to 1665 and the 950 story could apply to 1705. I rather wish it had been arranged geographically so that I could have gone to the many places mentioned and read about them while watching.

Because it is mostly about places in London. He tells us about the reason Scotland Yard is so named, of the snuff obsessive who lined on Essex Street, and the entrance, near Waterloo, of the station to the railway of the dead. Many of these tales I didn't know and I would love to wander London armed with this book to guide me.

One bit annoyed me. Towards the end of the book the author goes on and on about the destruction of old buildings in the name of progress; he is positively rude about the men and women who have to make decisions about whether to allow demolitions to permit new growth. I respect the opinion of this author but I felt its repetition was out of place in this book.

The page numbers are placed in the margins rather than at the foot or head of each page. I quite like that!

Bits I enjoyed:

  • "Despite George Bernard Shaw's foolish quip - 'Those who can do, those who can't teach' - the whole future of each generation depends to a large degree on the skills or otherwise of the teaching profession." (p 56)
  • "When one of his fellow schoolmasters question [the head's] judgment, Busby sent a team of schoolboys with axes to chop down the staircase leading to the rebellious teacher's apartments." (p 56)
  • "In 1696 the law changed so that clergymen who married couples without first declaring the banns ... might lose their livings. Clergymen of the Fleet ... had no parishes ... so anyone who wanted to marry without their parents'; permission could do so only at the Fleet." (p 68)
  • Publisher John Murray's first offices were 32 Fleet Street, "the site of Wynkyn de Word's p[rinting press established in 1500". (p 95)
  • "The centre of London is located at a spot just behind the equestrian statue of Charles I at the southern edge of Trafalgar Square" where the old Charing Cross used to be , exactly half way between the cities of London and Westminster. (p 160)
  • "St Dunstan's Church in Fleet Street ... for many years provided a home to ... the Coptic Ethiopian Church, the Assyrian Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht." It was a centre of book publsihing and the churchwarden was Izaak Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler, "the most reprinted nook after the Bible" (p 210)
  • The is a network of secret tunnels under London, below the sewers but just above the water table, where tube trains and pipelines may not go. They are secret. (p241 - 242)


A very interesting book.

January 2018; 252 pages


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