About Me

My photo
Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 31 March 2017

"The Rites of Passage" by Arnold van Gennep

This classic anthropological work was first published (in French) in 1908 and so some of the content seems a little old-fashioned to our modern sensibilities. It was the first work to discuss rites of passage and the origin of that phrase. Van Gennep believes that all rites of passage can be divided into three phases: separation, transition, and re-incorporation. He then goes on to list a huge number of examples of rituals of birth, puberty, marriage, and funerals, and many others. As such it is a quaintly old-fashioned but nevertheless interesting source of a lot of information. I don't know how much is still believed to be true.

  • "As we move downward on the scale of civilizations ... we cannot fail to notice an ever-increasing dominance of the secular by the sacred." (p 2) Leaving aside the potentially racist assumptions inherent in any scale of civilizations, I was reminded of Bettany Hughes in The Hemlock Cup when she pointed out that in ancient Athens (which some people regard as the pinnacle of civilization even though slaves were regarded as non-humans) "Life itself was thought to be a religious experience."
  • "The life of an individual in any country is a series of passages from one age to another and from one occupation to another." (pp 2 - 3)
  • "Rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation). (p 11)
  • "Except in the few countries where a passport is still in use, a person in these days may pass freely from one civilized region to another." (p 15): I didn't know this was true in 1908!! On the other hand: "Today, in our part of the world, one country touches another; but the situation was quite different in the times when Christian lands comprised only a part of Europe. Each country was surrounded by a strip of neutral ground which in practice was divided into sections or marches. These have gradually disappeared, although the term 'letter of marque' retains the meaning of a permit to pass from one territory to another through a neutral zone.  Zones of this kind were important in classical antiquity, especially in Greece, where they were used for market places or battlefields." (pp 17 - 18)
  • He suggests there is "an almost universal association between landmarks and the phallus" (p 16)
  • "A society is similar to a house divided into rooms and corridors. The more the society resembles ours in its form of civilization, the thinner are its internal partitions and the wider and more open are its doors of communication." (p 26)
  • "Exchanges have a direct, constraining effect: to accept a gift is to be bound to the giver." (p 29)
  • "If the Jews had linked themselves with Yahweh by perforating the septum, how much fewer would have been the errors in ethnographic literature?" (p 73)
  • The Mysteries of Eleusis "included: (a) a voyage through a hall divided into dark compartments which each represented a region of hell, the climbing of a staircase, the arrival into brightly illuminated regions, and entrance into the megaron, where sacra were displayed; and (b) a representation of the rising of Kore" (p 91)
  • The initiation into the rite of Attis included the initiate going into a pit "and the blood of a sacrificed bull covers his entire body; then he comes out of the pit bloody from head to foot ... like the newborn child emerging from its mother's body." (pp 92 - 93)
  • The veil as a symbol of separation. "In worship, sacrifice, and marriage rites, for example, the veiling is temporary. ... in Catholicism, to pass from a liminal stage (novitiate) to the stage of permanent incorporation into the community is to 'take the veil'. ... Among certain peoples a widow may wear a veil ... Socrates covered himself with a veil after drinking the hemlock, thereby separating himself from the world of the living." (p 168) Once you start going, veils are everywhere. The hood a hangman uses to cover a man about to be hanged. 
  • Among the Mylitta "every girl must once offer herself to a stranger and receive a coin from him" (p 170)
  • "In Dalmatia ... to have good fortune in the house, one should have intercourse with a goat, collect the sperm, and rub the door of the house with it." (p 173)
  • "There is a popular saying that only the first time counts; it is an interesting fact that this idea is truly universal" (p 175)

Interesting. March 2017, 194 pages

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

"We are all completely beside ourselves" by Karen Jay Fowler

Wow. This book starts with a row in a cafeteria. Immediately you are gripped by the narrator and by characters who are created so easily and yet so perfectly. And as the novel moves along and the narrator reveals more and more of the secret history of her dysfunctional family I became captivated by the voice. Perfect phrases such as:

  • "At twenty-two, I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself." (p 7)
  • "My brother might very well go to jail ... but he would never ever call." (p 15)
  • The words behind the prison call phone read "Think a head. I thought how that was good advice, but maybe a bit late for anyone using that phone." (p 15)
  • "their marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean." (p 18) Could that be more perfect?
  • "Grandma Fredericka was the sort of hostess who believed that bullying guests into second and third helpings was only being polite." (p 19) I know people like that. Me!
  • "Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability." (p 20)
  • "thinking less of him is my job, not yours." (p 20)
  • "Will Barker thought you mother hung the moon" (p 20): I came across this phrase for the first time last month in Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread; perhaps it is a common American expression.
  • "No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn't agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery." (p 21)
  • "Dead, but then that's also part of God's plan." (p 24)
  • "The lesson seemed to be that what you accomplish will never matter so much as where you fail." (p 25)
  • "He'd applied for a job in the CIA ... I still gave him the best recommendation I could make up on the spot. 'I never see the guy ... unless he wants to be seen.'" (p 32)
  • "And that right there is the difference between me and my brother - I was always afraid of being made to leave  and he was always leaving." (p 54)
  • "Our parents ... never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because I'd left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love - as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you." (p 57) I adore the way the narrator's slightly cynical voice is dripped in with such perfect precision.

