About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

"The humans" by Matt Haig

A human has successfully proved the Riemann Hypothesis. An extra-terrestrial alien is sent to Earth, to assume the form of the successful Professor, and to destroy any evidence that the Hypothesis has been proved, or even that it can be proved. To do this he has to kill anyone to whom the Professor might have told.

But even aliens take some time to learn how to behave like humans. And it is from this that the book derives a great deal of humour. But also, the 'man from Mars' perspective, enables Matt Haig to make some wonderful observations about the human condition.

So this book has it all: a clever plot, some wonderful characters, a lot of laughs and some piercing insights into what life is all about.

There are good descriptions:

  • She took a deep breath, as if the question was something she had to swim under.” (p 53)
  • It was a smile on top of something else.” (p 82)
  • "He was almost devoid of neck and his eyes were so close together he was borderline cyclopic." (p 189)

There are moments of satire:

  • Magazines: “their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads them needing to buy something, which they do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next. It is an eternal and unhappy spiral that goes by the name of capitalism.” (p 14)
  • I like violent men. I don't know why. It's a kind of self-harm thing. I go to Peterborough a lot. Rich pickings.” (p 42)
  • Luckily for Professor Andrew Martin, the football team he supported was Cambridge United, one of those which successfully avoided the perils and existential trauma of victory.” (p 142)
  • "Catholicism, I discovered, was a type of Christianity for humans who like gold leaf, Latin and guilt." (p 217)

But most of all there are moments of wonderful perception:

  • On Earth you have to spend a lot of time travelling in between places, be it on roads or on rail-tracks or in careers or relationships.” (p 7)
  • This was, I would later realise, a planet of things wrapped inside things. Food inside wrappers. Bodies inside clothes. Contempt inside smiles. Everything was hidden away.” (p 13)
  • By the time they had read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it they are dead.” (p 18)
  • Humans, as a rule, don't like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.” (p 32)
  • He wrote me a prescription for more diazepam and advised I take things ‘one day at a time’, as if there were another way for days to be experienced.” (p 45)
  • To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.” (p 78)
  • Listening to music, I realised, was simply the pleasure of counting without realising you were counting.” (p 99)
  • For her being a parent is standing on a shore and watching her child in a vulnerable craft, heading out over deeper and deeper water, hoping but not knowing there will be land somewhere ahead.” (p 138)
  • I saw him, this messed-up, sensitive boy and felt, for a moment, the exhausted wonder of his father.” (p 173)
  • "I have to admit that humans waste a lot of their time - almost all of it - with hypothetical stuff. I could be rich. I could be famous. ... They must exercise the conditional tense more than any other known life form." (p 179)
  • "Just as dogs were thwarted wolves, parks were thwarted forests. Humans loved both, possibly because humans were, well, thwarted." (p 185)
  • "Some humans not only liked violence but craved it, I realised. Not because they wanted pain, but because they already had pain and wanted to be distracted away from that kind of pain with a lesser kind." (p 190)
  • "If getting drunk was how people forgot they were mortal, then hangovers were how they remembered." (p 204)
  • "Two mirrors, opposite and facing each other at perfectly parallel angles, viewing themselves through the other, the view as deep as infinity. Yes, that was what love was for." (p 209)
  • Fruit machines are "aimed at men whose fascination with flashing squares of light was coupled with a poor grasp of probability theory." (p 229)
  • "That is how humans grow old. That is ultimately what creases their faces and curves their backs and shrinks their mouths and ambitions." (p 259)
  • "That was part of being human, I discovered. It was about knowing which lies to tell, and when to tell them. To love someone is to lie to them." (p 261)
  • "Lies were everywhere on this planet, but true love had its name for a reason." (p 263)
  • "You had to stay consistent to life's delusions. All you had was your perspective, so objective truth was meaningless. You had to choose a dream and stick with it." (p 264)
  • "History is a branch of mathematics. So is literature. But economics is a branch of religion." (p 271)
  • "Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them." (p 271)
  • "Wear clothes by all means, but remember they are clothes." (p 272)
  • "If there is a sunset, stop and look at it. Knowledge is finite. Wonder is infinite." (p 272)
  • "Everyone is a comedy. If people are laughing at you they just don't quite understand that the joke is themselves." (p 273)
  • "That girl you are on the phone to. There will be others. But I hope she is nice." (p 274)
  • "If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing." (p 276)
  • "Do not fall for categories. Everyone is everything. Every ingredient inside a star is inside you, and every personality that ever existed competes in the theatre of your mind for the main role." (p 276)

Wow! September 2018; 291 pages

Saturday, 15 September 2018

"Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders

Another recommendation from my mate Fred.

