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

Saturday, 30 December 2017

"The Outsider" by Albert Camus

Another novel with a stunning first line: “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.” Mersault, a Frenchman living in Algeria, reacts to the death of his mother with what, to all the world, seems like a total lack of emotion. Having attended the funeral he goes back to work, meets and beds a girl, helps an old man who has lost his dog, and intervenes in a neighbour's domestic dispute with fatal consequences.

It is written in short, matter of fact sentences that feel like the stunned bewilderment of a man who confesses that physical sensations in the here and now interfere with his feelings, and who is too honest with himself to subscribe to the 'normal', socially acceptable and socially constructed, emotions of others.

But society can't tolerate someone like Mersault, someone who sees through the pageant that we like to pretend is reality.

Divided exactly into two parts by the killing, The Outsider is a perfect miniature portrait of an emptied soul.

Some wonderful lines:
  •  “But today the sun blazing down upon the shimmering landscape made it inhuman and depressing.” (p 14)
  • I felt a bit lost standing between the blue and white of the sky and the relentless darkness of these other colours: the sticky black of the blistering tar, the dull black of the morning clothes, the shiny black of the hearse.” (p 15)
  • Although actually, everyone is always a little guilty.” (p 18)
  • I thought that it was one more Sunday nearly over and done with, that Mama was now dead and buried, that I would go back to work, and that when all was said and done, nothing has really changed.” (p 22)
  • when all is said and done, no one really knows.” (p 25)
  • I replied that you can never really change your life and that, in any case, every life was more or less the same and that my life here wasn't bad at all.” (p 38)
  • Out in the street the sun was already so hot that ... it felt like a slap across the face.” (p 43)
  • All I could feel was the sun crashing like cymbals against my forehead, and the knife, a burning sword hovering above me.” (p 53)
  • I fired for more times into the lifeless body, where the bullets sank without leaving a trace. And it was as if I had rapped sharply, four times, on the fatal door of destiny.” (p 54)
  • Their muffled whispers, rising from below, created a kind of soft background music against the conversations that criss-crossed above their heads.” (p 66)
  • I didn't understand how the natural qualities of an ordinary man could be turned into overwhelming proof of his guilt.” (p 91)
  • I knew that it didn't matter much whether you died at thirty or at seventy, because in either case other men and women would of course go on living, and it would be like that for thousands of years.” (p 103)
  • He wasn't even sure he was alive because he lived life as if he was dead.” (p 109)
  • standing before this symbolic night bursting with stars, I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world.” (p 111)

I devoured this book. The aching honesty of the protagonist was devastating.

Camus also wrote The Fall

December 2017; 111 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

Friday, 29 December 2017

"An English Christmas" edited by John Julius Norwich

This is a compilation of passages from literature describing Christmas. It is an almost relentless cosy and complacent Tory view of an English Christmas: it is all priests and monarchs and country houses. Perhaps it is inevitable: history has always been written by the literate and for most of history that has meant the rich. Perhaps you can't blame Norwich for quoting from the diaries of Queen Victoria and Samuel Pepys and he does include the occasional peep of a different perspective but bizarrely the overwhelming impression of nearly the longest night of the year is one of warmth.

I wondered when he quoted Virginia Woolf, that he might have included her to demonstrate her appalling snobbery: “I grant, says the middle-class woman [wife of a bank clerk trying to make ends meet by shopping in the sales], that I linger and look and barter and cheapen and turnover basket after basket of remnants hour by hour. My eyes glisten unseemlily I know, and I grab and pounce with disgusting greed.” (p 36) But he had the opportunity to include some editorial gloss to suggest that he found this remark distasteful.  The same situation came with the selection from Henry James in which the great writer visits a workhouse at Christmas hoping that the children will be romantic little Oliver Twists to discover that they “were all very prosaic little mortals. They were made of very common clay indeed, and a certain number of them were idiotic.” (p 65) No comment from Norwich. As for Cecil Beaton whose diary records a Duke and Duchess patronising their tenants: “The Duchess stood to attention surrounded by many ugly, grey-haired women, including a few deaf mutes. The village children, puny and unattractive, made a startling contrast to the healthy ducal offspring.” (p 235) I wanted to scream that the ducal offspring are well fed because they reap the rewards of the labour of the villagers whose own children are malnourished. But Norwich appears to condone the blind snobbery behind this thought.

After all, as he tells us, he spent childhood Christmases with his uncle, Duke of Rutland, at Belvoir Castle, surrounded by footmen, valets, ladies maids (and presumably, cooks and kitchen maids and stable boys and gardeners and cleaners). How could he have seen behind the magic to the toil?

Just occasionally there is a counterbalance. He does, of course, include the sentimental poem Christmas Day at the Workhouse. Lord Shaftesbury's diary records: “Rose before six to prayer and meditation. Ah blessed God, how many in the mills and factories have risen at four, on this day even, to toil and suffering!” (p 185) And George Eliot writing about old Christmas says “His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless - fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faced had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want.” (p 123) I loved the unexpectancy of the want. The poor are so poor they have not even hope. But no comment from Norwich. And these moments are few and far between.

There is some wonderful writing:

  • Dylan Thomas: “The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves.”  (p 50)
  • Saki: “everyone ate raisins and almonds with the nervous industry of sheep feeding during threatening weather.”  (p 74)
  • Winifred Holtby: “the chill air was a sharp as eau de cologne, as icy water, on our bodies.” (p 85) 

There are other pleasures: 
  • I come constantly to Church to hear divine Service, and make Conquests.” (p 26)
  • My sister, having so much to do, was going to church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going. In his working clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else.” (Charles Dickens) (p 142)
  • All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.” (letter from the trenches about the Christmas Eve ceasefire) (p 154)
  • Edmund Gosse’s dad was anti-Christmas: “The very word is popish, he used to exclaim. Christ's mass! pursing up his lips with the gesture of the one who tastes asafoetida by accident.” (p 161)
  • George Orwell: “The only reasonable motive for not overeating at Christmas would be that somebody else needs the food more than you do.” (p 191)
  • I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all around the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise [a medieval defence against horses: a log with iron spikes like a cylindrical hedgehog], not particularly comfortable to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. the ice water stung and scorched like fire.” (A rather masochistic Reverend Kilvert) (p 199)
  • Some do fall on their faces and some do fall on their rumps. And they as do hold their selves uncommon stiff do most in generally fall on their rumps.” (p 203)
But the overall impression is that Christmas is a time of plenty and joy ... if you're rich.

It's a shame because Norwich writes great books, including The Popes.

December 2017; 262 pages

Monday, 25 December 2017

"A universal history of infamy" by Jorge Luis Borges

A bijou set of very short biographies of rascals and villains, some of them invented. Borges, who also wrote Labyrinths and The Book of Sand, is famous for his short stories. What marks them out is their scholarship (or their assumed scholarship), their invention, and the crystal beauty of his prose. A sentence like "Noons were heavy, afternoons endless." (p 48) is so short, so unfussy and yet so redolent of imagery.

Other moments
  • Bogle was no different from other men, with nothing more distinctive about him than a longstanding, shamefaced fear that made him linger at street crossings - glancing east, west, south, and north - in utter dread of the vehicle that might one day take his life.” (p 32) 
  • The neighbourhood production of some faded musical comedy, with its chorus line of obvious housewives posing as pirates and hoofing it on a briny deep of unmistakable cardboard.” (p 41) 
  • "each evening. high, shiftless flocks of airy dragons rose from the ships of the imperial squadron and came gently to rest on the enemy decks and surrounding waters." (p 48)

December 2017; 131 pages

Sunday, 24 December 2017

"The man within my head" by Pico Iyer

This literary chimaera is part memoir, part travelogue and part literary biography (of Graham Greene). It jumps about from place to place, as Iyer himself wanders the world, becoming almost postmodern in its fragmentation. It is a picaresque (that's almost a pun!), the wandering narrative matching Iyer himself as he meanders around the world. 

This gives us the chance to envy Iyer's charmed life. Born to a father who educated himself out of Bombay to become a university lecturer, Iyer as a child commutes between California and top class boarding schools in England where he learns, inter alia, Latin and Ancient Greek. Following an Oxford degree he wanders the world, writing travel pieces and literary review. I was Greene with jealousy!

