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, 17 November 2018

"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare

The classic love story about "star-cross'd lovers".

It is interesting that there is a prologue in the form of a sonnet which gives the plot away and that the Chorus delivers another sonnet prologue to Act Two but then the prologue's cease. This is a bit like the 'play within a play' idea in The Taming of the Shrew which Shakespeare also seems to have forgotten half way through. 

There is also a lot of word play and other stuff going on. The Nurse is a very garrulous figure of fun. Romeo's mates, Mercutio and Benvolio, do a lot of stag-talk (eg “Draw thy tool ... My naked weapon is out”). And the servants regularly come in with some comedy. Either Shakespeare needed fillers to pad out his rather simple story or he realised that the audience would want some gagging going on before the denouement.

Romeo Montague, pining with unrequited love for Rosalind, intercepts an invitation to a feast she will be present at ... but it is hosted by his family's sworn enemies, the Capulets. Going hidden to the feast he sees and falls in love with thirteen year old Juliet Capulet and she with him. Later that night, in the famous balcony scene, they pledge their love to one another and arrange a meeting at the holy cell of Friar Lawrence to get married.

But after they are married Romeo gets involved in a street brawl and kills Juliet's cousin Tybalt. This gets him banished from the city. Meanwhile, Juliet;s parents have made plans for her to marry Paris.

Romeo steals into Juliet's bedroom to consummate his marriage before fleeing to Mantua.

Friar Lawrence now gives Juliet a potion so she can feign death rather than marry Paris. The Friar's plan is for Romeo to come to the vault, disinter Juliet, and take her to Mantua. But the Friar's letter is dismayed and Romeo only hears that Juliet has died.

Romeo returns to Verona. Entering the vault he drinks poison to be with his wife. She then awakens, sees him dead, and stabs herself with his dagger.

November 2018

Friday, 16 November 2018

"Deja Dead" by Kathy Reichs

A serial killer is loose in Montreal. Pathologist Temperance Brennan decides the cops aren't working hard enough so conducts a few investigations on her own.

The strength of this otherwise predictable yarn lies in the detailed descriptions of, for example, the saw marks on the bones of a dissected corpse. For me, however, there was simply too much detail. Two pages on the different sorts of saws and their teeth? I skipped a lot of that. I guess I wasn't the target audience. We're all different.

In chapter 38 there seems to be a confusion between impotence (the inability to get an erection) with infertility (“goodbye spermatogenesis” as the detective says. This wouldn't matter ... except in a book which sells itself on medical detail.

There were some nice descriptions:
  • We sure aren't sitting any speed records clipping this worm.” (C 8)
  • Probably makes him harder than a math final.” (C 12)
  • His fingers felt cold and limp, like carrots kept too long in a cooler bin.” (C 16)
  • The little bastard’s about to blow a vocal chord [sic]. You don't get over there pretty quick he's going to circle right up his own asshole.” (C 17)
  • Two black kids ... wore ... pants big enough to have a nuclear family.” (C 35)

But I felt that “His eyes looked cold and hard, like some Mesozoic mammal.” (C 41) was meaningless. Does anyone know what the eyes of Mesozoic mammals (the very first mammals in the fossil record) looked like? And even if scientists do, I don't. 

But my most serious objection to this all-too-putdownable doorstopper was the stupidity of the main character. Even after discovering that she is personally being stalked by the serial killer, even after her best friend has been murdered, even after the killer has left a human head on her lawn, she still evades her police protection detail to go swanning about in Montreal's red light district. Even after finding that said killer has taken an interest in her daughter she fails to alert the police when she discovers her daughter's backpack outside her front door but can't find or in any way contact her daughter. Instead she goes into her house and waits for the serial killer to come and murder her. There comes a point when I refuse to suspend by disbelief any further.

November 2018; 509 pages

Thursday, 15 November 2018

"The Peterloo Massacre" by Joyce Marlow

On 16th August 1819 there was a mass meeting held at St Peter's Fields in Manchester protesting against the starvation wages being paid to cotton spinners and particularly weavers, and against the old system of Parliamentary representation which meant that Manchester, then the second largest city in England, had no MP. The meeting was addressed by Henry Hunt, a famous Radical. The Mancunian authorities were nervous that the crowd were going to attempt a revolution so they read the Riot Act and decided to arrest Hunt. The size of the crowd, tens of thousands, meant that they felt the police, mostly consisting of volunteer Special Constables recruited for the occasion, would be unable to accomplish the arrest and the dispersal of the crowd so the magistrates requested military back up. The Manchester  and Salford Yeoman Cavalry, a company of part-time amateur soldiers, were in readiness, having sharpened their sabres when recruited to attend the meeting. They had also been fortifying their nerves with spirits and were drunk. They charged the crowd resulting in at least a dozen deaths from trampling and sabre wounds and several hundred injuries. Since this happened four years after the Battle of Waterloo it became known as the Peter Loo, or Peter-Loo, or Peterloo Massacre. The right-wing reactionary Tory government of Prime Minister Lord Liverpool proceeded to refuse demands for an inquiry, to exonerate the panicking magistrates (promoting one of them) and to praise the over-reacting and murderous Yeomanry. They even prosecuted the Radicals who had been there and jailed a number of them. The Radical movement collapsed afterwards. However, it may be that the memory of Peterloo helped bring about the parliamentary reforms starting with the Reform Bill of 1832.

This is a well-written book. The first half is concerned with the situation before the Massacre: the economic condition of the weavers and spinners during the early Industrial Revolution, and the development of radical and Radical thought. The archaic methods of governing Manchester, a market borough owned by the Lord of the Manor who appointed the BoroughReeve, the Court of Leet, and the two Constables (while attempting to sell his manorial rights for £90,000), contributed to a magistracy that was out of touch with the people and prone to panic. The actual Massacre takes only a couple of chapters; after all, it happened quickly. The truly shocking aftermath of government reaction takes the rest of the book. Despite the fact that the gory bits are dealt with swiftly, this is a fascinating read.

A slice of working class history that deserves to be better known. November 2018; 208 pages

Friday, 9 November 2018

"The Loney" by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney is a bleak place on the Cumbrian coast where the tides can roar in and drown the unsuspecting. And in an isolated farmhouse three couples, two children and their parish priest arrive for a Catholic retreat with the ambition of effecting a miraculous cure for one of the boys who is mute. But their belief in God is challenged by mysterious things that begin to happen and by sinister men who seem to want to chase them away. And what is happening in the old house on the island that the tides cut off.

The Sunday Times called it an "excursion into terror". I wasn't in the least terrified. The most interesting part of the book is the character of the narrator's mother who is an obssessive compulsive religious; for whom religion is ritual and every ritual has to be performed correctly in every detail if there is to be any chance that God will perform a miracle and cure her mute, retarded son. In this she battles everyone including the gentle forgiving parish priest who is, in her eyes, no adequate replacement for the cruel disciplinarian he replaced. This is a novel in which religion is dissected: the narrow cruelties of small-minded ritualists versus forgiving generosity; the derelict customs of the sterile good versus the evil fecundity of magic.

The book is beautifully written. The descriptions are lovely and the evocation of the landscape masterful. The characters are depicted perfectly. But the plot is a textbook in hinting. Who are the sinister local men and what do they want? Why has a room in the house been sealed off and what is in it? Who is the very pregnant schoolgirl in the Daimler? Why is there a gun under the floorboards? And how did Father Wilfred die?

Some wonderful moments:

  • "The emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all ... more the soggy afterbirth of winter." (C 2)
  • "I'd never seen a man be so unkind to his own body." (C 2)
  • "Pity is the only thing a drunk has in abundance." (C 2)
  • "The specious grin of a teacher who wishes to punish and befriend in equal measure and ends up doing neither."(C 3)
  • "All along the beach ... the sea had left its offerings like a cat trying to curry favour with its owner."(C 8)
  • "It was an albino with eyes that looked as if they had been marinated in blood." (C 10)
  • "Hell was a place ruled by the logic of children." (C 12)
  • "He was the type that, given a different time and place, would have joined the Hitler Youth like a shot or been on the front row at a public hanging." (C 14)
  • "Death was a poor draughtsman and had rendered his likeness just a little off-centre, giving him the look of someone who was almost familiar but lacking the something that made him so." (C 23)
  • "Praying's like tuning a radio ... You have to be on the right frequency, otherwise all God hears is static." (C 23)

A perfectly structured book with great characterisation and an evocative setting. A page-turner. November 2018; 360 pages

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

"The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe

This is a Kafkaesque novel. In prose suited to an impartial report this book tells of a teacher whose hobby is entomology. Seeking beetles he comes to a weird sand-bound village near the sea. He spends the night in a house at the bottom of the sand-pit ... and awakes to find he is trapped, condemned to labour digging sand out of the hole he is in. Of course he tries to escape ...