The first quarter was fed on tiny breadcrumbs, perfectly dropped. What was the mystery of Rosemary's sister? Where had her elder brother run away to? What is contained in Rosemary's mother's diaries which she was given and put into her airline luggage which has now been lost (what a clever plot device!)?

Then, at the 25% mark, a major disclosure is made. Still there are mysteries, but now the options are strictly limited; in the end it can only go one of two ways. The book now runs largely on the charm of the wonderful characters of Harlow the drama queen friend, Ezra the caretaker and Lowell, the mysterious but oh so charismatic brother. We find out more about Rosemary's unreliable memories and there is quite a lot of psychological monkey study stuff which got a bit wearing. A bit preachy perhaps.

There are still great lines but they are further apart.

  • "If you told Lowell, this is where we draw the line, you could count on him stopping instantly over it." (p 111)
  • "If you do believe ... that morality starts with God, then you have to wonder why he simultaneously hardwired us against it." (p 151)
  • "The black magic around me, each streetlamp wrapped in its own bubble of mist, my bike-light briefly igniting the puddles on the black streets as I passed." (p 159) What a poetic description of an urban street at night!
  • "Harlow hadn't given me a gateway drug. More of a slammed-door drug. I would never ever take it again." (p 177)
  • "The smoke alarm went off and had to be beaten into silence with a broom handle." (p 177)
  • "I said to myself, self, there's a person you want to know better." (p 193)
  • "You learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says. Though no one admires you for it." (p 197) 
  • "Can't complain, I said. ... Don't be so modest. I bet you can complain for days." (p 199)
  • "I'm speechless, my mother told me. Which wasn't remotely true." (p 234)
  • "The only reason I'm the one telling this is that I'm the one not currently in a cage." (p 304)
  • "No Utopia is Utopia for everyone." (p 306) This last one can be compared to "Better never means better for everyone ... It always means worse, for some." in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood.

This was a great book. t was great all the way through. Don't think it wasn't just because I seem less enamoured after the first quarter. It was just that that first quarter was spectacular.

March 2017; 308 pages

Sunday, 26 March 2017

"The Hemlock Cup" by Bettany Hughes

This is a biography of Socrates, a man who lived through political upheaval, war and civil war, and was a contemporary of Euripides, Xenophon, Sophocles, Plato, Herodotus and Alcibiades to name but a few. Part of the excitement of this book is the way it suggests how our own grasp on civilisation might be so tenuous. The Hellenic "population appears largely to have lost the power of literacy between about 1100 and 800 BC." (p 10) If the ability to read and write can be lost by a while people, what can we rely on? Athens, in its concern for democracy, but in its vulnerability to political turmoil via populism, might echo Trump's US; Sparta in its rigidly communist ideals enforced by militarism suggests the pre-1989 Soviet Union or modern North Korea. And Sparta ended up conquering proud Athens.

I suppose this story of Socrates is more importantly the story of Athens. After she had suffered under the Persian invasion and then defeated the Persians, Athens and her famous fleet of thalassocrats, became the leading light in the Delian league. Inexorably Athens became too big for her own boots. She began to treat her allies as subjects, wreaking horrific revenges (such as killing all men and enslaving all women and children) on those who wished to defect from the league. She exacted tribute which, with the silver coming from mines excavated by slave labour, made her rich; this is why the citizens, supported by at least two slaves each on average, were able to spend time talking philosophy and making their bodies beautiful. The slaves were  non-persons, Hughes mentions that "slaves' evidence was thought admissible in fifth-century Athens only if obtained under torture" (p 345). But slowly Athens was poisoning the rest of Greece against her. The long agony of the Peloponnesian war against Sparta enfeebled Athens; the Spartans regularly raided the Athenian countryside. Then Alcibiades led a naval expedition against Sicily; after the democrats recalled him to stand trial (he fled to Sparta) the incompetent leadership led to the total loss of all ships and perhaps ten thousand men (which would have been about ten per cent of the population). Athens struggled on until at last the Spartans conquered them, forcing them to demolish their city walls and abandon the democracy in favour of an oligarchy of quislings. Now civil strife started and terror ruled the new police state. Eventually Athens was reduced to a size of one third of her former glory. It was then that

One of the things that must have been so exciting about this time was that Socrates rubbed shoulders with so many incredible people. They're all here in this book:

  • Democritus, the man who named the atom: "A bit of a local celebrity up north, 'in the streets of Athens', Democritus would say, 'no one knows who I am'." (p 66)
  • "One of the rogue philosophers in Athena's city, Anaxagoras, would soon amuse others with his crazy theories - that the stars and planets were not heavenly creatures but rock-hot masses." (p 67) [Not 100% sure about rock-hot: hotness is not a quality I associate with rocks.]
  • When Socrates was just 19 he met 65 year old Parmenides and his young pupil/ lover forty yo Zeno: "Although the two alien philosophers Zeno and Parmenides were staying in the low-rent motel-strip of the ancient city, they had brought with them something priceless. A new book. Imagine the impact. The leather pannier opening, the papyrus unwrapped, the words, inked black with oak-gall and charcoal, marking out a fresh landscape of ideas." (pp 75 - 76)
  • "It is a half-Spartan boy, with a Spartan name and nursed at a Spartan breast, who will from here on in be Socrates' earthly love. A boy who will bring him much trouble. A boy called Alcibiades." (p 99)
  • "Aspasia would have been considered a 'leaky' being, someone who oozed pollution from her genitalia, her mouth, even her eyes. Hippocrates (the Greek medical expert from Cos whose lifespan almost exacly matches Socrates' own) explains that menstrual blood accumulates in the female body because this sex is organically porous. One of the reasons such a sump-residue gathers is because of women's 'sedentary' lifestyle." (p 117)
  • Alcibiades was believed to be "a direct descendant of that sage old hero of the Trojan war, King Nestor." (pp 143 - 144)
  • "In about 454 BC a group of Pythagoreans had gathered together as per usual in their meeting house in Croton, one of the Greek cities in Magna Graecia, southern Italy. Their conversation would perhaps have been about the stars, mathematics, the nature of the universe, the nature of society, the nature of love. This think-tank engaged with the world around them in the most vigorous of ways. But others were there too, in the shadows. As the radical group of thinkers settled down to business, the door was barred - from the outside - and a torch put to the tinder. All the Pythagoreans were burned alive." (p 217)
  • As well of course as the members of Socrates' circle: Plato, Xenophon, Meno, Phaedo, Lysis etc; excitingly Hughes records their archaeological existence as well. He was also satirised in the comedies of Aristophanes.

Other fabulous moments:

  • "The Ancient Greeks believed something remarkable about men. They believed that each had been given, by the gods, an equal portion of dike, justice, and aidos, shame or concern for their fellow man." (pp 3 - 4)
  • "As with other troubling, slippery, nebulous concepts (nemesis - retribution; themis - order or divine right; peitho - persuasion), she [demokratia - democracy] was personified as a woman." (p 15)
  • "Life itself was thought to be a religious experience." (p 29)
  • Athenians called a quickie with a prostitute "middle-of-the-day marriages" (p 72)
  • "Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei - 'this way' or 'follow me'" (p 84):  Prostitutes are often associated with boots but not hob-nails!
  • "Kynosarges - 'White Bitch' gym, - was designated for the half-castes of the city. As ever, Socrates does not just inhabit the 'showcase' venues of the 'violet-crowned', 'show-city' Athens, but can alos be found in its more mongrel spots." (p 108)
  • "in male-dominated European societies to date there has never yet been one that did not sponsor talented, charismatic, intelligent women in their private salons." (p 121)
  • The Isthmian games in Corinth commemorated "the death of a child-hero called Melikertes, who drowned at sea buit whose body was brought back to shore by a kindly dolphin. Priests wore black robes and crowned victors with wreaths of wild celery - the plant that was thought to grow so freely in the Underworld." (p 133)
  • "The Greeks knew just how dangerous Eros really was. Naturally, Love and Lust destroyed men. Eros brought the great and the weak alike to their knees. Socrates himself compared the kisses sponsored by Eros to the venom injected by a lethal scorpion." (pp 144 - 145)
  • "Socrates lived through an information revolution. By the time of his trial, a huge swathe of Athenians right down to the artisan class had become literate ... It was in Athens in the fifth century BC that the written word - which gives all of us so much - took flight." (p 170)
  • "Zeus himself first appeared as a small bronze from Sumeria (made in the third millennium BC) before thetre was any mention of him in records west of the Bosporus. Dionysos too danced swung and lurched his way over from Central Asia at just about the moment that written records in what we now call Greece began." (p 185)
  • "The philosopher's dying words ... remember another divine hero new to the city: the healer Asclepius." (p 186)
  • "Socrates grew up with theatre beating its juvenating rhythm out to his city." (p 212)
  • "Men often joked about the honesty of an empty belly." (p 230)
  • "Socrates' love is literal: the point of life is to love it. He is erotic. He states that if Eros passes you by in life, you are a nonentity." (p 240)
  • "book-burning begins in Athens as soon as 'the book', as a popular art-form, arrives in the city state." (p 277)
  • "Like most goddesses, the goddess of persuasion, Peitho, and Pheme, the goddess of rumour, could be irrevocably unkind." (p 309)
  • "Athens was no longer a state you wanted to arrive at, it was a place from which you tried to escape." (p 314)
  • "From 404 through to 403 BC, Athens was stifled in an endless nightmare. Fists and wooden clubs pounded on doors. Citizens turned slaughterers to avoid their own messy deaths. ... Just 10,000 lived within the walls of Athens itself. This was Balkan-village atrocity. Neighbours turned on neighbours, sometimes brother against brother." (pp 319 - 320)
  • "Democracy has a very light hold on history. In antiquity it lasted just over 180 years." (p 359)

This is a brilliant book, beautifully written, which records so much about Socrates' life, from the written records (not just Plato!) to the archaeological evidence. It navigates perfectly through the confusions of the Peloponnesian war and the roller-coaster career of the charismatic Alcibiades. Fascinating reading.

March 2017; 371 pages

A brilliant fictionalised account of the Athens of Socrates is Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine.

Monday, 20 March 2017

"Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler

Kate is a forthright young lady with a 'take me or leave me' attitude. She lives with her scientist father and her flirty schoolgirl sister Bunny in a joyously bizarre household governed by dad's scientific 'systems' (such as making a nutrient balanced meat mash one day and eating it throughout the week). Her dad is reaching the end of many years research; his foreign research assistant Pyotr Shcherbakov is nearing the end of his three year immigration visa and dad is frantic that he will be deported. So he concocts a scheme in which Kate marries Pyotr for the immigration status. Which mortifies and infuriates Kate as much as Pyotr intrigues her.

The plot is (loosely) based on The Taming of the Shrew. The problem is that Petruchio in the original 'tames' his Kate as a man might break a horse and takes pride in being rough with her. Tyler has to make Pyotr at least a little bit likeable so that a modern reader can believe that Kate might come to like Pyotr and she doesn't have Shakespeare's expedient of making Kate 'shrewish' and 'unwomanly' so that his male patriarchal audience could despise her and root for Petruchio. That Tyler does such a great job is cause for celebration although she necessarily has to leave a lot of the old story behind.

Although both books share an acute observation of the little domestic routines of everyday life, this book is quite different from the other Tyler I have read: A Spool of Blue Thread. But they're both great in their own way. Vinegar Girl is much funnier though. There were moments of genius comedy, mostly found in the interaction of two people, especially Kate's reactions to the pre-schoolers she cares for. I loved it.

Two girls chatting:
"I could tell he wanted to ask me," one was saying, "because he kept clearing his throat in the way they do, you know? But then not speaking."
"I love when they're so shy," the other said
Perfectly observed dialogue including the 'you know' and 'I love when' rather than 'I love it when'. And perfect observation of courting men. Tyler really does have a soft spot for how hard it is to be a man. (p 4)

Pyotr's lunch: "two eggs and then a banana" a lover breadcrumb of his intentions. (p 9)

"She mistakenly kicked a tuft of grass instead of the bottle cap, and a child waiting for his turn at the swings looked startled." (p 78) This has nothing to do with advancing the plot and it doesn't really help character either but it is such a human moment that it adds more verisimilitude than a list of what is in Kate's pockets.

"this morning one of my boys sharpened his index finger in the pencil sharpener" (p 79) I was expecting Adam, who says this, to have more of a role, perhaps turning up at the church to announce that he loved Kate so she realised what a mistake she was making. I must stop writing my own plots.

"Inwardly he was formulating thoughts every bit as complicated and layered as her own." The moment when Kate realises this rather comical sounding foreigner who can't speak English very well is actually a person in his own right. This works at every level. (p 104)

"vulnerable-looking bare neck" (p 137) In A Spool of Blue Thread the character Stem is nicknamed after his vulnerable-looking neck. Is this something in Tyler?

"Kate almost looked behind her for someone else; it seemed so unlikely that she could be 'our' Kate." (p 180)

"I've always had a very good relationship with my mice"
"Well, better with them than with no one, I suppose" 
(p 243)

March 2017; 263 pages

Sunday, 19 March 2017

"The Taming of the Shrew" by William Shakespeare

Baptista's younger daughter Bianca has many suitors but the father decrees that the older daughter Katherina, a notriously bad-tempered woman with a sharp tongue, shall marry first. So when Petruchio comes along, seeking a rich wife, he determines to marry Katherina and then to tame her like one of his falcons and break her like a horse. Which, in Shakespeare's monument to male chauvinism, he proceeds to do. Meanwhile the other suitors do their best by trickery, guile and most of all disguise, to get into Bianca's good books while at the same time persuading her father to part with a substantial dowry. To do this Hortensio pretends to be music teacher Cambio while Lucretio pretends to be a philosophy teacher, Lucretio's servant Tranio pretneds to be Lucretio and a passing Merchant pretends to be Lucretio's father Vincentio. Meanwhile Gremio, a rich but old suitor for Bianca is all too easily confused, at least on the page, with Grumio the servant of Petruchio. Add a lot of what the Elizabethan's would have thought to be side-splitting word play and you have a farce with a massively sexist subtext.

Bizarrely, the Taming of the Shrew begins with a two scene 'Induction' in which a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly is pranked by a Lord who persuades his servants to treat Sly like a Lord when he wakes and to tell him he has been asleep for fifteen years and been lunatic believing he is not a lord but a poor tinker named Christopher Sly ... A company of wandering actors are persuaded to put on a play for the 'Lord'. Unfortunately after the Induction, and a brief comment after Act One Scene One, Shakespeare forgot about these characters! This is an indication the Shrew is a very early play while the Swan was still honing his craft. The Induction also starts with two references to the Elizabethan box office smash The Spanish Tragedy which also uses a structure in which characters from an introduction comment on the play throughout.

"Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?

Have I not in my time heard lions roar?
Have I not heard the sea, puff'd up with winds, 
Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,
And heaven's artillery thunder in the skies?
Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets' clamg?
And do you tell me of a woman's tomgue
That gives not half so great a blow to hear
As will a chestnut in a farmer's fire?
Tush, tush, fear boys with bugs!"
It is interesting to see how Shakespeare's early verse had lots of end-stopping, little enjambment, and almost no caesuras nor weak endings. Perhaps Shakespeare didn't feel weak (also called feminine) endings were appropriate in a play devoted to the supremacy of the male!

"What, is the jay more precious than the lark

Because his feathers are more beautiful?"

I saw this at the Globe with an all woman cast. Not an easy play to perform to modern audiences.

March 2017; 113 pages

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

Saturday, 18 March 2017

"Dangerous Reality" by Malorie Blackman

Blackman is the author of the stunningly brilliant Noughts and Crosses trilogy; she writes books for children.

Dominic's mum has invented a robot controlled by virtual reality which goes berserk when being demonstrated to potential investors. It has been sabotaged, but by whom? As things develop and the robot becomes more dangerous, can Dominic and his mum and mum's new fiancee Jack find the saboteur and save the project?

A light, easy to read, young-teen novel with some fun characters, a nice take on step-parenting, and some witty dialogue. My favourite was:
'I've changed my mind.'
'Let's hope your new mind works better than the old one.'
March 2017; 192 pages

Friday, 17 March 2017

"The Farthest Shore" by Ursula Le Guin

This is the third in a series of novels about the archipelago of Earthsea where magic rules. It follows A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan.

Sparrowhawk (Ged) has now become Archmage when young Prince Arren arrives in Roke to seek help: on his island magic no longer has meaning or power and the wizards are forgetting their spells. Sparrowhawk, restless for adventure, determines to investigate and hero-worshipping Arren, despite realising that even as a prince he is just a young boy ("I am only myself"), pledges to serve. This combination of taciturn, sometimes mysterious old man and eager, brave, proud, inexperienced boy is a classic one.

So the pair venture into the ocean, moving from island to island to learn why magic is flowing from the world. In the end their quest takes them to the Land of the Dead. But will even Sparrowhawk's wisdom and magic and Arren's eclectic mixture of courage and fearfulness be sufficient to restore the equilibrium of the universe?

A great story from a master story-teller. March 2017; 240 pages

Once again Le Guin enchants with the beauty of her prose. Like a poet (or a wizard) she seems to be able to encapsulate images and ideas into as few perfectly-chosen words as possible.

  • "Water leapt and fell through shadow and clear light" (p 399)
  • "They go about ... without looking at the world." (p 402)
  • "To deny the past is to deny the future. A man does not make his destiny: he accepts it, or denies it." (p 431)
  • "He knew at last what it was like to be the hunted instead of the hunter ... It was to be alone, and to be free." (p 466)
  • "On every act the balance of the whole depends." (p 478)
  • "Sparrowhawk sat by him watching the dawn come and the sun rise, even as one might study a treasure for something gone amiss in it, a jewel flawed, a child sick." (p 479)
  • "We have a story about the boy whose schoolmaster was a stone. Aye ... what did he learn? Not to ask questions." (p 483)
  • "Only too far is far enough." (p 609)
  • "You sought it and could not find it and so made wise words about acceptance and balance and the equilibrium of life and death. But they were words - lies to cover your failure - to cover your fear of death!" (p 611)

Page references refer to the Penguin omnibus edition of the first four Earthsea books.

The tale continues in Tehanu.

Monday, 13 March 2017

"Rent Boys" by Michel Dorais

This book is based on an academic study of forty young male prostitutes in Quebec and Montreal. The author has also written the equally readable Dead Boys Can't Dance, a study of male homosexuality and suicide.

The 3 most common arenas for male prostitution are street hustling, stripping and escorting. On average they were twenty when they started sex work. Nearly half said they were gay, the others were more or less evenly divided between heterosexual and bisexual. On average in North America one in 6 boys are victims of child sexual abuse but over half the prostitutes reported such. Many were unsuccessfully fostered or adopted because of unstable family backgrounds. The vast number were ill educated, only 5% attending university and none graduating. Most or all of their clients were male although sometimes they had threesomes.

