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

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

"The hundred year old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared" by Jones Jonasson

100 year old Allan runs away from his nursing home. Theft and murder ensue. He meets new friends. Parallel to this picaresque adventure we are told the equally picaresque story of Allan's life, involving world travel, Truman, Churchill, Stalin, Mao and de Gaulle and explaining Allan's pivotal if unacknowledged role in many of the major events of the twentieth century.

The century (and Allan's life) start in 1905. I don't think it is coincidence that this is when Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. Indeed, Einstein's dim half-brother and the atom bomb are both central to Allan's tale.

So in some ways this novel is a satirical view of the events of the twentieth century. In other ways it seems to be an ironic version of Voltaire's Candide. Whilst Candide features violent (apparent) death and resurrection,   The hundred year old man features violent death and (apparent) resurrection. Where Lisbon is destroyed in Candide, Vladivostok is destroyed in The hundred year old man. Both describe near-impossible events in mundane, matter-of-fact prose. In Candide the motto of Dr Pangloss is 'All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds'; this is Voltaire's most sarcastic irony as he piles disaster on disaster. Allan's motto is 'Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be' which enables Allan to endure castration, repeated incarceration and several death penalties with Panglossian sang froid.

But although this book is equally entertaining it does not have the philosophical depth which makes Candide great literature.


Friday, 21 September 2012

"1000 things to do in London for under £10" by Time Out Guides

Not just the obvious things: museums and the cheaper types of entertainment such as poetry reading. This guide also has the eclectic from walking across the bridges to playing chess in Holland Park to posing nude as a life model to riding the buses to watching non-league football to playing fives to eating ice cream to ringing church bells....
Imaginative and inspirational. September 2012; 309 pages.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

"The making of modern Britain" by Andrew Marr

Brilliant. Andrew Marr charts the influences that have made us what we are by recounting weird and bizarre incidents.

He starts by explaining that in pre-WW1 Britain it was so easy to buy guns that when in the Tottenham Outrage of 1904 the unarmed police were chasing armed anarchists they borrowed guns from passers by. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley seeks funding for his fascists from the Jewish owners of Marks and Spencer. When his Blackshirts get political uniforms banned the Greenshirts (the political wing of the folk-dancing tendency) march carrying their green shirts aloft on coat hangers. Sculptor Eric Gill (famed for Ariel at the BBC and Gill Sans) enjoyed all sorts of sex including homosexuality, incest and bestiality. Earl Marshall Haig's 1928 funeral was attended by more people than Princess Diana's.

At every turn Marr amuses and then upends your prejudices about this fascinating era. Brilliant. September 2012; 429 pages.

"The child in time" by Ian McEwan

The typical McEwan tale begins with some earth-shattering event; the novel is then devoted to chronicling the  consequences that ripple out from this. In the same way, the hero's daughter (writer of children's fiction Stephen Lewis) is stolen from a supermarket. McEwan charts the bereavement of the young parents as it destroys their relationship and their lives.

But for once McEwan has sub-plots. Why has successful Charles Darke, Stephen's publisher and best friend, suddenly left a promising ministerial career? What is the point of the subcommittee of the Official Commission on Childcare on which Stephen sits?And how did Stephen see into the past when he looked through a pub window to see his parents thirty years ago?

The book, set in a dystopian near future, attempts to portray childhood from a number of perspectives and plays with the perception of time. An adult acting like a schoolboy climbs a tree. School is an exercise in pointless regimentation. The Official Commission hears crackpot views about learning to read. Stephen buys toys for his missing child's birthday. Thelma, wife and maybe mother figure to Charles Darke, tries to explain to Stephen a modern Physics perspective on time.

I struggled to find a unifying sense to all this. Was it a retelling of the Faust legend, seen from outside the bedevilled doctor? Charles Darke (is there a clue in his name?) acquires riches, then power, then seemingly everlasting youth. Or is there a theme of everything sliding from organisation into chaos (the entropic direction for the arrow of time)? The loss of his daughter drives Stephen from a stable life to a whisky soaked squalor. There are licensed beggars on the streets. The weather is becoming worse, floods succeeding droughts. Stephen drives from gridlocked London to a forested countryside; gates are hidden by tangles of jungle. On one journey a lorry crashes. But just when things seem to have utterly disintegrated, order slowly returns. The spat at the Olympics nearly develops into nuclear war but doesn't and the Olympics continue. The lorry driver emerges from his wrecked vehicle more or less unhurt. Stephen begins to study classical Arabic and tennis as his life gets back on track.Is this another theme? Although entropy seems to increase there are localised areas in which order prevails? And death is followed by birth.

I was confused by the plot but the prose is luscious. September 2012; 220 pages

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

"The good soldier" by Ford Madox Ford

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." This is the first line of this extraordinary book. The narrator, a rich American called John Dowell goes to a German spa town every year with his wife Florence because she has (she says) a bad heart. The couple meet Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora. They are the perfect couple and Edward is "the cleanest-looking sort of chap"  ... You would have said that he was just exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine, and it was madness"(p 14) Edward and Florence embark on an affair. At the end of the first chapter the narrator asks himself: " "Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man ... a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour's womankind?" (p 14) [I love the pair of neighs.]

The story is set in respectable society. The 'good soldier' Edward, whom the narrator respects and admires and excuses throughout the tale, is a serial adulterer who cannot help himself but get invovled with pretty girls. If he is a raging stallion, the narrator's wife is a mare in season, having an affair both before her marriage and during the honeymoon and subsequently having an affair with Captain A. The narrator himself never seems to have sex at all having been told by his wife that she has a weak heart ('heart trouble' is a neat metaphor) and any such excitement will kill her (which gives her the opportunity for her affairs). But it is a comedy in the sense that the transgressors die. So these upright upper class people encounter sex, violent death and madness. "Our intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we should unanimously choose ... it wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison - a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels." (p 11)

The story proceeds in an extraordinarily rambling fashion. Dowell the narrator, who protests his innocence (both in the sense of ignorance and in the sense of guiltlessness) throughout the book is incapable of telling a linear narrative; sometimes it is very difficult to understand what is happening and when. Many events are prefigured and sometimes he refers back to something he mentioned previously but then at such a tangential allusion that it becomes easy to miss. Then again, it becomes difficult to believe in what he says. For all his protestations that he really isn't understanding what is happening this story is written from the point of view of hindsight. At the start he repeatedly refers to his wife as "poor dear Florence" but once he has recounted what she has done he says that "I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness". But he knew about her when he was still telling us she was a "poor dear" as if the thing that has made him hate her is the telling of the tale.

Even though Florence wasn't romantic at all (according to her husband) she loves a story about a mad French troubadour from the Middle Ages who fell in love with the chatelaine of the Four Castles and how her husband was forced to "kneel down and kiss his feet" and spend a lot of money looking after him and tell the world that "it was not proper to treat a great poet with indifference" even though the husband "was a most ferocious warrior" (p 18) This, then  mirrors the theme of the complacent cuckold.

There is some lovely innuendo. "Florence was at that time engaged in educating Captain Ashburnham - oh, of course, quite pour le bon motif [with the best intentions]" (p 32)  "the Captain was quite evidently enjoying being educated by Florence. She used to do it about three or four times a week under the approving eyes of Leonora and myself." (p 33)

One of the brilliances of this book is the way FMF ended his chapters on cliff hangers or words of great import: THIS BIT HAS SPOILERS

  • Part One ends with the death of Maisie, one of Edward's affairs. Leonora seeks Maisie but finds her in her room, dead. Not suicide. Her heart gave out. Edward “imagined that the death had been the most natural thing in the world. He soon got over it. Indeed, it was the one affair of his about which he never felt much remorse.” (p 57)
  • Part Two ends when Florence, realising her infidelities are at last to be exposed and fearing that Captain A is moving on to yet another women, is found lying dead on her bed, "a little phial that rightly should have contained nitrate of amyl [heart medicine], in her right hand" (p 76)
  • Edward's suicide, though much foreshadowed, occurs right at the very end of the book.
There are many wonderful moments. Here are a few:

  • "I know nothing ... of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone - horribly alone." (p 12)
  • "the whole world for me is like spots of colour in an immense canvas. Perhaps, if it weren't so, I should have something to catch hold of now." (p 16) 
  • And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dextrously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls.” (p 25)
  • "But these things have to be done: it is the cock that the whole of this society owes to Aesculapius." (p 31)
  • "And the odd, queer thing is that the whole collection of rules applies to anybody - to the anybodies that you meet in hotels, in railway trains, to a less degree, perhaps, in steamers, but even, in the end, upon steamers. You meet a man or a woman and, from tiny and intimate sounds, from the smallest of movements, you know at once whether you are concerned with good people or with those who won't do.  ... But the inconvenient - well, hang it all, I will say it - the damnable nuisance of the whole thing is that with all the taking for granted, you never really get an inch deeper than the things I have catalogued." (p 31)
  • I have the right to say it, since for years he was my wife's lover, since he killed her ... There is no priest that has the right to tell me that I must not ask pity for him ... from the God who created in him those desires, those madnesses ...” (pp 39 - 40)
  •  “It would have left a better taste in the mouth if Florence had let her die in peace.” (p 41)
  • You cannot, you see, have acted as nurse to a person for twelve years without wishing to go on nursing them, even though you hate them with the hatred of the adder ... I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness ... She should not have done it. She should not have done it. ..." (p 54)
  • "I was like a chicken that is determined to get across the road in front of an automobile" (p 60)
  • "I always say that an overmastering passion is a good excuse for feelings. You cannot help them. And it is a good excuse for straight actions." (p 64)
  • "It is vanity that makes most of us keep straight, if we do keep straight, in this world." (p 86)
  • "a dollar can be extremely desirable if you don't happen to possess one." (p 110)
  • "all I wanted to do there was just to satisfy myself that the houses were in good repair and the doors kept properly painted." (p 111)
  • "this is a real story and ... real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real." (p 131)
  •   "She saw life as a perpetual sex battle between husbands who desire to be unfaithful to their wives, and wives who desire to recapture their husbands in the end. ... Man, for her, was a sort of brute who must have his divagations, his moments of excess, his nights out, his, let us say, rutting seasons." (pp 132 - 133)
  • "it is at the end of a long rowing contest that a crew finally collapses and lies forward upon its oars." (p 144)
  • "She knew nothing - nothing of life, except that one must live sadly." (p 159)
  • "Why can't people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing." (p 167)
  • "Conventions and traditions ... work blindly but surely for the preservation of the normal type - for the extinction of proud, resolute and unusual individuals." (p 167)
Complicated! But exceptional. 
 August 2012; 179 pages

Saturday, 1 September 2012

"Outrage" by Arnaldur Indridason

Elinborg is a typical Reykjavik lady detective. With one failed marriage behind her she lives with her partner, Teddi, and their three children (eldest, a boy, is on the internet all the time and suffering teenage angst, youngest, a girl, is very gifted) whom she hardly ever sees because she works too hard. She has written a cook book.

 Every detail of her life is told to us in the stark prose of this latest exponent of Scandinavian noire.

In fact Indridason doesn't believe in the 'show, don't tell' principle of fiction. His prose is simple, flat and sterile. I have no idea what Elinborg looked like because the author doesn't really do description. The victim dresses in "black jeans, white shirt and a comfortable jacket"; neither description nor character are allowed to get in the way of the plot.

Compared to this book, Agatha Christie's characters are living, breathing and multi-dimensional.

It is a pleasant enough yarn. It rattles on. There is not the sense of clues being carefully dropped into the prose, each revelation is expected as it comes.

I was most interested in this book because I have been to both Reykjavik and Akranes but I think I might write with more local flavour having known Iceland for a whole five days.

Potboiler. September 2012; 386 pages