President Lincoln's son Willie dies and is put into a crypt. The ghosts in the cemetery are concerned that he has not swiftly moved on. They fear that, like them, he will be trapped by the failure to accept that they are not lying in sick-boxes in their sick-forms waiting to be revived from their illness. Trapped by regret.

Then the President comes into the crypt and takes his son's body from the coffin and embraces it.

This book is built of snippets, sometimes garnered from the extensive historical literature about this period in the Lincoln presidency. The rest is snippets of conversation between some very strange ghosts.

The whole book, winner of the 2017 Booker, is beautifully written but fundamentally weird. I can't decide whether to be overwhelmed by its brilliance or to be amused by its strangeness. Both, perhaps.

Nice lines which give us much to ponder about life and death and regret:

  • "I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gist of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise" (C 9)
  • "Their warm flesh, steaming breath, moist eyeballs, chafing undergarments." (C 24)
  • "We had been ... loved. ... Our departures caused pain. ... remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory." (C 25)
  • "You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore." (C 29)
  • "A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured. It costs you nothing. Why not try?" (C52)
  • "Time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do ... and then are cruelly punished for it." (C81)
  • "The king-types who would snatch the apple from your hand and claim to have grown it." (C 94)
  • "He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider." (C 96)
An extraordinary book by a skilled story-teller. September 2018; 343 pages

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

"Whatever happened to Margo?" by Margaret Durrell

The Durrell family lived on Corfu before the second world war. Their adventures are told in Gerald Durrell's Corfu trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Birds Beasts and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods. After the war Margo, divorced and with two young boys, returned to Bournemouth and set up a boarding house. This describes the antics of her and her guests during the first year of operation.

As with her brother, she has an eye for eccentric characters and there are some very funny episodes. Fat boy Nelson leads her sons into mischief, breeds mice for money, prises pebbledash from her walls for his catapult, and pops up at every inopportune moment for knowing comments about the tangled romantic adventures of the adults around him. Mr and Mrs Budden have a baby which isn't surprising given the extent of Mr Budden's prize-bull-like qualities. Trainee nurses Blanche and Judy have a string of boyfriends that make the neighbours suggest that Margo is running a brothel. Barry (ex RAF) can only find a summer job on the beach while his wife Paula works in a shoe shop. Andy, whom Margo fancies like mad, plays jazz trombone whilst his painting room mate Roger, allegedly the illegitimate offspring of a Lord and a Chorus Girl, attracts all the women despite the presence of girlfriend Magda who seems to be turning into a man. Add a madwoman upstairs and this is a menagerie to rival any on Corfu. The mayhem only increases when Gerald visits and leaves a cage of monkeys who, inevitably, escape.

The book is also interesting for its social commentary. So many people after the war lived in digs like this, sharing rooms and bathrooms. I suppose this continues to some extent in the house sharing arrangements of students and young workers in cities across the UK today, although the landlords are rarely on the premises nowadays. And married couples aspire wherever possible to their own home. There is also the double standards about sex. This clearly continues unabated in the lodging house but it is surreptitious and there is a general air of disapproval.

The author indulges herself in the long descriptions which her brother excels at. But sometimes she seems to muddle herself in excessively long sentences and her desire to use original adjectives and adverbs can result in them being misapplied. Sometimes I got lost:

  • When "Gerald returned to compete with Harriet for pride of ownership" (p 208) I was unsure what they owned.
  • When "the coarse, gangling bricklayer, who cursed his wife when displeased and dabbled at unconventional hours with groaning copulation, appeared blatantly with bloodshot eyes and swollen face and the satisfied look of a mated bull" (p 92) the extensive phrase (not even a sentence) is stuffed to bursting with adjectives and adverbs but I am not sure of 'gangling' in the context of a bull nor 'dabbled' in the context of 'groaning copulation' nor whether it might be possible to appear non-blatantly.
  • There is an interesting play on words on page 203 between "give her a piece of my mind" and "Mother's peace of mind" but I am not convinced it is deliberate.
  • "I found myself following eagerly, watched with open concern a furry thing follow the reptiles to the kitchen and Nelson wishing that he had mice to sell for fodder again." (p 225) The reptiles belong to Gerald although I don't know what they are. The 'furry thing' is never explained: Gerald himself? A cat? Does she mean that she "watched ... Nelson wishing"? And why is 'eager' following triggered by concern?  

But there are some nice phrases:
"One became very conscious of the old in the southern paradise, especially of old ladies - a living graveyard." (p 27)
"He sat up to examine his toenails carefully, his breath caught up in a roll of rippling fat." (p 190)
"Any minute he would return home caked in dust, shouting for attention and food: for why had he wasted seven shillings and sixpence? Not for the sole purpose of free copulation: the working man must be fed!" (p 196 -197) We are never told what the 7/6d is for; my guess is that it was the cost of a marriage licence in 1947.
"I must never use water on me vulnerable skin parts" (p 258)

September 2018; 258 pages

Saturday, 8 September 2018

"The Brutal Art" by Jesse Kellerman

New York Gallery Owner Ethan Muller is alienated from his multi-millionaire property developer father. He discovers boxes of drawings by unknown (and disappeared) art genius Victor Cracke. But they contain a deadly secret: five cherubs bear the faces of raped and murdered schoolboys. And so the gallery owner teams up with law enforcement to track down the mystery of Victor Cracke.

A brilliant thriller in which the past impinges fatally upon the present.

Great lines:
  • "When my father builds a bridge, you can bet there's going to be a toll on it." (p 7)
  • "Marilyn eats like an ex-convict: hunched over, in perpetual fear that her food will be taken away, and when she pauses it's not with satiety but with relief. Eight siblings and you learn to protect yourself." (p 53)
  • "The wetness of the English weather aligned with my adolescent sense of impending doom, and the dryness of English humor made more sense to me than the rampant goofiness of American pop culture." (p 67)
  • "Art is either plagiarism or revolution" (p 92)
  • "Pure evil isn't very interesting; it has no depth." (p 95)
  • "we are, by design or fluke, a curious species." (p 161)
  • "She looks like a monster ... with blotchy cheeks and bony fingers and a nightcap sitting high on her head, like brains swelling out of a broken skull." (p 178)
  • "Rich men get rich in the first place because they never lose that lust for the kill." (p 210)
  • "she believed that right and wrong had no expiration date." (p 238)

September 2018; 404 pages

Thursday, 6 September 2018

"The Rooster Bar" by John Grisham

This is the first time I have read a Grisham novel. I like a decent whodunnit but I'm not so hot on thrillers.

Mark and Todd are law students, incurring staggering levels of debt to graduate from a private law school with little prospect of getting employment. Fellow student, manic-depressive Gordy, explains to them and his girlfriend Zola, child of illegal immigrant parents, that the billionaire who owns the law school also owns the student loan company. Then Gordy's body is fished out of the river.

So it starts in a fairly conventional manner. Each character is introduced and each has conflict in their background. Plus they have these crushing debts. And we have a sinister villain lurking in the background.

But the story arc from there is unconventional. The three friends set up an illegal law firm, illegally hustling drunks and drivers at the courts, charging thousand dollar fees to get potential sentences quashed or delayed or reduced. The danger is that each time they stand before a judge they might be asked to show their licences to practise law, which they don't have, and find themselves facing felony chargers. Then they move to personal injury cases and then to represent fake clients in a class action against a bank owned by the evil billionaire. To scam him. Because the irony is that although he is breaking no laws, they are breaking many.

The strapline on the front cover says 'There's one last chance for justice'. It might be argued that what these three law pirates are doing is just because they have been ripped off by the nasty billionaire. But what they are doing is charging poor people fees for legal representation when they are not licensed to offer that. So they aren't Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich, but bandits stealing from the poor. Deliberately so. "Affluency was to be avoided ... Those with money were more likely to know a real lawyer. Poor folks would not ..." (p 170) These three make rather shabby heroes.

The picture it paints of America is of a land drowning in laws, a place where you sue some who is suing you because, you claim, they are suing you contentiously, a place where it seems almost impossible to walk down the street without breaking some ordinance. It isn't surprising that drugs and violence is so prevalent. Where everyone is trying to scam everyone else and where, whenever anything goes wrong, it is an opportunity for further litigation. A place where you have to incur terrible debts to have the opportunity to work long hours just to service those debts. A rat race.

But what surprised me was how the plot meandered. One minute it is about the debt scam, the next about being crooked lawyers. Then we go back to the scammers. And alongside all this, scarcely interacting except for the female character, is the story about illegal immigrants. This book rambled.

Having said that there was plenty of tension; Grisham knows how to keep you reading. Furthermore, it was good that he didn't need to resort to cheap dramatics such as gunshots and shadowy conspirators to achieve the page turning. There was excitement every time a character stood up in court, not knowing if this might be the moment of their unmasking. That's something to learn.

An interesting novel ... but not really a thriller. September 2018; 374 pages

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

"Vanity Fair" by William Thackeray

The Plot
Two friends leave school. Becky Sharp is, indeed, acute, intelligent, pert, challenging, and an orphan who must make her own way in the world. She goes to be a governess in a dreadful old country house but immediately casts her spell over the menfolk. She will clearly advance by marrying ‘above herself’. Amelia is dull, daughter of a stockbroker, destined to wed the boy next door, the officer son of a banker. But what seems substantial in Vanity Fair is often illusory. The book follows this mis-matched pair through the swings and roundabouts of often outrageous fortune.Will Becky’s intelligence overcome the forces of respectability? Will Amelia’s goodness bring her a happy ending? We will discover the answer many, many pages later.

Is it any good?
There are moments of high drama (such as the Battle of Waterloo in which three major characters are engaged on the field and three are nearby in a threatened and panicking Brussels) and moments when the novelist surprises us: the classic example is at the end of chapter 14 which was, for me, a completely unforeseen bolt from the blue. But there are also long periods when the author is more concerned with satirising and moralising than with getting on with the story. These sections dragged.

But the novelist can be witty and he does have some profound things to say about life (although the Vanity Fair metaphor was rather beaten to death). He certainly knew people and their foibles.
  • Revenge may be wicked but it’s natural.” (C2)
  • All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” (C2) 
  • Which of the dead are most tenderly and passionately deplored? Those who love the survivors least, I believe. The death of a child occasions a passion of grief and frantic tears such as your end, brother reader, will never inspire. The death of an infant which scarce knew you, which a week's absence would have caused to forget you, will strike you down more than the loss of your closest friend.” (C 61)
  • Which ... is the better lot - to die prosperous and famous, or poor and disappointed? To have, and to be forced to yield; or to sink out of life, having played and lost the game? That must be a strange feeling when a day of our life comes, and we say, ‘Tomorrow, success or failure won't matter much; and the sun will rise, and all the myriads of mankind go to their work or their pleasure as usual, but I shall be out of the turmoil’.” (C 61) 
  • She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love.” (C 66)
  • When you and your brother are friends, his doings are indifferent to you. When you have quarreled, all his outgoings and incomings you know, as if you were his spy.” (C 11)
  • “If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!” (C 16)
  • When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime.” (C 18)
  • Who has not remarked the readiness with which the closest of friends and honestest of men suspect and accuse each other of cheating when they fall out on money matters? Everybody does it. Everybody is right, I suppose, and the world is a rogue.” (C 18)
  • A long engagement is a partnership which one party is free to keep or to break, but which involves all the capital of the other.” (C 18)
  • “If a person is too poor to keep a servant, though ever so elegant, he must sweep his own rooms.” (C 4)

What makes this book different?
  • Thackeray claims in his subtitle that this is “A Novel Without a Hero”. It isn’t. I recognise in Captain William Dobbin the classic hero, despite his over-large feet and his shy, retiring ways. Thackeray was dissembling. 
  • Presumably what he meant was that this novel has a heroine, Becky Sharp. She is portrayed in contrast to her schoolfriend Amelia Sedley, a quiet, rather dull, not very astute woman of unbreakable virtue. Becky is quite the opposite. She is formidably intelligent, she is pert, she is showy, and her virtue is always questionable although she defends its reputation to the end. But surely Jane Austen’s novels often involved a pair of women, one far more exciting than the other. Becky is new by virtue of being poor, scheming as opposed to principled, and utterly unrespectable.
  • As Thackeray himself points out, “as his hero and heroine pass the matrimonial barrier, the novelist generally drops the curtain, as if the drama were over then, the doubts and struggles of life ended.” (C 26) The bulk of the action in VF takes place after its two heroines have married. That was quite innovative in British romantic comedies of the time.
An arch-conservative novel?
Thackeray claims to be criticising a world in which “Everybody is striving for what is not worth having.” (C48) But the message I read in this substantial book was that a person needs to know their place. The heroine, the irrepressible Becky Sharp, is a poor girl schooled through charity who wants to be a part of the upper echelons of society but despite her cleverness she is repeatedly frustrated because of her low birth.

In some ways, Thackeray is a radical. He is heavily critical of people of rank who are penniless and live on credit, persuading honest tradespeople to fund their extravagant lifestyles in the hope of one day being paid. Many of these parasites avoid the consequences of bankruptcy by fleeing and setting up elsewhere while those who have supported them are ruined. “When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house, and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself buy fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronises and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed; as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither.” (C 37) I suppose the equivalent in our day would be the rich businessmen who sail off into the sunset in yachts while their empires collapse taking the pension funds with them. But these are soft targets, the unacceptable faces of capitalism. How deep does Thackeray’s radicalism go?

Ostensibly, Thackeray’s world is filled with social mobility. Amelia’s dad is a stockbroker, George’s dad a banker, Dobbin’s dad a merchant. These people have risen from nothing. On the other hand, second son of a landed baronet Rawdon has nothing but his expectations and an allowance and survives mostly on credit. Thackeray knows that the rich exploit the poor. Even Miss Crawley, who espouses French revolutionary politics, exploits the poor. “Like many wealthy people, it was Miss Crawley's habit to accept as much service as she could get from her inferiors; and good-naturedly to take leave of them when she no longer found them useful. Gratitude among certain rich folks is scarcely natural, or to be thought of. They take needy people's service as they due.” (C14) And Thackeray recognises that the accidents of birth that predestine so many lives is a lottery: “There must be classes - there must be rich and poor ... Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is - that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen, and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters.” (C 57)

Nevertheless, Thackeray is mesmerised by rank. “If you and I were to find ourselves this evening in a society of greengrocers, let us say, it is probable that our conversation would not be brilliant; if, on the other hand, they greengrocer should find himself at your refined and polite tea-table, where everybody was saying witty things, and everybody of fashion and repute tearing her friends to pieces in the most delightful manner, it is possible that the stranger would not be very talkative, and by no means interesting or interested.” (C 62) Time and again Becky, the orphan girl, is repudiated by polite society because her (French) mother was a dancer in an opera house and her father a painter. And while it can be argued that Thackeray means to satirise this attitude, the moral of this fable suggests the opposite. In the end virtue, represented by the norms of the established order, be they never so appalling in their personal habits, triumphs. I suspect that Thackeray regarded the outcome as just.

Like many books of its time, Vanity Fair is, seemingly unconsciously racist. George refuses to marry the West Indian heiress, Miss Swartz, because she is 'too black'; she doesn't have hair but wool. The 'natives' in India are described in very patronising and stereotypical terms. There is a great deal of anti-semitism based on the identification of Jews with money-lenders in which context they are rich but coarse and slovenly. However the bankers, such as Mr Osborne and his son-in-law, are not 'Hebrews'. This inbuilt racism is a blemish on the book.

Quotes I enjoyed:
  • And presently the voices of the two speakers were hushed, or were replaced by the gentle but unromantic music of the nose.” (C 4)
  • The affection of young ladies is of as rapid growth as Jack’s beanstalk, and reaches up to the sky in a night.” (C 4) Is this meant to be as suggestive as it sounds?
  • I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one ( although there are some terrific chapters coming presently).” (C 6)
  • A tempest in a slop-basin is absurd.” (C 8) A storm in a teacup!
  • The truth may surely be borne in mind, that's the bustle, and triumph, and laughter, and gaiety which Vanity Fair exhibits in public, do not always pursue the performer into private life, and that the most dreary depression of spirits and dismal repentance sometimes overcome him.” (C 19)
  • He was going to be married. Hence his pallor and nervousness - his sleepless night and agitation in the morning. I have heard people who have gone through the same thing own to the same emotion. After three or four ceremonies you get accustomed to it, no doubt; but the first dip, everybody allows, is awful.” (C 22)
  • "A telegraphic communication of eyes passed between the other three ladies.” (C 13)
  • Those who know the English colonies abroad know that we carry with us our pride, pills, prejudices, Harvey sauces, cayenne peppers, and other Lares, making a little Britain wherever we settle down.” (C 64)
A classic novel ... but it would benefit from some editing. September 2018; 657 pages