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