About Me

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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

Thursday, 29 December 2016

"The Vatican Cellars" by Andre Gide

This is a book by the author of The Immoralist whose plot I have totally forgotten but whose haunting images and poetic prose remain with me.

The plot here is strangely constructed. Book One (30 pages) is about Anthime, a crippled vivisectionist and freemason who, despite living in Rome, is militantly atheist until a miracle occurs. In Book Two Anthime's brother-in-law, Julius, an aristocrat and novelist whose latest book is a distressing flop, seeks the secretarial services of beautiful 19 year old Lafcadio Wluiki on the instruction of his father; in the course of hiring Lafacdio he sneaks a look at a photograph which shows Lafcadio naked and at several cryptic diary entries in a notebook; later Lafcadio relates the story of his childhood amongst five aristocratic 'uncles'. In Book Three we meet the utterly ineffectual Amedee Fleurissoire who marries a girl no one else wants except for his best friend and then tells his best friend he will never have sex with the girl; he then learns that the Pope has been kidnapped (a rumour put around by a gang of swindlers led by Lacfadio's schoolboy pal, Protos) conning dowagers out of their savings to 'rescue' the Pope and travels to Rome to save the Pope. Here (book 4) he is tricked into sleeping in a brothel with the mistress of Protos (who, as his name suggests, is a veritable master of disguises) and tricked by Protos into cashing a cheque and bringing the cash to Protos to 'save the Pope'. But Lacfadio is travelling on the train (book 5) and murders Amedee on a whim and then is confronted by his old school chum Protos and blackmailed into working for him as a gigolo and sometime rent boy but the worms turn and Protos is in trouble but Lacfadio's conscience troubles him and somewhere along the line Anthime decides to renounce Catholicism and become a Freemason again.

Not so much a plot as a set of short stories bundled together by unlikely coincidences (or is it all a huge conspiracy?).

But Gide can write. He observes things that no author I know has previously observed:

  • As Julius gets in to bed next to his wife Marguerite "she gave an animal grunt and turned to the wall."
  • "I see something disquieting in the appearance of everyone I pass in the street. It alarms me if they look at me, and if they do't look at me they seem as if they were pretending not to see me." (p 144)

And he writes beautiful pathetic fallacies:

  • "Come, come, my son! You mustn't let yourself go like that. Well, yes! you have sinned, but, hang it all, you are still needed. (You've dirtied yourself; here, take this napkin; rub it off.) But of course I understand your anguish, and since you appeal to us, we will give you the means of redeeming yourself. (You're not doing it properly. Let me help you.)" (p 156)

And there are philosophical pointers:

  • "Do you know what I dislike about writing? - All the scratchings out and touchings up that are necessary? ... In life one corrects oneself ... but one can't correct what one does." (p 72)
  • "1. The slim recognize each other. 2. The crusted do not recognize the slim." (p 216)
The plot is bizarre. But the character of Lacfadio, the amoral, sexually ambivalent outsider, seems to be the template for Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley.

December 2016; 237 pages

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Sex, Literature and Censorship" by Jonathan Dollimore

This is not a book I would normally have read except that I had previously read Dollimore's Death, desire and loss in Western culture and loved it. This is a little more academic and challenging for a person like myself who has never studied Gender let alone Queer Studies but Dollimore is a brilliant writer and some of his observations are even more acute and mind-transforming that in that previous book.

His thesis in this book seems to be that we censor too much although the brilliance and scope of his analyses diluted the message for me. He makes three key points:

  • Art is inherently and intentionally dangerous: artists want to change the world and it is disingenuous to argue that a work of art only has power as a work of art. "Human desire will not be contained by safe and reassuring narratives ... desire is perversely dangerous and often the more seductive for being so." (p 73)
  • The world has been changed. "The increase in gay and bisexual people in more liberal climates isn't just a consequence of those who are 'already gay' and bisexual coming out; it's also because many more people are exploring homosexuality who otherwise wouldn't have." (p 102) 
  • There is a fundamental tension in society between society's needs and the individual's desires: "The daemonic ... is powerfully expressed in some of the great mythic oppositions in western culture, including the Greek one between Apollo and Dionysus [he references Medea by Euripedes] , the Renaissance ones between reason and passion, culture and nature, and most recently, Freud's account of human history as the unending antagonism between civilization and instinct." (p 73) It seems unlikely that "liberated desire would, as it were, civilize itself." (p 78)

So censorship, a feature of all societies throughout history, is perhaps essential. The question then becomes at which point on the slippery slope do we draw a line? He doesn't seem to have an answer to this. What he does do is point out that our responses (often in terms of revulsion and hatred) to the inherent dangers of desire are culturally conditioned and he gives compelling examples of that conditioning. For example:

  • "In Ancient Greece the love which a man felt for a boy would disappear abruptly when body hair appeared ... in Greece they were disgusted by men loving boys who were too old, while today most people are disgusted by men who love them too young" (pp 54 - 55)
  • "Forbidden knowledge has always been a feature of human cultures ... Against that, the breaking of the injunction has been regarded as necessary for progress and liberation ... Straddling that opposition are some of the great transgressive figures of myth and literature, including Prometheus, Faust/us, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and of course Adam and Eve." (p 89)
  • Too clever by half? "Nordau's notion of the 'higher degenerate', an individual who is dangerously brilliant because endowed with an intelligence which has evolved too far and at the expense of the ethical faculty" (p 115)

Along the way he is fascinating about many other topics, listed in no particular order below:

He starts by observing that bisexuality has caused significant problems for homosexuals and it seems to be because of the human tendency to dichotomise: "our current obsessive binary division between heterosexual and homosexual: the classification of people according to the sex/ gender of their partners, or desired partners." (pp 17 - 18). He cites his own experience as a gay man, a pioneer in Queer Studies, who found himself having a sexual relationship with a woman and being condemned by some who even accused him of being gay for his career: "but then I thought, hang on: actually any guy who could spend his life being fucked from pillow to bedpost by other guys ... deserved to have a fabulous career." (p 23)  Gay people in the past, he says, has "theorized the bisexual as the biggest hypocrite of all in the sex arena, a bullshitter, a hedge-sitter, someone who wanted the best of all worlds without committing to any" (p 23) But "it was useful to ... see the judgemental sexual politicians either silenced or having to retool. (That's an unfortunate metaphor, but one which, on quick reflection, I think I'll keep.) (p 23) [You see, he can write beautifully!]

But he must also consider the "much older idea of desire as inherently dangerous and always potentially disruptive" (p 18).

"Our desire, in all its perversity, is drawn to the very exclusions which constitute it." (p 26)

"There are homoerotic texts which convey even more acutely what it is to have one's identity wrecked by desire" eg Giovanni's Room and Death in Venice. (p 35)

Desire is linked to disgust: Andre Gide (author of The Immoralist), in his autobiography, sees a little Arab lad being fucked by his friend and experiences revulsion, disgust.

And we must take on the concept of "identity: the source of an essential, authentic selfhood for which we must be prepared to fight and suffer." (p 19)

"An individual identity is composite, a partial organization, more or less complex, and based in part on exclusion" (p 82)

"Notoriously in human history, those who have made progress have wanted to deny the same rights to others." (pp 24 - 25)

"Of the vulnerable groups censors have obsessed about the most - women, the lower classes, and children - the first two have been emancipated, but not children, or even adolescents." (p 157)

"Evil is not some-thing, but a turning-away from God, a perverse regression back to originary nothingness." (p 83)

"The extreme contradiction in the anti-homosexual position ... : on the one hand homosexuality is so self-evidently 'hideous', 'loathsome', a 'degeneracy', a 'degradation', a 'debasement' ... that nay right-thinking and healthy person would avoid it like the plague. On the other hand it has this extraordinary capacity to seduce precisely the 'healthy', right-minded boy or girl; to devastate the entire younger generation, in fact." (p 100)

"To be human is to be profoundly non-natural. A child dies: we never forget, and if we loved that child we maybe never recover. And yet nothing is more natural than for an organism to die in infancy. ... Human culture involves an attitude to nature which mixes repression, defiance and forgetting ... all of which are the condition of love." (p 69)

"The Christian god, unlike his predecessors, does not desire. He is complete, wanting and lacking nothing. He absolutely does not desire because to desire is an imperfection and a limitation inseparable from mortality. Being perfect, the Christian god doesn't desire, but then he doesn't laugh, either." (p 77)

"Corrupted reason was capable of an intensity of evil unknown to the non-rational or irrational. Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." (p 80); ref Angelo in Measure for Measure: it is the virgin Isabella for whom he self-destructively lusts

A brilliant book. December 2016; 171 pages

Monday, 26 December 2016

"Castle Rackrent" by Maria Edgeworth

This is a two part story first published in 1800. It is narrated by an old retainer (Thady Quirk, honest Thady or old Thady) of a family of Irish gentry.

The first half relates the history of the family till the present day. Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent died from a hunting accident and left the estate to his 'cousin-german' (we would now say first cousin) Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin on condition that he changed his name (and presumably his religion, O'Shaughlin being a Catholic name). Sir Patrick was a party animal who died after a particularly heavy party; his body was seized for deby which gave his heir (Sir Murtagh Rackrent) the excise to refuse to pay any debts. Sir Murtagh was a lawyer who sued everyone: "Out of forty-nine suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen" but died while arguing with his wife about an abatement. The estate then passed to his younger brother Sir Kit Stopgap who immediately went to Bath and became an absentee landlord leaving the estate to "middle men" who bought leases cheap and rented them out dear but Sir Kit abroad gambled away all the money until everything was mortgaged. Then Sir Kit appointed Thody's son Jason as agent and married an heiress who was a Jewess and brought her back to Ireland and then locked her up in a room in the castle to extort money from her. Seven years later she was let out after her husband was killed by the third of his adversaries in consecutive duels. And so eventually a new heir arrived, Sir Conolly (Condy) Rackrent.

The second book his Condy's story, still narrated by Thody who becomes even more gossipy and full of Irish idiom than before. Si Condy gets into debt and has to decide whether to marry the neighbouring heiress (against her father's wishes) or his childhood sweetheart. A toss of the coin decides him on the heiress. But the newlywed and rather unhappily wed couple are extravagant and soon the money has all gone and Thody's son Jason the agent starts to persuade Sir Condy to sell a little here and a little there and so starts but by bit to acquire the estate.

Sir Condy's wife at one stage reads 'The sorrows of Werther'.

This is a delightfully written and utterly picaresque family saga written very briefly and with a brilliant ear for the language of the time by one of the most gossipy narrators I have ever read. Great fun and very short.

December 2016, 90 pages

Other books with Castle in the title include:

Irish fiction reviewed in this blog:
  • Strumpet City by James Plunkett: a book about the poor in Dublin in the early 20th Century
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the sequel to Angela's Ashes: an Irish exile in New York
  • Dubliners by James Joyce: the classic short stories
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgworth: a classic first published in 1800
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: a boy grows up in Ireland
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan: set in the recession of the early 21st Century

Saturday, 24 December 2016

"Full Circle" by Ferdinand Mount

The thesis of this author is that we in the twenty-first century are similar is very many ways to our distant Roman and Greek forefathers of the classical world.

It started well. He showed that public baths had started in Swindon (or possibly Ireland, and the London Turkish baths, or indeed the ones in Turkey, he mentioned briefly and then moved on) and suggested that this was a rerun of the obsession with public bathing enjoyed by the Romans but virtually forbidden (on grounds of indecency) by mediaeval Christianity: "St Anthony boasted that he had never washed his feet in his life."

He is almost as successful when he suggests that the fitness gym is a direct descendant of the Greek enthusiasm for physical fitness, a descendant whose lineage has a two thousand year gap in it. And it has been regularly noted that in our attitude to sex (particularly homosexuality) we are as liberal as the Greeks and Romans if not even more so. But it is less clear cut when he talks about food. We may be obsessed with cookery ("'gourmet' ... probably derives from the same root as our 'groom'"), as were the Romans, but were not other generations, if we are to go by the record of feasts held in mediaeval and Georgian times: St Thomas Aqiuinas "was so gloriously fat that a segment had to be carved out of the refectory table to accommodate his massive paunch."

He can certainly write. I loved his description of the spa attendant that handed him his robe as "the attendant with her not-quite-smile".  He describes a man on a treadmill as "carrying enough weight to stop a Gold Cup horse in its tracks" and says that "In the gym everyone is a solipsist."

But then he increasingly indulges in polemic. He claims that Science reflects the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales. Up to a point. He is vituperative about the militant atheists Dawkins etc and describes Voltaire's Candide as "still the ultimate and unanswerable polemic against scientific optimism" (whereas I thought it was written anti-religion; Voltaire was a notorious atheist). He talks dismissively about the multiple new age cults and compares them to the boom in pagan religions at the dawn of the first millennium; he really goes to town about Hadrian's gay lover Antinous.

The problem is that Mount has ascended his soapbox. As his passions rise, his rhetoric gets louder and his evidence decreases. He interprets so much in the light of his own prejudices and he uses rhetoric (very Socratic) to replace evidence, for example when he repeatedly labels Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Grayling as the 'anti-God-botherers'.

As Mount gets angrier and angrier the details from the classical world get thinner. This is a thesis drowning in emotion and starving from lack of evidence.

There were moments when I wondered how much research he had done. He claims: "It is in Swindon that Ricky Gervais sets his comedy of modern office life" although The Office is set in Slough (there is another branch of the company in Swindon). Since this was on the second page, it started me worrying.

And yet how can it not be proven? The classical world that Mount describes lasts from the pre-Socratics from before 500 BCE until the Emperor Hadrian about 138 CE; in other words a period of at least 600 years. Inevitably, the culture he describes went through a number of transformations. The culture since 1416 has scarcely been uniform. To shows that an aspect of modern life is similar or dissimilar to an aspect cherry-picked from a 600 year period is surely not a particularly impressive feat.

So in the end I was disappointed that a book that started so well should fizzle out so self-indulgently. December 2016; 385 pages

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

"There But For The" by Ali Smith

This brilliant book has a really weird plot structure. Centring on a man who, in the middle of a dinner party, goes into one of the bedrooms and locks himself in there and refuses to come out, rather than following any conventional narrative structure it explores some of the characters with whom this man has some sort of relationship, from Anna, whom he met on a school trip years ago, to Mark whom he meets at the theatre the week before, to Brooke, a child at the dinner party, to Mrs Young, mother of his first girlfriend. And so this is really a set of linked short stories.

But what makes it special is the extraordinary humour, mostly punning word play, which pervades the book; the fabulous set piece dinner party in the centre of the book with its brilliant humour developed from the extraordinary combination of characters, the best party since Abigail's (yes, I know it wasn't really Abigail's) the moments of deep insight; and the utterly brilliant writing skills which Smith brings to her prose.


"She is over there in a ji (a ji: less than half a jiffy)." (p 309)

"She was working at the computer in her office, doing admin, which is short for administration, which is short for migraine-stimulant." (p 316)

"You enjoyed the play, didn't you? Mrs Lee said to Brooke. I found it weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Brooke said. Mrs Lee laughed. A bit over her head, Mrs Lee said over Brooke's head to Brooke's parents." (p 292)

The book is full of puns, from the dinner party hosts called Gen and Eric (generic) to:

  •  "A4, like paper? the child said. Or a road that is smaller than a motorway?" (p 55)
  • "He's an ethic cleanser, the child says." (p 129)
  • "He thinks of himself and Hugo in the bird-watching hut, Hugo behind him, deep inside him, say, you are coming aren't you? Working on it, Mark says laughing, any second now. I mean weekend after next, Hugo said sounding offended even through the effort of love. You are coming to Jan and Eric's?" I loved 'the effort of love'. (p 131)
  • "Nasty, British and short." (p 147)

Dinner party

The centrepiece is a wonderful dinner party in which the guests are:

  • a right wing racist homophobe whose company makes surveillance and military drones
  • a gay man (Mark) who assumes his hostess is called Jan (she is called Gen) and the stranger he met at the theatre who has not had a sexual relationship with him (but everyone thinks they are a couple)
  • a married man and his wife; the gay man (Mark) has recently had sex with the married man (Hugo)
  • a black lecturer in metallurgy who loves musicals (so that the homophobe assumes he is gay) and his wife; they protest about the drones.
Deep insight
"You had to count your blessings, Philip always said. He always said it when he was disappointed. It was how you knew he was disappointed." (p 216)

People obsessed with their mobile phones: "it was like they were all on drugs, cumbersome like cattle, heads down, not seeing where they were going." (p 221)

"Who sees the sparrow fall? Nobody. It just falls ... There's nobody there to see." (p 239)

"This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she'd just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she'd done it to herself somehow, hit the dark." (p 245)

"When someone shouts like that at you it is like a passenger-carrying hot air balloon filling with the hot air that's supposed to send it into the sky but instead it is being inflated dangerously fast inside a very small room so that its sides and top press against the walls and ceiling which means that either the walls and ceiling will have to give way or the balloon that is in your head will explode." (p 283)

"The fact is, that at the top of any mountain you'll feel a bit dizzy because of the air up there. Cleverness is great. It's a really good thing, when you have it. But there's no point in just having it. You have to know how to use it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it's not that you're the cleverest any more, or you are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it's a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is to become a cleverist." (p 345)

The internet (an old woman calls it "the intimate") gets quite a lot of bashing. The gay protagonist admits "there's a certain charm to being able to look up and watch Eartha Kitt ... but the charm is a kind of deception about a whole new way of feeling lonely, a semblance of plenitude but really a new level of Dante's inferno, a zombie-filled cemetery of spurious clues, beauty, pathos, pain, the faces of puppies, women and men from all over the world tied up and wanked over in site after site, a great sea of hidden shallows. More and more, the pressing human dilemma: how to walk a clean path between obscenities." (p 159)

The word but: "but the thing I particularly like about the word, but, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting." (p 175)

She watches a young girl crossing a road by herself and "She thought of all the children, literally thousands of them, the same age as that child, crossing the world by themselves right now" (p 56)

A gay man, innocently eavesdropping on a party of school children at the Greenwich Meridian, is noticed by a young boy who makes a comment to his mates. "But even well after the sniggering had died away the boy continued to hold the stare. In it there was a perfectly judged balance of rejection and invitation. The boy was an expert. He looked all of thirteen. He was far too young to be acting so knowing. Mark stilled a wild laugh in his chest." (p 101)

"Wonder ... if we all have our names in there written ... on our foreheads, between the flesh and the bone." (p 158)

"record is a word that means, in Latin, something which returns through the heart" (p 177)

"That's what the babies did, after all, when they were born. They looked a look at the world as if they could see something that our own eyes couldn't, or had forgotten how to." (p 213)

Writing skills
A brilliant introduction to a black child in which he skin colour is not mentioned when the protagonist first encounters her but which you can infer when they ring the doorbell of the house in which the protagonist assumes that the child's mother lives and the text reads: "But it was a white woman ... who answered the door." (p 13)

Another brilliant piece of writing is when we are introduced to Jennifer "4.4.63, 29.1.79" and we immediately know that she has died. (p 215)

I loved the way one of the dinner party guests assumed that the hostess (Gen) was called Jan and called her that in his thoughts until he discovered he was wrong.

I loved the way the gay man's dead mother keeps intruding into his thoughts using couplets.

"Some of the more hippy ones here, say it's because Milo attracts animals to him, like St Francis. But it's the cooking and the bin bags, I'd say." (p 190)

What a wonderful book. December 2016; 356 pages

Other brilliant books by Ali Smith include:

  • The Accidental: a holidaying family is gatecrashed by a young woman
  • How to Be Both which has two halves which can be read in either order (and some copies of the book are printed one way and some the other): one half has a teenage girl trying to cope with the death of her mother; the other half is the exuberant reflections of a renaissance artist who was a woman pretending to be a man.
  • Artful which is both a ghost story and a meditation on art
  • Autumn: a collage type work
  • Winter, another collage type work which weaves the story of a Christmas Carol with Cymbeline and the Nativity and reflects on Britain following the Brexit referendum.

Page numbers refer to the Penguin paperback

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

"The Thing Around Your Neck" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This is a collection of short stories by the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel about the Biafran conflict.

Cell One starts with a brilliant hook: "The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbour." Robberies perpetrated by the bored teenage sons of the staff in the University town escalate into gangs (called 'cults); gang strife escalates into murders. The narrator's brother Nnamabia, who has himself burgled his own parents and is handsome and spoiled rotten by his mother, gets picked up by the corrupt police for being on the streets after a curfew. So the family go to see him in jail. At first he enjoys the attention, despite the terrible conditions. But then an innocent old man is thrown into the cell with him. The old man is too poor to bribe the guards and gets bullied. And the boy wants to help the old man.

This is a classic tale of a selfish young man redeemed when he witnesses suffering (it is the tale of the Buddha) told in 19 short pages. It benefits from the way in which exotic details such as corrupt police and appalling prison conditions are written as if they were entirely normal and to be expected. There are carefully crafted details, such as how Nnamabia hides his money in his anus by "rolling one-hundred-naira notes into thin cigarette shapes and then slipping a hand into the back of his trousers to slide them painfully into himself." and of the strange compound with no police station sign "with patches of overgrown grass, with old bottles and plastic bags and paper strewn everywhere" where "they kept people who would later disappear". These details are notable for their subtlety.

In Imitation a Nigerian woman lives with her children and maid in "America, the abundance of unreasonable hope." She discovers that her husband, a businessman back in Lagos who earns big money but only sees her for 3 weeks at Christmas and 2 months in summer, has moved his latest girlfriend into her family home. This upsets her; she cuts her hair; she discusses the situation with the housemaid. And when he comes over to stay in America she tells him that she and the kids will be moving back to Lagos.

In A Private Experience the narrator, a medical student, is with a poor onion seller, hiding in a store room from the riots outside. As the two women, from opposite sides of the religious divide over which the men outside are rioting, shelter together, the trainee doctor examines the cracked nipples of the five-time mother and advises on breast feeding and nipple care. But afterwards she never finds the sister she was in the market with.

In Ghosts a retired university professor goes on to campus to chase up the payment of his pension (unpaid for three years, and yet he still has money and can but bananas for the poor men in the campus grounds). There he encounters a man he thought died when the university was taken over by the Federal troops during the Biafran war. This man had been a political firebrand and there was always "great disappointment upon seeing him, because the depth of his rhetoric somehow demanded good looks. But then, my people say that a famous animal does not always fill the hunter's basket." They discuss the Biafran war and their survival, the people they knew who dies and survived, skirting round possible shames at not having done enough in the war or somehow having betrayed someone or themselves: the guilt of the survivors of a defeat.

At the start of the story, the ghost of the title seems to be this old man: "Today I saw Ikenna Okoro, a man I had long thought was dead. Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost." But towards the end of the story it becomes apparent that the ghost is that of the narrator's dead wife who visits him from time to time to massage him. "I often want to tell Nkiru [his daughter, living in America] that her mother visits weekly in the harmattan and less often during the rainy season, but if I do she will finally have reason to come here and bundle me back with her to America and I will be forced to live a life cushioned by so much convenience that it is sterile."

In On Monday of Last Week Nigerian Kamara is working a child care for 4 year old Josh whose Jewish lawyer dad Neil spends long days at work and whose mother Tracy hides all day in the cellar doing something artistic. Then, on Monday of last week, Kamara, who has come to America to be with her husband, meets and instantly falls for African American Tracy. There is a lot of background about the neurotic parenting regime installed by Neil with its anxieties about child molesters and health drinks and allergies and reading challenges: "America parenting was a juggling of anxieties ... a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one's child was the exception rather than the rule."

But Kamara has a sadness. She waited six years to follow her husband to America and now she feels she does not know him anymore. She is bewildered. "She did not like her bed but did not want to get up from in in the morning." But she can't tell her best friend in Nigeria because that friend's husband has taken a new wife: "she could not complain about not having shoes when the person she was talking to had no legs."

Jumping Monkey Hill explores a group of writers from all over Africa who have won a competition to attend a two week writing workshop at a posh South African hotel. It explores the diversity of Africa and the impossibility of ever having a single voice to speak for Africa. It also asks what a story is for. The leader of the workshop (who makes it obvious that he fancies the female narrator)  criticises stories on political grounds: Africa isn't yet ready for gay fiction, a story about violence is urgent and political. The other writers criticise the great writers on Africa: no turn is left unstoned from Conrad to Achebe to Paton. The narrator's story is criticised for being unrealistic when it was utterly autobiographical.

The Thing Around Your Neck is yet another take on the Nigerian woman who gets a visa to go to the USA. Akunna (addressed throughout as 'you' making this an unusual example of a story narrated in the second person) us sonsored by her uncle but when she arrives in Maine he tries to molest her so she runs away to Connecticut where she works as a waitress. She is very prickly about the expectations that other people have of her so 'he' (boyfriend material) is initially rebuffed, even though "his eyes were the color of extravirgin olive oil, a greenish gold." But he perseveres and gradually 'you' begin to understand 'his' strange culture: "You did not know that people could simply choose not to go to school, that people could dictate to life. You were used to accepting what life gave, writing down what life dictated." But slowly, even with his weird ideas, he becomes more and more acceptable to 'you' (I think he must have been an enormously patient man!). And he wants her but she flies back to Nigeria for her father's funeral and refuses to promise that she will come back.

So for all that she accepts what life dictates, she won't accept the boy who so clearly loves her to get too close.

She is standing in a 'line' outside The American Embassy, queuing for an asylum visa, two days after she has buried her son who was shot by the soldiers who came to arrest her journalist husband (who had already escaped in the boot of a car to Benin). She is angry with her husband for publishing the story criticising the regime. He was not brave, she thinks: "It was not courage, it was simply an exaggerated selfishness." This very simple story, mingling her memories of her son's death with the chatter of the other people in the queue, is perhaps one of the most powerful.

The Shivering starts with a plane crash in Nigeria; Ukamaka, doing her dissertation in Princeton, fears her ex-boyfriend might have been on the flight; Chinedu knocks on her door, invites himself in and starts to pray with her. A friendship develops. He is Pentecostal and she Catholic. She can't stop talking and thinking about her ex-boyfriend even as she realises how horrible he was to her.

This is a new take on the problem of evil: "If you say God is responsible for keeping Udenna safe, then it means God is responsible for the people who died, because God could have kept them safe, too. Does it mean God prefers some people to others? ...God always makes sense but not always a human kind of sense ... If God prefers some people to others, it doesn't make sense that it would be Udenna who would be spared. Udenna could not have been the nicest or kindest person who was booked on that flight ... You can't use human reasoning for God ... You have to stop thinking that God is a person. God is God."

"Have faith is not really like saying be tall and shapely. It's more like saying be OK with the bulge and with having to wear Spanx."

In The Arrangers of Marriage, Ofodile Udenwa has returned from the USA where he is a doctor called Dave Bell to marry by arrangement Chinaza. She returns with him and has to start learning how to be American, changing her name to Agatha Bell, using American words like busy for engaged and pitcher for jug, cooking American food and living in rooms that "lacked a sense of space, as though the walls had become unconfortable with each other, with so little between them."

Tomorrow Is Too Far is about the guilt felt by the female narrator after her brother died. Although she was better than him, clever, better at climbing trees, he was idolised by the family to the extent that she doubted whether she was real. Survivor's guilt? Or something more sinister?

The final story, The Headstrong Historian, is perhaps the weakest. It preaches rather than entertains. It is about how colonialism conquered Nigeria as experienced by a woman who took her son to be educated at the Catholic mission and her granddaughter who became a historian so that she could correct the distortions of the colonials.

There seems to be a lot of anger in this book. The women are oppressed and the men oppressors. The white boyfriend of the title story seems all that a girl could desire but even he is not good enough for the untrusting narrator. African customs are good and Western customs are weird or positively bad. Surely it is Ofodile's choice if he wishes to change his name to Dave Bell and adopt different customs, even if the reason is simply that this will help him become richer. Clearly he shouldn't require his wife to change but it is his right to do so. Many of these stories seem to be predicated on the concept that people shouldn't change but poeple do and cultures evolve. My world is not the same as the world of my parents and while there are some things I regret, there are many things that I am glad there is a lot less of (racism and sexism being two very obvious ones which, if they haven't disappeared, are significantly less prevalent and certainly less sanctioned than they were when I was young.

But the writing makes up for the bitterness. When she describes scenes and when she writes about human emotions, Chima is brilliant.

December 2016; 218 pages

Friday, 9 December 2016

"Dynasty" by Tom Holland

This is the story of the first Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

The First Chapter, The Children of the Wolf, sketches the early history of Rome from Romulus and Remus (did Remus freely offer his life as a sacrifice when Romulus was building Rome or was he murdered by his twin brother?), through the expulsion of the kings, through to the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, politician and brilliant general who enslaved all of Gaul and invaded Britain too, Pompey the Great, brilliant general whose quasi private armies built an empire in the middle east, and Crassus, fabulously wealthy banker and brilliant general whose defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians unbalanced the triumvirate into a civil war finally won by Caesar. And then comes a remarkable piece of writing in which Holland describes the pivotal events of 15th February 44BC, "a few days after Caesar's appointment as 'Dictator for Life'," (p 24) the feast of the Lupercal. "The date was a potent one, both joyous and haunted ... stalked by the dead, who had been known to mark the festival by rising from their graves and roaming the streets. ... In the mouth of the [Lupercal] cave, below the branches of the sacred fig tree, oiled men known as Luperci, naked save for a loincloth of goatskin, stood shivering in the winter breeze. Also maDe of goatskin were the thongs they held in their hands, and which women on the crowds below, many of them stripped to the waist, would invariably blush to see waved in their direction. Naturally, it took a certain physique to carry off a loincloth - and especially so in February." (pp 24 - 25) Even so, Marc Antony, a forty year old magistrate, had joined the Luperci. The Luperci ran through the streets, whipping the half-naked women with their thongs "on a day when the human mingled with the wolvish, the carnal with the supernatural" (p 26). And when Antony runs down the Forum to the Rostrum he encounters Caesar on a golden throne "dressed in the ancient costume of the city's kings: purple toga and calf-length boots in fetching red leather."  (p 26) Antony then presents Caesar with a laurel diadem. "A few desultory rounds of applause greeted the gesture. Otherwise all was leaden silence. Then Caesar, after a pause, pushed the diadem away - and the Forum echoed to tremendous cheering ... And so the experiment failed." (p 27) And one month later, Brutus, descendant of the Brutus who had chased Rome's last king from the city, led the assassination of Caesar. "And wolves, in lofty cities, made the nights echo with their howls." (p 28)Tremendous writing: political theatre mingled with sex and superstition: can you get a more potent mix?

Chapter Two is entitled Back to the Future. We learn about the chaos of civil war following the assassination of Caesar: first between the new triumvirate of wealthy nigh priest Lepidus, Marc Antony and youthful nobody (but Caesar's heir) Octavian; next when the triumvirs fell out. Aristocratic Livia was wife to Tiberius Nero who aligned himself with Antony in an Italian revolt against Octavian: soon the young couple with their baby Tiberius were fleeing, first to Sicily, next to Greece "before being forced on the run again. As they made their escape through a forest, a fire broke out. Livia's dress was left charred. Even her hair was singed." (p 45). Months later she was shagging Octavian and a divorce was quickly arranged. Tiberius Nero, exchanging an unfaithful wife for a pardon for rebellion, "gave his former wife away" at the wedding! (p 46)

The soldiers who had fought for Octavian were now rewarded with land confiscated from enemies or non-combatants (shades of Zimbabwe). This was in towns outside Roman that had once been her neighbours, then her possessions and were coming to be co-cities of the Republic even though the peoples were sometimes primitive, such as the Marsians "whose singing could make snakes explode." But the land confiscations and continuing piracy brought famine to Rome, threatening the regime to the extent that when the bodies of those killed in riots were slung into the Tiber "gangs of desperate thieves waded out and stripped them bare ... Nothing was left them save to scavenge corpses."

Despite the rumours about the sexual promiscuity of Octavian (now renamed Augustus) himself, Roman citizens were expected to control themselves. "Unchecked sexual appetites, while only to be expected in a woman - or, of course, a Greek - were hardly appropriate to a citizen  ... No man could be reckoned truly a man who was the slave of his own desires. Playboys who chased after married women were well known to be womanish themselves. The Princeps, it was whispered, smoothed his legs by singeing off their hairs with red-hot nut shells." (p 100) Ovid, the poet, on the other hand was a young man who enjoyed sex "When Ovid strolled up to Apollo's temple ... it was not to admire the architecture. He was scoping out girls." (p 105) After all, the phallus was "everywhere to be seen" and "much admired. A generously endowed man hitting the bath-house might well be greeted with 'a round of nervous applause'." (p 106) But sex was for men and whores. Cuckolding another citizen carried ferocious penalties: death for the woman and death or castration for the man. "For a man to shave his armpits was ... simply good manners but to .... depilate the legs was disgusting, plain and simple. Body hair was the mark of a man." (p 108) The feast of Liber, however, allowed sexual license. "Everybody slept with everybody else" (p 112) although Julia, daughter to Augustus and wife to his consigliere Agrippa, when asked how her sons looked so much like their father joked "because I only ever take on passengers after the cargo-hold has been loaded." (p 122).

One of the keys to the success of Augustus was that he mapped out the poor districts of Rome, focusing his attention on the cross-roads, where he organised the local authorities, including the Vigiles "crack squads of firefighters ... mandated to police the streets as well as to put out conflagrations." (p 140).

Chapter 4 is about Tiberius, a very interesting character. A successful general and the step-son of Augustus, Tiberius was an organiser, an administrator, a thorough and painstaking man, with very little charisma, a highly aristocratic attitude and a dislike of the mob. Protesting not to want to be Emperor he nevertheless managed to rule by terror which included starving to death several members of his own family. When he retired to Capri he took many aristocratic children as hostages. They were then used as performers in pornographic stage shows and "obliged to pose as prostitutes, to hawk for business like the lowest class of sex worker, to perform sometimes three or four at a time". (p 253)

Chapter 5 is about Caligula, who grew up at his uncles pornographic court on Capri. Caligula was his nickname because as a toddler he became the idol and the mascot of the military camp which his dad, Germanicus, was in charge of. Utterly unlike the austere Tiberius, Caligula staged games and shows and courted the popularity of the masses; at the same time he terrorised the Senate. "What Capri had been to Tiberius, the whole of Rome was now to his heir: a theatre of cruelty and excess" (p 287) He killed and tortured, he tormented parents by making them view the death of one of their children and then kept them subservient because they had other children, he brought Capri to the Palatine Hill and made the aristocratic women and children hostages have sex with paying plebs. But he tormented one member of his guard too far and the man assassinated him.

The pendulum swung, as they do, and Chapter 6 (Io Saturnalia) is about Caligula's elderly uncle Claudius, previously passed over in the succession because he was lame and dribbly and altogether ill-fitting the Roman ideal of manhood. He understood the coup that had led to his succession and his first actions was to award massive bonuses to the Praetorian Guard, He then developed a sort of meritocracy in which powerful positions were given to men who had started out life as slaves, or the sons of slaves, such as Callistus, whose name meant 'Gorgeous'. Clearly, following the humiliations heaped on it by Caligula, the Senate's traditional exclusivity and rights were to be further eroded. "Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition ... was a novelty once" (p 371 quoting Tacitus quoting Claudius) For example, despite the law saying that only slaves could be tortured, in the aftermath of a conspiracy against Claudius he employed torturers ("specialists skilled in the art of extracting information tended to be found among private firms of undertakers", p 311) against free men.

Claudius needed to boost his macho and virile image and launched campaigns against the Moors (who were renowned for "their high standards of dental hygiene" and "tribes so unspeakably savage that they ate flesh raw and thought nothing of drinking milk"); having conquered the Atlas Mountains their general Suetonius Paulinus was then sent to conquer Britain who "were, if anything, even more barbarous than the Germans. They painted themselves blue; they held their wives in common; they wore hair on the upper lip, an affectation so grotesque that Latin did not have a word for it." (p 315).

When  Nero took over, probably by poisoning Claudius having been made his heir and still too young to shave, he was ruled by his mother Agrippina. "Bitter and humiliated, Nero vented his fury in the readiest way available, by repeatedly sodomising his stepbrother. Rape was, of course, the most physically brutal means a Roman had of asserting his dominance over a rival." Shortly afterwards Britannicus, Nero's stepbrother and heir, choked to death at a feast.

Nero and his tutor Seneca were in charge of the world. "Seated as he was at the heart of the great web of Roman power, he only had to tug upon a single thread of it for villages at the far end of the world to be trampled down by soldiers, and women left bruised and bleeding." (p 368)

Rome was becoming a cosmopolitan city. This in itself engendered dislike of immigrants. As then, now. "Meanwhile ... in the teeming streets of a city whose population now numbered well over a million, many had begun to wonder what precisely it meant to talk of the Roman people. Rome ... had been founded on immigration. Exotic languages had been heard in the city for centuries. ... Yet even as many Romans saw in their city's diversity the homage paid by the world to its greatness, and a potent source of renewal, so others were less convinced. All very well to host immigrants, so long as they ended up Roman; but what if they preserved their barbarous ways, infecting decent citizens with their superstitions? ... A sobering reflection, to be sure: that to serve as the capital of the world might render Rome less Roman." (p 372)

As well as all this, this book has some great side issues:

  • "Whether in his worsening health, in the person of a decrepit and toothless porter whom he had last seen as a handsome slaveboy, or in a clump of gnarled plane trees planted by his own hand in hoe youth, he found marks of decay everywhere." (p 379)
  • "Everyone knew that people only ever suffered poverty because they deserved it." (p 324)
  • The Praetorian Guard was named because it was the unit of a praetor, a commander.
  • A legionary swore a sacred oath called the sacramentum.
  • What have the Germans ever done for the Romans? The introduced Rome to "a curious concoction fashioned out of goat lard and ashes named 'soap' ... the miraculous product could give a hint of gold to even the dullest locks" although used to excess it might make you go bald.
  • "Stepmothers in Rome were widely presumed to be malignant." (p 171)
  • "It is in the nature of kings that they will hold good men in more suspicion than the bad, and dread the talents of others." (p 6; quoting Sallust The Conspiracy of Catiline)
  • "Who ... could rival the Greeks when it came to the shaping of bronze or marble, the mapping of the stars or the penning of sex manuals?" (p 5)

Beautifully written by the man who has also written Rubicon (the prequel to this book, about Julius Caesar), Persian Fire (Darius the Mede and his mates), Millennium (about the year 1000) and In the Shadow of the Sword (an exploration of the origins of Islam). December 2016; 419 pages

Friday, 2 December 2016

"Eugenie Grandet" by Honore de Balzac

Eugenie's dad, old Grandet, is the richest man in town. Starting as a cooper he buys vineyards and land and soon moves into investing and money-lending. Despite his great wealth he always tells people he is poor and he runs his household on the stingiest possible lines.

Two families in town are competing to marry a son off to just-come-of-age Eugenie because of the fortune she will inherit.

So when Charles arrives, handsome if foppish son of old Grandet's brother, a wealthy banker in Paris, all plans are thrown into disarray. Charles cannot conceive of the poverty stricken life his relations lead, that the cook has to plead with the master for extra bread to feed him, for sugar for his coffee, for butter and for eggs for breakfast. And the letter that comes to Grandet tells of his brother's bankruptcy and suicide.

Grandet schemes to get rid of Charles and to get round the shame of a Grandet going bankrupt using his usual sharp practices. But Eugenie has fallen in love with Charles ...

Balzac is a sort of French Dickens who, despite living between 1799 and 1850, wrote a vast number of books in a Dickensian style, mixing brilliantly realistic descriptions with over-sentimentalised but multi-layered and quite complex characterisations; essentially plot-driven.

  • "suitability to its purpose is necessary to all things."
  • "God will know his angels by the tones of their voices and the sadness hidden in their hearts."
  • "in the spirit of a conscientious writer reading his work through, criticizing it and saying hard things about it to himself"
  • "Don't we all live on the dead? Where else do legacies come from?"
  • "he has taken all they had and left them only their eyes to cry with."
  • "he rubbed his hands together briskly enough to have rubbed the skin off, if his epidermis had not resembled Russian leather in everything but its scent of larch bark and incense."
  • "Hunger brings to wolf from the wood"
  • "minds, like certain animals, lose their fertility when taken from their native clime."
  • "There had been a grain of gold in his heart ... but Parisian society had drawn it out to wire and beaten it to gilding, placed all on the surface where it must soon rub off."
  • "Even the harshest judge ... well hesitate to believe that a wizened heart, a corrupt and cold-blooded nature, can dwell beneath a smooth forehead and eyes that still fill readily with tears."
  • "you have eyes like a lost soul! Don't go looking at people that way."
  • "don't we all get harder as we get older?"

An interesting story which ends unexpectedly. December 2016, 228 pages

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

"Saturn's Daughters" by Jim Pinnells

Set in 1880ish in Russia, a group of revolutionaries invent the concept of terrorism. Although there are poor people among them, including Rakhel the Jewish prostitute, many of them are from privileged backgrounds, although many of their families live in genteel poverty.
Evgenya is the daughter of such a family. She is a bit of a tomboy who romps around the locality knickerless with the five brothers of her friend, Valentina. But when mining student Vitya comes to lodge whe falls in love with him. But he is a member of revolutionary group The People's Will and Evgenya gets drawn into their activities.

Sonya runs the group with a rod of iron; Countess Anna helps to bankroll them; Popov is an ex-chef who executes their traitors. And Evgenya learns about lesbian love with Anna, about posing naked for artist Albrecht, and about sex and prize-fighting and killing (the women fight bare knuckle and bare) from Popov. Her schoolgirl crush on Vitya somehow gets lost in her journey into her personal depths of eroticism and sadism.

As the People's Will slowly gets tracked down by the secret police, in part due to their own amateurish incompetence, the idealists slowly metamorphose into psychopaths.

I found this a very well written book. The understanding of the author for his subject was overwhelming. The mix of violence and eroticism was addictive. And the way that the author mixed the high ideals and revolutionary dramas with the minutiae of everyday life was perfectly judged:

  • As Sonya warns Evgenya that her affection for Vitya might interfere with her loyalty to the organisation they are moving furniture: "They were turning an awkward corner in the stairs. Sonya seemed more concerned with the trunk than with Vitya's feelings. 'Lower your end,' she said sharply." Perfect pathetic fallacy!
  • "She's a normal, healthy young woman - she likes violent men. Killers, I should think, she finds irresistible." (And when the speaker Anna is challenged on this being normal and healthy she points out that girls love a soldier; the only difference seems to be the uniform.)
  • "'I'm beginning to understand why they call us nihilists ... because we achieve absolutely fucking nothing.'"
  • "Damp as a dungeon and cold as an orphanage."
  • "She fell silent, a long declaratory silence which brought her closer to Vitya than she'd ever been before."

A bit of a romance but a damn good read. November 2016; 400 pages

Friday, 25 November 2016

"The Popes" by John Julius Norwich

Written in 2011 and therefore missing out the resignation of Benedict XVI and the new Pope Francis, this covers 265 men over 2000 years in 450 pages; few popes receive more than a few paragraphs and judgements necessarily lack nuance. The overall impression is that the incumbents of the papacy are either holy men, wholly unsuited to the tasks of leading a church, or that they believe the propaganda about infallibility and become authoritarian despots with no ability to understand that alternative perspectives from their own might exist let alone be valid, or that they are crooks and probably corrupt to boot. It seems that out of 265 only a handful have managed a consistently good job.

The other impression is that, certainly in the days before antibiotics and decent medical care, electing an old man to a job was a recipe for instability. Given the average papal reign is less than eight years long and given the human predilection for voting next time for the opposite of what you have got, it seems miraculous that the church still exists.

But these are superficial impressions. The other thing about this book is that there are a lot of fascinating characters and papal history is a lot of fun. Although some of the theological disputes are so abstruse and difficult to understand that even JJN finds it difficult to explain them. Has Christ two separate natures, one human and one divine or only one and if so is it human or divine and if not can the two both coexist or does one (and which one) predominate? I'm still confused as to what 'monophysite' means and what the doctrinal differences are between the Catholic and the orthodox, not to mention Copts, Nestorians and the rest.

There was one moment which I hated: "Attila, like all his race, was incorrigibly superstitious": even if you can assign a 'race' to Attila it can surely not be correct that every last member of that 'race' is superstitious let alone incorrigibly so. Please lose this lazy thinking if another edition is to be prepared.

I also found the numbers for the coronation feast for Clement VI inbelievable. There were three thousand guests. According to the quoted source they ate, each one, on average, one third of a sheep, three hens, half a goose, fifty cheeses, and seventeen tarts and cattle, calves, kids, pigs, and pike as well and drank at least four litres of wine. I just don't believe that possible.

But there were moments of wonder.

  • French King John II was captured by the English at Poitiers and released pending ransom in exchange for hostages including his son; when his son escaped he voluntarily returned to captivity. That's chivalry!
  • Deposed as ruler of Naples by Urban VI, Joanna was imprisoned by her replacement, papally sponsored Charles, and suffocated.
  • Once there was a pope and an antipope, one in Rome and one in Avignon, some cardinals decided to resolve the situation by declaring them both deposed and electing another. This led to three popes. The new one (JohnXXIII) was an ex-pirate who, while papal legate to Bologna, "seduced 200 matrons, widows and virgins, to say nothing of an alarming number of nuns". "As Edward Gibbon delightedly noted, 'the most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, sodomy and incest." Having eventually been deposed they made him a Bishop!
  • Pope Pius II as a young man was caught in a storm on a voyage to Scotland; having pledged a pilgrimage to the nearest Virgin Mary shrine if he was spared "he duly trudged over the frozen earth to the holy well at Whitekirk" which, although only 5 miles "he found that he had lost all sensation in his feet" and suffered arthritis for the rest of his life.
  • Sixtus IV, a Franciscan monk who loved poverty, changed completely on becoming Pope. "He spent money like water" and to fund it had to sell offices: "He bestowed the see of Milan on an eleven-year-old and the archbishopric of Lisbon on a boy of eight." But he was the one who built the Sistine chapel.
  • A church council in Milan in 1511 "was openly ridiculed to the point where a local chronicler forbore to record its proceedings because, he claimed, they could not be taken seriously, and anyway he was short of ink"
  • Leo X had a catamite who was a singer, the son of a Turkish Prince. This Prince had lived for years in the Vatican having fled Istanbul after attempting a coup against his brother, the Sultan. Gay Leo was the Pope who gave Henry VIII the title of Defender of the Faith, a title the British monarch still flaunts.
  • There were two expeditions to reclaim Crete from the Turks in 1668 and 1669. The first "consisted largely of aristocratic young Frenchmen who fought only for their own glory; in their opening battle they showed considerable courage, but when it was over the survivors could not get out fast enough" The story of the second was "much the same, but without the courage."
  • Gregory XVI's (1831- 1846) "mind was totally closed to progress, or indeed to any innovation"; he "banned the new railways - which he called chemins d'enfer"
  • John Paul II "surprised everybody ... in his berserk canonisations of everything in sight ... he canonised no fewer than 483 new saints, more than had been made in the previous five centuries."
An interesting book. November 2016; 450 pages

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

"NW" by Zadie Smith

Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan all went to the same comprehensive school in Kilburn, NW London. Now Irish, red-headed Leah is a university educated charity worker married to black French beautiful Michel and living in a council flat with a shared garden, black Natalie (used to be Keisha) is a barrister married to a banker, Felix is a recovering alcoholic with a.complicated love-life and Nathan is a drug pusher and pimp. The lives intertwine again with fatal consequences.

This book has an uneven structure. The first 95 pages are Leah's story. It starts with her being scammed by an old school mate and it follows her through her guilt about her weakness and about her friend, reduced to begging and cheating. Husband Michel desperately.wants children but Leah, who used to.be lesbian, doesn't and secretly takes contraceptive pills and has an abortion. At the end of this section we find out what happened to Felix. We then go to Felix and spend 70 pages following him through the last day in his life. After this we go back to when Natalie was only 4 years old and we find out.about her.life to.date in 185 separate sections ranging in length between a paragraph to several pages over 122 pages. Finally Natalie spends 20 pages on a crisis ridden night with Nathan and there is a 10 page coda when Natalie and Leah confront their demons without resolving them.

A loose plot then. The joy of this book lies rather in the strength of the characters all of whom are given perfectly pitched dialogue. Smith is Dickensian in the way she evokes London and better then Dickens in her characters. There is Leah.s mum Pauline who loudly broadcasts her Daily Mail views to a bus crowded with Londoners of every ethnicity. There are two wonderful lads who arrange with a woman to have a threesome but haven't really thought it through: they don't want to see one another naked and would much rather watch the internet. There is Jamaican Lloyd who fathered Felix at 17 and now sponges off him.
Great lines from this brilliant book included:
  • "His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked through an open window." p100
  • "The man can't satisfy the woman, right? Don't matter how much he gives." p109
  • "The girl's little dark face pulled tight like a net bag."p118
  • "the sort of nightclub where you leave your clothes - and much else - at the door." p132
  • "Felix collided with a real live young man ... Felix touched the guy gently on the elbows, and the stranger, with equal care, reached back and held Felix where his waist met his back." p 136: In view of what happens to Felix this beautifully choreographed dance of mano a mano tenderness is all the more poignant.
  • "We all know he [her twin] wished he'd gobbled me up in the womb."
  • "That she should receive any praise for such reflexive habits baffled the girl, for she knew herself to be fantastically stupid about many things" (p 178)
  • "Just because you can't locate the fathers, doesn't make them all immaculate conceptions." p 260
  • "You can't dream my dream. What you eat don't make me shit." p 316
  • "If you had any real self-respect, or self-esteem .... one person asking you to put a cigarette out in a fucking playground would not register as an attack on your precious little ego" p 283

An odd book. What is the point of the story? Is there a message? But as a celebration of the people who live in the greatest city in the world NW is brilliant.

By the author of White Teeth and Swing Time, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and The Autograph Man which I didn't really.

November 2016; 333 pages

Thursday, 10 November 2016

"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

Rachel commutes to London. Every day her train stops at a signal and she looks into the lives of the 'perfect' couple living in the house. Then one day she sees something that destroys the happy picture.

This is the story of three women: Rachel "a barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic", Anna the new wife of her ex-husband, and Megan whose art gallery has just failed. One of them disappears. What has happened to her and who is responsible?

In many ways this is a standard thriller with a major change in the progress of the plot exactly half way through. Some of the reviews make much of the device of using an alcoholic as an 'unreliable narrator' except that she isn't in the usual sense of the term (a narrator who, deliberately or otherwise, deceives the reader). The alcoholism is used to create a hole in Rachel's memory of the night when something happened and to cast doubt on whether it is Rachel herself who is responsible or whether she witnessed something critical.

Rachel becomes obsessed by the characters in the drama and starts doing her own sleuthing. This meant that she is always returning to the scene of the crime and talking to the suspects, even after she has been warned off by the official police investigators. This is a key part of this sort of story where the suspense is maintained by doling out the clues in tiny slivers, partly to extend the tale and partly so that they can be reconstructed in a variety of patterns. The key to successfully doing this is to make the reader suspend disbelief sufficiently to allow independent investigation.

The character of the alcoholic also allows for a classic story structure in which there can be a moment of enlightenment in the centre followed by a number of backslidings. But repetitive behaviours of any kind can get boring and the author must be careful not to impose too much on the reader's patience. I actually found the character of Anna the new wife more interesting, especially her dilemma near the end of the book.

There were some clever reveals throughout the story.

There were some nice lines:

  • "Life is not a paragraph and death is no parenthesis." (I'm not convinced I understand what the author means about death. A parenthesis can be an explanation, an afterthought or an interlude. Umm??)
  • "I always feel like a guest at the very outer limit of their welcome."

A robust thriller.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

"How To Be Both" by Ali Smith

The first half of this beautifully written book concerns George (Georgia), a teenager mourning her recently deceased mum. She is remembering her mum. One of the things she remembers is about going to Italy on a whim of her mum's to see a painting that her mum liked by an artist who was almost totally unknown except by a letter and a few wonderful paintings. George feels guilty about when she read text messages on her mum's phone: they seem to concern another woman having an affair with mum. George herself is helped through the grieving process by Helena who wants to be a little more than just friends.

In George's memory her mother is always posing conundrums: "Which comes first ... What we see or how we see? ... Do things just go away? ... Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us?"

Things George's mother says:
  • "This place is shaking loose everything I thought I knew
  • "You always know where you are after a kiss.
The second half of the book is narrated by the ghost of the Italian artist who is dragged back into the world by the obsessive interest George takes in their paintings. I really loved this section;  the artist is so visual and says things like: 
  • "thin for a scholar who're usually heavy and inadequate from all the nothing but books" (p 198)
  • "I'm good at the real and the true and the beautiful and can do with some skill and with or without flattery the place where all 3 meet" (p 199)
  • "there's a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock." (p 201)
  • "a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated." (p 201)
  • "Art and love are a matter of ... understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other: the least that the practice will make you is skillful: beyond which there's originality itself, which is what practice is really about in the end." (p 273)
  • "Love and painting both are works of skill and aim: the arrow meets the circle of its target, the straight line meets the curve or circle" (p 273)
  • "eyes that can follow you round the room, cause those are God eyes." (p 305)
  • "A picture is most times just picture: but sometimes a picture is more" (p 307)
  • "when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive" (p 343)
  • "Saints are all about death. It's prerequisite, for saints" (p 347)

On page 220ish we learn something about the artist that has been well bread-crumbed, especially in the George mourning her mother section, but which I never spotted. This was so well done!

There is a wonderful set piece which had me laughing aloud; a ceremony in which Justice is played by a boy balancing, teetering, on a float with a too-heavy sword in his hand. And when the crowd cheered "the dressed-up boys on the cart looked soaked through by the noise of the crowd like they'd just been driven through a waterfall." (p 261)

I think this book is about everything being connected. In Italy George's mother talks about where they were was ruled by a family who influences the art and music of its time which influenced Ariosto which influenced Shakespeare which influenced her and G: "nothing's not connected". After G's mum's death, G makes toast for little brother Henry and muses that "she can leave dregs of butter in whatever jam she likes for the rest of her life now". The dead Italian artist cried as a child seeing ripples disappear but was told: "The ring you saw in the water'll never stop travelling till the edge of the world."

Another theme is the inevitability of love. George understands true helplessness when Helena pushes her around a multi-storey car park in a shopping trolley. And after she flicks an insect of her hand she thinks: 
"It must have felt like being punched by a god.
That's when she sensed, like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded, both that love was coming for her and the nothing she could do about it.

A wonderful book. November 2016; 372 pages

Ali Smith also wrote The Accidental which I didn't like so much at the time but I am going to reread because this book was so good I must have missed the other. She has also written There but for the: a set of stories linked by a man who, at a dinner party, locks himself into one of the upstairs rooms of his host and refuses to come out. Try also the fascinating Artful, a fusion of literary lectures notes with a story about the narrator imagining that their dead partner is haunting the house.

Other brilliant books by the most original of modern English writers include:
  • Autumn: a collage type work
  • Winter, another collage type work which weaves the story of a Christmas Carol with Cymbeline and the Nativity and reflects on Britain following the Brexit referendum.

Monday, 31 October 2016

"Cymbeline" by William Shakespeare

This is a play full of mythical motifs: a wicked step-mother, princes stolen as babies. It is mixed with the story of the bet to test a lady's honour. Shakespeare works hard to set up a few dramatic scenes: the evil Iachimo creeping out of the chest in Innogen's bedroom; Posthumus becoming convinced that his wife is adulterous, Innogen discovering a headless corpse dressed in her husband's clothes. Cloten makes a wonderful clown-villain who will fight a duel with anyone at a moment's notice, he is rude and coarse and so stupid that he never seems to realise that the dialogue around him, including what he himself says, can be reinterpreted to suggest that he is stupid. I love Cloten. But the final scene in which everything is reconciled is just a little too contrived.

The version I saw performed by the RSC at the Barbican Theatre in the City of London November 5th 2016 (matinee performance) changed Cymbeline into a Queen and the wicked step-mother into a suitably growling wicked step-father; Pisanio became Pisania, Cornelius Cornelia and one of Cymbeline's sons became a daughter all of which worked well. Posthumus was played by an actor of Sri Lankan descent (Hiran Abeysekara, who appeared as Puck in the BBC TV production of Midsummer Night's dream) and Cloten by Marcus Griffiths, of West Indian descent which worked well enough for Innogen's confusion over the headless body to be believable.

Act One starts with a dreadfully clunky bit where First Gentleman explains to a remarkably ignorant Second gentleman ("What was his name and status?" etc) the back story. Cymbeline, King of Britain though paying tribute to the Roman Emperor, had two sons who were stolen as babies and a daughter, Innogen, now grown up, who has just defied him by marrying penniless courtier Posthumus instead of step-brother Cloten. Posthumus is banished to Rome.

Innogen's wicked step-mother who asks her doctor to procure for her poison (but he supplies only a potion which will make the drinker appear to die).

In the RSC production the Italian scene started with a tacky party with the characters speaking Italian and translations projected as subtitles onto the scenery. There is a definite auro of young man bullishness around. Posthumus boasts of Innogen's virtue. Iachimo thinks all women fickle ("strange fowl light upon neighbouring ponds") and wagers Posthumus that he can travel to Britain and bring back "sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress." 

Iachimo travels to Britain and is entertained by Innogen. He tells her that Posthumus is spending her money on prostitutes and then offers himself as her revenge; she scorns the suggestion. But she does agree to look after his chest for him.

Act Two has some of the best bits of the play. In a wonderfully melodramatic scene, Innogen goes to sleep and Iachimo climbs out of the trunk. He notes the details of her bedroom, steals a bracelet and spots a mole on her breast. This is a moment of perfect theatre.

In a brilliant double entendre whose rude meaning possibly only Cloten does not see, Cloten hires musicians to woo Innogen, suggesting they can "penetrate her with your fingering". The RSC put on Cloten and his companion lords as a boy band. But she spurns him and tells him that he is worse than the "meanest garment" of Posthumus which really winds him up.  This insult really gets under Cloten's skin; he keeps asking "his garment?"; "his garment?"; "His meanest garment?"; "His meanest garment? Well!" This was really well done in the RSC version; the audience really saw the bragging Cloten brought low by this single comment of Innogen's. Of course, it is of immense significance to the plot. In the middle of this Innogen suddenly realises she had lost her bracelet

"...I do think

I saw't this morning: confident I am.

Last night 'twas on mine arm; I kissed it."
This again was played in a beautiful manner, by a slightly distracted Innogen as an aside in the middle of insulting Cloten.
In Scene 4 Iachimo convinces Posthumus that he has seduced Innogen unleashing wonderful, wonderful poetry from the devastated Posthumus:

"Let there be no honour
Where there is beauty: truth, where semblance: love,

Where there's another man. The vows of women

Of no more bondage be to where they are made

Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing.

O, above measure false!"
"...I thought her

As chaste as unsunned snow ..."

"... for there's no motion

That tends to vice in man, but I affirm

It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it,

The woman's: flattering, hers: deceiving, hers:

Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers: revenges, hers:

Ambitions, covetings, change pf prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows, 
Why, hers, in part or all: but rather all,
For even to vice
They are not constant ..."

Act Three
In Scene 1: Egged on by the evil Queen, King Cymbeline declares war on Rome because "Britain's/ A world by itself, and we will nothing pay/ For wearing our own noses." (Brexit?)
In the middle of the play we finally discover the two baby princes, now grown men living in the mountains but growing tired of the rural life, longing for a new untasted excitement:
"we poor unfledged
Have never winged from view o' th' nest, nor know not

What air's from home. Haply this life is best,

If quiet life be blest; sweeter to you

That have a sharper known, well corresponding

With your stiff age; but unto us it is
A cell of ignorance, travelling abed,
A prison for a debtor that not dares
To stride a limit."

Meanwhile Innogen flees from the court and, discovering that Posthumus thinks her adulterous

"False to his bed? What is it to be false?

To lie in watch there, and to think on him?

To weep 'twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge

To break it with a fearful dream of him, 
And cry myself awake? That's false to's bed, is it?"
 is persuaded to disguise herself as a boy and seek service with the Roman army come to invade Britain (this seems a little improbable; the allegiances in this play do seem somewhat confused). But she stumbles into the cave of the lost princes.

Act Four
When the court discover Innogen gone, Cloten, still smarting from Innogen's insult, dresses in the clothes of Posthumus and rides out after what he thinks will be the eloping couple. However, the lost princes kill Cloten and behead him. Meanwhile Innogen has drunk the potion supplied by her step-daughter and appears to be dead. So the lost princes dump Innogen with the headless corpse in some sort of open tomb and chant:
"Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages,

Thou thy wordly task has done,

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."
Of course, when Innogen awakes she assumes from the clothes that the corpse is that of Posthumus. Fortunately the Romans bobble along and Innogen (still disguised as a boy) takes service with the Prince. Not that grief-struck then.

Act Five
Remorseful Posthumus has come to Britain with the Italians but decides to disguise himself as a British peasant and fight on the side of the Brits. Iachimo, fighting for the Romans, repents of his badness. Thanks to the lost princes and Posthumus, the Brits win the war and there is a long scene in which all those who were disguised are revealed and everything is happy ever after (except for the wicked step-mother who has died off-stage and her evil son Cloten.

November 2016

Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Shakespeare's Workmanship, suggests that some critics (he cites Dr Johnson) consider Cymbeline to be inferior to Shakespeare's greatest works. Johnson complained about the bits where the action seems absurd and confused and even, at times, impossible. Against this QC retorts that impossibility of fact is  commonplace in fiction, especially in fairy-tales and allegories, which Cymbeline resembles. QC acknowledges that Iachimo is inferior to Iago and that the character Cymbeline is inferior to the character Lear but he suggests that being inferior to two such great plays is hardly a damning indictment. He suggest that Shakespeare was endeavouring to produce what he had not managed to produce in the great tragedies and that is a picture of a women wronged but who forgives (unlike Ophelia or Cordelia) and that the character of Imogen is a triumph. And, in addition, he points out that for all the absurdities in the plot the final scene of 485 lines contains no fewer than 24 dénouements.

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

"Les Enfants terribles" by Jean Cocteau

Paul, a schoolboy, hero worships Dargelos the school bad boy who throws a stone-filled snowball at him and makes him ill. Gerard, who hero worships Paul, takes him home to the flat where Paul's sister Elisabeth tends their dying mother.

And in this world of orphans and illness, maintained by servants paid for by benefactors (initially the doctor and Gerard's Uncle) Paul and Elisabeth play The Game, a game of sibling rivalry mingled with unconsummated incestuous desires, a game into which they draw Gerard and later Angela, an orphan who is the spitting image of Dargelos. They mature physically and adult sexuality begin to distort the rules of the Game, but they never grow up mentally and the Play still explodes with childish tantrums.

Inevitably this must lead to tragedy.

This is a book about power and the way in which it warps human behaviour. The enclosed world in which the Game operates reminded me of the arcane world of Ritual in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It was interesting, too, how Cocteau explored child sexuality from schoolboy crush to adolescent passion.

The prose reminds me a little of William Burroughs (although Cocteau's narrative is far more linear than those in, eg The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine or The Wild Boys.  Cocteau is not afraid to write poetic images into prose and there are moments of lyrical beauty although these moments always threaten to purple and overblow. Judge for yourself:

  • "Lord of space and time, dweller in the twilit fringes between light and darkness, fisher in the confluent pools of truth and fantasy," (p 15)
  • "the atmosphere of perpetually impending storm which was the breath of life to both of them." (p 35)
  • "this puppet in the place of a live person." (p 38)
  • "Beyond the boundaries of the ordinary world of lives and houses, unguessed, undreamed of in their common-sense philosophy, lies the vast realm of the improbably: a world too disordered, so it would seem, to hold together for a fortnight, let alone for several years. And yet these lives, these houses continue to maintain a precarious equilibrium in defiance of all laws of man and nature. All the same, persons who base their calculations on the inexorable pressure of the force of circumstance assume, correctly, that such lives are doomed. The world owes its enchantment to these curious creatures and their fancies; but its multiple complicity rejects them. Thistledown spirits, tragic, heartrending in their evanescence, they must go blowing headlong to perdition. And yet, all started harmlessly, in childish games and laughter ..." (p 61)

In many ways this is a surrealist version of the world I am constructing for my forthcoming thriller The Garage.

An very short but extraordinarily complex and surrealist novel. I need to think about it hard! October 2016; 135 pages

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

"Seven Types of Ambiguity" by William Empson

This is the classic book. But why?

Not for the classification of 'ambiguity' into seven subtypes which is possibly arbitrary. I found it very difficult to distinguish between the different types and wondered why Empson had bothered.

But it is a classic for the deep empathy that Empson shows with at least some types of poetry. For example, he claims with authority that Shakespeare more or less invented the second type of ambiguity by using the device of taking two nouns and throwing them together as in 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'. But, you may holler, slings and arrows are more or less the same thing. Shakey is just doubling the image (either slings or arrows would have done) for intensification. OK, but sometimes Shakey goes a bit further: 'As when, by night and negligence, the fire/ Is spied in populous cities': night and negligence are not the same and neither enable spying!

So for this reason I enjoyed the book. The classification still seems arbitrary and potentially spurious to me. But there were other gems:
  • Richard Paget Human Sound theory: "while 'huge' moves the tongue back from the teeth so as to make as large a space as it can, 'wee' moves the tongue near to the teeth so as to leave as small as space as it can". (p 14)
  • "A dramatic situation is always heightened by breaking off the dialogue to look out of the window, especially is some kind of Pathetic Fallacy is to be observed outside." (p 19)
  • "the ornamental use of false antithesis, which places words as if in opposition to one another without saying in virtue of what they are to be opposed." (p 22)
  • "the process of understanding one's friends must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been prepared in some way to have done either; whichever they did, they will still have lingering in their minds th way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind." (p 44)
  • "In many languages new forms for expressing the negative have been introduced, because the olfd form being unstressed becomes progressively harder to hear. Hence the French pas etc and the English do with the negative." (p 206 footnote)
An interesting read which needs updating. October 2016; 256 pages