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

Friday, 20 April 2018

"Saladin" by John Man

A biography of the 12th Century Islamic warrior who confronted Richard the Lionheart in the Third Crusade.

And what a man! Son of a provincial governor, Saladin was a Kurd born in Tikrit (later famous as the home of Sadam Hussein) who grew up in Damascus. He rose to become a mostly successful warrior and a ruler (under his emir and caliph) of an area stretching from Egypt to Turkey. He managed to combine ruthlessness where necessary with justice and mercy becoming famed for his chivalry, his trustworthiness and his generosity and doing his best to negotiate rather than fight. He destroyed the crusader states that had been set up after the First Crusade, reducing the Kingdom of Jerusalem to a tiny coastal strip (which didn't include Jerusalem) although having taken Acre he lost it again to the Third Crusaders,

And what a biography. I read Man's Genghis Khan about ten years ago and found it heavy going but this was a delightful read. There was sufficient scholarship but not too much and lots of fascinating facts and some interesting perspectives: the twelfth century problems of the middle east provide a carefully curved mirror in which to view today's issues. One might almost see modern Israel as a foreign (US) sponsored crusader state in the middle of a fragmented Islamic world; Sunni and Shi'a still scrap, the Assassins were the suicide bombers of their time, and today's civil strife in Syria with its shifting and reshifting alliances are an echo of the division of Saladin's day.

And it had two really helpful maps!

There were lots of bits I thought: I must find out more about this. That's always a good sign. But here are the very best of the good bits:

  • In Baalbek in Lebanon there are thousand tonne megaliths which are even today "the worlds's greatest hewn stones ... twenty times the weight of the megaliths of Stonehenge" (p 23)
  • "medieval Islam hungered for learning and inspired brilliant scholarship. Paper displaced papyrus, bookshops thrived, libraries graced the homes of the rich ... one street in Damascus had a hundred bookshops." (p 25)
  • "The only way to survive was to flee or to fawn: 'Kiss any arm you cannot break'." (p 43)
  • On Mount Qasiyoun just north of Damascus "Cain killed his brother Abel" (p 58)
  • "He lacks words for what he sees, and then lacks words to describe his own inadequacy." (p 60)
  • "seize the chance of undistracted study and seclusion before a wife and children cling to you and you gnash your teeth in regret at the time you lost." (p 62)
  • "a grim landscape of forested valleys and bare hills, surging like a wrestler's muscles" (p 68)
  • Frank Amalric sealed an alliance with the young Caliph of Egypt with "an ungloved handshake, a precedent utterly shocking to courtiers used to their ruler's untouchability." (p 90)
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a princess without a husband must be in need of a prince - acknowledged not by the princess, perhaps, but certainly by those with the power to choose the husband" (p 136)
  • "Raymond was a legend for his bravery, good looks, charm and strength: they said he could crush a stirrup with one hand (which seems a silly way to prove one's strength; a horseshoe, maybe, but why a stirrup?)." (p 136 - 137)
  • Saladin put the Melkites in charge of the Holy Sepulchre "a sect that traces its rituals back to the Apostles." (p 253)
  • "licentious harlots ... selling themselves for gold, bold and ardent, loving and passionate, ink-faced and unblushing" (p 272)
  • "Lord Shang, writing in China in about 400 BC ... advised that for those who rule might is right, power everything. Human beings are idle, greedy, cowardly, treacherous, foolish and shifty. The only way to deal with them is to entice, terrify, reward and punish." (p 320)
  • "people who had endured terrible experiences, yet come through well psychologically ... shared a belief that the universe is fundamentally a supportive place, that it rewards action, and that any setback is a challenge to be overcome." (p 322)

A wonderful, extraordinarily readable biography. April 2018; 358 pages

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"Defectors" by Joseph Kanon

Moscow, 1961. Simon, an American publisher flies in to talk to his brother who has written his autobiography; the autobiography of a defector. Frank worked for the precursor to the CIA during WW2 whilst stealing secreta and handing them to the Russians; after the war with the FBI hot on his trail he fled to Moscow. Now he works for the Service and lives with the other ex-Spies.

This is twilight world of deceit, half-truths and betrayal. This is the world of those who betrayed their country for an ideal and now live as half-trusted pensioners in a world they can't escape. This is the world of secrets and surveillance, of snow and shortages, of dreams and disillusionment.

This book might have been a masterpiece but the thriller format interferes. For a depiction of the topsy turvey world of soviet-era Moscow I preferred the brilliant Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge. Nevertheless, this book kept me turning the pages. I got a little confused about what was happening towards the end but decided I didn't care enough about the characters to try harder.

A couple of brutally written murders.

Some great lines:

  • "the secret there, his skin warm with it" (p 83)
  • "for a moment he wondered how he should feel about that, which of his selves to ask" (p 96)
April 2018; 290 pages

Sunday, 15 April 2018

"David Golder" by Irene Nemirovsky

Published in 1929, just after the Wall Street Crash, David Golder was the breakthrough second novel by French author Nemirovsky who subsequently wrote Suite Francaise, a trio of novellas that were unfinished when the author died in Auschwitz and were subsequently rediscovered in 1998.

David Golder tells the story of a rich man. At the start he refuses to enter into a risky deal with his partner who kills himself the next day, bankrupt. Golder then suffers a heart attack on the train journey to his posh villa in Biarritz where his wife and daughter are entertaining guests and leading extravagant lives; they forever bombard him with requests for money. He is on a treadmill. Can he get off? And will he be happy if he does?

It seems that the moments when he is and was happiest is when he is or was poor.

It is a strange plot. One repeatedly feels that one is reaching the climax, the big reveal, the transformation scene. But, like the reality of any addiction, there is always the moment when the best intentions meet the flawed humanity. In this way it is more honest than its fairy tale or Hollowood correlates. The near death experience of the heart attack on the train doesn't provoke a lasting change in his lifestyle. His life keeps on going up and down. Until the end. Just like real life.

The style is strange as well. Much of it is very intense and written from a perspective clautrophobically deep inside Golder's mind. This can scarcely be otherwise for the heart attack on the train scene. "He had time to think 'I'm dying', to feel he was being pushed, thrown over the edge of a precipice into an abyss, a crater, as narrow and suffocating as a tomb. ... deep, murky water that swept over him and was dragging him down, lower and lower, into the wide gaping hole." Of course a near death experience needs to be this intense. But it is also rather cliched. Melodramatic. It reeks of nineteenth century literature (and the introduction tells us that Nemirovsky was compared to Balzac and Dostoevsky) rather than twentieth.

A near death experience can be melodramatic. Less convincing to modern readers are the characters. Although Golder himself, rich banker wondering in late life what the point of it all is, can be nuanced, his grasping wife Gloria is a pantomime villain, his daughter Joyce is utterly spolit, her gigolo boyfriend a two-dimensional parasite, the doctor a quack who will tailor his diagnosis to suit the paymaster, Golder's friend Soifer an archetypal miser and so on. Yet this story was hailed as astonishingly mature when it was published; Nemirovsky compared to Balzac or Dostoevsky.

I wondered whether the character of Carleton Myatt, the trader in currants who travels to Istanbul on Graham Greene's Stamboul Train was based on Golder. But in Greene even the minor characters have quirks and peculiarities and, in particular, inconsistencies that put flesh on their bones.

Nevertheless, David Golder is only a short book and it is worth reading just for the verve with which Nemirovsky gallops through her plot.

Some good moments:

  • "He was crushing his face into his hands in shame." (p 98)
  • "'It's a long road', he said out loud
    •  'Yes', said Soifer, 'long and hard and pointless'." (p 122)

Friday, 13 April 2018

"The Country Wife" by William Wycherley

A Country Wife was written by William Wycherley, himself a noted Restoration rake, and perhaps based on a Roman play, the Eunuch by Terence.

I saw it at Southwark Playhouse Saturday (matinee) 14th April 2018 in a production that (slightly weirdly) transferred the costumes to the 1920s but left the dialogue in 1675 (good: don't mess with dialogue!!) The production brought out the bawdy farce elements and added some wonderful moments of physical humour: we all loved the character hiding behind the screen. There was a generally strong cast with some outstanding performances by Sparkish and Pinchbeck, Alithea and Margery.

Horner, a rake, spreads the rumour that he has caught an STD and been rendered impotent. As a result Sir Jaspar Fidget decides to trust Hormer with his wife and daughter and their friend. Meantime Pinchwife's new wife, just up from the country, has seen Horner at the theatre and wants to have an affair with him. Meanwhile Pinchwife's sister, Alithea, is engaged to marry Sparkish whose best friend Harcvourt has fallen in love with her. This is a farce of true love versus cuckoldry, reputation versus honour, and trust versus betrayal.

