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

Sunday, 18 March 2018

"The End of Everything" by Megan Abbott

Lizzie and Evie are best friends growing up and experiencing the hormones of puberty that have started to make them see boys as more than nuisances. They share everything. So Lizzie thinks. Till Evie disappears.

Lizzie turns into the key witness. She identifies the car she saw and she knows who drives it, the father of a school friend; he too has disappeared. She finds the cigarettes he smoked as he was stalking Evie. She even breaks into the Shaw house to search for evidence the police haven't found.

Lizzie's amateur sleuthing stretched credibility. Were the police really so stupid firstly to believe Lizzie's often improbable lies which could so easily have been checked and secondly not to be a little more observant of the perpetrator's wife? And could we really believe that a thirteen year old girl, often clad in little more than a tee shirt and knickers, could spend so many nights roaming around a neighbourhood in lockdown after an abduction? Lizzie's mother seems repeatedly negligent and Evie's mother is almost a complete non-entity as is  Mrs Shaw; mature women in this story are faintly drawn to the point of invisibility.

At the same time she is always around Evie's house, comforting her father in a relationship which, from Lizzie's point of view although she does not necessarily recognise it, is swiftly developing into love. And there is the complicating factor of Evie's elder sister Dusty, the one that all the teenage boyts adore, the one who ought to be abducted if anyone is.

Told from Lizzie's point of view this is an interesting exploration of the love between young girls and older men. Lizzie's feelings were intense and sometimes slightly repetitive but always kept away from melodrama. The feelings of the other characters, which the narrator had to surmise from their words and actions, sometimes reaching different conclusions from the immature protagonist, were drawn with deftness and subtlety. At the end the precise natures of the relationships between Dusty and Evie and their father, and the feelings of Evie's dad for Lizzie, are always open to alternative interpretations.

  • "We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time." (p 27)
  • "It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time." (p 27)
  • "An old velvet poster that said 'Mott the Hoople', which I always thought was a Dr Seuss book." (p 70)
  • "The awkward slouch of boys who grew so fast they themselves seemed bewildered by it, faintly dazed in their own skin." (p 73)
  • "You can't ever know anyone's private darkness." (p 148)
A haunting exploration of the feelings of a newly pubescent girl. March 2018; 246 pages

Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Snow Kimono" by Mark Henshaw

A retired Parisian police inspector, Jovert, meets the retired Japanese professor who lives in the room underneath, Tadashi Omura. This man tells him about the daughter who was never his but whom he raised, the daughter who went off to meet her father when her father was released from jail. The father, once a brilliant novelist Katsuo, was Omura's childhood friend. And Omura tells of their lives and of the women Katsuo loved. It all got rather complicated.

And at the same time Jovert has been contacted by a woman claiming to be his daughter, born to him in Algeria after he had left the country, where he did secret work during the time of French colonial rule. And there are a number of women who impinge on Jovert's life.

All these stories are woven together like a Japanese jigsaw. "They are the so-called himitsu-e puzzles, puzzles so cunningly made that they either have an infinite number of solutions or solutions which are mutually contradictory." (p 44) This tapestry made with simple threads of haiku-like simplicity.

Of English jigsaw puzzles:

  • "No matter where you start ... you always end up in the same place. And you always know beforehand." (p 46)
  • "There's another way of looking at it ... it doesn't matter where you start, if you keep going, you will always find completion. What is important is that you start." (p 46)

Other memorable lines:

  • "If you want power over people, you have to go inside them, find out what they are afraid of. Be them." (pp 84 - 85)
  • "You-are-just-a-footnote, he said. A footnote. To-my-life. You-are-a-nothing, a zero, a meaningless cipher. He spat the words out. You're what happens when history blinks. Don't you see? You don't exist. Except as a function of me." (p 145)
  • "How many times have they sat on the terrace at night looking down at the jewelled city, or in the darkness of the lit garden, listening to the frogs, the slow tock, tock, tock of the water clock, the strings of a shamisen?" (p 192) I love the contradiction in the darkness of the lit garden.

A strange but compelling story. March 2018; 400 pages

Sunday, 11 March 2018

"Generation X" by Douglas Coupland

Belated teenage angst is to the fore in these three characters: Dag, Andy and Claire, who live in bungalows around a swimming pool in Palm Springs, California, paying the bills by tending bar. They could have been yuppies but they have turned their backs on all that for the sake of authenticity. And their parents don't understand them.

Three twenty somethings have dropped out of “The endless stream of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause" (p 14) to tend bar and live in a Californian bungalow with a swimming pool. The problem is that their previous lives were meaningless but there isn't a lot more meaning in this one. They hate their consumerist society but they love the good things that money brings: "I sat there and babbled and ate the food, which, I must say, was truly delicious: a celery root remoulade and John Dory fish in Pernod sauce.

Perhaps it was intended to be a Decameron: posh people fleeing from the plague of consumerist nihilism tell stories to one another in the desert. But who wants to listen to the whinges of the spoiled?

I felt:
  • (a) they were a bit old for teenage angst
  • (b) they were fake and false and spoiled! (I sound so old!!!!) 
It is as if life isn't worth living but she is still going to floss.

It was all just a little bit too comfortable. They are not struggling to make ends meet; Andy flies home for Christmas. They work and they party. Perhaps this is a pattern in American tales of troubled youngsters. Holden Caulfield, a genuine teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, might be lonely and depressed and haunted by the sense that everything is false but he goes to private school, stays in a hotel in New York, rides around in cabs, goes to restaurants. Suicidal Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People has a rich lawyer father who gives him a car for his birthday. Perhaps only rich Americans have the time to spare for angst.

There were many moments of beautiful writing (“This is the same sun that makes me think of regal tangerines and dimwitted butterflies and lazy carp. And the ecstatic drops of pomegranate blood seeping from skin fissures of fruits rotting on the tree branch next door - drops that hang like rubies.”, p 10) and many more moments that really made you think:
  • Most of us only have two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives, the rest is filler, and that at the end of our lives, most of us will be lucky if any of those moments connect together to form a story that anyone would find remotely interesting.” (p 29)
  • Marketing is essentially about feeding the poop back to diners fast enough to make them think they’re still getting real food. It’s not creation, really, but theft, and no one ever feels good about stealing.” (p 33)
  • After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of Earth? ... What’s your takeaway?”(p 104)
  • I had a quick Scotch to grab a buzz.” (p 115)
  • My friends are all either married, boring, and depressed; single, bored , and depressed; or moved out of town to avoid boredom and depression.” (p 166)
  • When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality.” (p 166)
  • The only times I’ll ever get” (p 175)
  • We’re all lapdogs; I just happen to know who’s petting me.” (p 185)
  • But hey - if more people like you choose not to play the game, it’s easier for people like me to win.” (p 185)
It made me long for the days when Americans really dropped out, like the works of the immortal Jack Kerouac (On the Road etc)

But the best thing about it was at the bottom of every page there was either a bumper-sticker style slogan or a definition of a Generation X word such as “Hyperkarma: A deeply rooted belief that punishment will somehow always be far greater than the crime.

Many thanks to Danny and Mary who bought me this book as a gift.

March 2018; 208 pages

Thursday, 8 March 2018

"The Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry

I have recently read Barry's Days Without End and so enjoyed it that I wanted to read another by the same author. This came highly recommended and was the Costa Book of the Year in 2008. It has the same structure: a rather rambling account of the vicissitudes of a life; just as you think you're going nowhere all the threads begin to come together and there is an exciting climax. And it has moments of exquisitely beautiful prose in which he encapsulates ideas and images with startling originality:

  • "We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.
  • "She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work."
  • "I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” 
  • Grief "is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back."

Lines such as these make me breathless with wonder.

Roseanne, once the most beautiful girl in Sligo, is one hundred years old and still with all her marbles and living in a decaying asylum in Roscommon. Dr Grene is the psychiatrist in charge and it is his responsibility to decide what is to happen to her: the asylum is closing down and the inmates are either moving to a brand new facility or being freed into the community with varying degrees of support. Dr Grene is further concerned that Roseanne's original incarceration might have been for reasons that nowadays no longer qualify as lunacy. There is a strong suspicion that she was locked up for her loose morals.

The narrative alternates between the autobiography that Roseanne is writing and hiding beneath her floorboards and Dr Grene's diary. The main thrust of the story, interrupted by Dr Grene's witterings, is Roseanne's life from being the daughter of the Sligo grave digger through to her marriage and beyond until she is admitted to the Sligo Mad House. The men in Roseanne's life include Presbyterians and Catholics, priests and policemen, and every shade of political opinion in an Ireland experiencing the civil war just after the Free State won independence from Britain, the backlash after the civil war as the de Valera government asserted control, the hard economic conditions and the fascist movements of the thirties and the neutrality of the Second World War. In many ways the turbulence of Roseanne's life mirrors the political turbulence of the young nation.

The prose can be awe-inspiring and insightful. This is from the first page:
That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.
There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, ohl and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.
(p 3)
What a start!

More moments of brilliance:
  • I was not indifferent to the boys ... I seem to remember thinking a sort of music rose from them, a sort of human noise that I did not understand. How I heard music arising from such rough forms I do not know at this distance. But such is the magicianship of girls, that they can transform mere clay into large and classic ideas.” (p 36) 
  • Such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.” (p 38)
  • As time goes on, as I am slowly like everyone else worn out, finding a tatter here and a tear there in the cloth of myself, I need this place more and more.” (p 46)
  • The trust of those in dark need is forgiving work” (p 46)
  • In a few years I will reach retirement age, and what then? I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” (p 46) 
  • For the life of me I did not know the soul of the person that stared back at me in my mother's mossy little mirror.” (p 57)
  • the devil's own tragedy is he is the author of nothing and architect of empty spaces.” (p 63)
  • She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.” (p 68)
  • A beard on a man is only a way of hiding something, his face of course. but also the inner matters, like a hedge around a secret garden, or a cover over a birdcage.” (p 102)
  • It is always worth itemising happiness, There is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can.” (p 148)
  • There are pits of grief obviously that only the grieving know. It is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back.” (p 172) 
  • We bury or burn the dead because we want to separate their corporeality from our love and remembrance. We do not want them after death to be still in their bedrooms, we want to hold an image of them living, in the full life in our minds.” (p 175)
  • We are never old to ourselves. This is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” (p 185)
  • The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them. ... We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.” (p 186)
  • “I once lived among humankind, and found them in the generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels.” (p 277)
  • Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” (p 289)
March 2018; 303 pages

Saturday, 3 March 2018

"Periplous" by Lesley Saunders

This is a single poem in twelve linked sections. It is poetic recreation of the lost account of the Greek explorer Pytheas from Marseilles who supposedly circumnavigated the British Isles in c325 BCE.

A periplous is a sort of navigational log which lists the landmarks and safe anchorages so that subsequent sailors can find their way.

Each section has five stanzas; each stanza contains six lines of indeterminate syllable count and no discernible rhyming scheme. There is a final single line at the end of the poem which (I think) links with the theme of the next section.

The punctuation is as prose. There are no capitals at the start of the line unless it coincides with the start of a sentence. There is plenty of enjambment, including running the sentence on to the next stanza.

The poet seems to rely on juxtaposing images. One moment we are talking about "a woman washing/ another woman's hair in a pail" and the next "the psychogeography of rapefields/ and scythe-wheeled clearings".  In the section about Slavery we have a list of "POWs from Scythia Phrygia Lydia/ Syria Illyria", slavery in the classical world, and then we jump to "Ghana Guinea Benin" African slavery. In "Imagining Albion" we leap from the Greek philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes to a British twentieth century seaside resort.

She also mixes in sources from here, there and everywhere. Her three wrecked ships are the vessel that perhaps inspired Shakespeare's Tempest to the ship in Moby-Dick to one of Vasco da Gama's ships. So fact and fiction, muddled. She takes snippets of Latin poetry and Greek poetry and Portuguese songs and a Carol King song and Sloop John B and lines from an Anglo-Saxon poem ... If the source is originally written in a foreign language she preserves that. At least she usually gives the translation in the Notes. It reads like an attempt to rewrite The Waste Land

Regular readers of this blog know how this infuriates me. I think writing, whether prose or poetry, should be an attempt to communicate with the reader, not a display of the writer's erudition. There were a lot of things I had to look up when I was reading this poem.

Lines I liked:
... the candle-end

of a soul. I wept then
for the spent match of my life.

A reference to slaves as "floggable goods

Out there alone, I swam alone,

no friends, lovers,
it felt as if I were part of the ocean.” 

... little despot-god

of rainbows and tsunamis
Let’s make a songbook of the drowned

The last line is
O did you ever see a wild goose sailin’ o’er the sea” 
Which is, I suppose, the poet teasing us that we have been on a wild goose chase.

Hard work.

March 2018; 29 pages

Friday, 2 March 2018

"The Seagull" by Ann Cleves

A disgraced, imprisoned ex-detective superintendent tells detective inspector Vera about a buried body. Vera and her team start to uncover the shady past of The Seagull, once Whitley Bay's premier nightclub, and the dodgy pasts of those associated with her, including Vera's own father and the mysterious man they called 'The Prof'.

Prostitutes, prisoners and property developers. A page-turner of a police procedural crime novel set in the North East of England and featuring Vera Stanhope.

Great line:

  • "The sunrise made an orange path over the water towards them." (p 112)

March 2018; 397 pages

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

"Things fall apart" by Chinua Achebe

This is the classic story of Nigerian village life. Parts one and two are in the years before colonial rule. In part three there is friction as the Christian missionaries arrive and, soon after, the colonial police.

But is it really about that? Or is it about Okonkwo? The story traces his life. As a young man he is a famous wrestler and a three-wived farmer who strives as hard as he can to eradicate the memory of his father who was a lazy man and a musician. Okonkwo is man as macho as they make. He conforms to the customs of the tribe; his ambition is to be one of the big men. But somehow, things never quite go right for him. There is one dreadful season when his crops fail. He has problems with sons and daughters. He is forced to move his family away from his village. And in the end, of course, the rapid social changes engulf him and, for him at least, things fall apart.

It is a fascinating and tender portrait of village life. People are people. There is a lovely moment when a young girl is crying because she has broken a water pot and her mother promises to buy her a new one. What the mother doesn't know is that when the pot fell and broke the girl giggled but then decided she had to pretend to cry or she'd get into trouble. There are many little details like this.

It feels as real as it can be. This means that it doesn't seem to be guided by any message. Things just happen, one after another. In western story-telling conventions, the wicked deed that Okonkwo does would be the cause of his tragedy, like in Macbeth (though without the wifely influence). But in this story the retribution is left to the Gods, as in Greek stories. This means that the bad things that happen to Okonkwo, which come after he has done something bad, seem to be the result of bad luck. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps a secular European like myself cannot hope to understand that it is the gods who are exacting revenge.

I also expected that there would be a greater contrast between the innocent villagers and the terrible effects of white society. It is true that the Nigerian village life seems ordered and settled; there is no suggestion that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. The only mistake the villagers make is in being too nice when the missionaries arrive to build their church. But there are many ways in which one can see the arrival of colonial society is an improvement. It brings trade and this brings wealth. The first people recruited by the church are those who, seemingly through no fault of their own, are outcasts from village society; it also rescues the newborn twins who are traditionally abandoned in the forest. There is a great deal of superstition in the village, much seems pointless and some malevolent. The society is very heavily patriarchal and women have a very subordinate role. Of course I am judging all these things from my own encultured and limited viewpoint. Nevertheless, to this reader it made the apparent arbitrariness of the plot more forced.

Perhaps this isn't really a novel, more an ethnography.

Many of the great lines seem to be proverbs and “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (p 6):

  • He always said that whenever he saw a dead man's mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one lifetime.” (p 4)
  • the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.” (p 7)
  • the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” (p 20)
  • you will never hear. You grew your ears for decoration, not for hearing.” (p 62)
  • a man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.” (p 107)
  • it was like beginning life anew without the vigour and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age.” (p 114)
  • what is good among one people is an abomination with others.” (p 123)
  • Never make an early morning appointment with a man who has just married a new wife.” (p 124)
  • The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.” (p 129)
  • When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing.” (p 140)
  • when he stood or walked his heels came together and his feet up opened outwards as if they had quarreled and meant to go in different directions.” (p 163)
February 2018; 183 pages

Monday, 26 February 2018

"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare

I saw Hamlet performed by the RSC in Stratford on 30th July 2013.

I also saw Hamlet performed by a different RSC cast in Northampton on 3rd March 2018 starring Paapa Essiedu as the Prince. It sought to make itself distinctive with the addition of African drum music to a production featuring a mainly black cast; they updated the weaponry to pistols so Hamlet shot Polonius but you can't have that with the complicated poisoned rapier sword play bit at the end and so they used fighting sticks one of which converted into a poisoned dagger stick. Complicated. Otherwise it was a faithful rendition of the play. The lead was stunningly good and Polonius and Claudius turned in strong performances.

Literary taste has its fashions: at the moment Hamlet is regarded as Shakespeare's masterpiece. It was his longest play and is rarely performed to its full length.

It was probably written between late autumn of 1599 and early February 1601 though there were probably additions made afterwards. It was almost certainly written after Julius Caesar (late summer 1599) because there is an 'in' joke about JC.

Dramatic devices
One thing that Shakespeare was particularly brilliant at is fracturing his own verse in order to convey the fractured thoughts of the character beset by emotions. Thus Hamlet's speech in Act One Scene 5 when the Ghost has just revealed to him that his mother has killed the man (his uncle) who murdered his father is full of shortened lines, caesuras, non-sequiturs as he tries to express his anger. This reminded me of the speech in Act One of The Winter's Tale in which King Leontes decides that his wife is having an affair with his best friend.

Another dramatic device which Shakespeare uses so well is the moments of comedy to interrupt tense moments. |At the end of Act Four Claudius has laid his plans to murder Hamlet and Gertrude has announced that Ophelia has killed herself. Act Five starts with a couple of clowns cracking jokes as they dig a grave. Of course the ultimate use of this device is in Macbeth where the King has just been murdered when we hear knocking which turns out to be a knock on the Castle gate which is answered by a comic gateman, drunk and pretending to be Hell's Porter, in the only laugh in the whole play.

