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

Sunday, 29 January 2017

"The Tombs of Atuan" by Ursula Le Guin

This children's book strikes a far more sombre note than the book to which it is the sequel, A Wizard of Earthsea. It tells of a young girl who at the age of six is taken from her parents to become the next One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan (because she was born on the night of the last Priestess's death, rather like the way that the Dalai Lama was chosen) and brought up in aching isolation by those over whom she will come to exercise the power of life or death. The setting is on a bleak hillside and their are dark catacombs and labyrinths. All is gloom.

She is mistress of the darkness in the caverns underneath the hills, the maze of tunnels known as the labyrinth,  where only she is allowed (and, in some bits, other women and her eunuchs), where no light is allowed even for her, and where her dark gods, the Nameless Ones, brood.

Some prisoners are brought to her. It is for her to decide how they die, as a sacrifice. She decrees that they be starved to death.

And then she discovers a thief is in the labyrinth, seeking the treasure that is hidden there. She traps him underground and then she realises that she doesn't want him to die. Then she realises that her second in command, a dark and bitter priestess, is waiting for any excuse to get rid of her.

Spectacularly dark and creepy and beautifully written. Some of my favourite lines include:

  • "wink and glitter beneath the mountains like a speck of mica in a shelf of rock." (p 240)
  • "They stood there full of meaning, and yet there was no saying what they meant." (p 240)
  • "The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men's eyes." (p 347)
  • "One must not submit to them, one must resist, keep one's spirits always strong and certain." (p 355)
  • "Hospitality ... kindness to a stranger, that's a very large thing. Thanks are enough, of course." (p 380)
  • "Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it." (p 388)

January 2017, 275 pages

The saga continues with

Friday, 27 January 2017

"A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin

This children's book is about a young boy, Ged aka Sparrowhawk, of unusual talents who grows up as the son of the smith on an island in an archipelago and is apprenticed to a wizard. Then he goes to the wizarding school on the Island of Roke. He is clever but he is full of pride and summons a spirit of the dead. This brings Ged's own shadow which then seeks to hunt him and to kill(?) him. It is the story of his quest to overcome this monster and right the wrong that he has done.

Classic hero quest. Classic fantasy. Wizards and peasants. OK. So its sounds a little bit Harry Potter. A little bit Star Wars. But it is clearly informed with the anthropological understanding of the author's father which gives it a reality; not a gritty reality, no grit, but a reality rooted in fertile soil.

And this book is written with such lyrical prose, like the sound of the waves on the sea, and with such perfect descriptions, that it has a beauty which far transcends any attempt to pigeonhole it. The sentences are long, with many clauses, but there are rhythmic and rounded and this seems to carry one through. The vocabulary is extensive, far beyond what one would normally expect for a children's book, and this of course excludes the neologisms invented within the context of this alien, faraway and enchanted world, but this adds to the magic. I was, from time to time, lulled by the insistence of the tides of the prose, and found myself nodding off, but most of the time the beauty of this work wrapped me in its spell.

"Nameless and naked he walked into the cold springs ... He crossed to the far bank, shuddering with cold but walking slow and erect as he should through that icy, living water." (p 22)
"There was a silence, as if Ged was keeping back something he had to say. Then he said it: 'But I haven't learned anything yet!' 'Because you haven't found out what I am teaching.'" (p 25)
"In a land where sorcerers come thick ... you may see a raincloud blundering slowly from side to side and place to place as one spell shunts it on to the next, till at last it is buffeted out over the sea where it can rain in peace." (p 26)
"It seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight." (p 46)
"Even foolery is dangerous ... in the hands of a fool." (p 57)
"No shadow came crawling through the moonlight seeking the rent through which it might clamber back into its own domain." (p 78)
"Go to bed; tired is stupid." (p 87)
"As a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do." (p 89)
"past the wharves of Nesh, the rainy pastures of Dromgan, the malodorous oil-sheds of Geath..." ([p 115)
"Only shadow can fight shadow. Only darkness can defeat the dark." (p 142)
"He knew now, and the knowledge was hard, that his task had never been to undo what he had done, but to finish what he had begun." (p 177)
"Before the springs of the open sea, beyond the source, behind the gates of daylight." (p 204)
"A man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life is therefore lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark." (p 216)
"Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life." (p 216)

Wonderful and wise but most of all beautifully written. January 2017, 218 pages

The tale of Sparrowhawk and Earthsea continues with:

Monday, 23 January 2017

"The Gap of Time" by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is a great novelist. I liked Oranges are the Only Fruit, her breakthrough novel, although its subject matter and its setting were so depressing, and I loved the whimsy of Lighthousekeeping.

The Gap of Time is her rewrite of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale which I reviewed here in this blog. It is a difficult play. It is set in places far distant and in two periods separated by nearly twenty years. It begins with what appears to domestic bliss shattered by the apparently unprompted and immediate outburst of insanely jealousy which destroys family and friends; it ends with a most improbably contrived happy ending. It wallows on the brink of disaster and needs the poetry of Shakespeare to keep it afloat.

There were moments in this book which I found difficult. It starts with the wonderful moment when a poor man discovers an abandoned baby and this is Winterson at her poetic best. Alas, the rhythm is almost immediately broken as we go into the back story for Leo (King Leontes). It is true that I always find the start of the play difficult because Shakespeare has to explain so much before the real story begins. Winterson starts to recover when she tells the back story of Leo and Xeno (King Polixenes). The two boys, as in the original, grew up together and she invents a gay relationship, perhaps to explain why Leo should be so unhinged when he later believes that Xeno is having an affair with his heavily pregnant wife MiMi (Queen Hermione). I thought this story of the two boys exploring their awakening sexuality was beautifully done.

Moving to present time (if anything in this play/book can be called 'present') there is quite a funny bit where Leo is using a secret webcam to spy on his wife and Xeno in his wife's bedroom. There is no sound so he has to interpret what is happening. This was a clever way of doing the scene where Leontes watches Hermione and Polixenes from afar and comments on their behaviour. It could also be quite funny although there were jarring moments.

Then the action begins and I was swept into the excitement. Leo, convinced (despite a DNA test which was a brilliantly clever updating of the Delphic oracle!) that Xeno is the father of MiMi's new baby, tries to kill Xeno and when Xeno escapes to New Bohemia Leo sends the baby after him.

Then the action moves to New Bohemia some years later where black bar owner Shep and his foolish son Clo are still looking after Perdita, the baby they found and adopted, who is now a young woman, beloved of Zel, Xeno's estranged son, who works for shady second-hand car salesman Autolycus (AUTOS LIKE US). This is pure pastoral comedy, beautifully written and very funny; at times I laughed aloud. But the love between Zel and Perdita is wonderfully written, (as is Clo's attempt to shag one, any one, of the three piece girl band).

Then secrets start to be revealed and the book sweeps to its improbable (but a little less improbably than the play) ending.

Again there is a moment I found difficult when we go into the rather silly game that Xeno has designed which features angels and feathers and I guess this was full of symbolism for Winterson but I got a bit bored with it and didn't bother to try and work it out.

But the character of Pauline really comes into her own towards the end and there are moments of comedy gold in the dialogue between her and Leo:
'There's an old Sephardi saying ...'
'There would be.'
'Give time time.'

So this was a book with bits that bored me, some wonderful comedy, some lyrical and beautiful prose which charmed and provoked thought at the same time (samples below) and an ending that was simultaneously daft and brought tears to my eyes. Really, just like the play.

  • "Folks drink more when there's live music, and that's a fact." (p 5)
  • "I was running through a riddle of low-fire shrapnel" (p 5) 
  • "Whites find it harder to believe in something to believe in. They get stuck on specifics, like the seven days of Creation and the Resurrection." (p 10)
  • "But I did it for the wrong reason and I knew that soon enough. I didn't do it to end my wife's pain; I did it to end my own." (p 12)
  • "It's nothing, she said when she knew she was dying. Nothing? Then the sky is nothing and the earth is nothing and your body is nothing and our lovemaking is nothing ..." (p 14) 
  • "The anonymous always-in-motion world." (p 14) 
  • "You think the sow can't squeal with pleasure because her belly's swinging with piglets?" (p 25)
  • "off-grid music, like opera." (p 31)
  • "'Books change the way people think about the world.' 'Not if they don't read them, they don't.'" (p 32)
  • "Pauline did not really believe in walking; first there were legs, then there were bicycles and now there were cars." (p 110)
  • "It was a five-second lifetime decision." (p 122)
  • "'Sphinx? Isn't that underwear?' 'Spanx is underwear. The Sphinx was a woman - you know the type: part monster, part Marilyn Monroe.'" (p 142)
  • "Zel was looking down at the floor as though it had something to tell him." (p 145)
  • "A white shirt so obsessively unwrinkled it looked like it had been ironed with Botox." (p 157)
  • "Celebrities are fictional characters. Just because they are alive doesn't make them real." (p 159)
  • "Is life just a series of accidents that from a distance look like patterns?" (p 245)

This is a writer who can weave magic with words, magic that will capture you in its enchantments.

Friday, 20 January 2017

"Outsiders" by Howard S Becker

This sociological study of outsiders is by an ex-American jazz musician and includes fascinating portraits of 'marihuana' users (parts were written in the early 1950s) and jazz musicians.

The fact that the book is written when it was means that the chapters on drug taking are devoted to 'marihuana' which is obviously regarded as really rather naughty. Its study of 'dance musicians' is about musicians who want to play 'jazz'.  It also brands homosexuals as deviants:  "many homosexuals are able to keep their deviance secret from their nondeviant associates" (p 21); explaining how difficult it is for them to keep jobs. It is difficult nowadays even to understand how anyone can refer to homosexuality as deviance let alone a sociologist especially without putting the word 'deviance' into quotation marks. But it does make this book a rather fascinating unintended social history.

"What laymen want to know about deviants is: why do they do it? How can we account for this rule-breaking? What is there about them that leads them to do forbidden things?" (p 3)

"different groups judge different things to be deviant." (p 4)
Disease analogy (p 5)
Some forbidden acts are tolerated so long as they are not done openly (p 11)

Deviant 'normalises' behaviour thus:

  • Not my fault: tossed by the winds: he is at the mercy of circumstances: it was society made me do it (p 28)
  • Not wrong if no one hurt (p 28)
  • Not wrong if you are righting a wrong eg beating up other deviants (p 29)
  • Not wrong if your condemners are hypocrites (p 29)

"Members of service occupations characteristically consider the client unable to judge the proper worth of the service." (p 82)

"Musicians feel that the only music worth playing is what they call 'jazz', a term which can partially be defined as that music which is produced without references to the demands of outsiders. Yet they must endure unceasing interference with their playing by outsiders and audience ... In order to achieve success he finds it necessary to 'go commercial', that is, play in accord with the wishes of nonmusicians for whom he works; in doing so he sacrifices the respect of other musicians and thus, in most cases, his self-respect." (p 83)

"Only musicians are sensitive and unconventional enough to give real sexual satisfaction to a woman." (p 86)

"Musicians live an exotic life, like in a jungle or something. They start out, they're just ordinary kids from small towns - but once they get into that life they change. It's like a jungle, except that their jungle is a hot, crowded bus. You live that kind of life long enough, you just get to be completely different." (p 86)

Well written by an ex musician and really interesting about jazz. January 2017; 208 pages

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

"Folk devils and moral panics" by Stanley Cohen

This brilliant sociology text describes what happens after a few young people were arrested in Clacton on a bank holiday, how the myth of the Mods and Rockers was created, and how society massively overreacted. There are times when it reads like a thriller.

There are shocking moments. The criminal offences committed by the young people seem trivial compared to the wickedness of authority. Two lads, for example, were arrested and charged with threatening behaviour for flicking elastic bands at people. One lad who put a piece of driftwood on a pile of litter as he was leaving Brighton beach was told by a policemen to pick it up and immediately arrested for possessing an offensive weapon. Kids were taken off the streets, herded into cells and illegally denied bail to teach them a lesson. "A young journalist, who was trying to get into the Margate courtroom, was shown to the cells instead of the Press bench because he had fairly long hair and was wearing jeans." (p 157)Those were the ones that got there. Teenage campers were banned from campsites. Lads with long hair were put on trains and returned to London. And, in a tragic aside, "A boy accidentally fell to his death over the cliffs at Saltdean (Brighton) during the night. When his friends woke up and missed him, one went across to the houses on the other side of the road to phone the police. 'But,' he told a reporter' 'they wouldn't open their doors at first. They thought we were out for trouble; you know what it is.'" (p 158)

I think it is the pathetic acceptance of his roles as a despoised outsider that makes 'you know what it is' so sad.

And the papers went to town. After all, "The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation in their own right." (p 16)
  • "irresponsibility, immaturity, arrogance, lack of respect for authority ... moral depravity and sexual perversity" (p 55)
  • "odious ... grubby ... louts and sluts ... cunning ... bovine ... ape-like" (p 55)
  • "timid and shifty, backwards, apathetic, ungregarious and notably inarticulate" (p 55)
  • "neurotic ... exhibitionist ... violent ... cowardly ... aimless ... half-baked ... precocious ... unwashed ... slickly dressed ... slow-witted ... cynical, inarticulate" (p 56)
  • "chronic restlessness ... greed, hedonism and ungratefulness ... laziness, selfishness and lust" (p 64)
  • Many thought that they were a sort of disease.

These were kids, mostly working class, ill educated, poor. The boy who offered to pay a £75 fine with a check did so from sheer bravado: he didn't even have a bank account. Most of those charged were unskilled. "We're bored at home, so it's a change to come down here and be bored at Brighton." (p 151) "The specific desires for change and freedom over the holidays, to get away from home, the romance of roughing it on the beaches or sleeping four to a bed in a grotty seafront boarding-house, finding a bird, getting some pills." (p 183) Many slept on the beaches. That was all they could afford.

There are some classic concepts in this brilliant book:

  • "The Mods and Rockers ... appear as disembodied objects, Rorschach blots on to which reactions are projected." (p 25)
  • "As the Mods and Rockers drama ran its course, the whole script changed and the reaction of each successive audience altered the nature of the stage." (p 27)
  • "The gullibility effect is less significant than a general susceptibility to all sorts of rumours" (p 45)
  • "The recognised weekend kit, purple hearts and contraceptives." (p 56)
  • Elements in a "successful status degradation ceremony" include comparison between sinner and an idealised saint (p 61)
  • "Females were more intolerant than males" (p 73)
  • Sensitization: "Any item of news thrust into an individual's consciousness has the effect of increasing the awareness of items of a similar nature which he might otherwise have ignored." (p 77)
  • "Ambiguity, which gives rise to anxiety, is eliminated by structuring the situation to make it more predictable." (p 77) so if you blame someone you feel better (p 78)
  • "presumably hunchbacks were not always unwilling to perform the jester role." (p 140)
  • "No matador wants to be laughed at." (p 168)
  • "How many people do feel that their jobs are worth while and dignified?" (p 181)
  • "What starts as revolt finishes as style." (quoting George Melly) (p 201)

Superb. January 2017

Monday, 16 January 2017

"V for Vendetta" by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

This graphic novel is a classic bestseller. Set in the late 1990s and following nuclear war, England is a totalitarian state. The people are impoverished both physically and spiritually, existing as slave labour for the elite. The rulers are corrupt. All blacks, gays etc have been exterminated in concentration camps.

But one man escaped from one camp and he has become the superhero avenger, adopting a mask and the persona of Guy Fawkes, intent on destroying all authority and replacing it with pure anarchy. His name is V.

There is a supporting cast of crooks, low lifes, downtrodden girls, evil bishops, corrupt coppers, chorus girls and scheming bitches.

One of the interesting things about this form of literature is that it seems easier to mix in poetry and philosophy. It seems more acceptable to be a tell don't show. The characters seem less important.

"At least the trains all run on time but they don't go anywhere."

"Integrity ... is the very last inch of us."

January 2017, 265 pages

Saturday, 14 January 2017

"Defying Hitler" by Sebastian Haffner

Haffner was born in 1907 in Germany. He fled to England in 1939. This is a memoir.

It is stunning. Beautifully written, it describes the development of Germany from about 1914 until 1933 when the book breaks off, with the author still in Germany. The wonderful thing about it is that it is told from the point of view of one German who instinctively felt that what the Nazis were doing was wrong but who, like everyone else, was obliged to go along with it all. Incredible horrors become part of everyday life. Evil is re-evaluated:

  • "People began to join in - at first mostly from fear. After they had participated, they no longer wanted to do so just from fear. That would have been mean and contemptible. So the necessary ideology was also supplied. That was the spiritual basis of the victory of the National Socialist revolution." (p 129)

It shows how things such as the brutal persecution of the Jews became 'the Jewish question' so that the the status quo became persecution and any deviation from that had to be justified. This put the persecuted minority into the position of having to defend themselves.

This is history from the inside. The First World War is told from a child's perspective, all exciting victories and maps with armies moving around.

Then comes the revolution, as seen by a schoolboy:

  • "Our school was the headquarters of the government troops, and the adjacent elementray school was used as a base by the Reds. ... For days the battle raged for possession of these two buildings. Our headmaster, who had remained in his school's quarters, was shot dead. When we saw it again, the facade of the building was pockmarked with bullet holes. A large bloodstain that could not be removed remained under my desk for many weeks." (p 36)
  • "There was something not quite right about a revolution when the next day schoolboys were beaten for playing at it." (p 25)

I was fascinated that the hyperinflation of 1923 had winners as well as losers.

  • Shares "were the only form of investment that kept pace - not all the time, and not all shares, yet on the whole they managed to keep up, So everyone dealt in shares." (p 55)
  • "The old and unworldly had the worst of it. Many were driven to begging, many to suicide. The young and quickwitted did well. Overnight they became free, rich, and independent. It was a situation in which mental inertia and reliance on past experience were punished by starvation and death, but rapid appraisal of new situations and speed of reaction were rewarded with sudden, vast riches. The twenty-one-year-old bank director appeared on the scene, and also the high school senior who earned his living from the stock-market tips of his slightly older friends. He wore Oscar Wilde ties, organized champagne parties, and supported his embarrassed father." (p 56)
  • "Unromantic love was the fashion: carefree, restless, light-hearted promiscuity." (p 57)
Then the Nazis take over. Right from the start evil happens. But people live on. Even the narrator has to find a way to accommodate himself to the persecutions. His friends begin to go into exile. One of his girlfriends (he seems to have many) goes abroad, another is a Jewess, another is trapped because she has no nationality having been born in a country that, since the First World War ended, no longer exists. 

And then he is called up. 

This book did what all great books do: it made me see things from a fresh perspective. This book reversed my own ideas time and time again:
  • "One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses." (p 16)
  • The shooting of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 "was the origin of 'shooting while attempting to escape'" (p 33)
  • "I heard a former member of the Free Corps ... talk about ... the victims who had fallen or been 'shot while attempting to escape' in their hundreds. 'That was the cream of the working-class youth' he observed thoughtfully and sadly. This was simply how his mind had filed away these memories. 'Brave lads, some of them ... I felt really sorry for them. But they were so pigheaded. They left us no choice but to shoot them.'" (p 41)
  • "What a wealth of simple joy and what an inexhaustible source of lifelong pleasure the Frenchman finds in eating and drinking, intellectual debate, and the artistic pursuit of love; and the Englishman in the cultivation of gardens, the companionship of animals, and the sports and hobbies he pursues with such childlike gravity." (p 70)
  • "conscientious parents always educate their sons for the era that is just over." (p 102)
  • "Foreign policy would probably be a matter of banging the table." (p 107)
  • "A carnival ball in Berlin is like a large, colorful, well-organized love raffle, with winning tickets and duds. You take your chance, join up with a girl, kiss and cuddle her, and go through all the preparatory stages of a love affair in a single night. The usual end is a taxi drive at daybreak and the exchange of phone numbers. By then you usually know whether it is the start of something you would like to take further, or whether you have just earned yourself a hangover." (p 111)
  • "Among the primitive, inarticulate, simpler souls there was a process that might have taken place in mythical times when a beaten tribe abandoned its faithless god and accepted the god of the victorious tribe as its patron. Saint Marx, in whom one had always believed, had not helped. Saint Hitler was obviously more powerful." (p 135)
  • "It was as if the ground on which one stood was continually trickling away from under one's feet, or rather as if the air one breathed was steadily, inexorably being sucked away." (p 194)
  • He discusses with a Nazi 'friend' an event in which a political enemy resisted arrest and shot two SA men; in retaliation he is hanged and hundreds of other men in the town are also shot by the SA. The Nazi defends the action of the SA in terms of them acting in the course of their duties. He replies: "'And that allows the state the justification of self-defense against any other citizens? Against me and you?' 'Not against me,' he said, 'but perhaps against you.'" (p 216)
  • "Nationalism - that is, national self-reflection and self-worship - is certainly a dangerous mental illness wherever it appears, capable of distorting the character of a nation and making it ugly, just as vanity and egoism distort the character of a person and make it ugly." (p 224)
  • "The first country to be occupied by the Nazis was not Austria or Czechoslovakia. It was Germany." (p 225)
  • "Bankrupt stock ... You lose your value if you become a refugee." (p 231)
  • "The more distant of two evils always seems the lesser. It may not be the lesser in reality." (p 234)
  • "A man bedded in comradeship is relieved of all personal worries, and of the rigors of the struggle for life. He has his bed in the barracks, his meals, and his uniform. His daily life is prescribed from morning to night. He need nor concern himself with anything. He lives, not under the severe rule of 'each for himself' but in the generous softness of 'one for all and all for one'. It is one of the most unpleasant falsehoods that the laws of comradeship are harder than those of ordinary civilian life. On the contrary, they are of a debilitating softness, and they are justified only for soldiers in the field, for men facing death.  ... it is a familiar story that brave soldiers, who have been too long bedded on the soft cushions of comradeship, often find it impossible to cope with the harshness of civilian life." (p 286)
  • "It was remarkable how comradeship actively decomposed all the elements of individuality and civilization. The most important part of individual life, which cannot be subsumed in communal life, is love. So comradeship has its special weapon against love: smut." (p 289)

This book made me wonder whether we are on the same trajectory as Germany was in the desperate interwar years.

Read it! January 2017, 309 pages

This was yet another brilliant book loaned to me by my friend Fred whose taste in superb non-fiction seems to be without fault. Others I have read thanks to him include:

  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad but an authro who writes like a dream
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I recommend them all.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

"Nutshell" by Ian McEwan

"So here I am, upside down in a woman" (p1) is the starting line of this novel, narrated by the soon-to-be-born child of Trudy and John. But Trudy has kicked John out of the marital home (his family's house), an incredibly untidy and in urgent need of repair central London house. She is having an affair with John's brother Claude. And Claude and Trudy are planning to murder John to get possession of the house (which is worth millions in the current market).

It is, of course, the back story to Hamlet: Trudy is Gertrude, Claude (a brilliant character whose speech is fabulously banal, just saying, but) is Claudius and John is the Old King. Which is a clever way in which the unborn Hamlet can be privy to the plot without requiring a ghostly visitation.

This is a stunningly well written book. It must have been difficult but often fun to try to construct a narrator who can hear and can enjoy the various vintages of wine his mother drinks and can feel being prodded by Claude's penis when Claude and Trudy have sex but cannot see. The narrator is incredibly precocious (understanding rather more of what he hears on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service than I do) but once you have swallowed your disbelief thus far it is time to sit back and enjoy. The prose is sometimes like a poem (John was a poet), dense with (often Shakespearean but always unacknowledged) references and covering a huge range of issues from poetic metre (trochaic tetrameters and the debate as to whether to use catalepsis or not) to refugees flooding Europe (with beautiful irony this is just as Trudy and Claude are preparing to travel in the opposite direction), from the 'contact sport' of international aggression to the separation of boredom from pleasure. The embryonic stream of consciousness is wonderfully erudite but this privileged observation of the world can never get too intense because it is always juxtaposed against the very mundane reality of the crime that is being planned. Murder most foul. And the inherited wordiness of the narrator is contrasted brilliantly and comically with Claude who can only speak in cliches and mundanities.

The plot is good too.

Some tastes of the fabulous prose

"My many million young neurons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea." (p 2)

"A joyous Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea, reeling off the walls of my castle, the bouncy castle that is my home." [Nice link to Elsinore. McEwan obviously loves his wine! He refers to it frequently in the words of a connoisseur.]

"In my mother's usage, space, her need for it, is a misshapen metaphor, if not a synonym. For being selfish, devious, cruel." (p 15)

"His nakedness is as startling as an accountant's suit." (p 22)

"To be this insipid is hardly plausible." (p 24)

"A philosophy of 'personal growth' - a phrase as paradoxical as 'easy listening'" (p 34)

"Why else did cannibals avoid eating morons?" (p 116)

"It's not the theme parks of Paradiso and Inferno that I dread most - the heavenly, rides, the hellish crowds - and I could live with the insult of heavenly oblivion. ... What I fear is missing out." (pp 128 - 129)

"Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves, Confucius said. Revenge unstitches a civilization." (p 135)

"The world doesn't come to him through a haze of the subjective; it comes refracted by stupidity and greed, bent as through glass or water, but etched on a screen before the inner eye, a lie as sharp and bright as truth. Claude doesn't know he's stupid. If you're stupid, how can you tell?" (pp 147 - 148)

"'You'll have to be the midwife.'
'Not my baby'
'It's never the midwife's baby.'" (p 195)

McEwan writes beautiful prose. Other examples reviewed in this blog as  The Child in Time and Solar. I have also enjoyed his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites, and his novels Amsterdam, the rather over-hyped Atonement (but it did have the most visceral description of a long walk on blistering feet) the brilliant Saturday and the (again much-hyped) On Chesil Beach. The book is one of his best, a tour de force by an outstanding author. Time for the big prizes, I think.

January 2017; 198 pages

Thursday, 5 January 2017

"Hag-Seed" by Margaret Atwood

Felix Phillips is ousted as Artistic director of a Theatre festival by his right-hand man and swears revenge. Driven into theatrical exile he gets a job as teacher on a drama course at a prison. Then, as he and his prisoners prepare a production of The Tempest, the Minister for Justice and others in his retinue pay a visit to the prison. And real life events seem to match the events on stage step by step.

This is an ingenious and beautifully written update version of Shakespeare's classic. It also manages to be a brilliant critique of the play:

  • "Everyone loved the fight scenes: that's why Shakespeare put them in." (p 58)
  • "The optimistic characters are stakeholders in the more positive side of human nature, the pessimistic characters in the more negative side." (p 259)

I love Atwood's work. Here we have genius:

  • Her description of the smell prison: "Unfresh paint, faint mildew, unloved food eaten in boredom, and the smell of dejection, the shoulders slumping down, the head bowed, the body caving in upon itself. A meagre smell. Onion farts. Cold naked feet, damp towels, motherless years." (pp 74 - 75) Motherless years makes me want to weep.
  • Her understanding of the fundamentals of humanity: "You know teenage girls, they desert their adored daddies the minute some young ripped stud heaves into view" (p 141)
  • The joy of being alive: "Real life is brilliantly coloured ... It's made up of every possible hue, including those we can't see. All nature is a fire: everything forms, everything blossoms, everything fades. We are slow clouds ..." (p 178) Colourful philosophy.
  • Appreciation of feminine beauty: "If he were their age he'd be leaning forward too. Actually, he is leaning forward." (p 256) Truth and humour entangled.

Books by Margaret Atwood reviewed in this blog:

  • The Heart Goes Last: a homeless couple enter a utopian community
  • Bodily Harm: A wonderful Graham Greenesque excursion to a Caribbean island where no one is who they seem to be
  • Oryx and Crake: adventures in a world post climate change
  • Hag-Seed: a brilliant retelling of the Tempest, re enacted in a prison
  • The Handmaid's Tale: the one that everyone raves about ... but not her best.

Monday, 2 January 2017

"The View from Castle Rock" by Alice Munro

Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 and this is the first time I have read her, though to be fair she writes short stories and I don't really read those. Perhaps I should.

Munro is a Canadian writer; by coincidence my next book is by fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood who has also written Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale, both fantastic reads.

This is a collection of tales held together by the conceit that they report things experienced by her family; thus it is sort of part family history, part memoir, part fiction.

Her earliest traced ancestor was Will O'Phaup, William Laidlaw of Far-Hope farm in Ettrick, the highest inhabited farmhouse, she tells us, in Scotland. Will was a local legend for his running and jumping and feats of strength. But he also claimed to see fairies. On the first occasion he did this he heard something familiar in their chirping. When he recognised it he realised that "his own name is all the word in their mouths" [beautifully expressed in a sort of Scottish lilt]. Then ... "And down from the hills comes a cold draught of air though it is a warm summer evening."

I think what makes this book special is the wonderful characters Munro conjures. There is a host of characters in the story about the ship crossing the Atlantic in which the proud but resolute patriarch of the small Scottish family emigrating to the United States keeps telling tales of his family history and the world they are leaving because he realises too late how much he will miss. This same unbending man has already lost two fine sons who chose to leave home rather than stay with such an uncompromising father. His daughter in law has married one of his sons after perhaps having conceived the first child with another, less responsible, son. His toddling grandson deliberately hides so that he can watch the chaos occasioned by the search for himself undertaken by his near-hysterical aunt who was caring for him when he disappeared. The intelligent son is given the opportunity to better himself by marrying a posh girl with TB but chooses to stay with his family and farm.

And later. Unbending men and naughty boys. Suffering stoical women. Men who escape the grind of farming for the uncertainty of trapping; women who find themselves (in both senses) in salesjobs but then get Parkinson's and endure a long decline into death. Girls who lust after boys and boys who cheat on them.

There are isolated families that isolate themselves: "they had constructed a life for themselves that was monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence".

There are men who are "mean in both senses of the word" and there are communities that accept them: "some people were born to make others miserable and some let themselves in for being made miserable. It was simple destiny and there was nothing to be done about it."

There are many "Poor people burdened with more intelligence that their status gives them credit for."

There are girls who are mean and bitchy about other girls:

  • "She was so apt to lose track of what she was telling me (though not to stop talking) that she was very boring."
  • "Being easily embarrassed, yet a show-off, as I improbably was, I could never stand up for anybody who was being humiliated. I could never rise above a feeling of relief that it was not me."

There is lust. This makes the family narrative sometimes go slightly awry; it battles against the desire for respectability.

  • "It was the men who made me sick. The looks they gave me, of proper disapproval and sneaky appraisal. The slight dull droop and thickening of their features, as the level of sludge rose in their heads." 
  • "our only real concern was to get at each other's skin."
  • "when you have gone weak in the legs but aching, determined, in another part of your body."

One of the marks of a quality writer is the way they can out into words feelings and observations that you didn't even know you didn't know how to say:

  • "This last sentence sounded like a thank-you that she didn't know how to say."
  • "It was like the signal for a smile, when the occasion did not warrant the real thing."
This is beautiful writing and a clever theme for a collection of short stories. But her genius is for character.

January 2017; 349 pages

Other books with Castle in the title include: