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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 31 May 2009

"The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein" by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction. My favourite was his first, Hawksmoor. This present book is one of my least favourite.

There is a twist right at the end but it was heavy going. Ackroyd weaves a story about the fictional character Frankenstein which purports to explain how the novel, Frankenstein, was written. The action oscillates between Geneva, Oxford and London. There are deaths, resurrectionists and a certain amount of philosophical discussion about the nature of God's act of creation and how men might 'Play God'.

But it is mostly tedious stuff. In my review of Thames: Sacred River in this wiki I complain of Ackroyd's tendency to list; this present novel seems like a list of all his research (it also advertises a number of his other books!):

  • Frankenstein comes from the village of Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc. Mary Shelley visited Chamonix and set an encounter between Frankenstein and his monster here.
  • Frankenstein meets Shelley (whom he calls Bysshe) in Oxford shortly before Shelley is sent down for writing (anonymously) "The Necessity for Atheism".
  • Subsequently, Frankenstein goes with Shelley to London where he meets Daniel Westbrook and his sister Harriet. Shelley later elopes with Harriet. Harriet was of a much higher class in real life than in the book but she did become Shelley's first wife.
  • In London, Frankenstein attends a lecture given by Sir Humphrey Davy, whose work on galvanising cats he has already read.
  • Shelley and Frankenstein watch a theatrical production of Melmoth the Wanderer, a gothic novel about a man who sells his soul to the devil for an extra 150 years of life and then spends the time trying to find someone to relieve him of this burden. Oscar Wilde later used the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth after his enforced sojourn in Reading Gaol. Ackroyd has previously written The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.
  • Frankenstein hears of famous anatomist John Hunter whose life parallels that of Frankenstein: they both live for some time on Jermyn Street and they both experiment on dogs. Whilst dissecting corpses Frankenstein meets Jack Keat (John Keats) who has consumption. Keats however studied at Guys rather than St Thomas Hospital (as in this book) and Hunter studied at St George Hospital.
  • Frankenstein reads Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther", a book about unrequited love.
  • On page 165 the monster points at Frankenstein and declaims "Thou art the man" which is the title of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Ackroyd wrote a biography of Poe.
  • Frankenstein meets Shelley with new girlfriend Mary Godwin (who wrote Frankenstein) at Marlow. They go boating on the Thames. Mary sees the face of the monster at her window, although she initially thinks this is a dream. Mary asks where the source of the Thames is and a debate ensues. Later she mentions the theory that the Thames and the Rhine were once the same river. Ackroyd researched these in his previous book Thames: Sacred River.
  • Frankenstein meets Byron and Dr Polidori. They will be present at the house party when Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein. Polidori writes The Vampyre, the first English vampire novel, as a result of this house party. Byron uses the phrase "The Modern Prometheus" to Shelley; this will become the subtitle of Frankenstein. Polidori talks to Frankenstein about the Golem (a monster made of clay and given life by Kabbalistic incantations); this presumably links to Ackroyd's earlier novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Limehouse is, of course, the district where, in this novel, Frankenstein's laboratory lies.
  • The penultimate act of the story takes place in the Villa Diodati where the famous ghost story telling competition is held. Later Shelley is drowned as he was in real life (though not till 1822)
  • On page 262, Byron quotes from Paradise Lost. Ackroyd has previously written Milton in America.

A disappointment from a gifted writer. Perhaps he is writing too much these days.

Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein is much better!

May 2009, 296 pages

Friday, 29 May 2009

"Wise Children" by Angela Carter

"What a joy it is to dance and sing!"

I first read this book in March 2009; I re-read it over ten years later in October 2019 and, I am ashmed to say, I didn't remember I had read it the first time.

On her 75th birthday, Dora Chance tells the story of her life with twin sister Nora. The Lucky Chances were a dance act during the declining days of variety but what really set them apart was the interlocking of their lives with the Hazard dynasty of classical actors including their father Melchior, who is celebrating his 100th birthday. Twins, bastards and intra-family affairs permeate this romp through this comedy of the legitimate and the illegitimate theatre.

This is a fantasy, a fairy tale. It is often necessary to willingly and consciously suspend one's disbelief; the pay off in entertainment terms is well worth it. Coincidences abound (there are 5 sets of twins; Nora and Dora share their 75th birthday with their father Melchior (and his twin Peregrine) and Shakespeare. Peregrine is a magician; he arrives out of the blue at key dramatic moments and then disappears (in one case presumed dead) and then returns having made a fortune out of gold, or oil, or... A lot of Perry's back story is secret.

There are many Shakespearean themes (twins, fathers) and motifs:
  • Melchior's father murdered his mother and her (presumed) lover and then committed suicide after he had played Othello to her Desdemona (and the presumed lover was playing Iago); later Melchior plays Othello and marries HIS Desdemona
  • Tiff goes mad on live TV, carrying flowers, singing a song and subsequently drowning, like Ophelia in Hamlet;
  • The twins dance as fairies in a film version of Midsummer Night's Dream starring their father and written by their uncle.
  • At the end of the filming there is a triple marriage in which Dora avoids matrimony by substituting for herself the previous bride of the man who wants to marry her; thus more or less replicating the 'bed trick' in Measure for Measure.
  • Lady Atalanta is cast out of her house by her two evil daughters, as Lear is cast from his kingdom by his Goneril and Regan.
  • The musical show What? You Will! is the alternative title for Twelfth Night which features a pair of twins
  • And of course all those bloody twins and the fact that some of them look so alike that lovers don't know with whom they are sleeping.
Birthday parties throughout are excruciating occasions full of betrayal and unhappiness. The funniest moment of the book comes when Melchior gives his twin daughters Saskia and Imogen (who aren't actually his daughters) a present at their 21st birthday: the present is a new step mother.

As well as twins, mirrors crop up as a theme. Deefholts explains in detail that the theme of the twins is in itself a theme of reflection, with the mirror image often being the literally perverted or evil aspect. Dualities include illegitimacy (explicitly characterised as the 'left side') versus legitimacy, Dora versus Nora, the "legit" theatre vs the music halls, north London vs South London, Peregrine vs Melchior, Nora and Dora vs Saskia and Imogen, Tristan vs Gareth etc

This book is immense fun and an exhilarating read. It has been turned into a stage show by Emma Rice.

Angela Carter also wrote:

The real strength of this book is the voice of the narrator, a seventy-five year old ex-showgirl born into the illegitimate side of a great theatrical family and growing old disgracefully in Brixton. This wonderful voice is reflected in so many great moments:
  • She said: ‘Yes!’ to life and I said, ‘Maybe ...” (C 1)
  • We’re stuck in the period at which we peaked, of course. All women do.” (C 1)
  • The habit of applying warpaint outlasts the battle” (C 1)
  • These cheekbones are descended from some of the most profitable calcium deposits in the world. Like all those who spend much time before the public eye, our father has always been dependent on his bone structure.” (C 1)
  • Lovely is as lovely does; if they looked like what they behave like, they’d frighten little children.” (C 1)
  • His stock in trade is boyish charm. God knows what he’ll do when he loses that.” (C 1)
  • Not many people can boast a photo of their grandmother posing for kiddiporn.” (C 1)
  • Ranulph, lean, haggard, bearded, more and more resembled John the Baptist had John the Baptist reached old age.” (C 1)
  • An actor’s inheritance of unpaid bills, paste jewellery, flash attitudes” (C 1)
  • She didn’t so much talk as elocute. She rhymed ‘sky’ with ‘bay’, and made ‘mountaynes’ out of ‘molehills.” (C 1)
  • I couldn’t look a cabbage in the eye after what Grandma did to them. Boiled them to perdition. The abattoir is kinder to a cow.” (C 1)
  • Gareth and Tristram, the priest and the game-show presenter. Not so different, really, I suppose. Both of them in show business. Both, in their different ways, carrying on the great tradition of the Hazard family – the willing suspension of disbelief. Both of them promise you a free gift if you play the game.” (C 1)
  • She’d got it bad and Tristram wasn’t worth the paper she wiped her bum with.” (C 1)
  • Her cheeks give the game away; they’ve got that tight, full, shiny chipmunk look that spells out: facelift.” (C 1)
  • The stately progress of the tram, occupying by right of bulk and majesty the centre of the road, not veering to the left nor right upon its way but sometimes swaying every now and then with a sickening lurch, like Grandma, coming home from the pub.” (C 2)
  • To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, as Uncle Perry used to say. I always preferred foreplay, too. Well. Not always.” (C 2)
  • He stripped off only to reveal a gee-string of very respectable dimensions, more of a gee-gee string, would have kept a horse decent.” (C 2)
  • Nora was always free with it and threw her heart away as if it were a used bus ticket.” (C 2)
  • She had a passion to know about Life, all its dirty corners.” (C 2)
  • Each time she fell in love, she fell in love for the first time, no matter how many times she fell in love.” (C 2)
  • Ambition, the curse and glory of the Hazards, who’ll risk everything they’ve got and a little bit more on a throw of the dice.” (C 2)
  • A nudist might be able to grow old gracefully in the company of other ageing nudists, but she had the misfortune to live with two teenage sexpots.” (C 2)
  • Lynde Court was built in the eclectic style, that is, a little bit of this and that.” (C 2)
  • Then I spotted Saskia. She, oblivious of her distracted mother, was tucked away under a rosebush, pigging it. She’d dragged out with her the entire carcass of the swan from the Great Hall. Its feathers were so blackened by the soot it looked more like an upstart crow but that didn’t put the little greedyguts off.” (C 2)
  • Then I understood the thing I’d never grasped back in those days, when I was young, before I lived in history. When I was young, I’d wanted to be ephemeral, I’d wanted the moment, to live in just the glorious moment, the rush of blood, the applause. Pluck the day. Eat the peach. Tomorrow never comes. But, oh yes, tomorrow does come all right, and when it comes it lasts a bloody long time, I can tell you.” (C 3)
  • They kept themselves to themselves, away from the hoi polloi, held tea parties on Saturday afternoons when everybody else was having group sex, played cricket on Sundays, drank pink gin at sundown and talked as if their upper lips wore plaster casts.” (C 3)
  • It’s the American tragedy in a nutshell. They look around the world and think: ‘There must be something better!’ But there isn’t. Sorry, chum. This is it. What you see is what you get. Only the here and now." (C 3)
  • "As if Hollywood were the name of the enchanted forest where you lose yourself and find yourself, again; the wood that changes you; the wood where you go mad; the wood where the shadows live longer than you do.” (C 3)
  • Everywhere a threadbare, expensive shabbiness that had a class to which we knew we never could aspire. Not the Lucky Chances. We were doomed to either flash or squalor.” (C 4)
  • We painted the faces that we always used to have on to the faces we have now.” (C 4)
  • Given the history of fathers in our family, it seemed only right and proper we should have finally turned up a celibate one – a non-combatant, as it were.” (C 5)
  • But there you are; no silver lining without a cloud.” (C 5)
  • Saskia ... was ... unique amongst mammals, a cold-blooded cow.” (C 5)
  • Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” (C 5)
  • A mother is always a mother, since a mother is a biological fact, whilst a father is a movable feast.” (C 5)
  • He was not the love of my life but all the loves of my life at once, the curtain call of my career as lover.” (C 5)
  • ‘If the child is father of the man,’ she asked, ‘then who is the mother of the woman?’” (C 5)
  • Has it ever occurred to you to spare a passing thought as to the character of the deceased Mrs Lear? Didn’t it ever occur to you that Cordelia might have taken after her mother while the other girls . . .” (C 5)
  • There was a house we all had in common and it was called, the past, even though we’d lived in different rooms.” (C 5)
Shakespeare with a nod to Spanish picaresques and Voltaire's Candide.

May 2009 and October 2019, 232 pages

Monday, 25 May 2009

"Where Angels Fear To Tread" by E. M. Forster

In this short, delightful comedy an English widow travels to Italy, falls in love and marries an 'unsuitable' young Italian man, the son of a (shock, horror) dentist. She dies having a son by him.
The family of her first husband decide the baby must be brought up in England and travel to Italy to retrieve the child. The central question asked by the book is "Do you want the child to stop with his father, who loves him and will bring him up badly, or do you want him to come to Sawston, where no one loves him, but where he will be brought up well." (p130)

The novel vividly portrays the suffocating bloodlessness of the English Middle Classes for whom correct grammar is more important than passionate prose; for whom doing the right thing supersedes enjoying your life.

The principal characters:
  • Lilia the widow who has been trapped by her in-laws after her husband's death and longs to escape their clutches; her marriage is, however, unhappy although the letter to her daughter describing her misery is intercepted by her mother-in-law and destroyed.
  • Philip, her brother-in-law, the main protagonist, who is a disinterested spectator of life, who loves the Tuscan sunset because the guide books tell him how marvellous it is. His best expectation of life is to be an honourable failure, and of course he is.
  • Harriet, the sister-in-law, a dour, determined, low Church woman whose certainty that she is right blinds her to any other points of view.
  • Caroline, Lilia's companion on the Italian trip, a sensible, church-going woman, who reacts to events in Italy with hysteria.
  • Mrs Herriton, Lilia's mother-in-law, the spider at the centre of the web, who has dominated her children and her friends with her complacent self-belief.
  • Gino, the classic macho Italian, for whom life is good if you are a man in Italy, who doesn't really understand anyone else but who loves his son: "He is mine; mine for ever. Even if he hates me he will be mine. He cannot help it; he is made out of me; I am his father." (p121)
The modern reader is immediately appalled by the arrogance of the English family in their self-satisfied belief that they are inevitably right. The widow's daughter, staying in England, is not even told of the existence of her little brother, despite her mother dying in childbirth, because this would upset her. The retrieval of the baby is only mooted because it might bring discredit on the family. However, a strength of the novel is that nowhere is this arrogant self-assurance tackled; it is merely assumed and described.

The hallmark of a really good book is the way the author brings the characters to life. Forster's writing is of its time, clipped and stagey like a drawing room comedy, but the characters are immediately real. Brilliant!

Also read Howards End and A Room With a View and Maurice.


One thing that infuriates me about authors is when they quote something in a foreign language and assume that their readers will recognise the quote or be able to translate it. On page 29, Signor Carella quotes Dante's Inferno:
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita"
My Italian is poor but this means roughly:
"In the middle of the track of our life
I rediscovered myself by a dark wood
Where the direct road was lost."
Philip, Harriet and Caroline go to the opera in Italy to see Lucia di Lammermoor. This is the opera featured in Mme Bovary, a fact which is referred to in the text.
In the room that acts as a memorial to the dead Lilia ("if we shall resent anything on earth at all, we shall resent the consecration of a deserted room" p109) a "coon song lay open on the piano". Clearly this word was not taboo when Forster was writing.
"A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and - by some sad, strange irony - it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy." (p121)

May 2009, 160 pages

Sunday, 24 May 2009

"Escape from the Antarctic" by Sir Ernest Shackleton

This tiny book tells a fraction of the story of The Endurance commanded by Shackleton which was attempting to land men for a trans-Antarctic expedition when it was caught in pack ice; after some months drifting the ship was crushed and the men had to camp on the drifting ice floe; they then got into two small boats and headed for Elephant Island where they camped. This book completes their adventures from this point.

Shackleton and five others sailed a small boat through mountainous seas 800 miles to South Georgia. Just sighting the sun through a sextant in a pitching boat in the middle of a hurricane when there was precious little sun made the navigation difficult, almost impossible. They endured days of hurricane and gale. When they reached South Georgia they had to stand away from the shore because the seas were driving the boat inland and threatened to smash it on the rocks. Finally they made landfall and captured baby albatross chicks to stew.

Then Shackleton and two others trekked across the South Georgia mountains which had never been crossed, or even explored, before. Finally they reached the whaling station and obtained relief for their crew mates. Even then it was weeks before they could charter a ship which could penetrate the newly forming pack ice and rescue the 22 men abandoned on Elephant Island.

Sometimes Shackleton gets bogged down in the details and this story is marred by only being a fraction of the full adventure but it was a delightful little read.

Two favourite moments:

  • "At midnight I was at the tiller and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and southwest .... a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days."

  • "I know that during the long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, 'Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.'" It is this paragraph that led T. S. Eliot to write in The Waste Land:
"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you"
May 2009, 90 pages

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This novel was originally written by Mary Ann Shaffer; Annie Barrows took over after Mary Ann became ill. Both authors are American.

It is written in the form of letters (except for a small diary near the very end). It is set shortly after the end of the second world war. Dawsey Adams, a small holder in Guernsey, writes to Juliet Ashton, a writer, about Charles Lamb. He reveals the existence of the eponymous society which was set up during the German occupation of Guernsey. As the correspondence continues, Juliet learns more about the lives of the islanders under occupation and begins to fall in love with Guernsey. A lot of the stories she reads deal with Elizabeth, who was taken from the island for sheltering a slave worker and is now missing.

It is a charming tale in many ways but there were one or two features that rather grated with me:

  • There are so many weird names. Elizabeth is normal and Juliet, Sophie, Amelia and Sidney are OK but there are also Eben and Eli, Markham, Dawsey, Isola and "Billy Bee" (there are all first names!!!). Surely during the period of austerity after the war English names were as reserved as their manners!
  • Equally, the books chosen by the members of the literary society suggest a checklist of "good" books chosen because they are classics rather than because they might have been read at the time. Even the writer, Juliet, is famous for writing Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War for The Spectator (and she wrongly credits the creation of Bickerstaff to Addison rather than Steele).
  • The author has clearly done a lot of research into occupied Guernsey and isn't going to waste it. Some of the letters,written by characters who do not reappear, seem to be included just so another story can be told.
  • There is an atrocious little sub-plot involving a pantomime villain seeking to steal some letters which are, of course, by Oscar Wilde. This sub-plot was entirely unnecessary and made the willing suspension of disbelief suddenly a little harder.
  • Equally there is an unlikely legacy to enrich the happy ever after ending.
  • One of the characters revealed his homosexuality to another character. Not only was this also unlikely since homosexuality was, at the time, a criminal offence; it was also totally unnecessary for the purpose of the plot. Sometimes it seems that every American book nowadays has to have at least one gay character in case the author is accused of discrimination.

Having said all that, the book was interesting and elegantly written and I did want to find out what had happened to Elizabeth and whether Juliet was going to marry the right man. Chick Lit.

May 2009, 240 pages

Thursday, 21 May 2009

"Blenheim" by Charles Spencer

I have also read "Prince Rupert" by this author which is probably a better book if only because the subject is easier. A life, especially one as colourful as Prince Rupert's, has a natural structure and the episodes in a long life lend themselves easily to a narrative. Blenheim is rather more difficult: the first section describes the political conditions of Europe during the latter part of Louis XIV (the Sun King)'s reign; it goes on to describe the career of Marlborough and his partner general at Blenheim, Prince Eugene of Savoy; then there is the dash across Europe from the Netherlands to Bavaria; and finally the battle itself.

I am not an aficionado of military history (I know very little about army life) and consequently I am in no position to judge whether Spencer's verdicts on the armies, the generals and the battle have any validity at all. Certainly there seemed to be a significant element of luck in Blenheim and a certain amount of Marlborough's vaunted military prowess seemed to consist in sending squadrons (or are they battalions) of soldiers straight at an enemy position and then slogging it out. Had the opposing general attacked as Marlborough's men were crossing a marshy stream instead of waiting till they were firmly established on the near bank and had he not ordered a significant portion of his army to hold the little village of Blindheim (not Blenheim!) at any cost which allowed Marlborough to encircle them and pen them in until the rest of the battle had been won, things might have gone very differently.

When one reads books like this what you most realise is how incompetent everyone seems to be. The French general was so short-sighted he had to have his aides describe the battle to him. One of the Allied generals was so cautious he would only permit the army to besiege towns rather than fight battles; Blenheim was won while he was away besieging. Generals would refuse to combine their forces because they didn't like one another. I am sure (I think) that it is just the benefit of hindsight that allows this perspective but it does sometimes seem as if the world is run by fools.

May 2009, 342 pages

Sunday, 17 May 2009

"Slaughterhouse 5" by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a strange little book written in 1969. It starts with the author telling us that "All this happened, more or less." The first chapter describes the author writing the book; the author also appears in the story: the hero, Billy Pilgrim, meets an American soldier in the latrines; "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."

Another oddity is that every time someone dies (which is frequently) the moment is marked with the sentence "So it goes."

A third oddity is that Billy Pilgrim is able to travel forwards and backwards in time. This enables the author to jump around his hero's life and intercut the main narrative, Billy's war adventures, with what happens to him subsequently.

A fourth oddity is that Billy is kidnapped by aliens on a flying saucer and taken back to their planet and exhibited in a zoo (they also kidnap a soft porn actress and bring her back so he has someone to mate with). One suspects that this part of Billy's life (and possibly the time travel) has been caused by brain damage suffered during a plane crash (it is only afterwards that Billy tells other people of his alien experiences) and his extensive reading of the science fiction of a little known author called Kilgore Trout (who one further suspects is an alter ego of Vonnegut; Trout appears in other Vonnegut books).

The visit to Tralfamadore teaches Billy about the nature of time. The Tralfamadorians are able to perceive the fourth dimension. The can see present, past and future. They say it is like a landscape: there are beautiful bits and ugly bits. Having a good time is inevitable; having a bad time is inevitable. These moments are all written into the landscape. The secret of happiness, for the Tralfamadorians is to enjoy the beautiful places in a landscape and let your eyes skip over the ugly places.

The structure of the novel, with Billy and the reader skipping backwards and forwards in time, and with the intrusion of the author, reflects this concept of time held by the Tralfamadorians. Tralfamadorian novels are also structured this way, randomly jumbled, without narrative thread, and the structure is designed by the author to look beautiful as a photographer structures a scene.

Billy's soft porn mate has a locket between her bare breasts on which are engraved the words: "God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference."

This simply written book, inspired by the fire bombing of Dresden when more lives were lost than at Hiroshima, is matter-of-factly tolerant of humanity. Billy impregnates his (Earth) wife to make his son who will become a Green Beret in Vietnam: "Billy made a noise like a small, rusty hinge. He had just emptied his seminal vesicles into Valencia ... 'Would you talk about the war now, if I wanted you to?' said Valencia. In a tiny cavity in her great body she was assembling the materials for a Green Beret." When he and other soldiers are in a communal shower: "Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted. Reproduction was not the main business of the evening."

One of the most delightful moments of the book comes when Billy sees the fire-bombing of Dresden like a film running backwards in time. "The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires .... The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes .... When the bombers got back to their base ....factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly it was mainly women who did this work."

Simple prose that strips people naked and accepts their frailty. "Billy ... assured the fatherless boy that his father was very much alive still in moments the boy would see again and again." So it goes.

An interesting piece of trivia is that Vonnegut quotes a book from British historian David Irving who writes sympathetically about the German suffering in WWII. This is than same Irving who lost a spectacular libel trial against Penguin and later went to prison in Austria for Nazi sympathies and holocaust denial; he wrote The Destruction of Dresden in 1963. It is nowadays believed that Irving over-estimated the number of people killed in Dresden so Vonnegut's figures are wrong.

May 2009, 157 pages

Thursday, 14 May 2009

"Walking on Glass" by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is famous for writing two sorts of novels: mainstream fiction, and sic fi under the name Iain M. Banks.

Walking on Glass, his second novel, is composed of three stories. Graham Park is an Art Student in love with the enigmatic Sara ffitch. The book follows him as he walks to meet her: the chapter headings are the names of the streets he walks through. Steven Grout is a paranoid person who believes that he is an Admiral from the inter-galactic wars imprisoned on Earth: his chapter names are the names of people he encounters; except for his last chapter each starts with an exclamation: sacked! unemployed! social insecurity! drunk! Quiss really is a soldier from the intergalactic wars who is imprisoned in a ruinous castle with Ayaji against whom he has to play endless strange games: each chapter is entitled with the game: one-dimensional chess, open-plan go, spotless dominoes, chinese scrabble and tunnel (like bridge with blank cards).

Their stories intersect. A bit. Sort of.

The Graham story was delightful because he was a lovely young man in love and his best friend was a happily camp gay man. The Quiss story was the funniest, with nonsenses like a machine that chops up statues in the shape of numbers (because it is a number-cruncher) which are made from Plaster of Salt Lake City (like Plaster of Paris only duller). So Banks demonstrates his ability for lyrical description, for entering into the twisted logic of a madman and for weird humour. I was impressed with his writing ability but I'm not sure that I actually enjoyed the book.

May 2009; 239 pages

Sunday, 10 May 2009

"The Kit-Cat Club" by Ophelia Field

The Kit-Cat club was started by the publisher Jacob Tonson in London shortly after the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. It contained a mixture of Whig politicians, noblemen and patrons. It originally met in a pub called the Cat and Fiddle (a fiddle was called a 'kit') where a Christopher Catlin ('Kit Cat') cooked fantastic meat pies. (Does the word 'chit-chat' come from the club; it is first used by Steele in 1710?) In its inception it was something of a riposte to Will's Coffee House where Dryden held court.

Amongst the famous Kit-Cat members were playwright Congreve, playwright turned self-made architect John Vanbrugh, Addison and Steele of Tatler and Spectator fame and, later, Robert Walpole. These people wrote and schemed for the continuance of the Whig revolution, keeping William and Mary, and later William, and then Anne, and finally George I on the throne. They experienced and contrived momentous events from the November 5th landing of William in Torbay to the 1708 and 1715 Jacobite rebellions, the formation of the Bank of England, the War of Spanish Succession with Marlborough's victories (Vanbrugh built Blenheim Palace as well as Castle Howard), the Peace of Utrecht, the Act of Union with Scotland, and the French Mississippi Bubble and the British South Sea Bubble (both of which Tonson invested in and got out of before the end becoming incredibly wealthy).

Non-club members including Dryden, Robert Harley and Bolingbroke (crypto-Jacobites), Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift all have parts in this drama.

I learnt that the Tatler started as a weekly broadsheet (double printed and folded in half) which provided a weekly essay for 1d, written anonymously by Richard Steele (later joined by Addison) and purporting to be written by Isaac Bickerstaff. When that came to an end Steele founded (with Addison) The Spectator, in the same format, for the same price but tri-weekly, "written" by Mr Spectator and his mate Sir Roger de Coverley. both these papers were tremendous successes (though Steele could never live within his means and was hounded for debt (including imprisonment) throughout his life.

Addison and Steele were a wonderful contrasting pair. Addison, who wrote slowly alone, academic, dry and thoughtful, very moderate; Steele who wrote at speed in coffee houses surrounded by noise, a drinker, a husband, a father, always in debt. I like Steele best! Together they founded modern journalism.

Points I picked up on:
  • Stanhope, club member and later Secretary of State, was MP for Cockermouth.
  • Tonson bought a house in Barn Elms near Putney which later became the venue for the Ranelagh Club. Tonson later retired to The Hazels in Ledbury.
  • Dr Arbuthnot (a Scot) published The History of John Bull as a Tory answer to the Whig Spectator.
  • Steele bought a home in Hampton Wick; he called it The Hovel; the site is now occupied by The Grove, 24 Lower Teddington Road.
A very interesting book. I learned a lot I didn't know before.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

"Girl with a pearl earring" by Tracy Chevalier

This book is the fictional story of the girl in the picture painted by Vermeer. She is Griet, a maid in the house. She cleans and runs errands and helps the great painter grind his paints and advises him on his painting. She is clearly in love with him.

It is a well-written, simple account of life in the painter's household in Delft in the mid 1660s. We learn about tile making, fish stew, religion and apothecaries. Sometimes the novel seems just a little too well-researched, for example Van Leeuwenhoek brings a camera obscura into the studio.

It is mostly about the family. Griet is a shrewd, incredibly self-possessed observer of the tensions within a family; for example, Vermeer's wife is not allowed in the studio and clearly believes that her husband sleeps with his models. One of the daughters is a bit of a minx and Griet gets off on the wrong foot straight away when she asserts herself rather than be bullied by the child; this leads to the crux.

I sometimes felt that the maid was too good to be true in every way: she was good with paints, excellent at family psychology and even great at cleaning. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book.

I wanted to find out more about Vermeer; intriguingly little is known about his life but Wikipedia mentions the painting, Van Leeuwenhoek, the camera obscura, the wife and mother in law, the conversion to Catholicism, the family pub and the street on which they lived, not to mention the children.

I do wish the novel had ended earlier. Sixteen pages before the actual end, Griet stands in the centre of the Market Square and looks at "the eight pointed star in the middle. Each point indicated a direction I could take." She considers all the points, each being a possible future. "When I made my choice, the choice I knew I had to make, I set my feet carefully along the edge of the point and went the way it told me, walking steadily."

That would have been a fine ending, leaving us wanting to know more but, like the true story of the girl in the painting, we would never find out.

April 2009, 247 pages

Saturday, 2 May 2009

"St Pancras Station" by Simon Bradley

This book is a mixture of histories: a brief biography of St George Gilbert Scott, the architect behind the St Pancras Hotel and the Albert Memorial; an architectural history of the St Pancras hotel and "train shed"; a history of the railways; and a description of the development and decline of the hotel and its subsequent regeneration (unfortunately the book was published before the opening of the new concourse; or course the hotel is not yet reopened).

It was surprisingly interesting. I learned about the revival of Victorian Gothic architecture with its homage to the late medieval. I found out that the reason that the St Pancras platforms are on the first floor is because the line approaching them had to either go under or over the Regents Canal and over was cheaper. I discovered that the iron pillars that support the platforms were spaced a certain number of beer barrels apart so that the undercroft could be used as a beer warehouse to bring Burton Ales to London and the South (freight from the Midlands being a principal source of revenue for the new Midland Railway). I was informed that the reason for the stations along the Euston Road (Paddington, Euston, King's Cross and St Pancras) was the early legislation that prevented the rampant railways companies from intruding further into London. I also became aware that the railways were a great catalyst for social change, promoting milk drinking in cities, national brands, out of town printing (Clay's in Bungay could undercut London printers and still distribute through the trains), Melton Mowbray pork pies and Chivers jam (Mr Chivers owned a fruit farm in Histon near Cambridge and converted his surplus fruit into preserves which he then distributed via the brand new railway system).

The single arch train shed of St Pancras, at the time the world's largest single span structure, was conceived so that more platforms could be fitted beneath. Previous constructions such as King's Cross's had pointed roofs (KX has a pair) but this means that you need supports and that can get in the way of platforms. Furthermore a twin roof idea such as KX means extensive extra guttering to carry away water. Form follows function. I really got interested in station design and I much pay more attention to the built environment. I even started to appreciate the massively over-ornate architecture that is Victorian Gothic.

Fascinating stuff!

May 2009, 174 pages