Lots of innuendoes and double entendres and a fair amount of farce.

Some great lines, although they are often uncomfortably un-politically correct:
  • Women of quality are so civil, you can hardly distinguish love from good breeding, and a man is often mistaken.
  • Your old boys ... who like superannuated stallions are suffered to run, feed, and whinny with the mares as long as they live, though they can do nothing else.
  • A mistress should be like a country retreat near the town; not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away.
  • ‘Tis as hard to be a good fellow, a good friend, and a lover of women, as ‘tis to be a good fellow, a good friend, and a lover of money.
  • For my part I will have only those glorious, manly pleasures of being very drunk and there is slovenly.” 
  • He can no more think the men laugh at him than that women jilt him, his opinion of himself is so good.
  • Most men are the contraries to that they would seem.
  • The little, humbly fawning physician with his ebony cane is he that destroys men.
  • A marriage vow is like a penitent gamester’s oath, and entering into bonds and penalties to stint himself to such a particular small sum at play for the future, which makes him but the more eager, and not being able to hold out, loses his money again, and his forfeit to boot.
  • If a woman wants wit in a corner, she has it nowhere.
  • A beauty masked, like the sun in eclipse, gathers together more gazers then if it shined out.
  • Nothing makes a man hate a woman more, than her constant conversation.
  • Loving alone is as dull as eating alone.” 
  • Marrying to increase love is like gaming to become rich; alas, you only lose what little stock you had before.
  • A secret is better kept ... by a single person than a multitude

Thursday, 12 April 2018

"Sister" by Rosamund Lupton

Beatrice's sister goes missing days after giving birth to a still-born child. Is her art college tutor the father of the baby; has he murdered her? Did her psychologist fail to diagnose puerperal psychosis? Are the gene therapy trials a front for something more sinister? Or was she being stalked by Simon, a fellow student, for his photography project?

Although the narration, jumping back and forwards from Beatrice's confessional-style testimony at the Crown Prosecution Service to telling the story of her sleuthing, is rather off-putting there is plenty in this twisting tale to grip hold of. Until the end. I'd guessed what happened about a quarter of the way through and there was a lot of subsequent evidence that confirmed my solution. But I was wrong. Really? I don't think so. My solution was far better. There were a number of pieces of evidence that the author's thrilleresque solution simply failed to address. So I still think I was right and the author wrong. Perhaps there should be a sequel about this appalling miscarriage of justice.

And before that there were a lot of moments when professional people really didn't behave anything like the way professional people would behave.

Some great lines:

  • "The Big Apple with no core." (p 6)
  • "A siren is the sound of the twenty-first-century cavalry on its way." (p 52)
  • Psychiatrists are "a hot cycle for the personality, shrinking you down to something that fits a category in a textbook" (I guess that's why they're called shrinks).
  • "A hospital world with its own no-weather and no-time in which the aberrant crises of pain, illness and death were Kafka-like turned ordinary." (p 159)
  • "For me life has always been a mountain - sheer-faced and perilous." (p 227)
  • "I saw compassion on some faces as they looked at me, and its poorer cousin pity on others." (p 248)

April 2018; 358 pages

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

"Dodgers" by Bill Beverly

Four black teenagers from Los Angeles are sent by their gang leader to drive in a van to drive to Wisconsin to murder a Judge who is a forthcoming witness in a trial. One of them, the narrator East, is related to the gang leader. With him are his half brother Ty, a thirteen year old psychopath, fat Walter, a genius at forging id, and Michael, the nominal leader. East, who led a team of crackhouse lookouts till a police raid closed the house down,  sleeps in an abandoned office building but pops home from time to time to look after his alcoholic mother. He finds the journey across the country a revelation.

These are bad boys, bred bad, brought up to badness, on a mission to kill. But they are still teenagers and their deprivations show at every moment. You can't help liking East and dreading the likely outcome of his criminal behaviour. 

And then there are moments when the plot twists and you walk, unsuspecting, into an ambush.

Brilliantly plotted, with great characters, great dialogue and moments of lyricism. For example:
  • Michael laughed almost every time he talked. It wasn't that he thought everything was funny; it was like his sentence wasn't finished yet without it.” (p 47)
  • All East’s life the mountains had been a jagged base for the northern sky. ... He’d never seen them broken into what they were, single peaks dotted with plants scrub and rock litter, and the open distances between.” (p 66)
  • Wandering blind, their shadows spilling out in eight directions.” (p 71)
  • The windshield filled with sunrise working its way up to blue.” (p 92)
  • He could sense something about the chasm, all the time piled up there. Close to forever. more time than he had in a hundred lives like his.” (p 96)
  • Ty belonged to nobody now, an unknowable child, indolent as bees in autumn” (p 99)
  • A thunderstorm hovered, prowling its own road.” (p 101)
  • Trying to press his gut out like a toothpaste tube.” (p 102) This is when East is sitting in the toilet, constipated. The physicality of this book is tremendously honest. When he is beaten up it hurts.
  • Gym muscles down his belly like puppies in a litter.” (p 107)
  • But do they get a signal out here? Negative bars.” (p 157)
  • Flight, they called it. One part fear, one part the blindest excitement you’d ever known. It freed you from time, from who you were or the matter of what you’d done. You darted, like a fish away from a net, like a dog outrunning a dogcatcher.” (p 206)
  • If there were such a thing as far enough, it wasn't a place you could walk to.” (p 249)

What to compare it to? It has won awards from crime and thriller writing but it isn't really in that genre.  In some ways it is a novel about a troubled teenager growing up so it is a sort of Catcher in the Rye. The road trip reminded me of the road trip in John Green's Paper Towns. But the element of honesty about a boy trying to survive in a world with a different system of morality puts it into a class of its own.

Friday, 6 April 2018

"The Statement" by Brian Moore

Based on a real life case. A French war criminal, on the run in the south of France, is being followed both by assassins and the police. He is given refuge in religious houses. But how do the assassins seemingly know his every move? And who are they working for? Sinister forces are at play and they may reach right up to the highest echelons of government and their tentacles seem to spread through French Catholicism.

A well-written thriller by the author who also wrote the excellent The Colour of Blood

Some questions:
  • Why was it called The Statement?
    • This refers to the letter intended to be poinned on Brossard's corpse by the assassin once Brossard is dead. It is a statement that he has been executed for war crimes. But why name the novel after this? Rather than, for example, the fugitive?
  • How does Moore enlist your sympathy for Pierre?
    • Right at the start Brossard is a frail old man being stalked by an assassin. In the first chaspter Brossard is revealed as a cunning predator. He kills, ruthlessly. Almost immediately one is aware that he is a war criminal and a very dangerous man. No sympathy there. There are details (he is getting old, he has bad teeth, he has to keep moving, he has only three suitcases of possessions) which might enlist sympathy but after such strong early impressions I wasn't falling for it. So why did Moore choose to start like that?
  • Why are the two hired assassins only referred to by their initials?
    • The second assassin is given a girlfriend (to whom he lies) and a phobia about horoscopes. But by using initials Moore seems to be encouraging us to think that these men do not count. Their deaths do not matter. Except as it affects the game. 
  • The novel explores moral issues including those of forgiveness. To what extent this this raise the novel above the standard thriller format?
    • It is interesting how the characters are able to justify themselves. The priests consider that the secular world should not be allowed to impinge upon the religious world, that a confessed sinner is redeemed (although Brossard never shows remorse), that France lost the Second World War because the communists triumphed and that Brossard's role as a soldier for the right and for tradition somehow excuses him killing others.

Great lines:
  • The numbers of dead are exaggerated, no doubt, but what matter? Sin is sin in any number.” (p 52)
  • The roulette wheel had stopped and the steel ball of his luck had dropped into a losing slot.” (p 60)
  • Now that he himself was old, he no longer saw old men in a respectful light. Now, he looked at them for signs of failure: the faltering step on the stairs, the voice hesitating over a forgotten surname, the look of quiet deception when dimming ears have missed what was said.” (p 87) 
  • In the ninth decade ... men become stubborn and unyielding, unwilling to admit error now that judgement day is close.” (p 88)
    • This is thought by Brossard, the war criminal, but it is about others. He is thinking this to assess to what extent he might be able to rely on the way the other person has always behaved. But he isn't the least self-reflective. Is this the mind of a psychopath?
  • The young ... did not want to be reminded of the leprosy of age.” (p 163)