The discursive nature of the book also means that Greene's books are approached thematically, although the ordering of the themes seems random and is unhighlighted. And so, apart from kindling in me a desire to reread Greene's work, I felt unsatisfied. Post-positivist that I am, I would have liked a linear narrative, starting with the first book, so that I could have traced the development of Greene's craft. Instead we repeatedly revisit The Quiet American, clearly Iyer's favourite, and a very good book indeed. But. There is (so far as I can see) no mention of, for example, Brighton Rock. Perhaps Iyer has never been to Brighton. Other books unmentioned include A Gun for Sale. You might argue that these are lesser works but you can't really write about an author without mentioning the good as well as the bad.

I found the memoir interesting but I had a personal reason. I was at school with Pico, the "high" school whose name he isn't prepared to give, although he describes the place sufficiently so that it is easy to guess. For a man so prepared to tell us intimate details of his life this seems a strange coyness. Perhaps it is a strange game that he is playing with the reader, in keeping with the postmodern nature of this strange book.

Fragmentary and meandering: this is the structure of a dream. There are moments when this book becomes a reverie. There are magical incidents, episodes of violence and action, and Iyer is repeatedly haunted by the men within his head, both Graham Greene and his father. There are also moments when his writing achieves beauty and insight. A small selection of these include:
  • Lovers stretched out on the grass next to huge sepulchres, enjoying the one spot in the city where their whispers would not be drowned out by the role of passing buses.” (p 11) Is the ‘passing’ a bitterly morbid wordplay? Or just a pathetic fallacy?
  • Who are these figures who take residence inside our heads, to the point where we can feel them shivering inside us even when we want to ‘be ourselves’?" (p 21) 
  • The paradox of reading is that you draw closer, to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.” (p 37)
  • A dentist is really a priest in a different kind of a white robe, administering suffering as a way, he assures us, of keeping deeper suffering at bay.” (p 41) He goes on to point out how often dentists appear in Greene's works.
  • The house had been built by a fundamentalist who are taken very seriously the biblical injunction to build his house ‘upon a rock’; he had found a large boulder up amidst the brush, and without benefit of foundation - or architectural experience - laid down a two-story structure.” (p 64) The sequel is that a storm ripped part of the house off the mountainside.
  • to achieve the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” (p 65)
  • the new possibilities of our global order, and the way it allowed for multiple homes and multiple selves.” (p 135) Multiple homes and multiple selves seems to summarise the author himself as depicted in this book.
A remarkable and memorable book. December 2018; 238 pages

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

"Ghosts of the Vikings" by Marsali Taylor

Another Cassandre Lynch whodunnit. I wonder why she's called Cassandre? In the epics of ther Trojan War Cassandra is the princess gifted with prophecy but cursed in that no one will believe what she says. This could make an interesting type of whodunnit in which the detective solves the crime very early on but can't get anyone to believe her and, as a result, is endangered. But that's another book.

Cass sails to Unst, most northern island in the Shetland archipelago, to hear her Maman sing opera. But at the post-performance meal one of the other singers dies. The mystery is compounded by Cass voluntary keeping night watch over archaeological sites for  metal detectorists seeking Viking treasure. And her will she/ won't she relationship with DI Gavin (she is reluctant to have sex with him on board her boat because the mast will wobble and everyone in the marina will know what they've been doing) continues.

Although I was a little confused about the details in the end (even after the murderer was exposed I found it difficult to work out how it was done and what exactly was happening with all the other sub plots) Taylor delivers another wonderful story steeped in sailing and Shetlandish lore and set against a backdrop of the beautiful and beautifully described Shetland scenery. I want to go there!

"The whole city's dressed up like a candy store getting wed." (p 11)

The brilliant books in this series, in order, include:
December 2018; 327 pages

Sunday, 17 December 2017

"Beautiful people" by Simon Doonan

A memoir previously published as 'Nasty'.

Doonan was born in 1952 in Reading; his childhood was spent in poverty in one of the grimmest and most joyless tdecades in recent history. Child care was in the local orphanage. Family life was spent in the company of schizophrenic truth telling granny who, when Simon was five, told him there was no Santa Claus and that he would one day die, schizophrenic Uncle Ken and a weird assortment of lodgers including blind Phyllis whose skull Simon fractured.

And he was gay.

This story veers between the bleakness of his childhood surroundings and the camp fabulosity of his later life living with an assortment of men including drag queen Biddie. The characters are unbelievably brilliant and the descriptions original and exact. This is the observational comedy of an accomplished stand up comedian (he is a window display designed). It reads like Gerald Durrell's Our Family and Other Animals on speed.

There are some haunting moments:
  • Trying to flee from justice by running, in platform heels, across Blackpool's sandy beach
  • Being arrested for drunk-driving while wearing bondage gear by two LA cops who couldn't stoip giggling
  • Teddy's birthday
  • Butlins: holiday camp.
  • Blind Aunt Phyllis
  • His boyfriend dying from AIDS

A few of the ab fab darling lines:
  • She sneezed and her dentures flew out. They hit the kitchen door with a sharp clack! and then rattled sideways across the linoleum floor like a fleeing crustacean.” (p 1) 
  • In Reading, our industrial hometown, there was no shortage of dreary here and nows.” (p 6)
  • From an early age, I was excessively focused on obtaining the freedom which comes with having a bit of extra cash in my pocket, and was prepared to do whatever it took to get it.” (p 9)
  • we were suffering from a unique mixture of high and low self-esteem.” (p 16)
  • She was not one of the Beautiful People. She was one of the unsavory people.” (p 24) 
  • Edvard Grieg’s ominous, throbbing anthem ... gave our morning gatherings a distinct feeling of impending folkloric genocide.” (p 40)
  • The message was simple: the more grim life is, the more character building will be it effect.” (p 40)
  • Entering a room as if one was entering a room was so much more amusing and exhilarating than just entering a room.” (p 86)
  • We had so much more fun because we were behaving as if we were having fun.” (p 86)
  • life is a stage set, a really tacky, faded stage set.” (p 92)
  • our house resembled a crack den a full fifteen years before the advent of crack.” (p 136)
  • ‘Scrape’ is the accumulated, lard-infused, crunchy material which coagulates in the frying pan during the course of cooking other items.” (p 149)
  • Being incarcerated is such a vile experience that it is impossible to understand the whole concept of career criminals.” (p 209)
  • There is no such thing as a young fart.” (p 264)
December 2017; 284 pages

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

Thursday, 14 December 2017

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This tiny novel is astonishing. Starts with a hook: “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.” (p 1) What a first line! But then it more or less meanders. The narrator is a man who had been friends with Santiago and, after a gap of twenty seven years, returns to the town and talks to all the people who were there, who remembered that day. And tries to understand.

The killers didn't really want to kill him. It was an affair of honour. They told everyone what they were going to do in the hope that someone would stop them. So more or less the whole town knew what was going to happen. Except, until the last moment, the victim. Whom no one thought to tell.

This provides a theme sufficiently compelling to keep you going. This allows the author to explore. Exploration involves wandering, rambling, seeking out and turning back. This enables the author to poke his nose into so many aspects of how people live. He is forensic in his observations and he has the facility of turning the clarity of these observations into the exact right words. 

A classic. Wonderful.

  • To put the broken memory of mirror back together from so many scattered shards” (p 5) 
  • You won't have a drink of that water as long as I'm alive.” (p 8)
  • They'd placed the sick people in the archways to receive God's medicine.” (p 20)
  • “don't comb your hair at night; you'll slowdown seafarers.” (p 31)
  • a friend of a few drinks.” (p 42)
  • we were cast adrift over an abyss of uncertainty” (p 44)
  • Both were exhausted from the barbarous work of death.” (p 49)
  • She was certain that the Vicario brothers were not as anxious to fulfill the sentence as to find someone who would do them the favour of stopping them.” (p 57)
  • My sister the nun, who wasn’t going to wait for the bishop because she had an eighty-proof hangover.” (p 71)
  • On nights of high tide the toilets would back up and fish would appear flopping about in the bedrooms at dawn.” (p 89)
  • A poor woman devoted to the cult of her defects.” (p 93)
  • She told us about the miracle but not the saint.” (p 101)
December 2018; 122 pages

If you enjoy this book you might also like another book about untimely death, reported from the perspective of twenty or so years and firmly set within a community: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

"Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

This book starts slowly with the baptismal party for one-year-old Franny at which Bert, a friend of her father's, meets Beverley, her mother. Soon the two families have shuffled. In the summer Bert's four kids and Beverley's two kids holiday in Virginia, where Bert and Beverley now live. But B&B are neglectful parents and the six kids roam in the fields. Because Albie the youngest is such a pain they give him pills and gin to make him sleep while they have fun. Then tragedy strikes.

