About Me

My photo
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

Friday, 31 August 2012

"Cod" by Mark Kurlansky

Since I had previously read Kurlansky's 'Salt' and found it a fascinating discussion of history from the perspective of a commodity I was very keen to read 'Cod'. It is much the same. He explains how Cod was important in the discovery of America, suggesting that the Basque fishing fleet were off Newfoundland long before Columbus or Cabot, and played a crucial part in the War of Independence. He also details how overfishing has led to the closure of the Grand Banks.

Cod is not (at least to my life) as important as Salt and inevitably the book is more limited because of this. And I was not at all interested in the endless recipes although I understand that this is a food book (and it did inspire me to choose Bacalaho when I encountered it by chance in a little Eastbourne cafe principally devoted to burgers and omelettes but run by a Portuguese couple who were delighted that someone ordered their national dish even though I couldn't finish it).

What I really disliked was his perpetual use of 'off of' when a fishing boat was 'off of' Iceland or 'off of' Newfoundland etc. Surely one can say 'off' Cape Breton.

This was an enjoyable book but Salt is better!

August 2012; 276 pages

Thursday, 30 August 2012

"In the springtime of the year" by Susan Hill

Don't read this book on the train! Whilst it might be acceptable (just) to laugh in public, it is embarrassing to weep.

Ruth's husband of less than a year, Ben, has been killed by a tree falling on him. This book charts the progress of her grief, and the utterly individual griefs of his father, mother, sister and brother, and how his death affects the tight knit farming community. It charts the progress of the rural year, it details rural poverty, and it is suffused throughout by spirituality and the rituals of the church.

It is brilliant. It is harrowing. I found my eyes leaking water at moments unbearably, poignantly mundane. This is bereavement vividly and remorselessly chronicled.

Gut-wrenchingly perfect.

August 2012; 254 pages.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

"Heroes and Villains" by Angela Carter.

This was my introduction to Carter's work. She writes fantasy novels. This is set after a 'war' (presumably a nuclear holocaust). (June 2015: I now discover that I have already read her Wise Children which is rather different!)

 Marianne lives in a 'white tower' with her father who is one of the Professor's of an agricultural community closely guarded by soldiers. From time to time they are raided by the Barbarians: as a child she watches from her window as her brother is killed. But she finds the safe community stifling and she runs into the surrounding forest with a beautiful Barbarian boy. She joins his tribe which is dominated by a renegade professor turned shaman.

Carter's style mirrors the mythic themes. Moments of lush, gorgeous description is interrupted by arid, sterile dialogue which in turn gives way to sensuous eroticism reflecting the professorial enclosed villages in the barbarian countryside, perhaps echoing a view of stilted civilization and fertile nature. Marianne tries to understand the new world in which she finds herself in philosophical and sociological terms but in the end she is controlled by passion. She, her barbarian boyfriend and the mad guru indulge in a weird power play in which each tries to outwit and kill the other. Throughout, the reader is challenged when characters respond strangely. Thus conversations are rarely dialogues but rather each character states their position (or doesn't because everyone seems to speak in riddles). And the responses of characters to rape, death and betrayal seem intensely unhuman. Finally Jewel  the Barbarian, butcher, warrior, gravedigger and leader, tattooed with temptation, is so educated for a barbarian, sometimes so mundane, but othertimes so mysterious and so contradictory.

I wondered if he was Mick Jagger as seen by Marianne (Faithful).

Such a strange book; sometimes so unfullfilling and sometimes so profound. I pledge to read the entire Carter corpus on the strength of this first taste. (June 2015: Now I have also read The Bloody Chamber which is a brilliant collection of short stories based around fairy tales and The infernal desire machines of Doctor Hoffman which is a picaresque journey through a fantastic landscape with lots of sex.)

Weird and upsetting at every level. August 2012; 164 pages

"Drive" by Daniel Pink

This is a fantastic and deeply thought provoking book.

 It is to do with what motivates human beings. Pink describes the two traditional types of motivation as our biological drive (food, sex etc) and externally imposed rewards and punishments. Then he points out that these are simply not enough. Children play. Adults volunteer. Health care workers do more than they are expected to: they talk to patients, they assist nurses. This happens all the time. Clearly there is a third form of motivation. Wikipedia works because of this third form.

Then he asks how we can use this third drive in business and schools. He describes what not to do. He shows how carrots can actually demotivate in the long term. If you start paying your kid to do chores he will (a) only do the chores if he is paid and (b) see chores as inherently unpleasant and lose enjoyment from doing things. Pink says the secret is to turn work into play and suggest that what traditional motivations have done for too long (especially perhaps in schooling) is to turn play into work.  And finally Pink explains how to use drive 3.0: by giving people autonomy and purpose and by encouraging them to seek mastery.
OK, so it's not that easy. But I have made note after note in the margins and I am going to try to adapt these ideas at my school big time.

Brilliant and potentially revolutionary. August 2012; 215 pages.

Friday, 10 August 2012

"Vacant Possession" by Hilary Mantel

Deputy Headteacher Colin has a dysfunctional family. Teenage son Alastair and the vicar's son Austin sniff glue and burgle. Wife Sylvia embraces good causes. Undergraduate daughter Susannah gets pregnant by the husband of the woman whom Colin had a fling with ten years ago and leaves university to live in a squat. Mad mother is booted out of her geriatric hospital to live next door with his unmarried sister, Florence.

And Muriel Axon, the previous occupant of the house he now lives, in has been discharged from mental hospital and now, a mistress of disguise, has come to seek revenge.

But revenge for what? Muriel's problems come from her mum who was mad and kept her in the haunted house. The one time she escaped she was made pregnant (by the father of the woman Colin had an affair with); her mother then persuaded her to drown the child in the canal.

This is a black comedy. The characters lead meaningless lives against the bleak backdrop of unemployed Britain in the seventies and eighties. Their lives are tightly and intricately intertwined; coincidences abound. And Muriel isn't mad or stupid, she is wicked.

The one clue to what this all means is given when Sylvia reviews her decaying home and says that it is like the  Fall of the House of Usher to which Colin replies it is more like the fall of the House of Atreus. The House of Atreus was cursed by the Greek Gods because Tantalus cooked and served his son Pelops in a pie to the Gods. From there the crimes spread. Thyestes, twin brother of Atreus, had an affair with Aerope, wife of Atreus and unsuccessfully challenged Atreus for the throne of Mycenae. Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, killed Atreus, who had adopted him. Aegisthus then went on to have an affair with Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, son of Atreus. When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan war Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him; Aegisthus usurped the throne. Later Orestes, Agamemnon's son, murders Clytemnestra and is punished by the Furies for his matricide.

But I suspect that Mantel does not intend her book to mean anything. She creates this tight knit cohort of saddoes and the she manipulates the coincidences and the crimes of Muriel until we build to a potentially horrific climax. The only logic to this is the mad perversities of Muriel (although we can feel that in some ways she is also a victim). And what happens next surely has to be in the sequel.

Black. Not really a comedy, not really a farce.

Mantel has written better books. Similar to this is the wonderfully funny Beyond Black, about a medium who really does interact with the spirit world even though she would rather not, and (of course) the brilliant Booker winning Wolf Hall and its Booker winning sequel Bring Up the Bodies.

August 2012; 239 pages

Thursday, 9 August 2012

"Jerusalem" by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This book is a comprehensive history of Jerusalem from at least 1500 BC. It scarcely ever flag: with 2,500 years of history to get through it is difficult to see how it could!


All the reviewers rave about it. Charles Moore, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Colin Thubron... Who am I to disagree?

Although it acknowledges that the only source of information for much of the early history is the Old Testament and although it notes that there are inconsistencies and multiple voices in the OT nevertheless it then treats much of what has then been said as fact. And repeats it. So it is less a work of history than a retelling of the OT tales.

And I wonder how impartial SSM has been in his description of the more recent history.

But the most lasting impression from this monumental work is the tragedy of humanity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a microcosm of the City which is a microcosm of the world. The Holy Sepulchre is used by eight (?) Christian sects including Copts, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ethiopians and Catholics. They fight over their areas (you can lay claim to the floor you sweep so there are broom wars) and the right to have precedence during certain festivals. The fights extend to weapons including guns and cause injuries and sometimes deaths. Similarly the City is fought over by Moslems, Jews and Christians. In its history these fights have led to mutilation, castration, torture, bisection, impalement, crucifixion, burning and wholesale deportations, enslavements and massacres of entire populations.

The message of this book is that the more sacred something is, the more evil is done in its name. The message of this book is: Do not live in this city. It is accursed.

A monumental history. But this author has written better: the sometimes confusing but brilliant Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar and the unbelievably exciting Young Stalin.

August 2012; 628 pages