There are four groups of people involved: prostitutes, clients, entrepreneurs (eg owners of clubs etc, pornographers, drug dealers, hoteliers etc) and judges. The book also categorises the rentboys themselves into four types:

  • Outcasts: often younger men, usually destitute, often runaways from difficult childhoods and nearly always addicted to a substance; they are living from day to day, usually street hustling. These boys have very low self-esteem: "I see myself as a garbage can that's been soiled, washed, bleached, but it's still dirty" (p 37)
  • The Part-Timers are often heterosexual men who are using sex work to supplement their income; they often have a family  from whom they keep this work entirely separate. They usually work in the 'higher status' stripping or escorting and they almost always insist on safe sex.
  • The Insiders grew up in the sex trade, often having a parent who was a prostitute. Thus, sex work is normal and it gives them a sense of belonging: "the street is yours, it's your playground, it's a part of your life." (p 41)
  • For the Liberationists "prostitution is a way of living out fantasies, exploring new experiences and partners, and profiting from those discoveries." (p 41) But they may become disillusioned: "We're paid for dreams, and we wind up living in a world of dreams." (p 42)

  • "rent boys are seeking adventure and, especially, ready cash, but they find themselves in an activity in which idealism and disillusion lock horns. Though they may lack the features and physique of cult film idols, they have learned to act as if they possessed them. In fact, the male prostitution market is a universe shot through with illusions. Fantasy reigns supreme, whether deliberately cultivated by sex workers in order to entice their clients or projected by clients onto the young men whose services they hire." (p viii)
  • "Prior to the emergence of the homosexual/ heterosexual dichotomy in the public mind, male-to-male relations were, as in antiquity, considered acceptable from the vantage point of the active partner." (p 15)
  • "Poor youths, finding themselves unemployed and destitute or simply unable to find female partners, have willingly prostituted themselves to men." (p 16)
  • "Intimacy and virility are what the client requires ... hence the young hunk, muscles rippling from bodybuilding, heterosexual in appearance even though he has sex with other men." (p 21)
  • "everyone is involved in watching each other. Sex workers have to attract clients ... they keep a low profile with respect to police or local residents. Clients clearly put a premium on discretion." (p 23)
  • "All forms of sex work - street hustling, stripping, escorting - are trades learned by contact or apprenticeship with more experienced individuals, for example family members, peers, or clients" (p 26)
  • "Clients are brutal with me at times, especially the big tough ones. They get violent when I suck them off. They hold my head and jam their dick down my throat until I choke. When I have anal sex, some of them try to hurt me on purpose, as if they wanted to bust me open." (p 27)
  • "Street hustlers ... are easily identifiable ... by the way they lope along the sidewalk trying to entice potential clients: 'It's all in the body, the attitude, the posture, especially the look in your eye,' ... For others, the clothing and what it suggests count for a good deal." (pp 27 - 28)
  • "Mutual masturbation costs less than oral sex, which costs less than anal sex or 'extras' such as sadomasochistic relations." (p 28)
  • "You have to have short hair, wear nice clothes, be really clean, and sit there like you're part of the furniture." (p 29)
  • "make sure the client undresses first, so as to examine his body ... ask the client to put the money on the night table in advance so as to avoid any misunderstandings." (p 29)
  • "Strippers are paid a minimal base wage for their stage show and earn extra income by offering various services. ... First the stripper begins to undress to rhythmic music, baring his torso or somewhat more. He then performs a slower, more lascivious dance to a ballad, undressing completely or almost." (p 29)
  • "Surveillance is claimed to be vigilant so as to prevent acts such as genital fondling or fellatio that are illegal in public, but the reality is that the darkness of the room, the amounts of money changing hands, and the guards arbitrary judgement militate in favour of more relaxed enforcement." (p 30)
  • "No stripper will say he turns tricks, not even me, and I do. Nobody wants to be taken for a hustler. The guys want to preserve their male image." (p 31)
  • "It is no exaggeration to say that strippers watch their clients as much as their clients watch them. Most strippers consider their own attractiveness to be a function of their gaze as well as their physique." (pp 32 - 33)
  • "The merciless reality of the male prostitution market dictates that popularity waxes and wanes as a function of ephemeral traits such as youth, beauty, and physical fitness. Therefore, mobility tends to be downward with age." (p 35)
  • "If you want to hustle, you can't love yourself. It looks like an exchange of services, but basically what you are is a garbage can for society ... You're immediately overcome by drugs, violence, rejection - it all comes with the territory. It's inseparable from prostitution." (p 45)
  • "No employer acknowledges their experience as having any value; on the contrary, most perceive it as something negative, degrading and contemptible. Where the job market is concerned, these men are usually better off keeping their past a secret." (p 86)
  • "even those who had ceased their sex-work activities remained in or on the periphery of prostitution." (p 87)
  • "Sex work ... offers no easy exit." (p 87)

This is a fascinating study of a hidden world and it is extremely well-written. March 2017; 100 pages

Sunday, 12 March 2017

"Shylock is my name" by Howard Jacobson

The book starts with the sentence: "It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfashionably banal." (p 1) This seems to summarise the rather depressing, not to mention convoluted, story to come. A rich philanthropist, Simon Strulovich, whose second wife is an invalid following a stroke, whose daughter has been trying to run off with men since the age of thirteen, meets Shylock, whose wife Leah is dead, whose daughter Jessica has run off with a man. Yers, the real Shylock, at least the real character in the play, who seems to have acquired flesh (and more than a pound). Tangential to all this is Plurabelle, daughter of another very rich man, who repeatedly requires her suitors to guess which of several choices her whim has alighted on this time.

One of the problems I found was that I just didn't really care about the problems of these rich men worried about their spoilt daughters. And much of the humour seemed heavy handed. And there was a lot of theology.

The half way turning point occurs when Strulovich asks that his sixteen-year-old daughter's much older footballer husband undergoes circumcision as the price of his daughter's hand. A two page dissertation follows on the theology of circumcision: is it a mutilation or not? And circumcision becomes the proxy for the pound of flesh.

Possibly for good reasons, Shylock really doesn't like Christians. He is very apt to talk about 'Christians' in generalities. For example, Shylock claims that "they can't see a Jew without thinking they have to tell him a joke" (p 63), "they feel no embarrassment in proclaiming that the proper Jew is a wandering Jew" (p 64), that gentiles "haven't been able to draw their imaginations from us sexually for centuries" (p 69). Shylock also points out that Jesus was Jewish and claims: "Charity is a Jewish concept. So is mercy." And it is not just Shylock. Strulovich explains to his daughter why a gentile husband cannot be good enough for her: "your intelligence is five thousand years old, they were born yesterday. They can only think one thing at a time; you can think a dozen." (p 206) I found this repeated drawing of battle lines between Jews and Christians exhausting; no character seemed able to see beyond their tribe.

A difficult book. Perhaps I needed to know the play more intimately to appreciate the finer points. But in the end the characters seemed stereotypical and the endless philosophising just seemed endless.

March 2017; 277 pages

Some nice lines:

  • "With water you did wash away the foul impurities of death." (p 54) has a slightly archaic sentence construction (the insertion of 'did') which makes you pay greater attention to the sentence and thus imparts a little extra emphasis.
  • "On occasions she even cried over their incompatibility of whim." (p 73)
  • "his friend, still bedwarmed, so to speak, with the perfumes of Plurabelle still on him" (p 73)
Other novels which adapt a Shakespeare play and are reviewed in this blog include:

Vinegar Girl by Ann eTyler which rewrites The Taming of the Shrew: very funny
Nutshell by Ian McEwan rewrites Hamlet and is told from the perspective of a not quite yet born baby
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson rewrites A Winter's Tale and is mostly brilliant
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is set in a prison and rewrites The Tempest: fabulous

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

"A Death in the Family" by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is the first volume of a six volume autobiography? memoir? fictionalised Life? entitled Min Kamp, My Struggle.

I read it just after my own dad had died and before his funeral. So, given its subject matter, it was a strange experience.

It is amazing. After a page long paragraph in which he describes the scientific process of dying, Karl Ove (never Karl!) tells us about incidents in his life as a boy, and the relationship he had with his father, in incredible detail. This is a documentary look at life and every wrinkle is recorded (including the shape of his penis). I have not yet read A Las Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust but I believe it is equally detailed; certainly Karl Ove's obsession for chronicling the tiniest of things makes James Joyce's Ulysses seem like a crayoned drawing next to an etching. And Knausgaard's book is, or at least purports to be, utterly and starkly factual.

This of course makes the book difficult to read. It is exhaustive and exhausting. This isn't helped by some very long paragraphs. And of course it also means that Karl Ove has to select one or two incidents in his growing up on which he will report:

  • Aged eight he thinks he sees a face in the water on the television news report about a drowning; he rushes to tell his father (whom he fears) about it and that night he has to secretly creep into the lounge where his parents are watching the news to see if they will see the face.
  • As a young teenager he lives in a flat on town on his own, shopping, cooking and caring for himself, with occasional visits from and to parents and grandparents. This section of the book dealt with his early attempts at making out with girls, an abortive career as Norway's worst rock group, and a hilarious attempt to celebrate New Year at a 'meaningful' party with beer. This last episode acts as an interesting counterpoint to the end of the book; it also reveals that Karl Ove was rather selective in his friends and very concerned with his street cred status (not an unusual feature of adolescence); this also tells us that Knausgaard is prepared to reveal his own personality warts and all (or is this just a smoke screen?). There is a wonderful moment when he is with Hanne, a girl who is friends with him and nothing more (though he wishes she was; unrequited love!), and watches her as a bad boy, comes into the room: "Even though I was there she opened herself to him. Laughed with him, met his gaze, even parted her knees at the desk where she was sitting, when he went right up to her. It was as if he had cast a spell over her." (p 186)
  • Then he is an adult, his father is dead and he goes to the house with his brother to take care of the funeral. His father was living with his grandmother, they were getting drunk every night and the house is full of bottles and filth, there is urine and faeces all over the place and some of the clothing is rotting. This is a nightmare image and Karl Ove and Yngve his brother set to work to clean. And although Karl Ove hated his father ("dad had got what was coming to him, it was good that he was dead, anything in me that said otherwise was lying." (p 265)) he is the one who repeatedly spontaneously bursts into tears.
There are other selected moments which are told more briefly.The contrast between the long blanks in between the episodes selected and the immense detail of the description of those episodes is huge and left many unanswered questions. This is, presumably, deliberate. It is as if Knausgaard is saying that a relationship (between himself and his father in this case) can be encapsualted and explained in a few well-chosen examples. Or perhaps he is saying that we are creatures with a very very selective attention span and we can only remember a very limited part of life and that it is this inadequacy that gives rise to the immense mysteries of our lives.

Some assorted moments

  • "Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides." (p 32)
  • "Nothing in the winter landscape presages the scent of sun-warmed heather and moss, trees bursting with sap and thawed lakes ready for spring and summer, nothing presages the feeling of freedom that can come over you when the only white that can be seen is the clouds gliding across the blue sky above the blue waters of the rivers gently flowing down to the sea, the perfect, smooth, cool surface, broken now and then by rocks, rapids and bathing bodies." (p 183)
  • "Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight?" (p 261)
  • "he would have to plough his own furrow, live his own life, die his own death" (p 268)
  • "Had I ever initiated a conversation with a stranger?
    • No, never.
    • And there was no evidence to suggest I ever would." (p 278)
  • "Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings." (p 288)
  • "he could be more malicious to me than anyone else" (p 358)
  • "This is what girls I have tried my luck with have seen in my eyes. Too much desire, too little hope." (p 365)
  • "so young and no cleverer than three sparrows" (p 376)
  • "He no longer poached air, because that is what you do when you breathe, you trespass, again and again you trespass on the world." (p 389) 
  • "Becoming smaller and smaller as far as the eye could see. But what happened behind what the eye could see? Did the images carry on getting smaller and smaller?" (p 401)
  • "She was like a vampire that had finally got a taste of blood ... life was returning to her, filling her limb by limb." (p 435)

This is an astonishing book. It is so truthful and so meticulous that I am not sure that I know what to make of it.

My reading group considered the book on 14th March 2017. Three of us enjoyed it (though only one was looking forward to reading further volumes on the series; the other two found it hard going but appreciated the craft); one absolutely hated it. If we reached any sort of insight about this book it was that Knausgaard tends (and we were divided as to whether this was a deliberate technique or revealed Knausgaard's lack of emotional intellignece) to write about what happened rather than speculating on why it happened. For example, there was no attempt to explain why Knausgaard could simultaneously be glad that his father had died and yet burst into spontaneous bouts of weeping. Nor did we understand why his father aroused such feelings of animosity in Knausgaard; what precisely did the man do that was wrong? Nor did we understand his affection for a mother who appears more or less completely absent from his life. This then led to the thought that perhaps the book is more revealing in the things it does not say than in the things it did.

It was also interesting that we liked different parts of the book. I had most enjoyed the funny quirkinesses of Knausgaard's adolescence, the very part that the reader who most liked the book liked least.

One thing we could conclude from our long, at times intense, discussion: we had all been deeply impressed by the characters in the book whether we liked them or not.

March 2017, 490 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

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

"Cam boy" by J Matt

This is the "debut memoir by Webcam Performer". Joseph Matthew ? is gay, welsh, and someone who had enjoyed displaying his nakedness to strangers over the internet from the age of 12. This memoir explains how he got into camming.

He went to London to live with his boyfriend but Christos gambled. Then he lived with drug dealer Nick; Joey was Nick's mule and also began taking lots of drugs; to fund his habit he became a rent boy travelling to strange houses to have sex with paying strangers. In order to escape his addiction he went home. He decided to earn money by live sex performances on Cam websites. He earned £1.50 the first night but now earns perhaps £500 per week, performing in a shed at the bottom of his parents' garden. He  appeared in a BBCTV documentary which you can see on YouTube here.

Although this answered many of my questions about the mechanics of web cam work I still don't really understand what it feels like to expose yourself nightly to strangers and, at their request, thrust vegetables into your anus.

JMatt93 suggests that constructing an alter ego may be one way in which he has done this. He calls JMatt "the Hyde to my Jekyll" and fears that "the bigger J Matt grows, the smaller Joseph becomes". After all, "Freedom in this world ... is when you're not wearing a microphone pack."

A factually fascinating book. March 2017; 179 pages