Years later Franny, haunted by her memories, meets a famous author and tells him the story of their life. Which becomes a best seller.

Shifting backwards and forwards in time, told from multiple points of view, this is a forensic dissection of families. Who'd be a mother after reading this?

It is a beautifully written book because of the compelling characters it creates and the the way the author dissects families with such ruthlessness and at the same time such compassion and these few lines below don't do it justice.

  • He looked like one of those gargoyles perched on a high corner of Notre Dame that's meant to scare the devil away.” (p 61)
  • Luggage: that which is to be lugged.” (p 72)
  • the bony protrusions of her vertebrae and clavicles were so clearly displayed she could have found work in an anatomy class.” (p 76)
  • In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.” (p 77)
  • The nuns had led her to believe that God gave preference to people who did things the hard way.” (p 125)
  • He rubbed his hands together to warm them up and then sank them deep into his pockets.” (p 135)
  • It made Albie want to take off his skin.” (p 171)
  • Life, Teresa knew by now, was a series of losses.” (p 245)
  • Theresa was shocked by the roaming idleness of her mind, as if she was sifting through trash on the side of the freeway and was stopped, enchanted, but every foil gum wrapper.” (p 290)

Patchett also wrote the wonderful Bel Canto, a faster paced book with less normality but a searingly passionate love story. I want to read more of this wonderful author.

December 2018; 322 pages

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

"Rabbit stew and a penny or two" by Maggie Smith-Bendell

A memoir of her childhood as a Romani Gypsy traveller on the road in the 1950s. They picked snowdrops and daffies and sold them door to door; they picked peas and beans for farmers; they bought and sold scrap metal. This is a fascinating record of that transient life including the hardships, the fights, the premature deaths.

There is quite a lot about the dreadful racism suffered by the Romanis and many of us house-dwellers should be ashamed of ourselves. There was one point on which I disagreed, however. During the Second World War Romani men (and their horses) might be conscripted. She seems to regard this as persecution. Of course, house-dwellers were also conscripted and it might be argued that the Romanis should have been exempted because the war was not being fought 'in their name'. Although, of course, the fate that Romanis suffered in Nazi Germany, where they were exterminated in gas camps, might suggest that at least to some degree the war was being fought 'for' them. Which brings us to an interesting 'social contract' type question: to what extent does a person who cuts themselves off from benefits from society nevertheless be obliged to contribute towards society?

There are some great stories. I found the funniest the one in which young Maggie, at school, played her first game of hockey. She understood the basics - you had to hit the ball with the stick - and ran up and down the pitch scoring goals. There was a commotion. The teacher pointed out that she should only score goals at one end because she was in a team. She hadn't understood the concept of teams.

Some great lines that possess sometimes a very different metaphor or perspective:

  • "A good, big fire would put the frost in its place wherever we  pulled in." (p 30)
  • They would go through the breeding of the horse, chamming [boasting] on for what seemed like hours.” (p 104)
  • I know what you’s like with the lush [alcohol] down your neck.” (p 111)
  • He got as drunk as a handcart.” (p 155)
  • We were not young enough to be put to bed, not old enough to be treated like adults.” (p 171)
  • If a stranger has come upon us they would’ve thought we'd been touched by the moon.” (p 186)
  • She would’ve laughed if her granny’s arse had caught fire.” (p 235)
  • To other travellers, my name became bigger than me body.” (p 250)
  • Retrospective was the new way forward!” (p 251)
  • I ... know me run as good as any rabbit in his warren.” (p 259)
Well told with some great stories, simply written. I could feel the pleasure in an outdoor way of life, knowing about badgers and pea plants, whilst at the same time regretting the hardships. I loved the integration of Romani words. But most of all I enjoyed her unique perspective on life.

December 2017; 276 pages

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

Sunday, 3 December 2017

"A dedicated man" by Peter Robinson

Set in a valley in the Yorkshire Dales, idyllic when the sun is shining, DCI Banks investigates the murder of a local historian amidst the usual crowd of suspects: the dead man's wife, an author of whodunnits, an internationally renowned and stunningly beautiful folk singer, the archaeologist's publisher, the medallion-wearing local entrepreneur who wanted to redevelop a field that was once a Roman camp, the folksinger's ex-Army father, the local doctor and a local religious nut. Everyone tells the police that the dead man had no enemies which is ipso facto untrue. Are the roots of the crime in the present day or ten years ago when some of the same characters gathered in the same places?

A well-written whodunnit with, mirabilis dictu, a happily married detective (pipe smoking, into opera and choral music, ex London).

Plenty of red herrings although I worked out whodunnit sometime before the end and it didn't seem to twist after that.

"The room was flickering with tiny bright flames that made the walls look like melting butter." (p 61)

December 2017; 288 pages

Thursday, 30 November 2017

"The Passport" by Herta Muller

Muller is the Romanian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2009.

Windisch is a miller in a small village in communist Romania. He is an ethnic German and has applied for passports so that he, his wife, and his daughter can emigrate to Germany. He is leaving behind the community he has lived in all his life. But village life is hard. And it is harder now that Windisch has to bribe the Mayor with sacks of flour and let the priest and the militiaman sleep with his daughter so that they will do the necessary paperwork. 

The book is written in short sections, some seemingly disconnected to the rest of the story, some realistic, some memories and some expressive of the superstitions of the cold country folk. The best way to think of this unusual book is as if each small section is a poem, the paragraphs are verses and the sentences are lines of the poem. Because the prose is so fractured as to only make sense as poetry. Some examples:
  • Windisch closes his eyes. He feels the wall growing on his face. The lime burns his forehead. A stone in the lime opens its mouth. The apple tree trembles. Its leaves are ears. They listen. The apple tree drenches its green apples.” (p 28) 
  • When the snow melted the first time, thin, pointed grass grew in the snow stone hollows. Katharina has sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good. The Hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours.” (p 74) 
  • Outside the window, the sound of rain. The prayer leader bats her short eyelashes as if the rain was running into her face. As if it was washing away her eyes. Eyelashes which are broken from praying.” (p 46)
  • For seven days the sky burned itself dry. It had wandered to the end of the village. It looked at the river in the valley. The sky drank water. It rained again.” (p 23)
It works when the images conjured are poetic. Otherwise it is rather difficult to read.

The political situation is captured in an altercation between the prayer leader at the funeral and skinny Wilma. The prayer leader says it is raining across the whole country but Wilma disagrees: “Our weather comes from Austria, not from Bucharest.” (p 46)

Other interesting lines:
Windisch feels his temples beating and thinks, 'My head is a clock'.” (p 8)
“'God knows,' says Windisch, 'what they’re for, women'.” (p 10)
Water snakes and trickles under the chairs. It glistens among the shoes.” (p 45)
The music is cold. The big drum sounds dull and wet. Above the village, the roofs are leaning towards the water.” (p 47)
The gypsy girl lifts her skirt. The tractor driver empties his glass. The gypsy girl takes the bank note from the table. She twists the plait around her finger and laughs.” (p 53)
Onion rings float on eyes of fat in the pot.” (p 58)
Her heels are full of cuts.” (p 62)
A strip of tin foil falls out of Amalie's handbag onto the carpet. It is full of round white warts.” (It is the pill)
It pushes crooked furrows like partings through his hair.” (p 71)
Your understanding is tiny ... it doesn't even stretch from your forehead down to your mouth.” (p 79)

It captures the hopelessness of old people in a dying village and the shabbiness of corruption. It captures the everyday sex of the poor people. There is no romance. But it feels so real!