Yet another dramatic device that Shakespeare used to great effect (he was a half decent playwright) is the use of alternative plots to contrast with the main plot. For example: Hamlet considers suicide, Ophelia kills herself; Hamlet pretends to go mad, Ophelia actually goes mad; Hamlet seeks revenge on the man who killed his father, Laertes seeks revenge on the man who killed his father. This intertwining of the two families is like the mixing up of King Lear's personal tragedy, betrayed by daughters, with Gloucester's tragedy, betrayed by a son.

Pretending. Hamlet pretends to go mad. The King betrays himself by his reaction to a play (The Mousetrap) which is only pretence.

Equality of rank. This play ends with the death of the hero Hamlet on stage. Except that it actually ends with the news that, off stage, two bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. This, with the graveyard scene at the beginning of this act, seems to be Shakespeare saying, as Hamlet has already asserted, in death we are all the same.

A summary of the plot: (beware spoilers!)

Act One
Scene 1: on the castle battlements

Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio relieve Francisco from sentry duty. On previous nights B & M have seen a ghost on the battlements but H doesn’t believe them so he has come to see for himself.

The ghost enters and H recognises it as the recently deceased King Hamlet. He calls on it to speak but it stays silent. They agree to tell young Prince Hamlet.

Horatio reviews the political situation. Old King H defeated Fortinbras of Norway in battle and so claimed all his lands. Young Fortinbras has “sharked up a list of landless resolutes” (raised an army of unpropertied desperadoes) to try to win his inheritance back.

Scene 2: Claudius in court

Claudius explains that, following “our dear brother’s death” he has married the Queen. He sends ambassadors to the King of Norway, uncle to young Fortinbras, to suppress F.

Laertes asks to be allowed to return to France; Polonius his dad agrees so C approves this.

Claudius asks young Prince Hamlet why he is still so gloomy.

Gertrude points out that “all that lives must die” and asks why Hamlet seems to be upset about this. Hamlet takes the word ‘seems’ and says that his black clothes and his sighing and his crying (“the fruitful river in the eye”) and his sad face, all these are ‘seems’ but he is sad inside.

Claudius points out that all dads die. He then tells Hamlet that he isn’t allowed to return to Wittenberg. Gertrude reinforces this and Hamlet promises to obey her (by implication, not the King).

They all go. Then Hamlet, left alone on stage, delivers his first (and best?) soliloquy:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.

He continues, in fractured sentences, to speak about the contrast between his beloved hero dad and Claudius and the haste with which Gertrude (“frailty, thy name is woman”) married with his dad “but two months dead - nay not so much ... within a month ... A little month ...within a month ... O most wicked speed ...

He concludes: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue

Horatio (a friend from Wittenberg), Marcellus, and Barnardo, arrive. Hamlet remembers his dad:

He was a man. Take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.”

at which point Horatio says “I think I saw him yesternight” and they tell H about the Ghost and H resolves to see the Ghost “tonight”.

Scene 3: The other family

Laertes is taking his leave of his sister Ophelia. He warns her that Hamlet’s love may be but “the trifling of his favour” and that even if he is serious he can’t expect to be allowed to marry whom he pleases because he is royal. So Ophelia must take care not to become dishonoured.

Be wary then; best safety lies in fear;
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.”

OK, says Ophelia, but don’t you, brother, be a rake:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”

Polonius, dad to L & O arrives to send L off with a whole host of sayings encapsulating fatherly advice:

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.
For the apparel oft proclaims the man
Neither a borrower nor a lender be

Laertes goes and Polonius quizzes his daughter about Hamlet’s intentions, pointing out that she must be careful not to be seduced.

Scene 4: The battlements again

To the background of a party enjoyed by Claudius, Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio meet the Ghost. The Ghost beckons Hamlet and Hamlet, despite the warnings of the other two, follows it offstage.

Scene 5: The Ghost and Hamlet

The Ghost is soon to go to Hell; Hamlet says “Alas, poor ghost!

The Ghost tells H that he is

Doomed for a certain time to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

He tells Hamlet that H must

Revenge his [father’s] foul and most unnatural murder.

The people were told that old Hamlet had been stung by a serpent while sleeping in his orchard but

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.

He goes on to explain that Claudius poured poison in his ear while he slept.

Hamlet, speaking after the Ghost has gone, is much affected. He speaks in fractured lines, indicative of his stress:
...Yes, yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables,
My tables - meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Horatio and Marcellus, seeking Hamlet, find him. They ask him what has happened but he replies in “wild and whirling words”. He seems to be concerned that if he tells them what the Ghost has said they will reveal it and he makes them swear upon his sword (and the Ghost cries out to them from underground “swear”) that if they see him pretending to be mad (“How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself”) they shall not give him away even by shaking their heads or pronouncing an ambiguous remark.

Act Two
Scene 1: Polonius and Reynoldo

P long-windedly instructs R to go to Paris to check up on P’s son Laertes; he tells R to pretend Laertes is a bit of a wild boy to see if the friends take the bait and acknowledge L’s naughtinesses. P spying on his son will be mirrored by Claudius asking R&G to spy on Hamlet; the deception P is using will also be mirrored.

R goes and Ophelia enters and says that Hamlet has been behaving strangely. Polonius assumes that H is mad with love for O. He goes to tell the King.

Scene 2: Claudius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

C tells R & G that H has been behaving strangely. And, reflecting P’s address to R in the last scene, he asks them to befriend H and report back to C so that C can help to remedy the malady. They agree.

P tells C that he knows the cause of H’s strange behaviour. But first C has to talk the the ambassador back from Norway with good news: the King has pensioned Fortinbras and sent him to fight the Poles.

Now Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet is mad. Very long-windedly he explains that Hamlet has professed love for Ophelia and she has rebuffed him and this is why he is mad. To prove it he proposes that Claudius and Polonius hide behind a curtain while Hamlet is taking a walk and eavesdrop on his thinking aloud.

Now Hamlet enters and talks to Polonius. Suddenly he is talking in prose. This is a famous speech. H says things that can be interpreted as madness but can also be interpreted as profundities.

Polonius leaves and R&G enter. Hamlet continues to talk in double meanings. He persuades R&G to tell him that they were sent for by the King and he tells them that it is himself, Hamlet, who is being spied upon because he has “of late ... lost all my mirth”. “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, ... And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me ...” Which is a shame, says Rosencrantz, because they have met some actors and sent them to entertain Hamlet. Hamlet quizzes RG carefully about the actors and, when they arrive, welcomes them, but when Polonius returns Hamlet plays his madness again.

Now Hamlet barters speeches (about Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, killing Priam as Troy is being sacked; there is a parallel here with Hamlet, as son of a great warrior, killing a King) with the actors, whom he has met before (presumably in Wittenberg).

Dismissing the actors, who leave with Polonius, he detains the First Player and asks him to perform The Murder of Gonzago with an additional sixteen lines which Hamlet will write to be inserted.

Hamlet is alone. He reflects aloud on what he has been thinking. Isn’t it odd that an actor can simulate a feeling and make others feel it too?

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his whole conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Cheers in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing.
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

And, after berating himself for cowardice, continues:

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.

He intends to get the players to re-enact the Ghost’s version of his murder and Hamlet will watch the King closely to see if he betrays himself. Then H will know that the Ghost spoke the truth.

Act Three
Scene 1: The soliloquy!

Claudius and Gertrude are quizzing Polonius and Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet’s “confusion” or “lunacy”. R&G can’t be sure if he is mad or cunning. They mention the proposed play and Claudius agrees to watch it. Gertrude exits and Claudius and Polonius hide so they can spy on Hamlet talking to Ophelia.

Hamlet, thinking himself alone, ponders suicide:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

He notices Ophelia and tells himself to shut up. When she tries to return the tokens of love that he sent her before he denies he ever loved her and, with riddling arguments, suggests that all men are sinners and women should breed no more such.

He goes and Ophelia is distraught that her beloved Hamlet has gone, as she thinks, mad.

But Claudius, emerging for hiding, thinks that Hamlet is not so much mad as dangerous and proposes sending Hamlet to England so that sea air or travel might mend his brain.

Scene 2: The play

Hamlet carefully instructs the players how to enact the play. He instructs Horatio to watch Claudius carefully during the play; if Claudius does not give himself away during the speech Hamlet has inserted then the Ghost has been lying.

The court watch the play, Hamlet sitting next to Ophelia and making a number of innuendoes. Claudius does indeed give himself away.

After, as Hamlet discusses the play with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to tell him that Gertrude wants to speak to him.

Scene 3: Claudius

Claudius is furious. He decrees that Hamlet will be sent, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to England.

Polonius tells Claudius that he will hide behind the curtain to eavesdrop on Hamlet with Gertrude.

Claudius, left alone, prays:

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t -
A brother’s murder

As he kneels Hamlet tiptoes in. He draws his sword. He could kill Claudius here and now. But if he kills C while C is praying, C will go straight to Heaven and that wouldn’t avenge his father, currently in Hell. So he leaves.

Scene 4: The stabbing of Polonius

Gertrude talks to Hamlet while Polonius hides behind the arras curtain. Gertrude, feeling threatened by her son, calls for Help and the hidden Polonius takes up the cry. Hamlet stabs the curtain and kills Polonius (although H thinks it might be Claudius).

Hamlet tells Gertrude what he knows and Gertrude is ashamed for marrying her husband;’s brother. The Ghost returns, visible only to Hamlet, and Gertrude thinks her son is mad.

But he enjoins her again not to sleep with his uncle any more and, reminding her that he has been sent to England, leaves, dragging the body of Polonius after him.

Act Four
Scene 1: C & G

Most unusually, Gertrude remains on stage from the end of Act 3 to the start of Act 4. Claudius enters to ask why she is upset and where is Hamlet? And she tells him her son is:

Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier.

which might be a way of telling (in a riddling way typical of her son) that there is a royal battle on here. Then she tells Claudius that H has killed Polonius.

Claudius realises that Hamlet is a threat (C himself might have been behind that curtain) “To you yourself, to us, to everyone” and tells R&G to find the body.

Scene 2:

R&G ask H where the body is but he won’t say.

Scene 3:

Claudius has a problem: Hamlet should be punished but

He’s loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgement but their eyes

so he has to get rid of H. He sends H to England with a secret letter telling the English to put H to death.

Scene 4: Fortinbras

Fortinbras sends a messenger to Claudius to seek safe conduct for his army.

Scene 5: Ophelia’s mad scene

Horatio is telling Gertrude that Ophelia has gone mad. And O herself crosses the strange, singing snatches of ballads, being mad.

Claudius lists their troubles. Polonius is dead and was buried in secret, which was “done but greenly”. And Laertes has come from France and got a rabble backing him.

Laertes breaks in at the head of the mob, demanding to know what happened to his father. Claudius prevaricates. Ophelia returns, singing mad songs. Laertes is distressed and Claudius promises him justice.

Scene 6: The letter about the pirates.

Sailors bring Horatio a letter in which Hamet says he has been captured by pirates.

Scene 7: C &L plot to kill H

Claudius explains himself to Laertes.

A messenger comes from Hamlet. C is surprised. Hamlet is back in Denmark.

Claudius proposes that they get Hamlet and Laertes to have a swordfight. Laertes proposes that he puts poison on the tip of his sword so that Hamlet will be killed if L even scratches him. Claudius proposes putting poison into a drink in case H escapes the scratch.

Gertrude enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned herself.

Act Five:
Scene 1: The graveyard

A couple of clowns, telling rubbish Shakespearean jokes, are digging Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet and Horatio arrive and Hamlet broods on death particularly when presented with Yorick’s skull. Hamlet realises that we all must die.

Ophelia’s funeral procession arrive. Hamlet, watching from the side, is shocked that Ophelia is dead.

Laertes leaps in the grave after his sister and tells them to fill it up. Hamlet leaps in after him. Laertes grabs Hamlet. Hamlet tells Laertes that his grief as boyfriend is greater than the grief of Laertes as brother.

Scene 2: Finale

Hamlet tells Horatio how, on board ship, he found the letter from Claudius to the King of England telling him to kill Hamlet. So Hamlet rewrote a new letter asking the King of England to put R&G to death. Then he escaped with the pirates.

Now Osric arrives and gives Hamlet the challenge: will he fight Laertes for a bet? Hamlet agrees though Horatio advises against.

The area is prepared for the fight.

Hamlet apologises to Laertes. But they are still going to fight.

As they are fighting Gertrude drinks out of the poisoned cup.

Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword. They scuffle. Rapiers are dropped and swapped. Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword.

Gertrude faints. She tells Hamlet she has been poisoned and dies.

Hamlet shouts:

O, villainy! Ho! Let the door be locked.
Treachery! Seek it out.

And Laertes replies

It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou are slain.
No med’cine in the world can do thee good.
In thee there is not half an hour of life.

And he reveals; “The King, the King’s to blame.”

Hamlet, being told that the sword point is poisoned, stabs Claudius and makes him drink from the poisoned cup. Claudius dies.

Hamlet, naming Fortinbras as his heir, dies. His last words: “the rest is silence

The English ambassador arrives to tell everyone that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead".

February 2017

Saturday, 24 February 2018

"Career of evil" by Robert Galbraith

This is the third novel following the adventures of one-legged private investigator Cameron Strike and his assistant soon-to-be-married Yorkshire lass Robin Ellacott. It maintains the down-to-earth tradition with many real details but this is less whodunnit and more dark thriller than the previous books. A woman's severed leg, addressed to Robin, arrives at the office. Strike quickly realises that this is a threat aimed at him and his business and decides that there are three men seeking vengeance on him. We plunge into the dreadful world of sex killers, drug addicts, pimps and paedophiles.

And the other plot continues the will she - won't she relationship between Robin and her fiance Matthew. The only thing Robin wants to do is work for Strike (how much does she fancy him?) She fears losing her job; when Strike puts her on the boring stuff to try and keep her safe from the predator stalking the streets she is afraid he will see her as more trouble than she's worth. But Matthew just wants her in a safer (and better paying) job. And he thinks she fancies Strike. Or Strike fancies her. Can this pair navigate the shoals and shallows of engagement all the way to the hymeneal altar?

In counterpoint we are given moments from the point of view of the perpetrator as he roams London, stalking Robin whom he wants to kill. And when he is frustrated he has the urge to find another woman, stab her to death in a sexual orgy of penetrative violence, and cut pieces from her as his trophies. And as he follows Robin the tension builds. Will she be his next victim?

Very visceral with some extraordinary scenes. Very, very dark.

Previous Strike books:

Some of my favourite lines:

  • "Mist lay in thick, soft layers like cobweb over the treetops." (p 198)
  • "He looked out upon the ghostly park and was transfixed by the effect of the rising sun on leafy branches arising from the sea of vapour. You could find beauty nearly anywhere if you stopped to look for it, but the battle to get through the days made it easy to forget that this totally cost-free luxury existed." (p 198)
  • "The dirty places of the capital where criminality, poverty and violence bred like bacteria" (p 248)
February 2018; 572 pages

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

"The Child Inside" by Suzanne Bugler

Rachel is Andrew's wife and mother of Jonathan; ten years ago she miscarried Jono's sister. The resultant grief has split her from Andrew; Jono has entered the angry and embarrassed and resentful stage of adolescence, exacerbated by the fact that he is now at a posh school and all the other parents seem so much cooler than his own: “He stands there, staring at his feet and wrestling with his demons” (p 4). Rachel's unresolved grief is tearing the tiny family apart

A chance meeting in Kew takes Rachel back to her teenage years when she went to parties hosted by the ultra-cool Vanessa; even then Rachel felt the outsider, observing the rich and smooth and lucky having fun, and when Vanessa died she was not invited to the funeral and took that as exclusion. Rachel always feels that she was the outsider: “I was just the one on the edge of things; the hanger-on.” (p 15); this is reinforced when she meets the the posh mothers of the boys at her son's new posh school: “People like me, and my family, should always stay in their place on the sidelines, on the outside, forever looking In, and longing. I hate myself for even trying. I hate myself that I should care.” (p 33) And, of course, trying so hard NOT to be the outsider (“I was the audience on the other side of the rope, reaching over.” p 118) she has scrimped to put her boy into the posh school, to join a world where he knows he doesn't really belong, so that he too is an outsider. This portrait of an adolescent boy from the outside is beautiful and cruel and heart-breaking: “I see his face flushed and petulant. He is tired. He wants to go home. Jonathan lives in a world where there is just himself to think about; just to his own wants and needs ... that I could be anything more than just his mother ... is unthinkable to Jonathan. That there could ever have been anything more to my life would never enter his head. It's just not possible.” (p 18)

Now Rachel obsessively  (in a rare moment of humour: “Andrew says I am obsessive. He says it all the time.” p 33) tries to reach back into the past, almost stalking the remaining members of Vanessa's family. She meets Vanessa's brother. Angry at her sterile life (“I am just a middle aged woman out of nowhere. I am what you become when you disappear.” p 53; “I am what I am: wife, mother, the springboard from which other people leap, the carpet on which they stand.” p 99) she embarks on an affair. An affair which of course she can justify, because of her anger and her misery: “I may have betrayed Andrew, but hasn’t he betrayed me too, in shutting me out, in driving me to this?” (p 166)

This is an almost perfect book. It is oh-so-ordinary life with all its pressures and agonies; it needs no more than that. It is built into a perfectly paced four-act structure. It builds into a nail-biting climax. Towards the end I was torn between not wanting to read any more because it was so terrible and not being able to stop reading.

And the last line is perfect too.

There were so many brilliant observations. Here are a few:

  • Andrew always accepts what I say without question, and I don't know if that is because he trusts me, or because he doesn't really care.” (p 19)
  • I picture myself inside an envelope; I tuck myself in, the sides, the bottom, the top. I fold myself away.” (p 20)
  • I am ashamed of myself for being ashamed.” (p 83)
  • every social interaction a weighing-up and a judgement, a laying-out of assets to be displayed.” (p 123)
  • When I met Andrew I knew that he was kind, honest, decent. I thought that I would be safe with him, but I know now that there is no such thing as safe; there is only fear and denial.” (p 128)
  • I think of the ones who survived and the ones who didn't, as though their teenage years were a sort of weeding-out process.” (p 145)
  • I am a hot from running, hot from Simon. I am wet from Simon. I sit there, looking like a housewife and feeling like a whore, with the wet of him still taking its time to seep out of me, and soak into my clothes.” (p 163)
  • And who am I, covering up what I have done with a bit of lipstick, when I have another man's scent - another man's bodily fluids, for heaven’s sake - still warm upon my skin?” (p 165)
  • I do not need to hear how lucky I am. I have heard it too often and it simply doesn't wash anymore. They are words to keep me down, that is all.” (p 222)
  • I start to cry; stupidly, useless and horribly noisily, in the confines of my small and functional bathroom. Andrew has left his bathrobe pegged on the hook beside the door. It hangs there like a slumped, dark shadow of a man; redundant and abandoned.” (p 277)

There are, of course, parallels between this story and that of Madame Bovary ...

February 2018; 343

Friday, 16 February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2018; 252 pages

"The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" by Arundhati Roy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your call.

February 2018; 437 pages

Saturday, 10 February 2018

"What Happened" by Hillary Rodham Clinton

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

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

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

Some interesting comments:

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

February 2018; 464 pages

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

"Artemisia" by Alexandra Lapierre

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favourite lines:

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

January 2018; 442 pages

Monday, 5 February 2018

"The Long Shadow" by Mark Mills

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

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

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

But there were some great lines:

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

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

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

"The fall of Troy" by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd is a prolific and talented writer of many works of fiction and many non-fiction books. Here are some that I have read, with links if they have been reviewed on this blog.

  • Hawksmoor: stunningly brilliant; spooky; dark
  • The Last testament of Oscar Wilde
  • Chatterton: flitting in between London 1770 and London 1856 this is a thoroughly enjoyable read about reality and forgery, plagiarism and originality, truth and lies
  • The House of Doctor Dee: a timeshifting novel that didn't quite work for me
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
  • The Lambs of London: very enjoyable with some beautifully subtle dialogue
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein: an interesting conceit but rather heavy going though with a nice twist at the end.
  • Milton in America: a strange but fun account of the great man travelling.

Non fiction:
  • Thames: an immense tome: great as reference but not to read (there are several pages just listing all the St Mary's churches on the banks of the Thames!)
  • Dickens: a superb biography
  • Blake: an immensely thorough yet at the same time readable and indeed enjoyable biography
  • Chaucer
  • Wilkie Collins: a brilliant bijou biography
  • Newton

The central character of this novel.is Herr Oberman, a famous archaeologist who has made a fortune as a merchant and now is spending it on his passion, trying to prove that the site he is excavating is Homeric Troy. But his methods allow for no alternative interpretations of the evidence and if you doubt his word, even when it is evident that he is lying, things happen. Thus, when an American archaeologist disputes his dating and attacks his methods the man sickens and dies and his body is disposed of without investigation. And when an English paleographer discovers inscriptions that prove that the inhabitants of this city wrote in a pre-Greek script the young man is in peril.

A bit of a slow burner. The character of Oberman, a compelling and dangerous fantasist, drives the story. As it progresses he dominates more and more. He even browbeats the authorities into accepting as unfortunate a suspicious death. Soon we are convinced that anyone who stands in the way of his monomaniacal vision of the truth will be destroyed. And so by the end of this book I was hooked by the incredibly exciting question of whether Oberman's young wife, the protagonist, would be killed by this man who was being revealed as a psychopath. Intrigue at the start turned into unputdownability.

Some great lines:

  • "What is truth?
    • I can't answer that. But I do know what is false." (p 84)
  • "The universe is a chameleon?" (p 135)

Brilliant and, by the end, a real page-turner. January 2018; 215 pages

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

"Days without end" by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty leaves famine torn Ireland for America where he and another boy, handsome John Cole, become dancers in a saloon bar before joining the U.S. Cavalry to fight against Indians. They also become lovers. This last fact is given with extraordinary subtlety with a simple paragraph on page 33 "And then we quietly fucked and then we slept." How fabulously matter of fact.

Narrated by Thomas, this is a gay love story set against the background of the endless prairies of the wild west and the killing grounds of the American Civil War.

And there is extraordinary language and extraordinary descriptions which paint the prairies with vivid and original colours and explore the puzzlement of what it means to be a human. The quotes that follow are a poor selection:

  • "Children may seem epic and large to theyselves and yet be only scraps to view." (p 5)
  • "He was beginning to give giraffes a run for their money, height-wise." (p 14)
  • "pride is the fool's breakfast." (p 31)
  • "Some brave bugler bugled reveille but damn it we were all reveilled by then." (p 49)
  • "You coulda used John Cole for a pencil if you coulda threaded some lead through him." (p 55)
  • "Soldiers coming out of winter have those swimming rheumy eyes of drinkers. Their skins is pale from poor eats." (p 82)
  • "Here was the sockdolager of goddamned feminine mystery." (p 87)
  • "A man's memory might only have a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands." (p 88)
  • "The bow is drawn back and the bowman tries to hold it as taut as he can and then when he is satisfied with the position of his prey he can let the arrow loose. There is a fierce strange moment when the arm can no longer hold the pulled string, and nothing will do but to let it fly, so the bowman must know all the staging posts of his task, or make a bloody hames of it." (p 91)
  • "He never said a thing that wasn't pickled with cusses." (p 92)
  • "That he was a filthy bad singer I have said before ... I do pray that in heaven the singing will be confined to the angels." (p 93)
  • "God's work! Silence so great it hurts your ears, colour so bright it hurts your staring eyes. A vicious ruined class of man could cry at such scenes because it seems to tell him that his life is not approved. The remnant of innocence burns in his breast like a ember of the very sun." (p 94 - 95)
  • "the horses got to be quiet which ain't always in the rulebook of horses." (p 96)
  • "Our suppers greatly desire to travel back up our throats." (p 131)
  • "in a bad mood they might knock you down and stomp on your head till they feel better but you won't." (p 148)
  • "Small man wouldn't be much good for fighting but he good for tightening those screws that start to come loose on the engine of a man when he's facing God knows what." (p 151)
  • "Some bombs fall so low they want a path through us too and many fall in our lines as a missile forges a bloody ditch through living men." (p 155)
  • "A frantic weariness infects our bones." (p 155)
  • "You're belching and the food comes up your gullet like it wants to say hello to the world again." (p 165)
  • "The first cousin of an order is chaos." (p 165)
  • "Beauty lives in the faces of youth. No going round that. Never was a hag yet that man desired." (p 208)
  • "I know I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don't try to rob me will feed me. That's how it is in America." (p 300)

If I gave ratings on this blog this book would have the full five wows.

January 2018; 300 pages

By the same author:
The Secret Scripture: another book full of stunningly poetic prose

"The thirteenth apostle" by Michel Benoit

A novel based on M Benoit’s research carried out whilst he was a monk.

Father Andrei has discovered something about the Bible which is a secret many of the RC hierarchy would kill to keep a secret ... and he is thrown from the window of a train. Father Nil, his best mate at the monastery, attempts to follow in his footsteps, reconstructing his research from a cryptic note he found clutched in his friend’s dead hand (which the French scene of crime officers had somehow overlooked). With the mysterious Society of St Pius V, a gang of 12 high placed clerics who have been prepared to murder for the church and a blond, scarred Mossad agent who also happens to be a concert pianist and the best operative of the secret service of Moslem Hamas not to mention an ex-Nazi cardinal all trying to prevent Father Nils from uncovering the secret (though mostly prepared to let him find it provided he dies immediately afterwards) this is one of the less credible imitators of the Da Vinci Code.

As if worried that the thrills of modern day conspiracy ridden Rome will be insufficient the author intersperses his narrative with the power struggle following the death of Jesus (apparently Peter disembowelled Judas) and some of the shenanigans of the Knights Templar.

An enjoyable easy to read thriller but the blurb on the back compares it with The Name of the Rose which is so much better. 

On the other hand, the author's research is clearly interesting. It is probably fair to say that at this distance and given the evidence we have at present there is no possibility of knowing more about the beloved disciple. This lack of evidence and necessary inconclusiveness might leave other people frustrated, hence the need to novelise the story. But for me I think I would have preferred the mystery.

The most interesting thing I learnt was that, according to the author, there is no evidence that Nazareth as a place existed in the time of Jesus and that all translations of Jesus of Nazareth should probably be read as Jesus the Nasorean referring to sect of Judaism linked to the Essenes.

January 2018; 354 pages

"The virgin suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is a strange book in many ways. It reminded me of The Chronicle of a Death Foretold in three ways: first it lets you know from the first page that all five sisters are going to kill themselves, secondly it is written as if a report many years after the event and includes the relation of interviews with some of the key players in the tragedy, third there is a sense in which the whole community is to blame for the events. However, it takes place over a year rather than a day and, crucially, rather than being written by a single narrator who was involved on the sidelines in the events it is written as if on behalf of several teenage boys (the author uses the first person plural) which is quite disconcerting (it reminded me of Then we came to the end by Joshua Ferris).

The story starts with the unsuccessful suicide of the youngest of five sisters; on her return from hospital the parents host the first ever party for the five sisters and the neighbouring kids but during the rather stilted festivities the youngest goes upstairs to throw herself from her window onto some railings. Things are more or less normal for a while: the remaining girls go to school and the boys fantasise about them. Then there is a high school prom and the four sisters are allowed out with strict restrictions; when the eldest returns home late the girls are immured within the house. No more school. No more anything. Total imprisonment. And the fantasies of the boys outside grow stronger.

It is a strongly written book. There is a great deal of pathetic fallacy; even the house, like the House of Usher, decays. But the power of the writing lies in the accuracy and the detail of the descriptions of this normal suburb outside post-industrial town.

In the end it is more about teenage boys growing up in modern suburbia than about the girls.

There is so much great writing that this can only be a modest selection:

  • "That was in June, fish-fly season, when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects." (p 4)
  • "The aping of shared customs is an indispensable step in the process of individuation. "(p 22)
  • "Her eyes watered and she was a foot taller than any of her sisters, mostly because of the length of her neck which would one day hang from the end of a rope." (p 26) It isn't exactly subtle foreshadowing but these foreshadows chill.
  • "The majority of dying had happened during the Second World War when we didn't exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs" (p 35)
  • "We knew the pain of winter wind rushing up your skirt, and the ache of keeping your knees together in class, and how drab and infuriating it was to jump rope while boys played basketball." (p 43)
  • "As the diary progresses, Cecilia begins to recede from her sisters and, in fact, from personal narrative of any kind. ... Her precocious prose turns to impersonal subjects, the commercial of the weeping Indian paddling his canoe along a polluted stream, or the body counts from the evening war." (p 44)
  • "He hadn't suffered the eternity of the ring about to be picked up, didn't know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to see her, of being actually inside her ear." (p 80)
  • "Their stiff hairdos ('hairdont's', ... the beautician said)" (p 118)
  • "He had never noticed her bifocals before. They cut her eyes in half." (p 120)
  • "Once they're out of you, they're different, kids are." (p 143)
  • "a white spermicide she referred to as 'the cream cheese'" (p 149)
  • "Occasionally she sufficed with her 'Australian method', which involved shaking up a Coke bottle and hosing down her insides." (p 149)
  • "A bedside clock became a hunk of molded plastic, telling something called time, in a world marking its passage for some reason." (p 158)
  • "His lost look of a man who realized that all this dying was going to be the only life he ever had." (p 160)
  • "But that was in the days when they expected perils to come from without, and nothing made less sense by that time than a survival room buried in a house itself becoming one big coffin." (p 163)
  • "We had never dreamed the girls might love us back." (p 198)
  • "Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our music, our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had." (p 231)
  • "the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself." (p 248)

January 2018; 249 pages