It seems to be a metaphor for life, in which we try to deny the necessities but time sweeps our dreams away and buries them.

This is not a page-turner although, like Kafka, it is very easy to read. It is wonderful because of its profound, though troubling, insight into the human condition, such as:
  • Punishment inflicted ... would mean that a crime had been paid for.” (C 7)
  • "Defeat begins with the fear that one has lost." (C 18)
  • "Time cannot be spurred on like a horse. But it is not quite so slow as a pushcart." (C 19)
  • Obligation is a man's passport among his fellow men” (C 19)
  • Life is a bound diary, and one first page is plenty for one book.” (C 19)
  • More than iron doors, more than walls, it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.” (C 21)
  • One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” (C 24)
  • Even flies won't come if you don't advertise.” (C 24)
  • It's an infernal punishment precisely because nothing happens.” (C 25)
  • What was the use of individuality when one was on the point of death?” (C 26)
  • Three days a beggar, always a beggar they say.” (C 28)
  • The fish you don't catch is always the biggest.” (C 28)
  • Patience itself was not necessarily defeat. Rather, defeat really began when patience was thought to be defeat.” (C 28)
As well insight he has some grotesquely original descriptions. I don't think I'll ever forget the boiled gristle or the taste of ear wax:
  • The man answered her with eyes in which time had ceased to run.” (C 20)
  • A strong smell like boiled gristle surrounded her.” (C 20)
  • He had dozed off for a moment, rolling over in the sweat and secretions which smelled like rancid fish oil.” (C 21)
  • His vocal cords were shredded like strands of dried squid” (C 21)
  • Maybe even a human being could sing such a song ... If tongs were driven into his nose and slimy blood stopped up his ears ... if his teeth were broken one by one with hammer blows, and splinters jammed into his urethra ... if a vulva were cut away and sewn onto his eyelids.” (C 22)
  • There was nothing that tasted so good as one's own ear wax ... it was better than real cheese.” (C 24)
  • Suddenly a sorrow the colour of dawn welled up in him.” (C 27) 
And there are other great quotes:
  • The village, resembling a cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Or rather the dunes lay sprawled over the village. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.” (C2)
  • Things with form were empty when placed beside sand. The only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.” (C 6)
  • It was like to trying to float a house in the sea by brushing the water aside. You floated a ship on water in accordance with the properties of water.” (C 6) 
  • Rarely will you meet anyone so jealous as a teacher. Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current. Although he may tell others of his hopes, he doesn't dream of them himself.” (C 11)
  • It only happened in novels or movies that summer was filled with dazzling sun. What existed in reality were humble, small town Sundays ... ... little scenes everyone has seen in the corner of some trolley ... people's pathetic jealousy and impatience with others’ happiness.” (C 14)
  • Why did places where animals live have such an unpleasant smell? Wouldn't it be fine if there were animals that smelled like flowers!” (C 24)
In the end, there is a sense of defeat: “They might as well lick each other's wounds. but they would lick forever, and the wounds would never heal, and in the end their tongues would be worn away.” (C 27)

Very thought-provoking. November 2018; 240 pages

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

"H. G. Wells" by Lovat Dickson

This is a biography of the writer of science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, of 'serious' novels such as Kipps, The History of Mr Polly, and Love and Mr Lewisham, of a History of the world and many, many more books. Starting life as the son of ex-servants, failing to impress as a draper's apprentice, a chemist's apprentice, and a draper's apprentice (again), then failing as a teacher because his cousin the headmaster had "forged the necessary references and documents to obtain the position", enduring grinding poverty as a student, he became a lifelong socialist. Wells sparred with George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs before leaving the Fabians; later he interviewed both Lenin and Stalin. The private life of Dickson's "lusty, whoring, meat-eating, tubby hero" was scandalous, leaving his first wife to run away with the woman who became his second, then engineering a marriage that left him free to have affairs (he wasn't the only one: children's novelist Edith Nesbit lived among many children fathered by her husband - and their mothers), including fathering novelist and historian Anthony West on his long-standing lover, author Rebecca West (who wrote The Return of the Solider). Novels reflecting his advocacy of free love proved rather difficult even for a world famous author to publish in the years before the First World War. This book makes the point that we sometimes see the First World War as the watershed, after which the old order could no longer stand, but change was occurring before then. "Antagonisms between classes, between generations, even between the sexes, were expressing themselves in strikes and lockouts, in lack of sympathy between social classes, in women's struggle for emancipation, in political uncertainties. A new order was evolving, making the young impatient to inherit their destiny, and the old grimly reluctant to yield up authority." (C 12)

He was incredibly influential. "Test him for prophetic accuracy at any point, and he is nearly always right." (C 19). One book, The World Set Free, with its prediction of atomic warfare written in 1913, so horrified Leo Szilard that when he sought to patent his idea of a nuclear chain reaction he assigned the patent to the British Admiralty in order that it might be kept secret.

Yet somehow this biography failed to enthrall me. It virtually ignored some of his most famous works, such as The Invisible Man, concentrating instead on charting the development of his ideas in some of his later works. I was sometimes confused by the chronology. There were moments when episodes in the books were linked with real life experiences, and it is clear that Wells frequently turned friends and acquaintances (and enemies) into characters, but I still wanted more about the writing and less about the life. Perhaps I am being unrealistic. Perhaps I should read a literary evaluation rather than a biography.

Some more great lines:

  • "if an angel were to appear on earth, somebody would be sure to shoot it." (C 5)
  • "Jealousy and possessiveness are the natural accompaniment of any love affair" (C 6)
  • "the heaven Wells dreamed of in 1900 bears a distinct resemblance to the 1984 hell imagined half a century later by George Orwell." (C 7)
  • "The Christian Christ is too fine for him; he had no petty weaknesses." (C 9)
  • "He saw all the scandal as emanating from the Old Gang in the Fabian Society - not surprisingly, since he had succeeded in seducing the daughters of two of its most eminent members" (C 11)
  • "part of the price for such a misdemeanour has to be paid by those who have not drunk the wine and eaten the cake." (C 11)
  • "Self-sacrifice is a dream and self-restraint a delusion." (C 11)
  • "He was not powerless against the surge of sex so much as seeking it ... as a sensual release to a mind overburdened by thought." (C 12)
  • "Popular newspapers inclined the popular mind to the persuasion that just outside their humdrum lives drama impended." (C13) Panem et circenses I suppose.
  • "Sex had got out of the pages of daring novels and into the bed of the common man" (C 16)
  • "It was a poor time for prophets, since all of them must be Cassandras." (C 18)

October 2018; 317 pages

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

"Acts of Undressing" by Barbara Brownie

This is a fascinating book about something we do every day which can be regarded as extreme: taking our clothes off. The author covers (or should that be uncovers) public changing places; striptease and burlesque; clothes designed to reveal such as slashed jeans, skirts with slits and fishnet stockings; the sounds of zippers, poppers and Velcro; streaking, mooning and flashing; St Francis of Assissi (!); undressing as protest; denuding for dominance; sociofugal places; abandoned clothes as territorial markers; shoefiti and pseudocide.

Absolutely fascinating and easy to read.

Great quotes:
  • The human body is born naked, but moments after birth the body is clothed and begins a lifelong cycle of dressing and undressing.
  • The institutionalization and ubiquity of the nude body have prompted striptease performers to seek new means of delaying gratification, and so in contemporary burlesque the focus of performance is the undressing, not the nudity that results.”
  • The burlesque striptease is ... intermittent: punctuated by the removal of each part of the costume. There is typically a pause for celebration between each removal, as the audience is given time to appreciate the sight of the freshly unveiled area of skin or costume.
  • Fasteners cry out to be unfastened. They provide visual cues to how a garment may be removed from the body
  • As had been so well illustrated in Brave New World, the zipper’s sexual connotations arose largely because of the speed and ease at which it permits disrobing.”
  • "Zips, poppers and Velcro all have distinctive sounds ... Some kinds of fastenings make sounds only during unfastening: poppers can be significantly louder when unpopped than when popped, and Velcro is virtually silent when stuck together but generates clearly audible sound when pulled apart. Consequently, the sound of fastenings is more readily associated with undressing than with dressing.
  • Flashing, mooning and streaking straddle the fluid line that separates erotic and hostile gestures.
  • In Dunedin’s annual nude rugby game ... ‘reverse streaking’ occurs in which clothed spectators run onto the pitch.
  • The sporting arena is, and always has been, a venue for thinly veiled eroticism ... the sports spectator’s gaze is both respectful and erotic. Spectators’ viewing habits are based partly on the perceived sexual attractiveness of particular athletes, even when an athlete is not explicitly a subject of his or her erotic fantasies.
  • Sports practices have always straddled the boundary between athleticism and eroticism, and ancient civilizations ‘acknowledged and celebrated the erotic element in sports’.
  • In a sports setting, clothing has special value as an indicator of team brand loyalty. Sports fans are visibly marked tribes, and clothing is an essential part of the expression of one’s fandom ...The removal of clothes in this context therefore acts in part to neutralize the streaker.
  • "Nakedness has been imposed (through persuasion and force) to reinforce the perception of natives as primitives. Among European and American slave traders, nakedness was imposed to keep perceived savages in their place, as a sign of their status as chattel.
  • For those at the very top of human hierarchy, denuding is a means of stripping signs of power and status, as when regalia are torn from those condemned to execution
  • Class differentiation [is] ... one of the driving forces of fashion”.
  • ‘sociofugal’ spaces, such as libraries, in which ‘people typically try to avoid one another’. ... users accept and reinforce their isolation by marking a large territory around their immediate location. This may involve placing coats and scarfs on neighboring chairs
  • One anonymous caller ... describes tossed shoes that once belonged to gang members who have been shot dead. He describes a local ritual of removing the shoes from a fellow gang member’s feet before the police arrive to claim the body.
  • Graffiti frequently appears in apparently inaccessible spaces is evidence of ‘spatial conquest’.
  • ‘Place hackers’—urban daredevils whose aim is to reach the most inaccessible locations they can find ... There is an element of skill in accessing an apparently inaccessible site, which attracts admiration (or envy) from fellow artists and audiences.
  • ‘The conquest of territory ... is always an act performed for an audience.’ There is a primary audience who directly view the act of territorial marking, and secondary audience who learn of an individual’s presence by observing the marker afterward.
October 2018;

Sunday, 28 October 2018

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare

The Scottish play. One of the very best. Witches tell Macbeth he will be king. His wife encourages him to assassinate King Duncan and assume the throne. One murder engenders more until the forces of retribution assemble outside the castle.

I hope to see this play on Saturday 12th January at the Barbican in an RSC production. I have previously seen a youth production which was marred by the fact that nearly every line was shouted. There is a lot of dark in Macbeth and a lot of drama; it is perhaps the most unremitting of Shakespeare's plays with only a single comic pause; even Hamlet lets up more than this intense play. But for that very reason the actors have to vary to tone. Evil can be shouty but perhaps a whispered evil is more scary, especially when it acts as contrast.

Macbeth is a play with many themes. It was first performed in 1606 at Hampton Court in front of King James who was descended from Banquo. It was a few months after the Gunpowder Plot so the idea of treason was very topical. There are a couple of references to 'equivocation' in Macbeth, most notably in Act 2 Scene 3. Equivocation was practised by some Roman Catholic priests (who were banned persons in Shakespeare's time) because their vows would not permit them to tell a lie to the authorities but they could say things that were true if you interpreted them correctly. Thus, for example, the prophecies made by the witches in Act Four Scene One are equivocal; they are taken by Macbeth to mean that he cannot be killed but in fact outline the circumstances of his downfall. Since the trial of Father Garnet which brought equivocation to the attention of the Jacobean public was in the Spring of 1606 it would seem that Macbeth was almost certainly written after this time. These poses problems for those who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare's plays since he died in 1604.

Macbeth is full of motifs which play to the idea of equivocation, or saying one thing when the other is true. For example, in the very first scene, the dramatic opening of three witches on a blasted heath, they talk about losing and winning (they will meet again "when the battle's lost and won"), a theme continued in the last line of scene 2 when King Duncan says “What he [Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.”; and they say that "fair is foul and foul is fair" which is repeated in Macbeth's first line (A1S3): “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. Shakespeare repeatedly uses irony to underscore this point about equivocation: Macbeth is called 'noble', his wife is called 'gentle'; we will see these are very far from the truth.

The story is that Macbeth meets three witches who prophesy that he will become King. When the King comes to stay in Macbeth's castle, M, urged on by his wife, Lady M, assassinates the King. The King's sons flee and Macbeth becomes King. But “To be thus is nothing; /But to be safely thus.” To secure his crown Macbeth must murder his friend Banquo and those who are suspicious of how he attained the throne, killing Macduff's wife and children when he is unable to capture Macduff. Eventually, the forces of opposition lead an army against him and he goes down fighting.

This play has some wonderful dramatic moments, such as the witches, and in the very centre of the play the ghost of Banquo, seen only by Macbeth. It has Lady Macbeth sleep-walking, maddened by her conscience. It only has one comic moment which occurs immediately after the assassination of Duncan. It also has some profound and some heart-rending meditations on betrayal, murder, and death.
  • Prophecy:
    • If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not, /Speak then to me” 
  • Fate:
    • If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/ Without my stir.
  • Ambition:
    • "I fear thy nature, /It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness /To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, /Art not without ambition, but without /The illness should attend it."
  • Wicked womanhood:
    • "Come, you spirits /That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, /And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full /Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; /Stop up the access and passage to remorse, /That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between /The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts, /And take my milk for gall"
    • "I have given suck, and know /How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me: /I would, while it was smiling in my face, /Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, /And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you /Have done to this."
  • Uncertainty:
    • "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well /It were done quickly: if the assassination /Could trammel up the consequence, and catch /With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here, /But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, /We'd jump the life to come."
  • Insomnia (as a result of a guilty conscience):
    • "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! /Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep, /Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, / The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, /Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, /Chief nourisher in life's feast .../Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor /Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more."
  • Life and death:
    • To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, /Creeps in this petty pace from day to day /To the last syllable of recorded time, /And all our yesterdays have lighted fools /The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! /Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more: it is a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing.”
October 2018

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

"Dark Water" by Elizabeth Lowry

Set in the middle of the 1800s, a young doctor is working as assistant surgeon, Hiram Carver, the narrator, on a US naval ship and becomes fascinated by one of the officers, William Borden, who, on a previous voyage, survived months adrift in the Pacific in a small boat following a mutiny. The doctor subsequently takes a job in a Lunatic Asylum where he developing understanding of the relationship between lunacy and sanity is challenged by his growing knowledge of what happened on that small boat.

This is modern Gothic. Jerrold Hogle, in Gothic Fiction, states that “A Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space" in this case the Asylum, in which "are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters". Dark Water contains supernatural events: the Hero of the mutiny is presented in some ways as a god or a priest demanding sacrifices, for example when a sailor is flogged on a becalmed ship at which point the wind begins to blow. The finale takes place on a cliff edge, the liminal space between land and sea, and the doctor has a vision of a mysterious bird. The subject of madness is, of course, archetypal Gothic. And there are times when the writing becomes as purple as traditional Gothic:

  • "It was the sparrow that fell, dead, to the ground. It was the caterpillar sleeping in its chrysalis and the fish hatching in the cusp of the wave. It was the worm curled around the rose ... It was the rock and the wave that smashed the rock." (p 444)
  • "I plummeted into the sea's dark embrace, and sank. It was cold, and it was not. It was hot, and it was not. It was precisely as hot and cold as my own blood." (p 446)
I detected notes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

The structure of the book is interesting. My edition was 464 pages long. The first part (64 pages, about 14%) is set on board the ship. The next 44 pages (9%) deals with the new job at the Asylum. So we are nearly one quarter of the way through when ship and Asylum intersect. During the next 194 (40%) pages there is a 40 page (9%) interlude during which we learn what happened on the small boat in the Pacific. The next section (another 10%) deals with Carver unscrupulously making progress in his career before we reach the denouement, again nearly a quarter of the book, which contains Borden's 35 page story of his life.  I found this pattern slightly arrhythmic. My reading surged forward at some points and dawdled at others. Some of the sub-plots concerning patients seemed to distract rather than to contribute to the plot.

There were moments of great writing though. There were some wonderful descriptions:

  • "An orange moon lolled on the mizzenmast" (p 6)
  • "The horizon was swagged with clouds that piled up overhead in a rolling mass, its black bole split by a purple artery trailing ghoulish light like blood from a wound." (p 32)
  • "My eyeballs stung from the wine I'd drunk the night before." (p 81)
  • "She was dressed for worship in a skirt like the puddle on a butcher's block" (p 155)As well as being a great way of saying 'red' this is a lovely bit of pathetic fallacy, linking church to butchery and so continuing the theme of sacrifice.

There were some profound insights:

  • "That's what wanting is. The looking for what you cannot have." (p 27)
  • "You can't command before you have learned obedience." (p 27)
  • "Here we are, piloting a wood-shaving over an abyss. Is there a better definition of madness?" (p 60)
  • "These laws have been passed by our legislators. Are we wiser or better than they are? .... Shouldn't we be? Our legislators have been elected by us." (p 79)
  • "I have sometimes wondered if wealth itself - and its first cousin, social importance - shouldn't be recognized as infectious agents, so productive are they of distorted cognition, particularly of delusional feelings of merit." (p 103)

An interesting reinterpretation of the Gothic genre with themes of madness and sacrifice.

October 2018; 464 pages

Monday, 22 October 2018

“Aspects of the Novel” by E M Forster

The writer of classic novels including A Passage to India, Howard's End, Room With a View, Maurice, and Where Angels Fear to Tread, eloquently explains his understanding of this art-form.

He professes difficulty in defining the novel, citing works as diverse as Tristram Shandy, Emma, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, and The White Peacock. Theis is a man who has read widely! He settles for the novel being “a fiction in prose” of at least 50,000 words. (p 25)

The novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist.” (p 40) “A story is a narrative of events arranged in time-sequence.” (p 44) The secret is to keep the reader turning the pages. “Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense - the only literate tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages.” (p 41) Therefore a story “can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” (p 42) “Telling a story ... shock-headed public gaping around the camp-fire and only kept awake by suspense ... storyteller needn't pick up loose threads. As long as he keeps his shock-heads excited he needs no plot.” (p 160) However, a novelist aspiring to be an artist should “Interest the reader in people - not in what happens next.” (p 174)

Novels are about characters. But here he distinguishes fiction from memoir or biography or history because “A historian ... is quite as much concerned with character as a novelist, but he can only know of its existence when it shows on the surface.” (p 55)

He points out that novelists tend to ignore many of the facts of life such as " birth, food, sleep, love and death.” (p 57) In novels most babies “come into the world more like parcels than human beings. When a baby arrives a novel it usually has the air of having been posted ... one of the elder characters goes and picks it up and shows it to the reader, after which it is usually laid in cold storage until it can talk or otherwise assist in the action.” (p 60) “The treatment of death, on the other hand, is nourished much more on observation, and has a variety about it which suggests that the novelist finds it congenial. He does, for the reason that death ends a book neatly.” (p 61) Furthermore “Food in fiction is mainly social. It draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so.” (p 61) Sleep is useful when dreams can be recounted but a character “is never conceived as a creature, a third of whose time is spent in the darkness.” (p 62) And novels are obsessed with relationships. “The constant sensitiveness of characters for each other ... is remarkable, and has no parallel in life, except among people who have plenty of leisure.” (p 62) Thus “Homo Fictus ... is generally born off, he is capable of dying on, he wants little food or sleep, he is tirelessly occupied with human relationships. And - most importantly - we can know more about him than we can know about any of our fellow creatures, because his creator and narrator are one.” (p 63)

He distinguishes between flat and round characters. “Flat characters were called ‘humours’ in the seventeenth century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures ... They are constructed around a single idea or quality ... Really flat characters can be expressed in one sentence.” (p 73) “One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized ... they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere.” (p 74) “A second advantage is that they are easily remembered by the reader afterwards.” “Dickens’s people are nearly all flat ... Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence ... Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognise the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow.Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. ... His immense success with types suggests that there may be more to flatness than the severer critics admit.” (p 76)

He is sceptical about the idea of point of view pointing out that both Dickens in Bleak House and Tolstoy in War and Peace shift viewpoints “A novelist can shift his viewpoint if it comes off ... Indeed this power to expand and contract perception ... this right to intermittent knowledge - I find it one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life.” (p 83)

He explains how plot can be distinguished from story: “A plot is ... a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” (p 87) And what is essential about a plot? “This element of surprise or mystery - the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called - is of great importance in a plot ... Mystery is essential to a plot ... To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.” (p 88) However, “Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.” (p 93 - 94) “Incidents and people that occurred at first for their own sake now have to contribute to the denouement.” (p 94)

Some plots have patterns eg: the shape of an hour-glass in a cross-over plot or the shape of a circle or a chain which binds “the scattered incidents together with a thread woven out of their own substance.” (p 136) However, he warns that "A rigid pattern ... may externalise the atmosphere, spring naturally from the plot, but it shuts the doors on life, and leaves the novelist doing exercises, generally in the drawing room. Beauty has arrived, but in too tyrannous a guise. ... tyranny as it grows powerful grows petty.” (p 145) He cites Henry James.

He has many more insights, beautifully (and sometimes confrontationally) expressed:

  • Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain.” (p 30 - 31)
  • The world of beauty was largely closed to Dickens, and is entirely closed to Wells.” (p 34)
  • We move between two darknesses. Certain people pretend to tell us what birth and death are like ... but it is all from the outside.” (p 57) 
  • Let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand.” (p 58)
  • Food the stoking up process, the keeping alive of an individual flame, ... taken over by the individual himself, who goes on day after day putting an assortment of objects into a hole in his face without becoming surprised or bored.” (p 58) 
  • When human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep.” (p 59)
  • One of the illusions attached to love is that it will be permanent. Not has been - will be.” (p 63) 
  • All our experience teaches us that no human relationship is constant, it is as unstable as the living beings who compose it, and they must balance it like jugglers if it is to remain.” (p 63) 
  • All this we know, yet we cannot bear to apply our bitter knowledge to the future; the future is to be so different; the perfect person is to come along, or the person we know already is to become perfect. There are to be no changes, no necessity for alertness. We are to be happy or even perhaps miserable for ever and ever.” (p 63)
  • If God could tell the story of the universe, the universe would become fictitious.” (p 64)
  • You will have noticed in daily life that when people are inquisitive they nearly always have bad memories and are usually stupid at bottom.” (p 87)
  • For two inquisitive people to be friends must be impossible.” (p 88)
  • Perhaps our subject ... has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right - it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right - it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground.” (p 101)
  • The saying of St Catherine of Siena that God is in the soul and the soul is in God as the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea.” (p 122)
  • The fantasist ... manipulates a beam of light which occasionally touches the objects so sedulously dusted by the hand of common sense, and renders them more vivid than they can ever be in domesticity. ... It characterizes these novels and gives them ... roughness of surface.” (p 124)
  • As a rule, evil has been feebly envisaged in fiction, which seldom soars about misconduct or avoids the clouds of mysteriousness. Evil to most novelists is either sexual and social, or something very vague ... they want it to exist, in order that it may help them on with the plot, and evil, not being kind, generally hampers them with a villain.” (p 128)
  • Immediate Past is like a stuffy room, and the succeeding generation waste their time in trying to tolerate it. All they can do is to go out leaving the door open behind them. The door may be spacious, witty, harmonious, friendly, but it smells, and there is no getting around this.” (p 161)
  • Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.” (p 165)
  • H.J. in The Turn Of The Screw is merely declining to think about homosex, and the knowledge that he is declining throws him into the necessary fluster.” (p 171)
  • Only a writer who has the sense of evil can make goodness readable.” (p 171)
  • Time bears all its son's away unless they look sharp.” (p 173)

Stupendous and eye-opening. October 2018; 187 pages

Sunday, 21 October 2018

"A High Wind in Jamaica" by Richard Hughes

This book was first published in 1929 and it demonstrates the lack of political correctness of the time.

It is set in the years shortly after the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies and the first scenes are set in a Jamaica in which the former slaves are rebellious employees and the former slave-owners are attempting to pursue their leisured lives as the plantations decay and are reclaimed by the rain forest. Following an earthquake and a hurricane the five children of one family are sent to school in England but their boat is attacked by pirates and they are abducted. The book is therefore an extended metaphor of how the future (in the shape of children) disrupts and destroys the past.

The actual story takes a while to get going, adopting the leisured start that was still possible in the 1920s, with long descriptions of the children playing in the decaying countryside. The descriptions are as lush as the vegetation and as extended. I have selected two very short lines to represent the power and originality of these words:

  • As he sank the sun grew even larger: and instead of red was now a sodden purple.” (p 19)
  • The bouncing rain seemed to cover the ground with a white smoke.” (p 28)

In many ways this early phase of the book, using the decay of civilization in the face of the jungle as a metaphor for decadence perhaps, reminded me of Wild Sargasso Sea which is also set in the West Indies (but is rather more politically acceptable these days because it is seen as a feminist and anti-racist text).

The rest of the book, while maintaining some clear descriptions of the pirate ship, focuses mostly on the psychology of the relationships between the pirates and the children. For example:
  • Most children, on a railway journey, prefer to change at as many stations as possible.” (p 34)
  • What agency had so ordered it that out of all the people in the world who she might have been, she was this particular one, this Emily: born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time, and encased in this particular rather pleasing little casket of flesh.” (p 95)
  • The difficulty of effecting a reconciliation in this case was that both parties felt wholly in the wrong.” (p 114)

At the end, the great benefit of this book is that it was a story. Why was it told? Is that the right question? It was a story worth telling for the fun of it.

Other great lines:
  • After that, decency was let go hang again: it is hardly worth being drowned for - at least, it does not at first sight appear to be.” (p 10)
  • A duppy ... cannot be mistaken for living people, because their heads are turned backwards on their shoulders, and they carry a chain” (p 11)
  • John, shaping a course for Cuba, was swimming as if sharks were paring his toenails.” (p 20)
  • I wish schools had never been invented! ... they wouldn't then be so indispensable!” (p 38)

October 2018, 192 pages

Saturday, 20 October 2018

"Conan Doyle" by Hesketh Pearson

This biography of the creator of Sherlock Holmes was first published in 1943 so it reflects its time. Despite this, or because of this, it is a well-told story of a man who was larger than life. It doesn't pretend that C-D was a great writer; it fully appreciates his flaws. Nevertheless, he was a hugely prolific author who created an immortal character. "Any coal-heaver, docker, charwoman, or publican would recognise what was meant on hearing someone described as 'a reg'lar Romeo' or 'a blasted Shylock' or 'a blinkin' Robinson Crusoe' or 'a bleedin' Sherlock Holmes'." (p 86)

Pearson is particularly good at making asides:

  • CD was very poor as a medical student so he sought part-time work as a medical assistant. "Knowing very little, and wishing to gain experience, he started by offering himself for nothing; but the first doctor who took him on valued his assistance at less than nothing" (p 14)
  • Of a book in which the hero, a soldier, kills a Buddhist holy man and "spends the rest of his life fleeing and hiding from the other holy men who are on his track ... The chronicler is not in a position to inform us whether the soldier's last regrets were that he failed to make a clean sweep of holy men while serving in the East." (p 82 - 83)
  • "An appalling outbreak of enteric among the troops was caused by the simple fact that Lord Roberts has failed to take the waterworks ... he felt that the troops required rest after their exertions; so they drank water from the old wells of Bloemfontein and rested there, some 5000 of them for ever." (p 128)

He makes interesting comments about how Doyle wrote and how good it was. For example, his historical books sometimes had too much detail. "To the end of his life it never occurred to him that the accumulation of detail, however accurate or picturesque, does not vivify ... but nullifies." (p 80) "He wrote history with the pen of Holmes, who preferred a scientific treatise to an exciting story; but he chronicled Holmes with the pen of Watson, who preferred an exciting story to a scientific treatise." (p 91). When he was writing the Holmes stories he was cavalier about details:

  • "Doyle himself was singularly unobservant: he gave the lodgings a bow-window; and the distinguishing feature of Baker Street is that there is not a bow-window from one end of it to the other."  (p 87)
  • "Doyle made dozens of ... slips ...Holmes disappears on May 4th, 1891, and returns on March 31st, 1894; yet the adventure of 'Wisteria Lodge' occurs in March 1892, when Holmes must have been travelling incognito in Tibet and was thought to be dead by Dr Watson." (p 87)

But he took his writing seriously:

  • "He never stopped reading because he thought it 'a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board'." (p 76)
  • "He worked from breakfast to lunch and from five to eight in the evening, averaging three thousand words a day." (p 95)

Pearson distinguishes between the imaginative (such as Shakespeare) and the fanciful (such as Doyle, Poe and Dickens): "Doyle ... mistook the fanciful for the imaginative, whereas the diagnostic of the truly imaginative man is a sense of reality. The imagination wrestles with life and is intuitive; the fancy plays around life and is inventive. ... The imaginative type ... deals with everyday life and only occasionally with the bizarre. The fanciful type ... revels in the weird and only touches reality in flashes." (p 152 - 153; page break comes after deals with)

But Doyle understood dialogue: "Why should we write a duet each saying the same thing?" (p 64)

Other great comments:

  • CD said of his youthful experiences of reading boys' adventure stories: "It was all more real than the reality" (p 3)
  • "Once he had to choose between compromising a woman or damaging himself. Without hesitating a second he chose the latter and hurled himself out of a third-floor window" (p 21)
  • "The return journey ... was enlivened by the ship catching fire. For the first two or three days they did not take it seriously, but when the smoke turned into a blaze they did." (p 26)
  • "Why the devil should we [doctors] do all the good? ... A butcher would do good to the race. would he not, if he served his chops out gratis through the window? ... Take the case of a doctor who devotes himself to sanitary science. He flushes out drains, and keeps down infection. You call himn a philanthropist! Well, I call him a traitor. ... Did you ever hear of a congress of lawyers for simplifying the law and discouraging litigation? ... If I had half the funds which the [Medical] Association has, I should spend part of them in drain-blocking, and the rest in the cultivation of disease germs, and the contamination of drinking water." (p 48)
  • "'Your rooms are quite clean? ... No vermin?' 'The officers of the garrision come sometimes'." (p 58)
  • His first novel was lost in the post. He commented later "my shock at its disappearance would be nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again" (p 75)
  • "Their faces wearing that pained and anxious expression which the British countenance naturally assumes when dancing, giving the impression that the legs have suddenly burst forth in a festive mood, and have dragged the rest of the body into it very much against its will." (p 75)
  • CD had a chequered medical career. "As he was uninterrupted by the arrival of a single patient throughout the whole of his time as an eye specialist, he spent his days writing ... 'My rooms ... consisted of a waiting-room and a consulting-room, where I waited in the consulting-room and no one waited in the waited-room." (p 93)
  • "All unimaginative folk love the fanciful, the horrible, and the uncanny, which for them add a relish to life, just as people without sensitive palates love curry." (p 152)
  • "We have discovered that nothing sub-human, super-human, pre-human, or preter-human could possibly surpass in horror the primitive doings of ordinary humanity." (p 163)
  • "When a man searches desperately for a faith he is bound to find what he is looking for sooner or later, and what he is looking for will be, for him, the Truth." (p 172)
  • "The world of matter is the world we know by means of our five senses; the spirit-world cannot be so known. ... The phenomena observed at seances do not prove the existence of a spirit-world, which, if its existence could be proved by the five senses, would cease to be the world of the spirit." (p 173)
  • "No woman is ugly. Every woman is beautiful. But some are more beautiful than others." (p 183)
  • "The business of every legislative body in history has been to practise a succession of complicated frauds on the community." (p 188)

A very enjoyable and page-turning biography. October 2018; 188 pages

Friday, 19 October 2018

"Witness the Night" by Kishwar Desai

A detective story set in Jalandhar in the Punjab in which courageous "professional but unsalaried social worker, rudely called an NGO-wali (and a rather amateur psychiatrist)" Simran battles to clear the name of Durga who had been accused of the murder, by poison and stabbing, of virtually her entire family. Apparently in the Punjab a Chief of Police can ask a friend of his from college to befriend a young girl who appears bang to rights and somehow this person has sufficient influence to be allowed to wander around the scene of the crime picking up missed clues.

Each chapter begins with an italicised section in which Durga, the young girl who survived the family massacre but was apparently raped, gives some account of what happens. These are carefully written to preserve the mystery of what happened and whodunnit to the end. The rest of the story is told from the point of view of the amateur sleuth (who drinks heavily but has a heart of gold).

There are moments when the writing jars:

  • The very first section is intended as the hook and is a detailed account of the massacre: "The thick bile of sadness oozing from their hearts has regurgitated into their throats and blocked their voices, their pale shadowy hair seems like seaweed, green and stringy, floating in the air. Yet, all around their collapsed bodies is the scarlet odour of fresh killing, the meat at their feet is newly shredded for the dogs, which are peculiar and never bark. They do not even nudge the meat." I thought this prose too purple.
  • There are some clunky moments of dialogue: "Listen, before we go in, no matter what happens, let me just say I really like you and thanks a lot. I was angry with you earlier, said a lot of things, I know - but you were doing your job, just as I am doing mine now. This sounds like a foolishly heroic statement, so I hesitate to say it, but if we can save her somehow. ..."
  • There are some errors. The word 'somersault' is not spelled "summersault". The "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" shop's name is presumably an oxymoron rather than an "anachronism". I loved the "rickshaw puller's skinny legs peddling [sic] away" although I suspected they should have been pedalling.

The author is at her best when bringing us into the world of the Punjab. It is a world of unbridled patriarchy in which illegal abortion and infanticide is practised for girl children. It is a corrupt world in which the rich people can bribe the police to turn a blind eye. It is a world where poor girls can be bought to be sex slaves for rich boys. The author manages some nice moments of local colour:

  • "We called all women older than us 'aunty' in Punjab. And all older men were called 'uncle'. Earlier we had more complex terms to describe relationships, but with the coming of the colonizers and the angrezi craze, much of the descriptive terminology, such as phoopi or taayi, had been junked." (p 167)
  • The railway station "specialized in announcements made in Swahili which came on after the train had left." (p 116)

There are moments of insight:

  • "In many cases it is difficult to distinguish the criminal from his circumstances, and then you understand that life can really be unfair." (p 9)
  • "Surprising how even death - or a terrible disease like cancer - does little to mellow some people. They still carry their burden of destruction with them ... seeking to annihilate others before death snaps them in its jaws." (p 170)
  • "If you live in a lake you don't antagonize the crocodiles."
  • "It is said that if everything goes well, the wrath of the gods descends on you, so you have to put a black mark somewhere on your body to deflect misfortune." (p 40)

This is a debut novel which, despite some rather flat characters and the occasional poor writing, has some excellent moments, especially with the scene-setting. October 2018; 243 pages

Thursday, 18 October 2018

"Force of Nature" by Jane Harper

This follows on from Federal Detective's Aaron Falk's first outing in The Dry, a great whodunnit.

Five women from an accounting firm are on a team survival course in the Australian outback. Four return. The missing woman is Alice Russell, being used by Falk  as an informant in an investigation into money-laundering by the firm. Has one of the others murdered her? Or has she been attacked by the son of Martin Kovac, a serial killer who specialised in raping and murdering blonde young women. The only clue seems to be a message left on Falk's phone of which the only words that can be distinguished are "hurt her". This uses a classic whodunnit formula backed up by the dangers of the Australisn bush.

Some great writing:

  • "He seemed about to say something else, then changed his mind." (p 39)
  • "She'd cracked the shits. Gone off on her own." (p 39)
  • "He hated the way men in plush offices were able to wash their hands at arm's length" (p 53) although it makes me wonder where else they would wash their hands.
  • "You've met my fiance. I literally had to put 'no denim' on the invitations for his side of the family." (p 227)
  • "A woman with the distinctive look of a community social worker." (p 343)

October 2018; 421 pages

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

"The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is best known as the author of the Handmaid's Tale but this is her 25th novel; also reviewed in this blog are Oryx and Crake, Hag Seed, and Bodily Harm.

In this dystopian tale set in a very present reality, Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their jobs and their home and are living in their car, sleeping in scary parking lots, continually threatened by low-lifers who threaten to steal their few possessions, gang-rape Charmaine and murder Stan. So they sign up, for life, to join an enclosed model community in which every resident spends alternate months in (a comfortable) prison and in their own home. For the first few months they enjoy this lifestyle. In jail Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine works in Medical Administration although one of her duties includes giving injections. But then Charmaine starts an affair with another resident. And things start going pear-shaped.

I adored the first section of the book   when S & C are sleeping in their car; it was horribly real. I bought into the premise of the community (something between a cult and a monastery with homage to the present US penal system of slave industry) and Charmaine's affair and Stan's reactions. At the dead centre of the book Charmaine has to make a critical decision: I was extremely excited and wanted to know what she would choose because it could really have been played out in several ways. This was the high moment of the book when I was turning the pages as fast as I could. It was difficult to see how anything could match that. And the book then became less real, even whimsical, as the narrative seemed to be sidetracked into satire.

A book therefore of two halves with the first half exploring crucifyingly real human dilemmas and the second half trying to resolve the irresolvable.

Nevertheless, there are some brilliant moments. Atwood is magic when it comes to debunking the magic and romance of our sexual behaviour:
  • Charmaine required nothing more than a closed door and a bare floor to release her inner sidewalk whore.” (p 136)
  • Holding this thought keeps Stan going during his sexual command performances with Jocelyn, which are a good deal more like tenderising a steak than anything he finds purely pleasurable.” (p 137)
  • Will she tire of treating him like an indentured studmuffin, of hotwiring his mind and watching him jerk around like a galvanized frog.” (p 138 - 139)
  • She's been a distraction for him, but not a necessity of life. More like a super-strong mint: intense while it lasted but quickly finished.” (p 196)
  • You can peer right down their fronts, which is what Stan is doing, but you can't blame him, because what's a shelf display for except to be looked at?” (p 401)

There are some profound insights:
  • Most people are good underneath if they have a chance to show their goodness.” (p 4)
  • Comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people's sadness.” (p 22)
  • She occupies her mind by painting her nails, which is a very soothing thing to do when you're anxious and keyed up. Some people like to throw objects, such as glasses of water or rocks, but nail painting is more positive. If more world leaders would take it up there would be less overall suffering, in her opinion.” (p 322)
  • Nail biting is calming: it's repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it's violent.” (p 125)
  • Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven't performed that well for him personally.” (p 226)
  • Put two eyes on anything and basically it looks like a face.” (p 262)

And there are other moments when Atwood uses language in an original and touching way:
  • He can lean to the mean when he's irritated, but he is a good man underneath.” (p 4)
  • He'd heard the impact as she did a vertical face-plant onto the floor.” (p 214)
  • It's a memento, and memento means something that helps you remember. She'd rather have a forgetto.” (p 230)
  • Food has been appearing and disappearing out of that fridge like it has a bad case of gnomes.” (p 344)
  • I can see that the two of you had a playdate in the liquor cabinet.” (p 356)

Many enjoyable moments and a first half that is as good as anything Atwood has written. October 2018; 416 pages

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

"Byron: A poet dangerous to know" by Geoffrey Trrease

This book is aimed at the younger reader and published in 1969 at which time young readers still needed to be protected from some of the details of the life of Byron, the poet who was famously described by one of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of future Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, as "Mad, bad and dangerous to know." Trease achieves his aim magnificently. Without shirking the established facts but without going into salacious details he makes it clear that Byron had affairs with a string of women; he even mentioned the (never proved) allegations of incest with his half-sister (although he doesn't mention the equally unproven but sometimes speculated homosexual relationships with his page Robert Rushton and various Greek boys). He also writes briefly and clearly and produces an excellent outline of the poet's life with some appropriate selections from his poetry.

He is especially good at using euphemism. For example, while future wife Annabelle was thinking she might marry and reform a man who, she thought "discouraged his own goodness", Trease records that “Byron was fully occupied in the months that followed, discouraging his own goodness with Caroline Lamb.” (p 70) Of Byron's susceptibility to a beautiful woman Trease writes “Women did throw themselves at him, and, with the reflex of an experienced sportsman, he was apt to catch them almost automatically.” (p 85)

Trease has a deep insight into Byron. For example:
  • One side of him was unconventional: he enjoyed shocking people. Another side of him was just as conventional: a young gentleman was expected to show his wild oats.” (p 43)
  • From childhood Byron had been fascinated by the Orient, that exotic world where sultans and pashas ruled unchallenged in their gorgeous palaces, with whole harems of beautiful women to be petted and punished at will. A man there did not worry his head about a woman's feelings. He did as he pleased.” (p 44)
  • His poems were really popular novels in verse, full of excitement, passion and horror. and he dashed them off as a clever thriller-writer today produces a best-selling paperback.” (p 71)
  • He quotes Byron as saying, in Belgium: “Level roads don't suit me. It must be either up hill or down. Imagine to yourself a succession of avenues with a Dutch Spire at the end of each, and you see the road.” (p 91)
There are a number of interesting facts that crop up in the book. For example:
  • A debtor could not be arrested on the Sabbath.” (p 11)
  • "Byron's mother was kin to the Duke of Gordon and descended from James the first of Scotland." (p 11)
Other great moments:
  • He enjoyed talking to the monks in bad Latin, riding a mule and learning to swear at it in Portuguese, and eating too many oranges.” (p 53)
  • He had long ago studded Italian, though he spoke it, he admitted, ‘more fluently than accurately’.” (p 102)
  • She ... died in 1817, and the Count mastered his grief sufficiently to go to the theatre the same evening.” (p 111)
  • He accordingly arranged to ... inspect Teresa. As the room was dark, and his sight not so good as had been, he took up a candlestick and walked slowly round the girl, ‘as if ... he were engaged in buying a piece of furniture’.” (p 112)

This well-written book is an excellent introduction to an important poet who is not so well-known today. It has done its job. I now hunger to learn more about the man and to read some of his poetry.

October 2018; 136 pages

Sunday, 7 October 2018

"Fools and Mortals" by Bernard Cornwell

Will Shakespeare and his company are rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream but someone is trying to steal the script and that of Will's new play Romeo and Juliet. Will's brother Richard, narrator and jobbing actor, desperate to stop playing women and to earn more money, is the first suspect.

This is a brilliant tale of Elizabethan London with all the squalor and violence, the sex and the protocol, the colour and the politics. Like the Dream, the tale itself takes a back seat to the telling, which is joyous. But it is beautifully written. I was torn between turning the pages as fast as I could and reading slowly to revel in the world Cornwell has created.

Cornwell is the author of the Sharpe novels and many more. I have only ever read one of his before: Death of Kings from the Last Kingdom series. I enjoyed it but wasn't hooked. This book has changed my mind. I need to read more of this author.

Some great lines:

  • "Simon Willoughby needs praise like a whore needs silver." (p 10)
  • "We are mere players and as far beneath the palace audience as hells' goblins are beneath heaven's bright angels." (p 14)
  • "He's smearing the sheets of some lordly bed." (p 17)
  • "Mothers are like that, boy. They think you mustn't rise too high in case you fall too far." (p 93)
  • "the box office, so called because the boxes that took the playgoers' pennies was emptied on the table inside." (p 224)
October 2018; 403 pages

Friday, 5 October 2018

"A Boy at the Hogarth Press" by Richard Kennedy

Aged 16 Kennedy failed to get into the sixth form at Marlborough and, despite being not very good at arithmetic or typing, through family connections (his family owned the house which Virginia Woolf used in To The Lighthouse), became an apprentice working for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. This very short and very amusing book chronicles his time there (about a year, before he got the sack). In this time he met all the key characters of the Bloomsbury set, watched plays and mingled with creative people, and did his best to pick up girls (including a failed encounter with a prostitute). As the introduction says:Kennedy was naif: few boys of 16... are not. He confused DH Lawrence with TE, eschatology with scatology, and when he asked Virginia Woolf what Proust was like he rhymed the word with Faust.” (p 10)

It's only a tiny book but it made me laugh several times. He is also very observant:
  • He does have a special way of talking which I think comes of the care he takes to say exactly what he means. It's a kind of drawl.” (p 23)
  • In a letter to a friend: “I know I described this place as the Revised Inferno ... Unfortunately,  your reply fell into the hands of LW who objects to Ma Cartwright and himself being referred to as Satan and Svengali.” (p 63)
  • Ernest Milton had just finished playing Othello. I asked him if the bed had made him sleepy.” (p 66)
  • When you ask LW a question he looks down at his toes. When you ask Uncle George something he looks up at the ceiling.” (p 84)
  • "LW says I can't be trusted to do anything but wrap up parcels and that I am the most frightful idiot he has ever had the privilege of meeting in a long career of suffering fools." (p 99)

Great fun! October 2018; 100 pages

Thursday, 4 October 2018

"That Hideous Strength" by C S Lewis

This is the third of the 'science fiction' trilogy by the author of the Narnia books). Ransom, the hero, travels to Mars in Out of the Silent Planet and to Venus in Perelandra; this book is set in a university town in the English Midlands.

In many other ways this is a very different book. Although it continues the exploration of Christian theology that is the underlying theme of the other books, rather than interplanetary excitements this book involves a struggle between the forces of good and evil involving a talking head and the discovery of Merlin, the magician from the Arthurian legends, who is not dead but sleeping underground.In many ways, therefore, this reminded me of one of the many children's books that have delivered this theme such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.

The plot revolves around the development of NICE, a sinister research institute that promises to revolutionise scientific research. It is, essentially, the Nazi programme and comes complete with its own police force headed by Miss Hardcastle, who goes by the whimsical but unlikely nickname of Fairy. Mark, a fellow of Bracton College, is persuaded to join NICE and part of the story follows his attempts to join the inner circle of NICE, never quite realising their true evil. The other half of the story involves his wife, Jane, whom Mark has left behind in Bracton, who has visionary dreams and joins a strange religious commune; these are the goodies who are striving to discover Merlin before NICE so they can recruit him to their side.

The main trouble with the book is that the Goodies are good and the Baddies are bad and there are no shades of grey, no characters who move from one side to the other, in fact no character development at all. Even Mark, becoming embroiled in evil, is fundamentally innocent in the sense that he is ignorant of what is really happening. And having once depicted the boundaries of Good and Evil it therefore follows that everything represented by NICE, such as relativism and scientific progress must be Bad and everything represented by the Goodies, such as growing your own vegetables and speaking Latin, is Good. There are large and tedious chunks of theology in the book but they seem to boil down to the idea that the old ways are best (one of the problems the Goodies have is that Jane is Mark's wife and a wife must obey her husband even if he has gone over to the dark side) and that good old chaps such as English dons, country parsons and honest labouring men are the distillation of virtue while people who dispute the ordained social order must be sinister (almost at the end of the book Ransom compares the Goodies (Arthur, Milton, poets) with the Baddies (Mordred, Cromwell, shopkeepers). Shopkeepers?

The other main trouble with the book is the fundamental silliness of the plot. Merlin! A (Goody) bear called Mr Bultitude! The denouement takes place at a formal dinner (after the King's health has been toasted) and is accomplished by a cheap magic trick; one wonders why the Goodies needed Merlin and one wonders how the Baddies could pose such a threat if they could be vanquished so easily.

Nevertheless, there are some moments of magic:

There are some lovely descriptions:
  • He drove slowly - almost sauntering on wheels.” (p 306)
  • "There were the placid faces of elderly bons viveurs whom food and wine had placed in a contentment which no amount of speeches could violate.” (p 476)

There are philosophical insights:
  • "There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there's never more than one." (p 87)
  • Does it follow that because there was no God in the past that there will be no God also in the future?” (p 241)
There are comments on life, in particular the relationship between men and women. Lewis has rather old-fashioned views:

  • Husbands were made to be talked to. it helps them to concentrate their minds on what they're reading - like the sound of a weir.” (p 93)
  • Men can't help in a job, you know. They can be induced to do it: not to help while you're doing it. At least, it makes them grumpy.” (p 224)
  • The cardinal difficulty ... in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, ‘Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.’ The female for this is, ‘Put that in the other one in there’.” (p 224)
  • And this one, although it sounds the sort of thing that might be said today, is actually the author writing about something he condemns: “Men - complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women with children or bartering them like cattle. (‘And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.’)” (p 152)
And there are just some interesting and even witty asides:
  • His education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote about more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman or farmer’s boy, was the shadow.” (p 109)
  • Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Haven't you ever noticed it on a snowy day? Grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children - and the dogs? They know what snow was made for.” (p 146)
  • It all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.” (p 171)
  • The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms.” (p 273)
  • Not all the times that are outside the present are therefore past or future.” (p 276)
  • From now onwards till the moment of final decision should meet him, the different men in him appeared with startling rapidity and each seemed very complete while it lasted.” (p 296)
  • One might as well have thought one could buy a sunset by buying the field from which one has seen it.” (p 502)
  • The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.” (p 513)
  • Shakespeare never breaks the real laws of poetry ... but by following them he breaks every now and then the little regularities which critics mistake for the real laws.” (p 513)
Disappointing. October 2018; 534 pages

Saturday, 29 September 2018

"Raw material" by Alan Sillitoe

Another book of several parts. Sillitoe descriptions of some of the characters in his family history alternate with speculations on what truth means for a writer and a discussion of how, in his eyes, the class-bound generalship of the First World War led to war crimes such as the execution of deserters and the slaughter of the trenches. Mr Sillitoe's furiously working-class perspective makes a refreshing change from the suffocating middle-classness of most of English writing.

Great writing:

  • "Each incident ... has more than one version, and so certain parts of this book are closer to a novel than others." (p 16)
  • "If Burton did remember his youth it was only so that he could put the experience of it to such good use that his children stood little chance of enjoying their own in his presence." (p 23)
  • "To cause someone to be born is to send them alone into the dark. Thus the most excruciating guilt comes with having given life to a child." (p 25)
  • "Life is meagre with some people." (p 45)
  • "In war it is the worst of a country that persuade the best men to die. It is easier to deceive the best than the worst. But if it is true that the best men are fools and go with ease, while the worst are cunning and find it easy to hold back, what else can war be but an utterly sure method of destroying a country?" (p 120)
  • "It was a common though jocular belief among British soldiers during the Great War that their government had to pay rent to the French for the land the trenches were dug on." (p 123 - 124)
  • "A man can hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with tears in his eyes, then go outside and club someone with his rifle butt." (p 134)
  • "Man chooses ... though God disputes his right to it." (p 137)
  • "You can't bring back history. You can't remake the past ... You can't alter the present either, even though you know that one day that also will be history - from the viewpoint of the future." (p 141)
  • "Beware of the man who says no. He'll enslave you as he too has been enslaved. Look out for a man who continually shouts yes. He'll destroy you before doing away with himself." (p 188)

Too much speculation about truth but his sympathetic treatment of the working class and his angry perspective on the Great War make this a very valuable counter-blast to the complacent presumptions of today. Septmeber 2018; 189 pages

Thursday, 27 September 2018

"On writing" by Stephen King

Stephen King is the best selling American novelist of horror classics such as Carrie, Misery and The Shining; one of his stories became the film The Shawshank Redemption which is at the top of many people's list of all-time best movies. Although I have never read one of his books (I don't like horror as a genre) his success suggests that he is an excellent wordsmith. This book reinforces that belief.

Subtitled "A memoir of the craft” this book is indeed part memoir and part textbook. Thus, the introduction gives way to a substantial CV in which he describes his early life and how he tried to keep writing while married with two children and working all hours to afford food on the table, medicine when they were unwell and parts for the car. The final section, "On living" describes how he began writing again after a nearly fatal road accident. In between these parts "Toolbox" lists the things that a writer, any writer, needs to know (mostly things to avoid such as long words, the passive voice, and adverbs) while "On Writing" describes how he works from characters and a situation to create a story.

It is excellent.

In passing he also shows that he is a master of prose. I really ought to read at least some of his fiction.

A small selection of his brilliance:
  • "When you're six, most of your Bingo balls are still floating around in the draw-tank.” (p 17)
  • When you're still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.” (p 34)
  • When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story ... When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” (p 56)
  • Good writing can be simultaneously intoxicating and idea-driven. If stone sober people can fuck like they're out of their minds ... why shouldn't writers be able to go bonkers and still stay sane?” (p 65)
  • For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin.” (p 80)
  • I went to school with kids who wore the same neck dirt for months.” (p 85)
  • By then I was no longer within shouting distance of my right mind.” (p 107)
  • One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you are maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.” (p 129)
  • One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose.” (p 165)
  • If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” (p 168)
  • Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. the writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” (p 188)
  • No one is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the best friend’ or ‘the whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us baby.” (p 224)
  • I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones.” (p 324)
  • The scariest moment is always just before you start.” (p 325)
  • Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” (p 327)

Fabulous. September 2018; 327 pages

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

"A detail on the Burma front" by Winifred Beaumont

In 1943, during the Second World War, London nurse Winifred Beaumont, known as Beau, volunteered to join the Second Front. This book is a memoir of her training, her travel, and her time nursing in British-held Burma (now Myanmar).

It has some great moments, haggling and wheeler-dealing for essential supplies, travelling along jungle roads which have been washed away by heavy rain, dealing with tropical diseases, insects and reptiles, preventing soldiers from taking advantage, and, inevitably, putting on a concert. She writes well. It reminded me of that great sitcom MASH.

Great lines:

  • "Loss of free will meant also a loss of my sense of responsibility. Decisions and tomorrow belonged to authority. Today was mine. My spirits rose. I was light-hearted and light-headed. If I'd known how to whistle, I'd have whistled." (p 10)
  • "I stared at the dark, resentful sea. It rose in lascivious, spittle-flecked hillocks to seek out its prey" (p 15)
  • "The rain sluiced down our head and shoulders but our feet and the roadway remained dry. The ground was so hot it turned the rain to steam as it fell and we moved in a knee-high mist." (p 55)
  • "Disgrace, like smallpox, was an infection avoided by the wise." (p 61)
  • "Tall slender trees flanked the road on either side. They swayed slightly backwards, as if each had a foot poised to stamp across the road and obliterate man and all his works." (p 144)

Well worth a read. September 2016; 160 pages

Monday, 24 September 2018

"Jack: C S Lewis and his times" by George Sayer

This is a biography of C S Lewis. He was an almost lifelong university academic who was prolific in a number of fields:

  • He was a mediaevalist writing books such as The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love.
  • He was a Christian apologist, broadcasting very popular programmes on the wartime BBC radio and writing a number of books about Christianity including The Screwtape Letters. 
  • He wrote the science fiction trilogy: Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra; and That Hideous Strength
  • He wrote and had published books of poetry. His first book rose from his experiences as an officer in the trenches of World War One.
  • He wrote the best-selling children's books the Narnia series: The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe; The Magician's nephew; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver chair; The Horse and his boy; and The Last battle
  • He wrote an autobiography called Surprised by Joy
and more!

I have also read the biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper (which I think is slightly better than this one which is by one of his students who starts by recounting how he first met his new tutor, Mr Lewis, bumping into another academic called Tollers (J R R Tolkien) in the process!

The childhood of Clive 'Jack' Lewis was far from idyllic. He lost his mother at the age of ten and was sent from Belfast to a pre school where the head was a flogger; then to another prep school in Malvern and hence to Malvern College where he lasted a year before finally finding a school that suited him: a crammer in Great Bookham, Surrey where he translated Latin and Greek in the mornings and read widely in the afternoons.  Accepted by University College Oxford he couldn't go to the University because he couldn't pass the maths exam. He only got to Oxford because this exam was excused for officers who had served in the trenches during the First World War.

He was an incredible reader. During one holiday while at school he read “ Hawthorne, Aeschylus, Arnold Bennett, Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Bridges, Newman’s Apologia, Catullus, Herrick, Apollonius, Maeterlinck, Sir Thomas More, Tennyson, Mangan, and several other writers” (p 63)

He had a highly sexual side. He was an early masturbator and, as a teenager, has sado-masochistic fantasies. “Throughout his life he loved to go skinny-dipping.” (p 67) His mythic poem Dymer contains “one of the most vivid orgies of sexual temptation in the whole of English poetry. there are preying fingertips, warm mouths, rolling breasts; shaggy satyrs, devil dancers, and the incessant beating of a drum.” (p 126) He lived for years with the mother of a friend who had been killed in World War One and this relationship always seemed a little strange. He couldn't marry until this woman had died. But when he married (by civil ceremony) a divorced American, at first it was purely to help her stay in the UK; he didn't love her and they failed to consummate the marriage. After she developed cancer his affection grew and he found a way to marry her in the church (because the husband who had divorced her had previously been divorced himself he held that her marriage had never been a real marriage and that therefore she wasn't a real divorcee) they started having sex.

He was significantly conservative. In his inaugural lecture in Cambridge he asserted that "the great divide in culture and civilization had taken place between the period of Jane Austen and the present day ... rulers had been replaced by leaders .... the decline of Christian belief had cut us off from the past ... [and] the machine ... gives us a new myth - that the new is better." (p 218)

He became a famous Christian propagandist but he had ten early years of atheism. His first book of poetry “is not the work of an atheist, but a Manichee, a believer in dualism” (p 81)

Great lines:

  • The nature of the future: Is it like a line that you can't see or a line that is not yet drawn?” (p 27)
  • Many years later, he enjoyed the novels of ... Mary Renault, especially The Last of the Wine.”(p 28)
  • Loki Bound, an early libretto had a form that was “strictly Aristotelian, with a prologos, a parados, three episodes, and an exodos. ... Loki is proud, defiant, scornful, self-righteous, coming, and resourceful ... He covers up his real character and motives with a mask of hypocrisy. when alone, he sometimes shows his real feelings in outbursts of angry cursing.” (p 59)
  • Bleheris, an early story, includes a character who is “a handsome young man with half-closed eyes who seems to dream of some old sad memory.” (p 59) The heroes “find moored to a rose bush in an autumnal place a little boat ... that will take them to Yesterday.” When the hero is stuck in quicksand the rose bush rescues: it “put its arms around him and drew him back, in the process burying some thorns in his arms.” (p 60)
  • "He never lost his sense of humour. ... [when] he had to go ... for blood transfusions, he wrote: 'For the first time I feel some sympathy with Dracula. He must have led a miserable life'." (p 245)
  • The trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges your letters and so, in time, you come to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got his address wrong.” (p 92)
  • An educational career is a school of hypocrisy in which you spend your life teaching others observances which you have rejected yourself.” (p 95)

An interesting biography about a fascinating man. September 2018; 252 pages