November 2017; 92 pages

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

"Corpsing" by Toby Litt

Protagonist-narrator Conrad goes for a meal with his ex-girlfriend, advert-actress Lily. Half-way through a hitman arrives and murders Lily. Conrad is shot three times but survives.

Six months later, after a coma and therapy, Conrad decides to investigate and exact revenge. 

More thriller than whodunnit (there really aren't a lot of suspects and the few clues dropped along the way are fairly obvious), what makes this book exceptional is the six chapters interspersed into the text that trace the passage of each bullet in intimate ballistic and anatomical detail. These are brilliant pieces of writing. 

It is also quite realistic as to how a fairly ordinary bloke might blunder around trying to sleuth and buy a gun and wonderfully realistic about the effects of grief and trauma.

There are some good lines:
  • I just came along to animate the suit.” (p 3)
  • mainstream- kinky” (p 5)
  • If you want something that looks exactly like spunk, use shampoo” (p 7)
  • It felt as if I had popped up into the world like ... a flayed man, peeled of all protection, experiencing breeze as hurricane, cough as cataclysm, smell as orgasm (if nice) or disembowelment (if nasty), touch as torture.” (p 25) 
  • She was turning her environment into one vast sea-anenome-type-labia-fest - frills and pink prettiness.” (p 180)
  • The symptoms of imminent death was there for all to behold: pallor, clamminess, dilated pupils, lack of sensitivity to pain.” (p 190)
  • I could hear her distress hissing - like tears falling into a deep-fat fryer.” (p 224)

November 2017; 373 pages

Saturday, 25 November 2017

"In the Winter Dark" by Tim Winton

The Sink: a lonely valley in rural Australia. An old farmer and his wife; their neighbour, retired from the city, and a pregnant girl.

Something is out there in the darkness, killing their animals.

But is it real or is it something that their haunted, guilty memories have created?

This book is written with lyrical beauty. Stunning.

I don't know if my selection of lines has properly done justice to the power of the writing but:

  • He set off, but something stopped him still as a stump. Between the trees he saw something. A movement. A silhouette. It was travelling. Loping, that was the word that came to him. He squinted ... The shadow seemed to stop, slip sideways between apple rows. And then there was nothing.” (p 6) 
  • The car left in the only direction it could - away.” (p 8)
  • she rested her low, full belly against the windowsill in the front room and felt the baby slip and kick inside her.” (p 9)
  • Out in the dark she saw the anaemic cheek of a full moon rising from the forest.” (p 9) 
  • And then everything crumbled and went the taste of shit in her mouth, the taste of blotting paper.” (p 10)
  • you could tell Ida had ideas for later when she cooked pork, but after nearly forty years of falling for it every time, a man has to pretend he doesn't know when he's being seduced.” (p 13)
  • I should have taken Ida out of this valley thirty years ago and never come back. To spare her the hardships, the hidden things, this night.” (p 15)
  • Was he having everyone's recollections, was it history that tormented him?” (p 17)
  • Oh, how the clink of knife and fork spoke its own language.” (p 27)
  • When are the continents begin to shift in you, you can't tell tomorrow from yesterday, you run just like that herd of pigs, over the cliff and into the water.” (p 34)
  • The Sink is the kind of place that always failed to deliver.” (p 36)
  • The rich think everybody's rich. That's their sin, forgetfulness.” (p 37) 
  • The pain would be like a hand clamping down on her skull and she could almost feel fingers creeping in under her scalp going hot and cold in waves that made her too frightened to move her eyes.” (p 59)
  • The night is full of stories. They float up like miasmas, as though the dead leave their dreams in the Earth where you bury them, only to have them rise to meet you in sleep.” (p 73)
  • She was as silly as a wheel.” (p 79)
  • Run a farm? You couldn't run a bloody tap” (p 86)
  • The drip of sagging gutters.” (p 94)

How have I never heard of this writer before? I must read more!

November 2017; 110 pages

Thursday, 23 November 2017

"Missing, Presumed" by Susie Steiner

Posh girl Edith, doing a PhD at Cambridge, goes missing from her Huntingdon home after a drunken night out. Boyfriend? Best girl friend (last person to see her)? Father? Local sex pest? The Huntingdon cops have a high profile misper, possibly murder, on their hands.

And then a body turns up in the Ouse.

Told as a police procedural from multiple points of view: female DS (getting older, no baby, lonely and desperate, internet dating with most becoming one night stands); mother; male DC (cheerful chappy but breaking up with his controlling girlfriend); flaky misper's girlfriend.

I didn't get the twist although I think my solution was better.

Most interesting from my point of view because I know most of the places mentioned. She is very accurate about places although I couldn't work out how she took the train to Bedford from Huntingdon.

And there is a delightful relationship between the desperate female DS and the ten year old brother of a murder victim.

Some nice lines:
  • She picks up her toothbrush and lays along it a slug of toothpaste.” (p 5)
  • Man makes pudding! round of applause!” (p 9)
  • He rubs his hands together and blows into them.” (p 27)
  • The passage of time ... is like a growing tumour for a missing person, as if time itself drains the life from their bodies.” (p 83)
  • The sky has turned pink, striated yellow; a radioactive lozenge at its centre, reflected in the river.” (p 152)
  • before you know it, it can be too late” (p 157)
  • a plastic bag, bowling along in mid air, it handles like beseeching arms.” (p 194) 
  • ‘I should have fuckwit tattooed on my forehead’
    • ‘Wouldn’t fit’. ...
    • ‘Just twat then’” (p 345)
  • Quite a few of [her] sexual selections have been based on paper-thin criteria, like being in the same room.” (p 414)

November 2017; 419 pages

Saturday, 18 November 2017

"The Burgess Boys" by Elizabeth Strout

The BB opens with a reflective Prologue, a frame for the story, in which the author and her mother chat about the Burgess family. This enables the author to drop a couple of breadcrumb hooks:
“Bobby Burgess ‘was the one who killed his father.” (p 5)
“But after Susan Burgess’s son did what he did - after the story about him had been in the newspapers ... and on television too” (p 7)

This is an excellent way to get you to read what, despite the plot kicking in immediately, could be quite a slow start. Strout writes reflectively, meditatively. She takes her time to build character. 

She is particularly good on noting the minutiae of family life and what it means. What it is like to live in an apartment. How a wife always picks up her husband's socks. The sadness of being unable to have children. The loneliness of being human.

Jim B is a successful lawyer, married to Helen; the kids have grown up and left. Bob B, divorced by his wife so she could have the children she no longer really wants, is a much less successful lawyer working for the public. They live in NY having left their home in Maine after their mother died (dad died long before, crushed when the car he had just left his small kids in slipped its brake). Susan, Bob's twin sister, who had also been in that car, lives at home with her son, socially awkward Zach. The story begins because Zach has thrown a pig's head into a mosque and will have to appear in court.

And from there their lives unwind.

It is a sad book. Most of the characters are lonely even when they are putting the bravest face possible on it. It is like Pandora's box which, opened, let out all the sorrows of the world, but also released into the world Hope.

As Bob says to Jim near the end: "You have family ... You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be a kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That's called family.” (p 379)

Other great lines
  • My mother did not like Unitarians; she thought they were atheists who didn't want to be left out of the fun of Christmas.” (p 2)
  • Young couples who arrived at the coffee shops with hair still wet from showering after morning love.” (p 32)
  • In New York raising children is a horrendously competitive sport. Really fierce and bloody.” (p 53)
  • I would say the Wally Packer trial spoiled him, but I thought he was an asshole before that.” (p 101)
  • He thought of all the people in the world who felt they been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked it's way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder.” (p 109)
  • Pam was being sarcastic, but it was one pebble thrown against a thick windshield.” (p 129)
  • The funny old lady from exercise class could come too. You lie on the mat, she had said ... and then you pray to God you get up” (p 166)
  • Terrifying, how the ending of his marriage has dismantled him.” (p 217)
  • Bob, I killed him.” (p 273)
  • An uneasiness was following Helen, as though a shadow walked behind her, and if Helen stopped moving, the shadow just waited.” (p 288)
  • And it was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is.” (p 309)
  • Helen wanted to say something to Ariel that would hurt her, and when Ariel, reaching into the car's front seat, handed her a box of cookies she had made that day especially for them, Helen said, well I don't eat chocolate anymore.” (p 316)
  • As though her mind had Tourette's syndrome and these terrible things went uncontrollably through it.” (p 324)
  • I kind of thought I'd be a scientist tramping around Africa finding parasites and people would think I was great.” (p 358)
November 2015; 389 pages

Books by Elizabeth Strout reviewed in this blog include:

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

"Gothic Fiction" edited by Jerrold Hogle

Chapter One is the Introduction by Jerrold Hogle. He explains the basics. It is difficult to define a Gothic tale. How can we distinguish it from horror, for example? If Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is the first true Gothic tale (he said it was) then what about the clear inspirations of ghostly stories such as Shakespeare's Hamlet? A castle, a ghost, a wrong from long ago, a hero going mad. Aren't all these Gothic? So what Hogle has to do is in some way write a definition that will encompass all that we think is Gothic and exclude all that isn't. No chance. Here is his attempt:
  • A Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space - be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an ageing city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory, public building, or some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked spaceship or a computer memory. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story. These hauntings can take many forms, but they frequently assume the features of ghosts, spectres, or monsters (mixing features from different realms of being, often life and death).” (Hogle 2002, 2) 
    • Note how he leaves the possibility to describe science fiction as Gothic.
  • Gothic fictions generally play with and oscillate between the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural.” (Hogle 2002, 2) 
  • Gothic fictions ... have most often been about aspiring ... white people caught between the attractions or terrors of a past once controlled by overweening aristocrats or priests ... and forces of change that would reject such a past yet still remain held by aspects of it.” (Hogle 2002, 3)
  • The conflicted positions of central Gothic characters can reveal them as haunted by a second ‘unconscious’ of deep-seated social and historical dilemmas ... that become more fearsome the more characters and readers attempt to cover them up or reconcile them symbolically without resolving them fundamentally.” (Hogle 2002, 3) 
  • Many of the lead characters in Gothic fictions ... deal with the tangled contradictions fundamental to their existence by throwing them off onto ghostly or monstrous counterparts that then seem ‘uncanny’ in their unfamiliar familiarity while also conveying overtones of the archaic and the alien in their grotesque mixture of elements viewed as incompatible buy established standards of normality.” (Hogle 2002, 7) 
  • The Gothic has also come to deal ... with how the middle class dissociates from itself, and then fears, the extremes of what surrounds it: the very high or the decadently aristocratic and the very low or the animalistic, working class, underfinanced, sexually deviant, childish or carnivalesque.” (Hogle 2002, 9) 
  • No other form of writing or theatre is as insistent as Gothic in juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction - about gender, sexuality, race, class, the colonizers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal vs normal psychology.” (Hogle 2002, 13)
In Chapter two E J Clery traces the genesis of Gothic fiction suggesting that, at least for some years, “After Otranto the only significant work in which ‘Gothic’ appears in a subtitle was Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron.” (Clery 2002, 21) 

So what was special about Otranto?
  • Walpole wanted to combine the unnatural occurrences associated with romance and the naturalistic characterization and dialogue of the novel.” (Clery 2002, 24) 
  • The credible emotions of the characters connect us to incredible phenomena and events and allow terror to circulate via processes of identification and projection.” (Clery 2002, 25)
  • Walpole’s contemporaries suggested that fairy stories sublimated class conflict such that oppressive feudal Lords became Giants in their castles. (Clery 2002, 26)

What are the progenitors of Otranto?
  • Thomas Gray ... revised the Pindaric ode, the most irregular and thus ‘sublime’ of metrical forms. ... One of the poems, ‘The Bard’, contains several of the ingredients later to be found in Otranto: a tyrant, a prophecy, and ghosts demanding Vengeance.” (Clery 2002, 29) 
  • Scratch the surface of any gothic fiction and the dips to Shakespeare will be there.” (Clery 2002, 30)
  • Walpole's second preface ... was a notable ... defence of one aspect of Shakespeare's practice that remains controversial even in Britain: the inclusion of comic scenes in the tragedies. Walpole adopted this practice in Otranto, and it was to remain a [page break] feature of Gothic romance.” (Clery 2002, 30 - 31)

And of the contemporary imitators?
Beckford’s Vathek: “The eponymous villain and his equally loathsome mother Carathtis burst the bounds of moral instruction with their extravagant desires and grotesque cruelty ... Like Walpole, Beckford attempts a Shakespearean contrast of comedy and terror, but instead of interweaving the two, the black humour of the major part of the tale is finally overtaken by a scene of extraordinary tragic power. Vathek discovers that the reality of the ultimate Empire, for which he has committed so many crimes, is an eternity of aimless wandering among the multitude of lost souls in the vast domains of the devil Eblis.” (Clery 2002, 36)

Chapter 3 focuses on the 1790s. Its thesis seems to be that Gothic was inspired by the tensions, both in England and abroad, between the ancien regime and the demands of modernity. Thus the Marquis de Sade believed that ”the Gothic explosion was collateral damage from the French Revolution.” (Miles 2002, 42) Also:
  • Contemporary “ reviewers knew full well that Gothic terror derived from the Burkean cult of the sublime ... for sublimity and terror were associated with tragedy and epic, the two most prestigious literary forms” (Miles 2002, 43)
  • By linking Burke’s terror with Robespierre’s in the limited cases of romances by women writers, critics stripped the Gothic of it high literary pretensions, implicitly accusing its authors of being social incendiaries, while figuring them as literary sans-culottes.” (Miles 2002, 44)
  • There was a widespread perception that all old structures were in a tottering condition such as, for instance, castles, or the constitution, with its feudal, Gothic foundations.” (Miles 2002, 44) 

But there were other influences as well:
  • Mrs Radcliffe developed the “explained supernatural, but her most significant innovation was ... the heroine in flight.” (Miles 2002, 46)
  • It was a common belief among Whigs and radicals alike that the English parliament traced its origins to an ancient, or Gothic, constitution brought to England by the Saxons.” (Miles 2002, 48)
  • Schiller’s play The Robbers “ created an immense Fad for stories of Banditti.” (Miles 2002, 50)
  • Schiller’s The Ghost-Seer
  • The Masonic charlatan, Count Cagliostro, was then headline news across Europe. Cagliostro was in fact of obscure birth from Palermo, Sicily. Styling himself be master of Egyptian mysteries and friend of mankind, Cagliostro cut a swathe through the capital cities of Europe. He foretold the future (using a crystal ball); dispensed nostrums freely to the poor; and held seances for the wealthy. It was also rumoured that he was a member of the Illuminati, a revolutionary band of Freemasons allegedly founded in Ingolstadt ( the future site of Dr Frankenstein's experiments).” (Miles 2002, 51) 
  • “For the British middle-class mind, English revolutionary violence was indelibly linked to ‘ enthusiasm’, or radical Protestantism. Mad George Gordon, who inspired the violence that bore his name, was a Protestant zealot; while the excesses of the English Civil War will laid at the feet of Levellers, antinomians, and now, retrospectively, the Illuminati through their diabolical influence on Cromwell.” (Miles 2002, 55)
  • "German tales of illuminati ... did not feature revolution per se; rather, they represented plots and conspiracies and took place in a myriad of hidden places: in forest houses, gaslit caves, or secret gardens.” (Miles 2002, 56)

Gothic, like any genre, began to diversify:
  • Gothic follows the first law of genre: to deviate and make it new.” (Miles 2002, 58)
  • Like families, genres branch off into distinct lines as they incorporate new genetic material.” (Miles 2002, 44)
Chapter 5 considers the links between the Gothic and the Romantics. The Romantics simultaneously were attracted to and repulsed from Gothic. 

There was a fascinating discussion of the “schism between text and footnote” (Gamer 2002, 94). For example, “Byron's notes systematically debunk as baseless ‘superstitions’ the very materials ... he indulges in most strongly in the text of his poem.” (Gamer 2002, 99) I have never before considered how footnotes could be used to establish a different narrative from the main text. I suppose it is another form of framing device.

The fragmented structure of The Giaour, for example, becomes a metaphor for its title character’s state of mind, while the rapid cuts and multiple perspectives of its protocinematic technique put forward a phenomenological model of experience - one requiring interpretation to construct coherence from its pieces while simultaneously representing such interpretive acts as self-serving and doomed to failure. Frankenstein, in turn, deploys a narrative structure that buries its story under multiple layers of hearsay testimony.” (Gamer 2002, 101)

Chapter 8, about the effects of Gothic on Victorian novels, was perhaps the most fascinating, in part because it showed how novels I had read were influenced and, in some cases, sourced.

For example, in The Mysteries of London by novelist GWM Reynolds “one spectacular facade penetrated for future burglary is that of Buckingham Palace” penetrated by “the potboy Holford” who eavesdrops on Victoria and discovers that “immured in the luxury of her palace and surrounded by courtiers, she is unaware of the reality outside and the plight of the poor.” (Milbank 2002, 148) Sounds  remarkably like episodes from the second series of the recent ITV production of Victoria. Could it be that they sourced some of their plot from fiction rather than history? Dramatic adaptations of Gothic novels still apparently exist.

The magazine Blackwoods had a significant effect on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. In chapter 34 Jane states “My iron shroud contracted round me”; this may refer to a Blackwoods story called ‘The Iron Shroud’ in which a prisoner is to be crushed to death by the inward moving iron walls of his cell. Other Gothic themes in Jane Eyre include that of a woman fleeing from a man and the “mad wife in the attic of Thornfield Hall owes something both to the blending of house and asylum in Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer and to a short story by Sheridan Le Fanu ‘A chapter in the history of a Tyrone family’ ... from which she draws the imprisoned foreign first wife, as well as the veil and the mirror.” (Milbank 2002, 151). One has to remember that JE was written in six weeks. Borrowing from other texts does not diminish an author in my eyes. It does the opposite. Just as one appreciates the craft that Shakespeare shows when he tailors his plays for the actors in the company he works with or the circumstances of the theatre in which they are staged one admires Bronte for using the materials she has at hand. Writing, like any other art, is not a matter of genius but of skill.

Dickens is, if you think about it, extraordinarily Gothic. Oliver Twist: “is set in all his pristine Innocence as a contrast and a judge of the people and institutions that attempt to corrupt or enclose him: the workhouse and its greedy administrators, the undertaker's shop, the thieves’ kitchen, and so on.Yet he only reveals what is already the moral character of those he meets: he affects no change.” (Milbank 2002, 155 - 156) “In The Old Curiosity Shop ... Dickens follows the same procedure of contrasting the child with a range of grotesque companions, but by placing a young girl in the setting of an embalmed past he imports expectations that equate escape with movement forward in time and the possibility of social change accompanying her rescue and maturation. In a novel that combines fairy-tale, comedy, melodrama, religious allegory and social comment, the Gothic is the motor that truly drives the action ... Although the child sleeps peacefully among objects that would terrorize most children, this is in itself disquieting, since it allows no possibility of escape ... Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of The Old Curiosity Shop is its utter inability to imagine anyway in which its angelic heroine may be released from the tentacles of a deathly embalmed past.” (Milbank 2002, 156) “Nell is the shortened form of Eleanor, and her journey across the Midlands is analogous to the route taken by the body of Edward I’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, from Northampton to London, each resting place marked by the erection of a stone cross.” (Milbank 2002, 156) “Esther Summerson, the illegitimate narrator of much of Bleak House, is named after the Jewish Queen who saved her people from death.” (Milbank 2002, 157) “Bleak House is a world without energy, erotic drives, or the possibility of future children.” (Milbank 2002, 157) In Great ExpectationsMouldering Satis House, with its time-locked mistress and youthful Estella, offers a false Gothic promise that Pip is the hero come to bring change and new life by rescuing the Heroine.” (Milbank 2002, 159) 

Chapter 11 switches from the literary to the cinematic and is as brilliant about ceinematic techniques as other chapters have been about literary techniques.

Gothic visual tropes include: “The ruined castle or abandoned house on a hill made hazy by fog; the dark cemetery dotted with crosses and gnarled, bare branches; the heavily-built wooden doors that close without human aid; the high, arched or leaded windows that cost imprisoning shadows; the close-ups of mad, staring eyes ... the passing of a black cloud across a full moon.” (Kavka 2002, 210)

How can film achieve fear? By manipulating what we feel to be normal about the space around us.

  • The effect of fear is produced through the transformations, extensions, and misalignments of size and distance that are possible only in a three-dimensional space. Gothic film thus reveals and reconstitutes an underlying link between fear and the manipulation of space around a human body.” (Kavka 2002, 210)
  • Casting shadows is one way of manipulating space” (Kavka 2002, 214)
  • The stylistic techniques of German expressionism involve chiaroscuro lighting effects ... distorted backdrops, claustrophobic spaces, extreme camera angles, and shadows disproportionate to the objects that cast them.” (Kavka 2002, 215)

A range of feminist and queer criticism has suggested that the Gothic must also be understood as a blurring of boundaries between the masculine and the feminine, where monstrosity is associated with the copying, mirroring, or incursion of one gender form onto or into the other. In Frankenstein, for instance, men undertake the female role of human reproduction.” (Kavka 2002, 211)
What is the difference between Gothic film and horror film? It's whether you see it or not:
  • There is ... a world of difference between not being able to see something that remains shadowed or off screen (the Gothic) ... and being able to see something terrifyingly placed before our very eyes but from which we want to avert our gaze (horror).” (Kavka 2002, 227)
I enjoyed chapter 12 about Gothic in the Caribbean as much for the relish in the way the author wrote as for what they said. But it was very interesting about the link between zombies and slaves.
  • In the first Gothic set in Jamaica “the terrors of the heroine’s situation are exacerbated by her atavistic fears of Jamaica's African-derived magicoreligious practice of Obeah and the possibility of sexual attack by black males.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 229)
  • Zombification conjures up the Haitian experience of slavery, of the dissociation of man from his will, his reduction to a beast of burden at the will of a master.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 239)
  • The depiction of the Haitian people as zombies negates any possibility of their transcending a history of colonialism, slavery, postcolonial poverty, and political repression since, as zombies, they are incapable of rebellion.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 243)
  • The hyperbolized, quasi-Rabelaisian grotesque images of the Haitian collective body are primarily olfactory: unbathed bodies smelling like ram goats, the abominable stench of rotting flesh, the nauseous smell of plague-ridden corpses, the stink of piss and decay, the smell of sweat, blood, and bruises. These images blend with Gothic, frightful images of the body as a mutilated, rotting corpse. The text abounds with images spawned from political terror: crushed hands, burnt bodies, cut-off penises, roasted testicles, sores, the blood that soaks and fertilizes the scorched earth. Death haunts the text” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 243)

This was a fascinating text full of brilliant insights into a genre that I had never really considered but now recognize as one with deep set roots and far-flung influences.

November 2017; 300 pages

Friday, 10 November 2017

"The Passion of New Eve" by Angela Carter

New York is a nightmare city. The “blacks” have fortified Harlem and now use it as base base for armed incursions into the rest of the city. People are randomly gunned down in the streets. Militant feminists attack men. Rats run everywhere. This is very much a dystopian vision as seen in the mid-1970s when urban decay seemed to be inevitable. Having impregnated his girlfriend, Evelyn from England flees into the desert where he is saved from death and captured by a gang of militant feminists who perform surgery to transform him into a woman, Eve, to be inseminated by his own, harvested, sperm. (s)He escapes into the clutches of Zero, is raped, and forced to join Zero's harem. Then Zero and the girls go to the lonely mansion of reclusive ex-film star Tristessa, femme fatale of so many Hollywood movies, because Zero believes that Tristessa has made him sterile.

A quite bizarre picaresque.

First, there is Carter's obsession with mirrors. In New York Evelyn's girlfriend exotic dancer Leilah puts her make-up on every night in a cracked mirror as the narrator watches: “Her beauty was an accession. She arrived at it by a conscious effort. She became absorbed in the contemplation of the figure in the mirror but she did not seem to me to apprehend the person in the mirror as, in any degree, herself. ... she brought into being a Leilah who lived only in the not-world of the mirror and then became her own reflection.” (p 28) “She was a perfect woman; like the moon, she only gave reflected light.” (p 34) Later as he flees into the desert “As dawn came up over the New Jersey turnpike, I saw the desolation of the entire megapolis and it was a mirror of my own.” (p 38). Having had his sex changed he is allowed a mirror “But when I looked in the mirror, I saw Eve; I did not see myself.” (p 74) And again, and again:
  • I saw him step back and I saw his reflection in the mirror step back and the reflection of that reflection in another mirror stepped back.” (p 132)
  • I had become my old self again in the inverted world of the mirrors.” (p 132)
  • I was a boy disguised as a girl and now disguised as a boy again.” (p 132)
  • She invaded the mirror like an army with banners; she entered me through my eyes.” (p 151)
  • The glass was broken, cracked right across many times so it reflected nothing, what's a bewilderment of splinters and I could not see myself nor any portion of myself in it.” (p 181)

Of course the reflection of Evelyn into Eve and the subsequent discovery of Tristessa seem to suggest that men and women are mirror images of one another.

This also seems to be a book about sterility. New York is fecund but only of rats: “Outside, in the dusty street, the wind saying songs of loneliness in the geometric web of power cables and telephone wires.” (p 40). The desert is, of course, sterile: “the desert, the abode of enforced sterility, the dehydrated sea of infertility, the post-menopausal part of the earth.” (p 40). So is Zero; he blames Tristessa. Everyone is childless; Evelyn forces Leilah to have an abortion; he flees the feminist the day before he is about to be impregnated; the continent itself seems to be dying.

Written in 1977 Carter seems to have extrapolated the tensions between white and black and between men and women in New York and seen the potential for urban decay (which has taken over, for example, Detroit), and magnified the rioting of those days into full scale civil war. 

And there is a clear Gothic theme running through the book. New York is avowed as a Gothic city: “In New York I found, instead of hard edges and clean colours, a lurid, Gothic darkness that closed over my head entirely and became my world.” (p 10). But when Eve flees from the feminists we have the Gothic theme of the fleeing heroine (as in Jane Eyre) and when Zero and the women take over the reclusive film star's mansion we have so many Gothic themes including the burial chamber (although it is a waxworks museum) and a wonderful catastrophic Fall of the House of Usher. Even at the end we have the theme of the heroine crawling through subterranean passages.

Kavka (2002, 211) points out "A range of feminist and queer criticism has suggested that the Gothic must also be understood as a blurring of boundaries between the masculine and the feminine." This book is all about the blurring, or mirroring of those boundaries. But perhaps most Gothic of all is the fundamental theme of this book. Eve/Evelyn is Frankenstein's monster, created by the mad scientist/plastic surgeon Mother.
And then we have flashes of Freud. 
  • That we should all be happy posits, initially, a consensus on the notion of happiness. We can all be happy only in a happy world. But Old Adam’s happiness is necessarily dysfunctional. All Old Adam wants to do is, to kill his father and sleep with his mother.” (p 16) 
  • “Just as I crossed the filthy threshold of that gaunt, lightless, vertical, extinguished apartment block, all tenanted by strangers, my senses were eclipsed in absolute panic. ...And scrawled in chalk upon the wall ... INTROITE ET HIC DII SUNT [Slaney from answer bank says that the original phrase was Introite et nam hic dii sunt; ‘these words were attributed by Aristotle to Heraclitus who called them out to passers-by as he was seated in a smoky bakers's cottage. Enter, for here too are gods - meaning the gods are everywhere even in lowly places; In a letter dated 4th December 1896 Sigmund Freud wrote The psychology of hysteria will be preceded by the proud words, Introite et hic dii sunt "Enter -- for here too are gods." Aristotle, De partibus animalium. This second source, being more exactly what Carter writes, fits with her discussion of Ald Adam a few pages before. So this suggests that Carter is referencing Freud for this work. Freud wrote ‘The Uncanny’ which explores the psychoanalytical implications of Hoffnung’s The Sandman, potentially a classic German Gothic story. The rather tamed Sandman is a popular figure in American culture].” (p 25) 
    • OK> Enter for here too are gods. Does this theme continue throughout the novel? Clearly Mother in the underground feminist compound is intended to be a god. Is Zero, inhabitant of the lowliest hovel in the desert another god? Is Tristessa a goddess of the silver screen? Are these the gods that we have to find? Or is it all Freudian in which case I probably haven't so much failed to perceive this theme or misunderstood it but I have suppressed it. Hmmm.
  • They were case histories, rather than women.” (p 99)

It is a complex novel and there are times when Carter's prose is so poetic that I want to swim in it. But I found it difficult to read. 

Other lines I enjoyed:
  • I took up rugby football and fornication. Puberty stormed me. I grew up.” (p 8)
  • Leilah, Lilith, mud Lily, as you slip on another pair of the sequinned knickers that function as no more than a decorative and inadequate parenthesis round your sex.” (p 29)
  • so aroused was I by her ritual incarnation, the way she systemically carnalised herself and became dressed meat, that I always managed to have her.” (p 31)
  • Does a change in the coloration of the rind alter the taste of a fruit?” (p 68)
  • I did not like the way he flagellated me with the unique lash of his regard.” (p 90)
  • Emmeline even tried to bob down in a gross facsimile of a curtsey, all cramped at the top of the stairs as she was.” (p 124)
  • Tristessa had no function in this world except as an idea of himself; no ontological status, only an iconographic one.” (p 129) 
  • The erotic clock halts all clocks.” (p 148)
November 2017; 191 pages

Carter also wrote (reviewed in this blog):
Wise Children: about twins and therefore also naturally obsessed with mirrors and dualities
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which is also a picaresque
Heroes and Villains set following the destruction of the old world
The Bloody Chamber a brilliant collection of short stories based on fairy tales

Monday, 6 November 2017

"The Unlimited Dream Company" by J G Ballard

For all we know, vices in this world may well be metaphors for virtues in the next.” (p 64)

Ballard set this book in his home town of Shepperton, a small suburban town on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames, near Heathrow Airport and famous principally for its film studios (although writers Thomas Love Peacock and George Meredith lived here long before JGB himself). One wonders what his neighbours make of lines such as “I wanted to celebrate the light that covered the still drowsing town, spill my semen over the polite fences and bijou gardens, burst into the bedrooms where these account executives and insurance brokers lazed over their Sunday papers and copulate at the foot of their beds with their night-sweet wives and daughters.” (p 55)

A young man, Blake, steals a light airplane from Heathrow Airport and crash-lands it in the Thames. Trapped in the plane, burned and drowned, he is brought back to life by a young doctor, witnessed by her mother and a fossil-collecting priest. The young man has to flee from the police but discovers that, like so many ghosts, he is trapped in the town: when he tries to row across the river it grows larger, the same thing happens when he tries to cross the bridge of the meadow. He discovers that his death or near-death experience has left him incredibly randy: he can scarcely see anyone, man, woman, or child, without wanting to rape them. And in the night he dreams that he turns into a bird and all the residents of this suburban town have birds hatched from their brain and he flies with all of them in the night sky and tries to copulate with all of them.

This is an extraordinary book.

Reminding us of Ovid's Metamorphoses (“I had been casually banished to some remote Black Sea port and given the right to make the stones on the beach sing to me.” p 141) the young man changes into birds, into a whale, into a rutting stage. Masturbating furiously he splashes his semen around the town; plants spring from this strange seed and soon Shepperton is a jungle. He teaches the townfolk to fly by absorbing them into his body in a cannibalistic reinterpretation of holy communion and then releasing them into the air; sinisterly there are some he keeps inside himself (“I felt his strong bones anneal themselves to my own, his blood vent its bright tide into my veins, the semen of his testicles foam as it dashed in a torrent against mine. ... The last motes of his self fled through the dark arcades of my bloodstream, down the sombre causeways of my spinal column” p 149) and this is what forms his nourishment. Symbolically this happens principally at the War Memorial, as if Ballard is suggesting that society feeds on the dead bodies of its own children killed in wars. Other religious motifs include Blake's spell as a faith healer and his death and resurrection at least once. It would be blasphemous, given the intense sexual overtones to this work, to suggest that Blake is in many ways Jesus but there seem to be parallels.

But fly as they might he and the townfolk are trapped within the town. What is left but a repudiation of materialism and a wave of wife-swapping and incest that turns into a Shepperton-wide orgy.

But there are some people seemingly immune from Blake's magic. The attractive young doctor he so desires. Three children, one blind, one lame and one a mongol. And his nemesis Stark.

Utterly imaginative and utterly bizarre: it was like a William Burroughs novel (try Naked Lunch or The Wild Boys) without the cut up bits. The difficulty with this sort of narrative is that there are only so many times you can describe the sexual act, or metamorphic magic, or being trapped, without repeating yourself. But in the end the wonder of this story is in the poetry of lines such as:

  • Around me the streets are silent in the afternoon light.” (p 2)
  • I see my skin glow like an archangel’s, lit by the dreams of these housewives and secretaries, film actors and bank cashiers as they sleep within me, safe in the dormitories with my bones.” (p 3) 
  • The past ten years of my life had been an avalanche zone.” (p 4)
  • I wanted to mount her like a stallion taking a meadow-rich mare” (p 20)
  • savour the scent of her armpits, save for ever in a phial around my neck the tag of loose skin on her lip.” (p 22) 
  • The everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere.” (pp 25 - 26)
  • I was moving among these young women with my loins at more than half cock.” (p 26)
  • The pavements were deserted, the well-tended gardens like miniature memorial parks consecrated to the household gods of the television set and dishwasher.” (p 26)
  • The two women had undressed me with an uncanny sense of physical intimacy, as if they were unveiling a treasure they were about to share.” (p 48)
  • Her gasping mouth was smeared with blood milked from my lips.” (p 51)
  • My semen splashed the windows of the supermarket, streamed across the sales slogans and price reductions.” (p 97) 
  • I saw myself suddenly ... as a brutal shepherd, copulating with his animals as he herded them into their slaughter pens.” (p 97) 
  • I am the fire ... and the earth, air and water.” (p 100)
  • Semen jolted into my palm.” (p 106)
  • I would mount the town itself, transform Shepperton into an instant paradise more exotic than all the television travelogues that presided over their lives.” ( 107)
  • through the narrow aperture of my survival another world was spilling through into this one.” (p 117)
  • The air was a paint-pot of extravagant colours hurled across the sky.” (p 119)
  • In the streets below hundreds of people were waving us back, frightened that we would fly too near to the sun.” (p 129) 
  • Shepperton had become a life engine.” (p 144) 
  • I knew that she would soon move on to that world of which Shepperton was merely a brightly furnished but modest antechamber.” (p 192)
Millennium People (not as weird but with scenes of urban revolution which were quite similar) by J G Ballard is also reviewed in this blog.

This is a breathtaking book both in terms of the beauty of some of its prose and the obsessive eroticism. November 2017; 195 pages

Thursday, 2 November 2017

"Winter Garden" by Beryl Bainbridge

This is a fascinating book by the author of the equally brilliant The Birthday Boys. I can't believe I have left it this late to discover the work of this wonderful writer.

The main character is called Douglas Ashburner (almost always referred to by his surname). He loves all the routine and paraphernalia of fetching coal, twisting newspapers into spills, and setting fires in grates although his wife considers coal fires smelly things. He has recently been having an affair with an artist, Nina; this is a tremendous departure from his staid life with his wife now that the boys have grown up and left home. Boring Ashburner sees it as his role in life to support everyone; now that his wife has come into some money of her own she no longer seems to need him. This is his first affair and when he tells his wife that he needs a two week Scottish fishing holiday for his nerves (he’s flying to Soviet-era Moscow with Nina) he is disheartened by how quickly she agrees. He keeps hinting that she needs him to stay but she never asks him to so he is reluctantly obliged to go.

Ashburner loves his wife in his own boring way. When listing the reasons he loves her he can only think of trivial incidents. But these have always been enough for him. “He felt in some undefined way that he was at fault and wished his wife was at his side. in company she had been known, once or twice, to back him up.” (p 69) This is the portrait of a man who needs little except to feel needed.

Things fall apart in Russia. They are on a tour with artists. Ashburner hardly ever understands what is going on (partly because he is always being given vodka); the reader is supposed to know more than him. Thus, there is a woman in the corridor of the hotel posted at night to report on any goings on. Almost as soon as they read Russia Ashburner loses his suitcase (in which Nina put some tablets) and Nina herself goes missing. Throughout the rest of the journey their escorts keep assuring them that she has just been on the phone and she is well. Bernard is truculent and keeps seeking to depart from the official itinerary in order to make sketches of interesting buildings. Enid appears desperate to discover romance. Their adventures in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilsi become increasingly surreal. Ashburner keeps imagining he sees Nina: at a cemetery, in the opera, on the operating table at a hospital. His grasp on reality becomes increasingly fragmented. Meanwhile the reader is speculating like mad. Has Nina been murdered or is she a spy? Are they mixed up in the icon smuggling business? Have the Soviets discovered the pills in Ashburner's suitcase? Or is everything a huge mistake?

The whole thing is a spin into surreality with a wonderfully stiff upper lip dry old stick whose life so far has been utterly boring at the very centre of it.

It's well weird.

It reminded me of Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, another surreal holiday in which no-one is quite whom they seem. BH in turn reminded me of Graham Greene. This author is worthy of that pedigree.

The winter garden is the “name his wife gave to the sunken yard behind the house, a paved area devoid of earth and so called because even in summer it's late as dark as the Grave.” (p 5) That this represents Ashburner seems obvious though it might also represent their dog “a creature so dependable and infirm as to be thought incapable of straying beyond the confines of the winter garden.” (p 15) Come to think of it, the dog represents Ashburner as well. Late in the narrative he remembers the dog. Later still he remembers the Winter Garden.

His awareness of flowers was admittedly poor. in his view ... the things either picked up out of the ground or lolled in vases.” (p 5) Later he is given a bunch of tulips whose forced growing has given them oversized heads: “The tulips rolled in all directions and finally hung down, pointing at the floor. It was as though Ashburner had just eaten a particularly large banana and haven't yet thrown away the peel.” (p 31) There arer so many wonderful images such as that.

The affair with Nina has grotesque moments, such as the time they think they hear Nina’s husband return to the house and Ashburner has to hide, naked, in a cupboard. “In this sort of affair ... there was always someone who loved and someone who played the clown, and possibly they were the same person. She takes me for granted, he’d thought. It's not a thing a man can tolerate.” (p 18) These last words perhaps refer to his wife. This is a double bind. Ashburner needs to be the support, the quiet man in the background, but not to be taken for granted.

Other great moments:
  • “Listening to a foreign language, he thought, was similar to listening to classical music, which wasn't something he did often. If the sound was tuneful enough one noticed the first and last noises made by the orchestra; all the rest was drowned in day-dreams.” ( p79)
  • Round-shouldered from lack of sleep she slumped against the edge of the table.” (p 98)
  • He wasn't prudish, but he did like to know with whom he was being intimate - and then again a man preferred to do some of the running. It was in his nature. It wasn't as if he was a nocturnal animal, doomed like a hamster to couple in darkness. To be accurate, he realised he hadn't often coupled in daylight - beyond a few countable summer evenings before the children were born.” (p 113)  One of the great things about Ashburner is that he can't help being honest with himself.
  • He had been sent away to school when he was seven, and his own mother was something of a stranger. Her hugs, such as they were, could be described as lukewarm.” (p 124)
  • He had sat for hours in his sou'wester on the beach at Nevin, watching the sun sink into the sea and the moon float up over the headland, knowing that soon he would go indoors and light the fire and tell his wife of the beauties of that self-same sunset and moonrise.” (p 149)
  • "He was sure he had put on weight. He pulled his stomach in as far as he could; the bulge shifted to his diaphragm.” (p 150)
  • A lady dentist ... had tilted him backwards in the chair and explored the moist lining of his open, lascivious mouth with fingers fragrant with the scent of sandalwood.” (p 163) 
  • One day they’ll invent a machine to pick up all the conversations left wandering about with nowhere to go.” (p 174) 
November 2017; 184 pages

Other Beryl Bainbridge books in the this blog include: