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

Friday, 29 April 2016

Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet

This is a very modern play about real estate salesmen.

The first act is made up of three scenes, each a two hander in the same restaurant.

In the first scene Levene, a salesman, is begging Williamson for leads. There is a sales contest, the top salesman will be given a Cadillac, the next a set of steak knives and the bottom two will be sacked. Williamson distributes the leads and the quality of the lead makes all the difference between sale and no-sale. Levene, presently well in the relegation zone, offers to bribe Williamson for better leads and Williamson seems to accept but holds out for more money than Levene can lay his hands on.

In the second scene Moss, who is in the safety zone, is trying to persuade Aaronow to burgle the office and steal the leads. They can sell the leads to a rival salesman who has set up on his own. Moss has his alibi all prepared and Aaronow quite rightly asks why he should be the one to do the burglary. Moss tells him that he is already an accessory before the fact and he is therefore guilty just by listening.

In the third scene Roma, the top salesman, is entertaining Lingk, a client. They make small talk and the scene ends just as Roma prepares to sell.

Act Two is set the next morning in the office, which has been burgled. Detective Baylen is interviewing the salesmen one by one. Roma is demanding his Cadillac straight away because he has sold to Lingk and is now uncatchable in the contest. Aaronow is confessing that he is unable to sell anymore, that he is washed up. Then Levene shows up saying that he sold eight units; he describes how he closed the deal simply by waiting in silence with the pen poised until the clients took the pen and signed. Then Lingk shows up asking for his money back; his wife has told him he has three days to back out of the deal. But this will put Roma behind Levene in the contest so Roma starts to lie to Lingk. Finally the burglar is unmasked.

This is a very short little play but quite powerful. The first Act is all about selling: Levene selling the idea to Williamson that he is worth better leads, Moss selling the burglary to Aaronow, Roman selling real estate to Lingk. The language is robust, male, bull talk. What comes over is the incredible pressure these men are under and how they react to that pressure: bribery, burglary, and lies. This is reinforced in the second act as we see Roma one moment bragging about his triumph and in the next trying to lie his way out of losing the Lingk scale; Aaronow confessing his failure and Levene excited about his triumph.

These are men caught in the iron grip of naked capitalism, fighting for survival. Morality has been left far behind.

A raw, brutal play with forthright language. It seemed a bit like watching gladiators fighting to the death with no holds barred.

April 2016; 64 pages

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

"Hedda Gabler" by Henrik Ibsen

I saw this play at Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes on Friday March 14th 2014 by the Icarus Theatre Collective.

The story is below IN FULL (SPOILER ALERT)

The first Act sets up the characters. George Tesman, an academic, has just returned from his honeymoon with the much-sought-after Hedda Gabler. How he persuaded her to marry him we will never know (she explains that she got tired of the dancing and was afraid of being left on the shelf) but a more mismatched couple you never did see. He is a mummy's boy or rather, since his mother is dead, an Aunty's boy; she is fussing over him from the start. He is working with painstaking care at a snail's pace on a history book that no one will ever read but will cement his small place as a small fish in a small pond. She is always looking for excitement. To keep her happy he spent more than he should have on the honeymoon and has bought a house he cannot afford; even his Aunty has mortgaged her future income for him.

In her very first two line speech Hedda enters and is rude to the Aunty:
We've scarcely arrived and here you are already.

Then Mrs Elvsted arrives. Swiftly, Hedda has ascertained that all is not right and persuades Mrs Elvsted (whom George mistakenly persists in calling Mrs Rysing) to confide in her: we discover that Mrs Elvsted has left her magistrate husband and followed a male friend, Eilart Lovborg, to this town. It seems that love and passion is just below the respectable surface, fighting to escape.

In Act Two Judge Brack, Tesman's friend, comes to the house and has some words alone with Hedda. The Judge appears to be a bit of a player, he drops heavy hints that he knows that Hedda's marriage is not happy. Tesman enters and the Judge reports that the job which Tesman thought was his, on the basis of which he incurred all these new debts, will be decided competitively between T and Eilart Lovborg who has written a book that the whole world is raving about.  Thia makes it even less likely that T will get the job; he suggests that he and Hedda might have to wait before thy have the good life he has promised her. She announces that that sort of thing never changes her plans.

Eilart enters. Wickedly, Hedda lets Eilart know that Mrs Elvsted has come to town to chase after him and he is very angry with Mrs E. It seems probably that he has been naughty with Mrs E but it seems equally likely that he was an old boyfriend of Hedda's. George and his Aunties seem the only ones innocent of naughtiness.

Eilart, who has written another book, and Tesman and the Judge go off to a party at the Judge's house.

Act Three opens with Hedda asleep and Mrs E distressed because the boys have not come home and it is the next morning. Hedda wakes and persuades Mrs E to go into her room to get some sleep. Tesman arrives with news that Eilart  has written a wonderful book but then got drunk and left it on the road. T has picked it up and asks HG to put it somewhere safe. T then has to rush off to be at the bedside of one of his Aunties who is dying.

The Judge arrives with the news that Eilart actually went to a prostitute's, lost his wallet, got into a fight and spent the night in the cells. It starts to emerge that the Judge, a bachelor, keeps tabs on the other men around and is prepared to use what he knows to get his own way, which seems to be access to Hedda. There is an interesting little conversation as he leaves:
HG: Are you going through the garden?
JB: Yes, it's quicker for me.
HG: As well as the back way?
JB: I've nothing against that. It can be almost an attraction.
Triple entendres?

Eilart arrives and is reunited with Mrs E. He, shamed with guilt about last night which, of course she knows nothing about, more or less tells her to forget him. He tells her he destroyed the book, the book that the two of them had worked together on, that felt like it was almost their child. He ripped it up and threw the pieces into the fjord. Of course the audience and Hedda know this is not true. After the distressed Mrs E leaves, Eilart tells Hedda that he hasn't ripped the book up ('killed the child') but done something even worse; he abandoned the kid on the side of the road, he lost it and he doesn't know where it is. She gives him one of her pistols and he leaves.

Hedda burns the manuscript.

The original Auntie is with Hedda at the start of Act Four, sad that her sister has died but full of hints that Hedda is pregnant so that a new life is starting. She leaves.

Tesman arrives. He is horrified to discover that Hedda has burned the wonderful manuscript, although he is slightly mollified when she pretends she has done it for his career. He agrees with Hedda that they will have to cover up what she has done. Mrs E arrives in a panic. She can't find Eilart and has heard that he is in the hospital.

Judge Brack enters with the news that Eilart has is in hospital and is dying. Hedda states that Eilart has shot himself although she has to pretend she knows this by intuition.

The shocked T and Mrs E realise that they might be able to reconstruct Eilart's book from the draft notes that Mrs E just happens to have in her skirt pocket and they immediately go into the back room to make a start. This is perhaps the least believable moment of the play.

Then JB announces that Eilart didn't necessarily shoot himself but was found shot at the prostitute's with the pistol in his pocket, a pistol which the Judge recognised as belonging to Hedda. JB clearly sees this as something that will place HG in his power; she acknowledges this. George is busy working on the book and announces that he hopes the Judge will keep Hedda amused whilst he does this; JB announces it will be "Pleasure".

Hedda goes into the back room, plays dance music on the piano and is told off by George because of the sad circumstances of the day. From offstage she asks:
HG: How am I to spend my evenings here?
GT: Oh, Judge Brack'll drop in on you, I'm sure.
JB: My pleasure, Mrs Tesman. Every evening. We can be having quite a time, the two of us.
HG: Yes, you'd like that, wouldn't you Judge. Right on top -
There is a shot and they discover that Hedda Gabler has shot herself.

What is brilliant about this play is how ordinary the dialogue is. These are just people chatting politely. It takes ages before you see the undercurrents. The tensions are set up quite quickly, ordinary, everyday tensions such as the extravagance of Hedda and the fact that dull pedestrian George has gambled everyone's financial security on the promise of a new job.

There is a lot going on under the surface and we have to read between the lines. Auntie hinting at Hedda having children and George not understanding the hints. Hedda manipulating Mrs E to confess about Eilart and leaving her husband. The growing suspicion that Hedda might have had a thing for Eilart when she was younger. The contrast between the brilliant but unstable Eilart and slow and steady George. But it takes much longer for the sinister character of the Judge to emerge.

The character of George is complex. In some ways he is the butt, the boring husband, too stupid to see his wife's intended infidelities, even at the end throwing her into the arms of the Judge. He is too good for this wicked world. His whole financial future depends on beating Eilart, a man who outshines him in every way, a man who has written one best-selling book and has now written another that George sees as a work of genius. At then end George is trying to reconstruct Eilart's book as a memorial to his rival. I love the way that, at the end of so many speeches, George says: Um? Almost the last thing Hedda does is to imitate him.

The Judge has the last line:
God have mercy! People don't - do that kind of thing.

This play could be read as a critique of a society where the important men (the Judge) use blackmail and their power to prevent the women (Hedda) from having a voice. More widely it could be seen as caricaturing how the establishment in the characters of George the complacent and the sinister and manipulative Judge stifle the talented: Eilart Lovborg and Hedda Gabler. It is interesting how we think of both these rebels with the first names but George is always Tesman and the Judge is the Judge: a sociolingusitic maxim is that the more powerful are addressed by their surnames or by their title and their surname or, as the most powerful, bu their title or even double title (as in 'Senator' and 'Mr President').

On the other hand, a feminist would probably point out that the male Ibsen has given Hedda the stereotypical weaknesses of woman: extravagance and irrationality. Men, of course, are allowed their little weaknesses although it is clear that Eilart's violence at the prostitute's will be used to destroy him; Hedda, on the other hand, must either submit to the Judge's unwanted sexual advances and dominance or kill herself to avoid a scandal because she provided the pistols which Eilart may or may not have used to kill himself.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

"The Lodger" by Charles Nicholl

In 1612, Shakespeare testified in the Jacobean small claims court about dealings involving the tenant of the house where he lodged in Cripplegate, London. This book explores his time there, the people he lived with and his neighbours.

I found it fascinating. Although he cannot tell us much about Shakespeare that isn't speculation, he has reconstructed the lives of those around him with the forensics skills of a master sleuth. This is a house where Shakespeare persuaded an apprentice to marry his master's daughter, although it is not clear why the lad needed persuading. The family are French Huguenot refugees and they possess an undercurrent of sexual promiscuity. Shakespeare's landlord owns a house in Brentford, at the time a notorious red light district, and has children by his maid while in between marriages; he is a stingy man who is required by law to leave a third of his property to his daughter but in his will instructs that his property should be divided into four 'thirds' of which she will get one (which is a quarter of course). Another party to the court case is George Wilkins who wrote a couple of plays and collaborated with Shakespeare on Pericles before returning to a low life of pimping and violence. And at this time Shakespeare wrote the wonderful Measure for Measure, a 'problem play' which deals with the closing of brothels in Vienna.

I really liked this book.

I love books that tell me interesting things:

  • The 'ell' is an old unit of length (45 inches) derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for arm: we still call the bend in the middle of the arm the 'elbow'.
  • Cripplegate is so called because it was low so you had to creep under it.
  • The upper floor of a Tudor house stuck out ('juttied') because taxes were based on the ground area; the upper floor was called the 'pentiss' or 'penthouse'
  • Pub called the 'Swan with Two Nicks' are common because vintners were entitled to keep swans but their swans were distinguished from the royal swans by having two nicks cut in their beaks.
  • Measure for Measure (A2S2: 137-8): "Go to your bosom,/Knock there, and ask thy heart what it doth know" echoes the motto of the essayist Michel de Montaigne: "What do I know?"; this predates the scepticism of Descartes; Montaigne's essays were designed to test ('assay') assumptions
  • Threadneedle Street was originally Three Needles Street echoing the logo of the Needlemakers' Company
  • St Olave's church is dedicated to Olaf, a Christian Norwegian king who fought in England against the pagan Danes
  • When an Elizabethan lost something he or she might go to a 'cunning man' such as Simon Forman who would cast horoscopes and suggest how it might be found or who had stolen it.
  • The word wench comes from Middle English wenchel meaning a child and had no bad meaning at first.
  • Till death us do part started off as 'till death us depart'
  • The plot of Measure for Measure mimics to some extent the situation in which Shakespeare presided at a hand-fasting ceremony (formal betrothal/ informal marriage) between his landlord's apprentice and his landlord's daughter; the couple later consummated the marriage and married in church but the court case is about the non-payment of dowry; Claudio in M4M gets into trouble for having sex with his betrothed before the actual marriage while the dowry is delayed whilst Angelo refuses to consummate his betrothal because of the non-payment of her dowry
  • All's Well That Ends Well which was also written about this time is also about a man being pressured into marriage and has the wonderful lines:
He wears his honour in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms
  • "In his later plays Shakespeare keeps returning to the theme of the ... daughter lost or banished" (p 269): 

There are some great lines too:
  • "the simmering randiness of the age"
April 2016; 278 pages

Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include:

Friday, 22 April 2016

"Look Back in Anger" by John Osborne

This classic play was the rallying cry of the Angry Young Men, the playwrights who headed the avant garde as the old Britain of the 1940s gave agonising birth to the new world of the 1960s.

It is written in Three Acts, each set on a Sunday evening. In Act One Jimmy Porter, a brilliantly articulate young working class man with a degree, is reading the papers with his friend, Cliff, whilst Jimmy's wife, Alison irons. Jimmy is lost and angry and he spends his time tearing the others to shreds, being particularly savage with his wife. Cliff is the peacemaker who tries to hard to keep the violence civilized. Cliff obviously loves Alison, they cuddle and kiss in front of Jimmy, but Alison tells us that she has never had sex with anyone but Jimmy. She is pregnant but she hasn't told Jimmy, only Cliff.

In Act Two, Alison's friend Helena, an actress, has arrived. Jimmy is on even more savage form this Sunday evening, viciously abusing both Helena and Alison. Helena has persuaded Alison to go to church with her (Jimmy is astonished) and, unbeknown to Jimmy, she has also telegraphed Alison's father to take her away. This is made easier by the fact that Jimmy is called away to the death bed of a friend so that when Alison's father, retired Indian Colonel, comes to collect her he is out. They get away just before Jimmy returns; when he does Helena kisses him.

The third act starts exactly like the first, Cliff and Jimmy reading the Sunday papers while Helena irons. She has become Jimmy's mistress. But Alison returns and Helena realises that what she has been doing is wrong, so she goes. Cliff has also decided to leave. As the play finishes, Alison and Jimmy are renewing their love for one another.

In some ways this is similar to Pinter's The Homecoming. There is violence and abuse from the men, the women are exploited to cook and clean and be sexual objects. But in style the plays are light years apart. Pinter's dialogue is sparse and halting, Osborne's is drunk on words. I prefer the latter. I think I can understand the characters more from what they say than from what they don't say. But that is from reading. Maybe if I watched both plays I would feel differently.

Jimmy Porter is a lost soul who can do nothing but savage those he loves. He is a brilliant character.

I listened to this on BBC Radio 4 UK on Saturday 30th April 2014 starring David Tennant as Jimmy Porter. Jimmy is savage but bleeding: I'm not sure whether he is angry or just suffering. Helena is manipulative, getting the pregnant Alison out of the way so she can shack up with her husband, a man she hates but desires despite herself, as presumably Alison did when she married him. Alison loves him but suffers; Cliff loves Alison (and Jimmy too perhaps) but tries to keep the peace. And Alison's dad is wonderful as suffering nobility, the only one who has dignity, admitting that the world of empire that was his life is over. This was a wonderful production.

April 2016; 96 pages

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Homecoming" by Harold Pinter

I think this may well be the sort of play that you have to see in performance, interpreted by some great actors, before you can really work out what is happening.

I don't think I can review it without talking about the whole play so THIS IS A SPOILER.

The play opens with Lenny, a man in his early thirties, being rude to his aggressive, widowed father, Max, in whose home he is still living. Soon Uncle Sam, a taxi driver arrive and Max is rude about Sam's lack of a wife. Then Joey, the youngest son who is training to be a boxer arrives. Soon, Teddy, another son, and his wife Ruth arrive. Teddy seems tentative about letting Ruth meet his family, although that is the reason they have travelled from the United States; there seems to be some secret about who Ruth is.

When the whole family assemble we discover Ruth used to be a 'body model' and that Teddy is a PhD teaching Philosophy at an American University. Then Joey, who is irresistible to women, about whose sexual exploits Lenny boasts, takes Ruth upstairs but doesn't get to go "the whole hog". Teddy doesn't seem worried about his wife being bedded by his brother, nor does he flinch when Max proposes (backed by Lenny who is, it appears, a pimp) that Ruth goes on the game (she agrees but on expensive terms including a three bedroomed flat in Soho and a maid) and part-time services the brothers. Sam reveals that 'Mac', the gangster friend on Max, had Jessie, wife of Max and mother of the three brothers, in the back of Sam's limousine; Sam then collapses unconscious on the floor. Teddy goes back to America.

So what's that all about then?

I haven't got a clue.

April 2016; 82 pages

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

Sometimes I hate books. They make me cry.

This is the story of a blind French girl whose father is given custody of a cursed diamond by the museum where he workks, so that the diamond shall not fall into German hands during the war. It is also the story of Werner, an orphaned German boy who is a natural genius with radios. He is recruited to a Nazi training school so they can exploit his talents; at sixteen and small for his age he is sent to Russia with a unit dedicated to tracking down partisans through their radio broadcasts.

It starts at the point in the second world war when their destinies collide.

It is written in very small chunks. Not chapters. A page, perhaps a page and a half. The tiny jewels alternate from Marie-Laure, the blind girl, to Werner the orphan. There are a few of these alternate sections in Saint Malo, as the allies bomb it after D-day, then it swoops back in time so we find out about Marie-Laure and Werner growing up, then back to Saint Malo, then back in time, and slowly the times converge. This gives a feleing of the story marching towards some inexorable destiny. One quarter of the way through the book, the baddy is introduced. He is a bad Nazi hunting for the diamond and, by extension, he is hunting Marie-Laure. Again, there is a feeling of inevitability as he slowly closes in on his prey.

It is a story of how war destroys lives but how also it can provide a meaning to a life.

At the start the conscious effort of writing beautiful prose shows. The tiny sections enable this without seeming pompous or verbose. Towards the end the story takes over. I began to dread what was going to happen. I hoped beyond hope that it would end well but the diamond was cursed so how could it?

"Open your eyes ... and see what you can with them before they close forever."

A brilliant book. April 2016; 520 pages

Saturday, 16 April 2016

"The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

The more I read the more I find wonderful books that make me wonder why I hadn't read them a long, long time ago. Of course I had heard of the Bell Jar but I had avoided it. The author had been the wife of the British poet Ted Hughes. We had to read his poems at school (because they were about animals which were supposed to appeal to us).

It is a novel about an American girl who has a nervous breakdown, attempts suicide and winds up getting electric shock treatment in a mental hospital. I suppose it is a sort of Voyage and Return (as described by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots); the voyage into madness being the liminality.

The first half of the book (46%) concerns Esther's stay in New York where she had one a prize and has a month in a hotel as a guest of a magazine (with a lot more girls). She has always dreamed of being a writer. She parties, remembers her boyfriend, gets food poisoning, and parties some more. I loved this section of the book. The writing was crisp and witty with some wonderful observations told in the way that only a poet can. Then she goes back home to live with her mother. She is rejected from the college summer vacation writing course so she has nothing to do. Her boyfriend (she doesn't really like him and she is determined never to marry him since she has discovered he has had an affair with a waitress) who is a medical student has contracted TB and is in a sanatorium. She stops washing and stops sleeping. She starts working out ways to kill herself. Finally she takes a bottle full of sleeping pills but she is found alive and put into a mental hospital.

There were so many great lines:

  • "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers - goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves." (Ch 1: a brilliant first paragraph, fabulously foreshadowing her electro-shock treatment at the mental hospital.)
  • "I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of all the surrounding hullabaloo." (Ch 1)
  • "The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence." (Ch 1)
  • "The china-white bedside telephone could have connected me up with things, but there it sat, dumb as a death's head." (Ch 2)
  • "I think I still expected to see Doreen's body lying there in the pool of vomit like an ugly, concrete testimony to my own dirty nature." (Ch 2)
  • "If you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance ... you can get away with it." (Ch 3)
  • "I'd happened to be dealt to him, like a playing card in a pack of identical cards." (Ch 9)
  • "A man in the country club stepped up to the mike and started shaking those seedpod rattles that mean South American music." (Ch 9) (See, she can be funny as well!)
  • "Women-haters were like the gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended and then they disappeared. You could never catch one." (Ch 9)
  • "The white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage." (Ch 10)
  • "The voice on the loudspeaker went bockle bockle bockle, the way they do, so you can't understand a word, and then, in the middle of all the static, I heard a familiar name clear as A on the piano in the middle of all the tuning instruments of an orchestra." (Ch 11)
  • "His name was Cal, which I thought must be short for something, but I couldn't think what it would be short for, unless it was California." (Ch 13 - more laughter)
  • "The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you." (Ch 13)
  • The crazy nun "kept hearing harp notes in her ears and a voice saying over and over, 'Alleluia!' Only she wasn't sure, on being closely questioned, whether the voice was saying Alleluia or Arizona." (Ch 13 - I laughed out loud at this point, something very very few books make me do).

The funniest book about madness I have ever read. The scary thing is how normal and mundane her behaviour is.

But the best thing about this wonderful book is the beautiful prose.

April 2016; 234 pages

Thursday, 14 April 2016

"Conjectures and Refutations" by Karl Popper

This is a classic work of philosophy in which Popper explains his Criterion of Falsifiability to separate Science from Non-Science. Why, he asks, is Einstein's work so different from that of, for example, Marx or Adler. The answer he gives is that Einstein makes precise predictions which can be tested whereas Marx and Adler offer vaguer forecasts. For example, the General Theory of Relativity proposed that light would be bent by a gravitational field and that therefore we would be able to see stars during a solar eclipse that were behind the sun, invisible unless light bent. If the stars could not be seen, Einstein would be wrong. In other words, Einstein's theory was easy to refute (and, to add spice, it would be refuted if light travelled in straight lines as everyone had hitherto believed). But Eddington photographed the eclipse and Einstein was acclaimed. On the other hand, Adler's theories are often so vague that they can predict either of two opposite occurrences. As for Marxism, it made some precise predictions which were falsified but the theories were then adapted so the theories fitted the facts. In Popper's view, such theory-elasticity in non-Scientific.

Popper believes that Science proceeds thus: a scientist makes a hypothesis, testable predictions are generated, these are then tested and, if they are found to be false, the hypothesis is discredited and a new one dreamed up. The more falsifiable the predictions, the sooner they can be refuted and the quicker Science can progress.

Many people have criticised Popper's views. He says nothing about how the hypotheses are generated in the first place. He does not give sufficient weight to how observations are made in the context of theories so that what is observed may be inaccurate or spurious. He fails to acknowledge sufficiently that most theories have refuting observations but these are usually treated as anomalies, the theory is still believed in spite of them, unless and un til the 'time has come' for the theory to be refuted. And he fails to account for the fact that Science might be unable to proceed if refutations were too easily able to displace a theory.

In my mind Science progresses like the sandpiles of Per Bak. The anomalies add to the theory like grains of sand add to the pile. Normally there are a few trickles down the pile as the theory adjusts itself. But sometimes, unpredictably, a grain of sand starts an avalanche and the theory is refuted and another one steps in to take its place. And the process starts all over again.

And Science would not be possible if the grains slipped too easily (perpetual avalanches would result in paradigm overload - perhaps this is the problem with the social sciences) or hardly ever slipped resulting in knowledge becoming fossilised a bit like scholasticism in the middle ages (though James Hannam might disagree with me).

Per Bak is the author of How Nature Works, a brilliant book about the phenomenon of self-organised criticality in the context of a wide range of complex systems including an ecosystem. Read it!

James Hannam is the author of God's Philosophers, an equally brilliant book about the growth of scientific knowledge in the middle ages.

April 2016; 415 pages

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

"What is this thing called science?" by A F Chalmers

This is an extremely readable account of the history and philosophy of science. He explains some difficult ideas with brilliant clarity.

He talks about the problem of induction, expressed by Bertrand Russell as the problem the turkey faces when, following daily examples, he induces that he is always fed at 9AM ... until he discovers he is wrong on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, since what you see depends on what you expect, in some sense theory comes before observation; Chalmers illustrates this rather neatly with an example about junior doctors learning to see what the weird marks on X-rays actually mean.

He then discusses Popperian ideas about falsificationism at length and shows the weaknesses of this theory.

He then looks at alternative accounts of the historical development of Physics from the point of view of Lakatos, Kuhn and Feyerabend.

For me, the most important moments came when he was talking about concept networks. He argues that "the Newtonian concept of mass" is more precise than "the concept of democracy" (pp 77 - 78) because "the concept plays a specific, well-defined role in a precise, structured theory." (p 78). "If this suggested close connection, between precision of a term or statement and the role played by that term or statement in a theory, is valid, then the need for coherently structured theories follows fairly directly from it." (p 78). For example, a dictionary definition requires one to understand many other words. He also quotes Feyerabend as asserting the importance to Copernicus of the "internal connectedness" of the parts of his system. (p 103)

This of course links to the idea that Kuhn viewed "normal science as a puzzle-solving activity" (p 92) and, putting coherence above correspondence, stated that "puzzles that resist solution are seen as anomalies rather than as falsifications of the paradigm." (p 92)

But Chalmers also provides a justification which I can use for my choice of Grounded Theory as a methodology for exploring liminality: "Precise experimentation can only be carried out if one has a precise theory capable of yielding predictions in the form of precise observation statements." (p 79) and since Galileo was creating a new paradigm "it need not be surprising that his efforts involved thought experiemtns, analogies and illustrative metaphors rather than detailed experimentation." (p 79)

This is a well written and readable account of the history of physics though perhaps a little out of date with the latest ideas.

April 2016; 170 pages

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

"Mockingjay: Hunger Games 3" by Suzanne Collins

Less would have been more.

Katniss has been evacuated to District 13 after her home district, 12, has been annihilated by the Capital's fire bombers. Her role is to lead the revolution that is now engulfing almost all the districts. Peeta, her alleged husband, is being tortured in the Capitol; he appears on television asking for a ceasefire; he seems to have sold out to President Snow.

So this is war and Katniss is training to be a soldier with her friend Gale. Bit not just any soldier. She is the face of the rebellion and, in her Mockingjay clothes, she is regularly televised as she visits hospitals and fights.

Of course this is where loose ends get tied up. The Roman basis for the dystopia is made explicit when it is revealed that the country's name, Panem, derives from panem et circenses, the Latin for 'bread and circuses', which some cynical Roman suggested was the way to keep a populace subdued. Hence, the Hunger Games.

From time to time she thinks about the moral implications of what she is doing. In the middle of the book there is a moment when she and her rebels are attacking District Two where the Capitol's military complex is concealed within a mountain and they decide to cause avalanches to block all exits and entrances except for one and then be ready to kill the people when they flee. This is hard for a miner's child to do. So she tries to stop the rebels shooting the refugees but finds herself looking down a gun barrel. He asks her to give him one reason why he shouldn't shoot her and she tells him that she can't. She asks him to shoot; she tells him she is done with killing the Capitol's slaves.
"I'm not their slave," the man mutters.
"I am," I say. "That's why I killed Cato ... and he killed Thresh ... and he killed Clove ... and she tried to kill me. It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol. But I'm tired of being a piece in their Games."

And that should be the turning point, the point where the plot reverses, the crisis, the perepiteia. We've had hatred and killing; the Peacekeepers kill the rebels and the rebels kills the Peacekeepers and it goes on and on in an endless cycle of violence and this is the point where the protagonist, Katniss, recognises that this is wrong and finds a new way to resolve all the differences. And there will setbacks along that road and we won't know if she will succeed until the very end but that is what should happen. That is what stories do. But this one doesn't.

It sounds like I am being pious. I don't believe that a story must have a moral point. Most stories do. In comedies good triumphs in the end, in tragedies evil is punished in the end. Even in Romeo and Juliet, where the title characters are killed, the lovers do after all end up together (but dead) and the Montagues and Capulets are reconciled, so it has a sort of happy ending. This is how stories work.

Modern fiction has allowed the author to ditch the conventions. I would never want to wind the clock back and say that an author cannot. But the story form has a psychological power, or it caters to a psychological need, that means that breaking out of the form must be done carefully. It is like free verse. Rhyme and scansion allow many people to create enjoyable poetry but it is really difficult to write good poems if there are no rules to follow.

Throughout the book, as throughout the last two books, Katniss faces moral dilemmas. She spots them and debates them. Who is telling her the truth? Is she being manipulated by the rebels? Why is is OK to kill in some circumstances and not others? She has nightmares about the terrible things she has done. She feels guilty about Peeta, rescued but a psychological wreck. She realises that the war is brutalising Gale. She even questions whether it is right for her to jeopardise other people's lives in her monomaniacal pursuit of her mission to kill the President of the Capitol. But she keeps right on. She kills and watches people die.

And in the end, we too are brutalised. The author seems to have continued the series only so that she can dream up ever more ghoulish ways to kills off her major characters. It is a bloodbath. And I stopped caring.

Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps I was supposed to end up like Katniss, a cold hearted, unfeeling killer. Unfortunately, I stopped caring about Katniss too. Perhaps that was the point, to show she wouldn't even care for herself. But I don't think it made good fiction.

It was just a very violent video game.

There is, of course, a twist in the end, but I had become numb by then.

April 2014; 436 pages

Read my reviews of the far better Hunger Games 1 and Catching Fire (HG2).

Saturday, 9 April 2016

"Catching Fire: Hunger Games 2" by Suzanne Collins

Ironically, this took a little longer to catch fire than HG 1. Katniss and Peeta are back in District 12 but Preseident Snow is angry that Katniss defied the Hunger Games and fears that she could be the spark that sets alight the rebellion. She has to maintain the pretence that she is madly in love with Peeta, to the point of arranging their marriage, despite the obviously jealousy of boy-back-home Gale.

There is a reflection on the jabberjays, birds who were bred to listen to what people said and then to fly home and repeat the words, birds bred to be spies, surveillance devices. But people cottoned on and began to lie to the birds and the Capital released them into the wild, assuming that highly bred birds would die out there. But they didn't. They interbred with other birds to create the Mockingjay. The Capital "hadn't anticipated its will to live" (p 105). The mockingjay becomes a symbol of the simmering revolution.

And this is what makes this saga leap above other thrillers. It is actually about relationships and moral choices. After Gale has been flogged for poaching and is unconscious, Katniss touches his face the "parts of him I have never had cause to touch before": his eyebrows, his stubble, his throat, his lips. She imagines how she would feel had he been the one who had won the Games by pretending to be in love with a fellow tribute. She hates him. Then the girl who has been so immensely brave in the arena thinks (p 134)
Why did it take him being whipped within an inch of his life to see it?
Because I'm selfish. I'm a coward. I'm the kind of girl who, when she might actually be of use, would run to stay alive and leave those who couldn't follow to suffer and die. This is the girl who Gale met in the woods today. 
No wonder I won the Games. No decent person ever does.
This is morality. This is what makes HG good.

But rebellion is brewing and Katniss has become a symbol of it. So when she and Peeta are forced back into the arena for the 75th games she is now determine to protect him and he is determined to protect her. But there are others who also seem determined to protect them, even at the risk of their own lives.

Another excellent book made special by the issues of trust, brought even more to the fore in a rebellion when strangers will die for you but friedns might betray you.

April 2016; 439 pages

Hunger Games 1 is a well written thriller for young people.
But Mockingjay (HG3) fails to keep the human and moral issues going and degenerates into a shoot 'em up

"C.S.Lewis: a biography" by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper

This was the surprisingly interesting biography about an Oxford don who wrote books about mediaeval literature and , following conversion, Christianity. He was mostly celibate, getting married late in life. He also wrote poetry, science fiction and the Narnia books. It is written by two men who knew him, one who was his ex-student who then went on to write children's books himself (Roger Lancelyn Green whose books about myths and legends I adored when I was a kid including: the Tales of the Greek Heroes, the Saga of Asgard, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the Adventures of Robin Hood, the Tale of Troy and, my all time favourite, the Luck of Troy) who write about themselves when they appear in the book in the third person.

It is surprising in many ways.

CSL was Irish. I'd always thought of him as so quintessentially English. His dad was a solicitor. He went to prep school and followed his elder brother to Malvern College. But whilst Warren played games and loved Malvern, 'Jack' (Clive, CS) was bookish and hated it; he was bullied and his dad took him away and put him in a crammer with a weird headteacher. Neither the law nor the military appealed so he went to Oxford (enjoying skinny dipping at Parson's Pleasure) even though he couldn't pass the maths entrance exam; he left early on to join the army to fight in WWI (when he went back to Oxford was allowed to continue despite the continuing problem with Maths because of a special rule allowing ex-soldiers to join). He was injured in WWI and carried a piece of shrapnel in his chest for twenty years.

About this time is a mysterious period. He was staying with a 'chum' and his mother and something happens about which he never later talked and excised it from his autobiography. One presumes that he fell in love with the chum's mother, Mrs Moore. After all, his own mother had died when he was young. CSL's chum then died and when CSL went back up to Oxford he took Mrs Moore and her daughter Maureen with him to Oxford, renting a small house which; he moved into after his first year when he moved out of college. This was a secret from his father, who gave CSL an allowance. It made CSL poor in both money and time because she was a demanding woman. But she lived with him until she died. Did they have sex? We aren't told.

He started writing poems and studying philosophy; when he became a lecturer he started teaching English Lit. He soon gained a fellowship. Then the atheist was converted to (quite high and rather fundamental) Christianity. His first published work being poems, and his second, the Allegory of Love, about Mediaeval Literature, he now started writing Christian books. He became famous for a best-selling trilogy of science fiction books (veiled Christian myth) called Out of the Silent Planet. Then he hit the big time with the Screwtape Letters (letters from a senior to a junior devil advising how to entrap souls). He was a hit on the BBC Home Service radio giving talks about Christianity and wrote about The Problem of Pain. Then, in under two years, he wrote the seven Narnia books, again Christian allegories. He was now immensely famous but still a don who drank beer with his friend J R R Tolkien (of Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame) at the Eagle and Child which they renamed the Bird and Baby.

His pupils included Roger Lancelyn Green and (one of his first pupils) John Betjeman.

He had a dog who, when old, didn't like eating whilst being watched so CSL would walk down the street throwing food over his shoulder. He referred to this as the Orpheus method of feeding because, if he looked round, the dog "would give him a fierce look and ignore the food" (p 123)

Oxford never offered him a professorship so at the age of 56 he accepted a Chair at Cambridge though he still lived most of the time in Oxford, taking the train on Tuesdays (presumably he went by the line that still runs past my house, although the Oxford to Milton Keynes and the Bedford to Cambridge sections have been closed).

Mr Moore died in 1951, when he was 53. Five years later he met and married an American divorcee and acquired two step sons, she died four years later from cancer and he went the same way three years after that. He died on the same day as Aldous Huxley and President Kennedy.

Moments of liminality:

  • On reading Out of the Silent Planet:
    • Dorothy L Sayers said of a fried "some phrase clicked in his mind" (p 165)
    • Roger Lancelyn Green said a "realized in a blinding flash" (p 165)
  • Doors in Narnia:
    • The wardrobe (of course)
    • The door Aslan draws in the air near the end of Prince Caspian
    • The stable door in The Last Battle

Other trivia:
There is a brazen head mention re Friars Bacon and Bungay on p 174

CSL quotes, quoted in this book:

  • "How I love kettles"
  • Your best friend is you alter ego who shares "all your most secret delights". Your second friend is your "anti-self" who shares each delight but approaches each one form the opposite direction.
  • We can no more meet God than Hamlet can meet Shakespeare (p 102)
  • Joy and delight are "given to us to lead us into the world of the Spirit as sexual rapture is there to lead to offspring and family life." (p 120)
  • To achieve 'otherness' "you must go into another dimension" (p 123)
  • "Technology is per se neutral but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe." (p 173)
  • God does just permit pain and suffering; he permits some people to inflict pain and suffering on others. Pain is "God's megaphone" (p 187)
  • Is Aslan safe? "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." (p 189)
  • On Satan: "In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could finds nothing more interesting than his own prestige." (p 194)
  • "The safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." (p 195)
  • "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy has been offered us." (p 203) "We are far too easily pleased" (p 204)
  • If Christianity is true then some of the people we live among will go to heaven. Look around. (p 204)
  • Damned souls leave "man-shaped stains on the brightness of the air." (p 222) This is a quote from The Great Divorce.
This is a brilliant and brilliantly written book. I disagree with so many things in CSL's life but at the end of the day he was a truly original thinker and this book has challenged me and made me think. April 2016; 308 pages

Thursday, 7 April 2016

"Dr Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe

I saw the RSC production of this play on Saturday (matinee) 24th September 2016 at The Barbican Theatre in the City of London; it starred Sandy Gierson and Oliver Ryan as Faustus and Mephistopheles (Sloth was played by Richard Leeming who had so impressed me with Abel Drugger in The Alchemist the week before). The RSC made sense of the play but a lot of the drama comes from knockabout comedy and extravagant spectacle and I couldn't help thinking that if Shakespeare rather than Marlowe had written this play we might have had more sense of the existential crises suffered by Faustus; I might have cared when he was dragged to Hell.

This was an interesting experience! The copy that I have purports to reproduce the 1616 quarto edition of the play. It is not split into acts or scenes so I cross-referenced it with the Kindle edition, based on the First Quarto of 1604, the earliest extant edition, which has fourteen scenes (though no division into Acts). But there are significant differences in the text between these two editions.

The story: scene by scene
The basic story is the same. Faustus, a scholar, is dissatisfied with Logic, Medicine, Law ("This study fits a mercenary drudge, /Who aims at nothing but external trash") and Divinity (we are all sinners so we must all die: "What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera"). So he resolves to study Magic.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour and omnipotence,
Is promis'd to the studious artizan!
He asks his manservant Wagner to summon his friends Valders and Cornelius who will helps him to summon demons. Whilst waiting for them a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear, warning and tempting. But Faustus is determined:
'Tis magic, magic that hath ravish'd me

In Scene 2, two scholars appear and engage in word play with Wagner.

Scene 3. In a grove at night Faustus speaks Latin and summons Mephistophilis. When he arrives, Faustus says:
I charge thee to return and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend on me: 
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.
So M exits and then re-enters as a friar. This is just one of a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment that the play contains.
M now tells F about how Lucifer and his mates were cast from hell. And F asks
How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
and M replies:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Thinks't thou that I, that saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
This is great stuff. M is warning F of the consequences of rebelling against God and M regrest being a devil because of what he has lost. In this sense it is NOT "better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all" as Tennyson was later to claim in In  Memoriam.
Nevertheless, F offers his soul to the devil if in return he can have "whatsoever I shall ask".

Scene 4 is 'a street' and is a comedy routine between Wagner, the servant, and a Clown

Scene 5: we are back in Faustus' study. He is debating with himself (and the the Good and Bad Angels) about whether he should sing the contract. He tells himself "The god thou serv'st is thine own appetite" and the Evil Angel calls prayers the "fruits of lunacy". Then Mephistopheles appears and Faustus, using his own blood, signs the contract donating his sou to Lucifer, "Chief lord and regent of perpetual night". The blood dries up and Faustus cannot finish the contract till Mephistopheles brings fire to warm it back into liquid again. Then F says: "Consummatum est"; it is finished, the words spoken by Jesus on the cross in the Latin of the Vulgate Bible translation of St Jerome, the version Faustus mentions in Scene I.
This is surely an incredibly significant line. Marlowe is drawing parallels between Faustus and Jesus.

Faustus now reads the text of what he has just signed and, it being accepted by M, begins to seek knowledge from M. Learning is the motivation for F. But the King James Bible states: "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." (In the Vulgate: eo quod in multa sapientia multa sit indignatio; et qui addit scientiam, addit et laborem; in Wycliffe's translation "for in much wisdom is much indignation, and he that increaseth knowing, increaseth also travail"). The first thing he wants to know is where is hell and M replies:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self-place; but where we are is hell
Very modern!
F now asks M for a woman:
For I am wanton and lascivious,
And cannot live without a wife.
But the "hot whore" M offers is rejected. It is not until much later that F sees Helen of Troy and falls in love.

In Scene 6, again in the study, F quizzes a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins; each tells him who they are and who their parents were. The Sins speak in prose (Wrath admits to "wounding myself when I could get none to fight withal").

Now there is another comic scene in which two rustics, Robin and Dick, have stolen Faust's magic book and wish to pronounce its spells, but they cannot read.

I guess this is the end of an Act or we are half way through the play because the Chorus who started us off and will finish comes on at this stage. The nest few scenes are Faustus and his side-kick Mephistopheles going to exotic places and, using fireworks and conjuring tricks, playing jolly japes on the locals. It seems that F has sold his soul so he can play some practical jokes. He spirits Bruno (perhaps Giordano Bruno the Dominican philosopher who was burnt at the stake for his heretical views regarding the Copernican system in 1600; this would have been too late for Marlowe (who died in 1593) and does not appear in the earlier Faustus, (my version remember is dated 1616 when it might have been topical), who is an anti-pope, away from the rather foolish Pope Adrian. F and M caper about, hitting cardinals and stealing food from the Pope; this so annoys the religious princes that they decide to excommuniate the 'ghost' and F says:
Bell, book, and candle, - candle, book, and bell, -
Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell!

Another comic interlude in which Robin and Dick have stolen a cup from a vintner and summon a grumpy Mephistopheles from Constantinople to help them. M turns Dock into an Ape and Robin into a Dog providing Robin with the wonderful innuendo:
A dog! that's excellent: let the maids look well to their porridge-pots, for I'll into the kitchen presently

More merry japes as Faustus meets the Hol Roman Emperor and plays tricks on his courtiers. When, later, they waylay him in a lonely place they cut off his head but he has a false head on and so, having seemed to die, he gets up again. As well as 'It is finished' from the cross, Faustus is now resurrected! Is Marlowe blaspheming or just drawing parallels?

In another comic interlude, Faustus tricks a horse dealer who chops his leg off (but it is a false leg ...)

Faustus is at a posh dinner party with the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt. F says "I have heard that great-bellied [I presume he means pregnant rather than fat] women do long for things that are rare and dainty." The horse seller and Robin and Dick and other clowns disturb the party with their complaints against F. More merriment.

Scene 13: Back home. Faustus has made his will. Some scholars ask F who the most beautiful woman in the world was and Mephistopheles brings in Helen of Troy. Faustus, who has been encouraged by an old man to the brink of repentance, is seduced:
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? -
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. -
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! -
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. 
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips ...
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars
Then Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles walk in. Lucifer is here
To view the subjects of our monarchy
Those souls whose sin seals the black sons of hell
and they tell Faustus to prepare to surrender his soul that very night.

Now the scholars are back, concerned that F looks ill:
He is not well with being over-solitary.
The Good and Evil Angels are there, the Evil one smirking
He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall.

The clock strikes 11 PM, half past,, then midnight and Faustus, protesting, pleading, is dragged to Hell.
The Chorus returns and says
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight


It is not great literature. It is clearly written for the theatre. The comic interludes would be done these days before the curtain to enable scenery to be changed behind. They are there to lighten the mood of the play and to allow some rustic punning. It is almost formulaic in its structure, alternating serious drama with rustic comedy. But then the middle of the play is the opportunity for Faustus to tour the world being silly. One can see the dramatic potential in having fire-works whizzing about on stage and heads being chopped off and regrown and people sprouting horns from their heads but it is clumsy knockabout stuff.

Of course there are the classic lines but not so many that this play could be in the same league as, say, Macbeth.

Perhaps I need to read the 1604 version. Perhaps some of the things I liked least are the additions made by lesser playwrights after Marlowe's death.

In a lecture to the Gresham College 'How to be a Shakespearean atheist' Ryrie (2019) points oiut that Faustus "claims not to believe in Hell while having explicitly made a pact with the devil. The conventional caricature would call that an outrageous example of wishful thinking. In fact it is more like a defiant refusal to submit to reality."

I also recommend:
Dead Man in Deptford, a brilliant fictional biography of Marlowe by Anthony Burgess
Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells, a set of biographies of Shakespeare's contemporaries
Faustus by Leo Ruckbie, a biography of the German alchemist who may be the man behind the legend

April 2014; Not only did my edition not have scenes; it didn't even have page numbers! And I can't be bothered to count them.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

It is always a good sign when you read a book in just over a day. This book is extremely easy to read and Collins keeps the tension going almost throughout.

The author says that the idea for the book came as she was switching backwards and forwards between reality TV in which young people were competing for prizes and a documentary programme about a war, showing young people fighting. In the Hunger Games, twelve teenage girls and twelve teenage boys are released into a controlled environment and required to slaughter one another until there is only one left. This is televised.

It is set in a dystopian future. Unusually for so many books like this, the back story is told lightly and the details are allowed to percolate out throughout the narrative. The US has been replaced by a capital and twelve outlying districts; there used to be thirteen but one rebelled and were exterminated, shades of the twelve tribes of Israel and the annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin. But there are far more echoes of Ancient Rome: for example, the stylist who prepares Katniss for the television appearances before the games (including a procession in a chariot) is called Cinna. Each district is organised around a particular service, thus one district is Agriculture and district twelve, from which the heroine, Katniss, comes, is mining. She herself doesn't mine, her dad did and died in an explosion; Katniss hunts (illegally) with a boy called Gale. At the annual Reaping the names of all the teenagers in the district are put into a hat and one girl and one boy are drawn at random to represent the district in the Hunger Games. The name of Prim, twelve year old sister of Katniss is drawn, and Katniss volunteers to take her place.

She and her fellow tribute, Peeta the baker's son, travel to the Capital where they are interviewed and prepared for the Games. During the interviews Katniss discovers that Peeta is in love with her. But is this just a strategy? Is he attempting to lull her into a false sense of security so that he can kill her? Remember: only one will survive. But the theme of the star-crossed lovers plays so well on television that Katniss is persuaded to play along with it (although she worries what Gale might think). After all, during the early stages of the games tributes often form alliances to eliminate the opposition before, inevitably, having to fight among themselves.

What is about this book that has made it so successful? Clearly the idea of crossing a TV gameshow with war was a brilliant idea but gladitorial contests to the death in a dystopian future is not exactly new.

The story itself is well told. In chapter one (23 pages) we establish that Katniss is an expert hunter and that she (intriguingly, it is not until page 11 that we can be certain that Katniss is a girl) has a very good friend called Gale. Her father is dead and she had to look after herself and her little sister as well as her motherwhen her mother was distraught with grief. At the end of the chapter, Prim is chosen for the Games. All the chapters end of great cliff-hangers, encouraging you to read on straight away. In chapter two, Peeta is chosen and we are immediately into conflicting emotions: Katniss is grateful to Peeta because he kept her alive when she was starving but she knows she might be forced to kill him (and he will try to kill her). The games themselves don't start until page 172 and on page 187 we discover that Peeta has allied himself with a group of strong tributes.

There is, of course, twists and turns throughout the story and some lovely twists near the end. The final page, even the last sentence, is all about the emotions, preparing for the sequel.

The tension of a Games where the protagonist is hunting and being hunted is well told and keeps you reading. But what makes this book special is the emotional side of it all. Can Katniss trust Peeta? He claims he loves her, does she love him? Is his love, as she initially suspects, just a way of lulling her into a false sense of security? Does she actually (although she certainly wouldn't acknowledge it) love Gale, the boy left back home? And what Peeta actually does when they are in the arena make the reader ask the same questions: what game is he actually playing? And what will happen in the end when only one player can survive? Star-crossed lovers indeed.

Katniss is a wonderful personality. She is incredibly protective of her little sister Prim but she also has a lot of anger inside her. She is angry with her mother for failing to look after Prim and her when her father died. She is angry with the system. She doesn't like feeling obliged to people. She hates being put on show. She is afraid of being killed but she also feels guilty when she kills. She is wonderfully teenage in every way: surly and sullen, oscillating between loving beautiful clothes and wanting to run off into the woods and get dirty, hating and caring, wanting to love and to be loved but scared of trusting.

The other characters are nicely drawn but we only ever see them through the eyes of Katniss (and she doesn't like many people!)

The writing is good with sentences averaging about ten words but with a nice variety of length; the paragraphs are also mostly short but varied.

Fun to read. April 2016; 436 pages

Here is my review of the sequel: Catching Fire and of the third book in the trilogy: Mockingjay

This is a great book as a really well-written teenage thriller but for raw young adult emotion I would recommend The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and for the world's funniest teenage road trip Paper Towns, also by John Green

Vernon God Little is another novel which has a reality TV element to it (when Vernon's trial is televised) although it is set in a modern America. Vernon's friends and neighbours are hideous but instantly recognisably comic grotesques and the writing is  alittle more literay than The Hunger Games.

Monday, 4 April 2016

"Prince Henry the Navigator" by John Ure

This is the biography of the Portuguese Prince who sponsored the genesis of the Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic islands and the African coast. It is fascinating.

I read some parts out to my family who thought I was reading fiction of the Game of Thrones variety.

Portugal in 1394, when Prince Henry was born, had recently liberated itself from Moorish rule after the Moslem takeover of the Iberian peninsula; Castille the neighbouring Spanish kingdom was still fighting Granada to regain Andalusia. The Knights Templars had been very helpful in Portugal's wars so, as a result, when they were disbanded by the French King and his tame Pope, the Portuguese protected them, turning them into the Order of Christ. At the same time, Portugal was dominated by three other religious orders including the Order of Aviz. The country was underpopulated because of the wars and recent plagues, including the Black Death, its agriculture was rudimentary, Lisbon had only 40,000 people and the second city, Oporto, only 8,000, there was insufficient gold and the silver coinage was debased.

Henry was the third eldest son of the Master of Aviz, the illegitimate son of Pedro, Infante (Prince) of Portugal. After Pedro's first wife died, Pedro married her lady in waiting but his father disapproved of the match so had the new bride (or possibly bride to be) murdered. When Pedro succeeded to the throne shortly afterwards he had her body exhumed and made the courtiers "kiss her lifeless hand".

Pedro was succeeded by his eldest son, Fernando, who was engaged to Leonora of Aragon although the Pope wanted him to marry Leonora of Castille while he himself was in love with the wife, also called Leonora,  of one of his nobles. He ditched the first two, alienating two nearby countries and exiled the husband of Leonora III. She was a power-hungry bitch who persuaded the King's half-brother Dom Joao, that his wife (her sister) had been unfaithful to him. He killed her and had to flee to Castille. His brother followed him.

Now she tried to kill Joao, the Master of Aviz, Prince Henry's dad. She had him arrrested for treason, forged evidence, and finally forged her husband the King's signature on a forged death warrant. But the jailers smelt a rat and he got out of prison. After King Fernando died, Joao then murdered Leonora's lover (while she was in the next room), raised the town in rebellion against her, started a civil war (allied to John of Gaunt) and finally became King. Given that he was master of a religious order and therefore sworn to celibacy (despite his mistress) he then got the Pope to give him dispensation so that he could marry Phillippa, John of Gaunt's daughter, and breed five boys: Duarte (who also married a Leonora!), Pedro, Henry (our hero), Joao and Fernando and a girl Isabel.

That's the back story in Chapter One. By this time I was breathless and begging for more. 11 pages of thrilling incident which beat almost any other thriller I have ever read. And macabre!

Once the civil war had been settled and stability (and King Joao) reigned, the princes and princess grew up in a court dedicated to chivalry. So when the time came for the boys to become knights and King Joao proposed a massive 'winning your spurs' tournament, they asked to go on crusade. Since Granada was the preserve of the Castillians, the Portuguese sailed to the Moroccan coast to capture Ceuta, a sort of Gibraltar on the African pillar of Hercules. Henry then went back to settle on Sagres, as far south west as Europe gets, from where he sent out ships.

First his captains discovered Porto Santo and Madeira, then the Azores; these were colonized. Then they started inching down the coast of Africa. Because the square sailed ships found it difficult to tack against the prevailing winds on the return journey, Henry designed caravels with triangular sails which could sail 12 degrees closer to the wind. At first they were too afraid to venture south of Cape Bojador, just south of the already discovered (and Spanish) Canary Islands but once this psychological barrier had been overcome they made rapid progress, reaching Cape Verde and the Cape Verde islands by the time of Henry's death.

In the meantime, Henry went on crusade again to capture Tangiers. This was a failure. Surrounded by Moorish armies, the Portuguese had to negotiate terms of surrender. Henry left his younger brother Prince Fernando as a hostage and promised to redeem him by surrendering Ceuta but the promised safe-conduct went wrong, the terms of the treaty were flouted and Fernando died in Tangiers in miserable captivity.

The colonies in Madeira and the Azores were making profits but Henry needed lots more money for his African explorations so he started capturing slaves; the book says that he presided "over what was the first slave market in Europe" (though presumably that doesn't count what happened in Roman times and before). But there were precedents: Moslems captured Christians for slavery (and there were presumably Moslem slave markets in Portugal before the reconquista) and the reconquista had led to Christians holding Moslem slaves.

Once King Joao died his eldest son, Duarte became King. After he died his widow (Leonora!!!) fought a bitter power struggle against the second eldest brother Pedro which led to Pedro rebelling and being killed in battle against his nephew's forces. Prince Henry played a rather equivocal role in all of this.

The nephew, King Afonso, invaded Castile later on and went to France to try and persuade the French to join in. When they refused he had a strop, abdicated his throne, and became an itinerant friar in France. He was swift;ly rounded up and returned to Portugal where he reassumed the throne. It wass his son Joao II who was on the throne when Bias rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

Very Game of Thrones!

This is an absolutely fascinating history of a man (who seems to have died a virgin, very religious) and his times. Wonderful fun. Very readable. Why on earth is it out of print?

April 2016; 192 pages

Other books about exploration that are reviewed in this blog: