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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

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

"Wonder" by R J Palacio

August was born with a deformed face; after endless plastic surgery he looks like a cross between the elephant man and a zombie: "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." (p 3) "I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds." (p 3)

And Auggie has a challenge. After years of home schooling he is going to a real school. He has to face all the normal perils and pitfalls of young adolescents growing up and in particular the issue of no one wants to be my friend.

This is a delightful story about growing up, full of the language of young kids and the magic of their on-off relationships and their insecurities. But what makes it even better than the usual is that it is told from multiple perspectives:

  • August
  • His big sister, Via. She has problems of her own. And they are not helped by being Auggie's sister. "I've gotten used to not complaining, and I've gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff. I've gotten used to figuring things out on my own: how to put toys together, how to organize my life so I don't miss friends' birthday parties, how to stay on top of my schoolwork so I never fall behind in class. I've never asked for help with my homework. Never needed reminding to finish a project or study for a test. If I was having trouble with a subject in school, I'd go home and study it until I figured it out on my own. I taught myself how to convert fractions into decimal points by going online. ... My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through." (p 83) 
  • The girl who sat at his table at lunch when every other kid avoided him as if he had the plague
  • His best friend although the relationship is a bit on and off. Jack has problems too. He is very poor compared to the other kids at school and he desperately wants to be accepted by the cool kids.
  • Justin, the boyfriend of the big sister who lives half the time with his mum and half with his dad and neither of them seem to care (he avoids capital letters except for Names): "if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely and the universe doesn't. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can't see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. and a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. and even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds." (p204). If it was a great idea having multiple perspectives on the action it was an even better idea to have a character who is virtually on the fringe of it all and who can therefore observe and pass judgement like the Chorus in a Greek drama. 
  • The big sister's best friend who loves Auggie even though she is no longer friends with Via.

In fact the other characters were often even more interesting than the 'main'.

A great read. May 2017; 313 pages

Monday, 29 May 2017

"The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin

I have been reading a lot of Le Guin recently, including:

Genly Ai is an Envoy from the Hainish federation on the wintry planet Winter whose inhabitants come into heat at certain times of the month at which point they can be either male or female, father or mother. His story is interwoven with legends from the planet and the tales of others to build up a tapestry. In some ways it felt like an anthropological study of the planet and its various nations. I would have preferred a plain old-fashioned tale.

She starts well. On the first page the narrator reflects "I was in peril of my life, and did not know it." (p 1) The alien world is brilliantly imagined and the various societies that live there; the Siberian-style prison camp is brilliant. There is an epic journey across the glaciers of the icecap. I was impressed and amazed by the level of detail and the imagination. But I couldn't warm to the characters.

As always Le Guin gives us some wonderful phrases:

  • "If this is the Royal Music no wonder the kings ... are all mad." (p 2)
  • "not a nation but a family quarrel" (p 5)
  • "A man must cast his own shadow" (p 16)
  • "I came there at noon. That is, I came somewhere at noon, but I wasn't sure where." (p 44)
  • "Legends of prediction are common throughout the whole Household of Man. Gods speak, spirits speak, computers speak. Oracular ambiguity or statistical probability provides loopholes, and discrepancies are expunged by Faith." (p 44)
  • "his intelligence was as hard, clear, and polished as my rubies." (p 50)
    • "What is sure, predictable, inevitable - the one certain thing you know concerning your future and mine?
    • That we shall die.
    • Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered ... and we already know the answer ... The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next." (p 57)
  • "But the Inspectors' cars were forever snooping and spotlighting these dark streets, taking from poor men their one privacy, the night." (p 65)
  • "Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going." (p 80)
  • "They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire." (p 144)
  • "Light is the left hand of darkness" (p 190)
  • "Some shadows got shorter and some longer." (p 234)

May 2017; 245 pages

Sunday, 28 May 2017

"The Duchess of Malfi" by John Webster

On Sat 27th May I went to St Giles Church in the centre of London to see this classic Jacobean revenge tragedy in a production by Scena Mundi. It was a superb production despite the difficulties of playing in the round in a church with echoey acoustics and big windows letting in bright daylight which made the scenes in the dark particularly difficult.

For me the outstanding performance was that of Pip Brignall (@PipBrignall) playing Ferdinand as a slightly fey, always unstable, mercurial character who could flip from tenderness to rage as quickly as any spoiled princeling. Jack Christie (@ChristieWJ) was also magnificent as Bosola and made sense of this character's continual oscillations between cruelty and remorse. Thomas Winsor (@ThomasWinsor) as Antonio and Jess Murphy (@MariaFlorentina) as The Duchess were also brilliant.

The core of the plot is that The Duchess of Malfi, a widow, secretly marries her steward Antonio Bologna from love despite having been warned by her brothers (who want to inherit her estates) not to do so. Ferdinand is incandescent with fury when he discovers that his sister has had a child; her reputation is shot. The other brother, The Cardinal, is also angry but very cold and controlled. They take their revenge. When the identity of the father is known Ferdinand locks his sister away and tortures her with fake tableaux of her husband and eldest son dead, and with madmen, before he has her, her children and her maidservant strangled by Bosola. Both Bosola and Ferdinand and then filled with remorse and Ferdinand, who has killed his twin, blames Bosola and goes mad. Bosola, fearing for his life, plots to kill the two brothers but kills Antonio by mistake before killing F and The C and getting killed himself.

A twisting plot and the motivations of the characters are difficult, especially Bosola who is filled with remorse before he kills the Duchess. Webster wasn't good on plot. The story that Ferdinand wants his sister's money only appears in Act 5. People confess when they should keep their mouths shut, the Cardinal's mistress falls in love with Bosola (and so betrays the Cardinal) in the space of a single line, she revives from death for just a moment to give a final speech before finally dying; lots of stupidities.

But the poetry is exquisite.

The Cardinal and his brother "are like plum-trees that grow crooked over standing-pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flattering panders, I would hang on their ears like a horseleech, till I were full, and then drop off." The Cardinal "is a melancholy churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the engend'ring of toads". 

"The law to him
Is like a foul, black cobweb to a spider, -
He makes it his dwelling and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him."

When the Duke relies on face to speak character Bosola says
"There's no more credit to be given to the face
Than to a sick man's urine, which some call
The physician's whore, because she cozens him."
When Duke offers Bosola gold. Bosola distrusts:
"Never rain'd such showers as these
Without thunderbolts i' the tail of them. - Whose throat must I cut?"

"'Diamonds are of most value,
They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers' hands.'
'Whores by that rule are precious.'"

"Like the irregular crab,
Which, though't goes backwards, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way"

"The marriage night
Is the entrance into some prison."

"And those joys,
Those lustful pleasures, are like heavy sleeps
Which do fore-run man's mischief."

"Say a man never marry, nor have children,
What takes that from him? Only the bare name
Of being a father, or the weak delight
To see the little wanton ride a-cock-horse
Upon a painted stick, or hear him chatter
Like a taught starling."

"He's a fool
That, being a-cold, would thrust his hands i' the fire
To warm them."

"Search the heads of the greatest rivers in the world, you shall find them but bubbles of water."
"Though lust do mask in ne'er so strange disguise,
She's oft found witty but is never wise."

"like one
That hath a little fing'ring on the the lute,
Yet cannot tune it."

Ferdinand is very angry. He threatens :
"Of her bleeding heart I make sponge ...
... I might toss her palace 'bout her ears,
Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,
And lay her general territory as waste ...
"We must not now use balsamum, but fire, 
The smarting cupping-glass, for that's the means
To purge infected blood ...
... my imagination will carry me
To see her, in the shameful act of sin ...
... with some strong-thigh'd bargeman;
Or one o' th' wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge,
Or toss the bar, or else some lowly squire
That carries coal up to her privy lodgings ...
... I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopp'd,
That their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven:
Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in't, and then light them like a match;
Or else boil their bastard to a cullis,
And give 't his lecherous father, to renew
The sin of his back ...
Till I know who leaps my sister, I'll not stir:
That known, I'll find scorpions to string my whips,
And fix her in a general eclipse."

A: We'll sleep together: -
D: Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?
C: My lord, I lie with her often; and I know
She'll much disquiet you ...
For she's the sprawling'st bedfellow.
[to A] Wherefore still when you lie with my lady
Do you rise so early?
A: Labouring men
Count the clock oft'nest Cariola,
Are glad when their task's ended.

"A politician is the devil's quilted anvil -
He fashions all sins on him, and the blows
Are never heard: he may work in a lady's chamber,
As here for proof."

"With such a pity men preserve alive
Pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough
To be eaten."

"Man is most happy when's own actions
Be arguments and examples of his virtue."

"I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in 't 'gainst my will."

"I am acquainted with sad misery
As the tann'd galley-slave is with his oar"
"What's this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste; our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in. Dids't thou ever see a lark in a cage? such is the soul in the body: this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o'er our heads, like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison."

"I know death has ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways."

"Murder shrieks out:
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards, and bedews the heavens."

"Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young."

"I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits,
Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done't."

"I'll go hunt the badger, by owl-light"

"Your bright eyes
Carry a quiver of darts in them, sharper
Than sunbeams.

"Like the mice
That forsake falling houses, I would shift
To other dependance."

"Are you so far in love with sorrow,
You cannot part with part of it?"

"The only way to make thee keep my counsel
Is not to tell thee."

"I must look to my footing:
In such slippery ice-pavements, men had need
To be frost-nail'd well; they may break their necks else ...
Security some men call the suburbs of hell
Only a dead wall between."

"Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."

"I would sooner swim to the Bermudas on
Two politicians' rotten bladders, tied
Together with an intelligencer's heart-string,
Than depend on so changeable a prince's favour."

"I will no longer study in the book
Of another;s heart"

103 pages; May 2017

Thursday, 25 May 2017

"Caught in the Revolution" by Helen Rappaport

A birthday present from my good friends Steve Lowe and Michele Smith.

The newly arrived US ambassador was "self-made millionaire" and ex-Governor of Missouri David Rowland Francis who had won for his home town of St Louis, Missouri in 1904 both the World Fair and the summer Olympics. He arrived with Model T Ford and body servant Phil Jordan, an African American who had grown up in the slums of Jefferson, Missouri among "thieves, prostitutes and drunks" as a "hard drinker and gang member", graduating to riverboats and eventually the Governor's mansion. (pp 8 - 9)

"the number of young boys with revolvers who looked me over made me feel it was a very easy time in which to be killed" (p 94)
"a soldier and his sweetheart were sitting on the parapet and chinning ... away as if they hadn't a care in the world." (p 117)

A maid who demanded an eight hour working day was asked what she meant. To work from eight till eight she answered.  (p 148)

The self-appointed "Telephone Committee" prevented people from using the telephone. (p 148)

A man accused of being a pickpocket was taken from the bus and shot. The woman who accused him then found her purse. "Nothing could be done for the unfortunate victim of 'justice' so they took the only course which seemed to them to meet the case and leading the woman out, shot her also." (p 149)

English writer Somerset Maugham, codenamed Somerville, was sent to Petrograd from San Francisco to Yokohama and rail from Vladivostok by the British "Secret Intelligent Service ... to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution ... a tall order for one solitary, tubercular, inexperienced British spy, recruited because he knew a bot of Russian from reading Chekhov" (p 251)

US embassy staff took "two hours working with four code books to decipher the formal statement telegraphed to them from Washington that President Wilson has declared war on Germany on 6 April ... the embassy received the news two days later." (p 167)

Trotsky was a "hash-slinger" (waiter) in a cheap New York diner. (p 225)

Arthur Ransome, Daily News reporter, suffered from food shortages: "If ever I do get home ... my sole interest will be gluttony" (p 231)

"No one shall eat cake until everyone has bread" (p 259)

One small quibble. The author really can't do maths. She tells us that the exchange rate is eleven roubles to the dollar and yet she costs a seven rouble chocolate bar at 75 cents (should be 63) (p 260) and, worse, a ten rouble taxi fare as 110 dollars when it should be 91 cents (p 279).

"It was the faces of the starving, shabby population standing in line that most distressed ... they seemed docile, submissive ... they just wait in the rain and the icy blast, shivering ... they had the mindset of fatalistic slaves and it mattered not which kind of government rules over them." (p 268)

"Trotzky is the king of agitators; he could stir up trouble in a cemetery." (p 271)

Loot: "a blanket, a worn sofa cushion of leather, a wax candle, a coat hanger, the broken handle of a Chinese sword." (p 290)

After the October revolution there was an election; the Bolsheviks won "only 24 per cent of the vote. Lenin was incensed." The assembly lasted twelve hours; Lenin established instead a "bayonetocracy" (p 306)

After the October revolution, as winter deepened, famine arrived. "Even the foreign colony ... heard the gray wolf howling." (p 309)

The Bolsheviks could have sold the Tsar's wine to the foreigners but they chose to destroy it instead but even if the "bottle-smashers ... refrained from drinking any of the wine themselves, they became helplessly inebriated from all the fumes." (p 313)

Kerensky, deposed head of the provisional government, escaped from Russia and died in the US in 1970!!!!!

The head of the Anglican church in Petrograd was recompensed by the British government for 8 years service with £50; nearly £44 was then deducted for the costs of his reparation!

A fascinating book. I hadn't realised there were, in effect, three revolutions. I still don't understand how a few people in a single city could take over a whole nation. Or how Lenin, heading a minority party, and less charismatic than Trotsky, ended up being the big bosser.

May 2017; 334 pages

Monday, 15 May 2017

"The Dispossessed" by Ursula Le Guin

As well as writing children's fantasy books (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu) this talented author also wrote science fiction.

It starts with the brilliant image of a wall around a space port. "Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on." (p 5) From one point of view the wall encloses the space port and the space ships that come and go and by extension space and the universe; leaving the rest of the planet 'free'; from the other perspective the wall encloses the planet: "a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine." (p 5) What a great first page!

Anarres has been colonised from its twin planet Urras. The colony is still small and works on purely cooperative principles; the people equal to one another in respect and dignity; each contributes what they can and takes what they need.  Shevek, the top physicist from Anarres, is the first man ever to return to the capitalist, battling, home world of Urras.

Despite the utopian vision of Anarres, a sort of global kibbutz, these are still people with their needs. One of the early compelling moments is when the lads, Shevek and his mates, raised in dormitories together, play at prisons (echoes of the Stanford Prison Experiment) and imprison one of their number, taking on the role of guards: "They were not playing the role now, it was playing them" (p 35). There is real tension here, although Shevek feels ashamed afterwards. And in the famine, as people starve, they turn selfish and greedy and violent. And systems can be manipulated by those who seek power to prevent the people they dislike from succeeding. And public disapproval, even not backed by any rule, can make a person miserable.

With echoes of Mao's cultural revolution, soviet Russia, and the worst excesses of capitalism, this is a book about an individual struggling to achieve fulfilment against the backdrop of two very different societies, each of which, in their own way, conspire to prevent him.

  • "To die is to lose the self and rejoin the rest. He had kept himself and lost the rest." (p 9)
  • "All through those hurried days ... he had not felt that he was doing all the things he did, but that they were doing him." (p 10)
  • "You admit no religion outside the churches, just as you admit no morality outside the laws." (p 16)
  • "There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them though he was perpetually hiding behind them." (p 17)
  • "prostitution ... copulation in the economic mode." (p 18)
  • "'I never thought of that before ...'
    • Comments from the other three on the self-evidence of this remark." (p 37)
  • "There are people of inherent authority; some emperors actually have new clothes." (p 49)
  • "The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on." (p 62)
  • "You can't have a nervous system without at least a ganglion, and preferably a brain." (p 82)
  • "Shevek walked in rain as the Ioti walked in sunshine, with enjoyment." (p 112)
  • "Sterility. Sterility on all sides. As far as the eye can see the infertile desert lies in the pitiless glare of the merciless sun, a lifeless, trackless, feckless, fuckless waste strewn with the bones of luckless wayfarers ..." (p 150)
  • "Life, said the stream of quick water down on the rocks in the cold dark." (p 152)
  • "exuberance was perhaps the essential quality of life." (p 155)
  • "In a pen by himself the herd sire, ram or bull or stallion, heavy-necked, stood potent as a thundercloud, charged with generation." (p 172)
  • "As if deserving meant anything! As if one could earn beauty, or life!" (p 172)
  • "He had often seen that anxiety before ... Was it because, no matter how much money they had, they always had to worry about making more, lest they die poor? Was it guilt, because no matter how little they had, there was always somebody who had less?" (pp 172 - 173)
  • "People do not usually gaze at one another intently at very close range, unless they are mothers with infants, or doctors with patients, or lovers." (p 180)
  • "We think that time 'passes', flows past us; but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new? It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers." (p 184)
  • "When the enemy enthusiastically embraces you, and the fellow-countrymen bitterly reject you, it is not hard to wonder if you are, in fact, a traitor." (p 292)
  • "We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward." (p 295)
  • "They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?" (p 317)
The greatest thing about this book is its incredibly detailed vision of a society of anarchists in which everyone has to struggle to make ends meet and no one is very rich, in which the individual has the ultimate right to live life as they wish and contribute nothing to society, and yet where most individuals volunteer to contribute far more to society than they could ever be made to. A vision of an altruistic anarchist society on an unforgiving world worked out in every particular. Incredible.

May 2017; 319 pages

"Dead Boys Can't Dance" by Michel Dorais

Written by the man who also wrote Rent Boys, this is a sociological inquiry to understand why the rate of suicide amongst homosexual male youths is sixteen (sixteen!) times higher than for their heterosexual counterparts.

He suggests that there are two scenarios for gay boys: they can be identified as gay early on by other people because of their behaviours. One respondent stated: "At the age of six, I was being called a fag. I was already the school fag. Others therefore knew what I was before I did." (p 33) Others come out or are outed when they are older.

Dorais identifies four "adaptive scenarios in response to rejection" (p 37):

  • "The Perfect Boy wishes to live up to expectations ... he will not reveal his homosexuality to others ... his great fear is the anticipated embarrassing event that will compromise him." (pp 37 - 38) For Jean-Francois this happened when his mum read his diary. His parents ostracised him. "They no longer celebrated his birthday." Wow! That's rejection! (p 39) The Perfect Boy scenario tends to end in one of two tragic ways: "The young man reveals his homosexuality and the responses are disbelief, followed by the general dismay of all around him. He is perceived as a traitor and also as an intruder who has been lying about his real desires. He feels, with reason, that he is not understood, and that he is being judged and rejected." (p 40) Alternatively "Instead of revealing his homosexuality, the young male attempts suicide so that he will take his secret with him and hide forever the desires perceived to be so shameful." (p 40)
  • "The Token Fag ... pegged as homosexual at an early age ... the object of ridicule, harassment, and psychological and/or physical violence. Given the inaction of adults when faced with his abuse, he feels powerless in these situations, and he will sometimes consider his fate to be sealed." (p 41) One said "I wanted to be between the paint and the wall because I wanted to be invisible." (p 41)
  • "The Chameleon's varies from being one who pretends to be and at other times is an imposter. ... This situation reaches crisis levels when he no longer wants to be a part of the masquerade that is suffocating him. ... Arriving at a balance between his secret inner life and his everyday life is difficult for him, and the older he gets, the more he fails to see how to escape the situation ... I felt that I was human garbage because I was gay. ... I was a monster, someone who should not exist: human garbage." (pp 44 - 45)
  • The Rebel rejects homophobia and develops a resistance but in one case the rebellion led to drug addiction.

There are some telling insights:

  • "Claude found himself on the street with only the clothes he was wearing ... It was therefore in silence, destitution and solitude that he began to cope with family rejection." (pp 52 - 53)
  • "My mother, I saw her as a saint. ... When I told her I was questioning the possibility of being gay, she said: 'You better leave now. I don't ever want to see you again.' It's not easy at sixteen to find yourself alone and having to somehow survive. I will always remember that." (p 55) 
  • "I slept in saunas and under balconies." (p 66)
  • "My parents were fervent believers. ... God rejected and hated gays. A god of love, so it seems." (p 69)
  • "It would seem that compatibility is impossible between religious beliefs and homosexuality for those interviewed young men who described themselves as believers, or as having been so. The journey to acceptance of being gay must pass through religious rejection, they say." (p 69)
  • "Being treated as a fag is the worst thing that could happen to a boy's status as a male." (p 79)
  • "To flourish, human beings must perceive themselves to be part of a whole greater than self." (p 87)
  • "Suicide is a final solution to a temporary problem" (p 105)

Ways in which gay men can be resilient (p 85):

  • "A healthy determination to criticize and contradict the opinions of others ... I have the right to be different"
  • "A sense of humour when facing adversity ... a creativity that permits one to dream as a way of compensating for reality"
  • "Well-established significant relationships"
  • "The awareness or even the celebration of one's potential in spite of degradation by others."

A fascinating book. May 2017; 114 pages

Sunday, 14 May 2017

"Kalki" by Gore Vidal

Teddy Ottinger is a test pilot who, after having two children, had her tubes tied and became a lesbian; she narrates this strange book. Broke, she is sent on a journalistic assignment to Katmandu to meet James Kelly, American serviceman who went missing from Vietnam and may have spent time as a drug dealer before becoming Kalki, the last avatar of Vishnu, who will do Shiva's dance on April 3rd and end this world. Is beautiful blond Kelly/Kalki really mad as most of his disciples (including his wife, the goddess Lakshmi) appear to be? And what about the bizarre pot-smoking CIA/DEA officer McCloud.

Will the world really end on April 3rd? And what will happen afterwards?

Vidal indulges his taste for wordplay and satirises the post-Watergate America.

There are some lovely lines:
  • "Morgan liked the President. I thought him a creeping Jesus. The President, that is. Morgan was Judas in anyone's book." (p 9)
  • "Neither of them had heard of Horace, Alexander Pope, Pascal, Diderot, Heisenberg's law or entropy." (p 17); Vidal can sometimes shove his impressive breadth of learning right up close in your face.
  • "'Oh, everything's god.' Arlene looked about her at everything. In this case, everything was the redwood screen around the pool that she had painted yellow, a patch of smog-brown sky, dusty hibiscus bushes, the dead bird that the Japanese gardener kept forgetting to take out of the small cactus garden." (p 20)
  • "Everything's out of control: population, the weather, the cells of each and every body." (p 21)
  • "Sex is one of the few things I do really well now that my golf game has gone to pieces." (p 22)
  • "Dr Ashok's crest was if not fallen aslant." (p 27)
  • "'A nut?'
    • 'Yes.' Not understanding me, Dr Ashok handed over his last package of dry salted peanuts.
    • 'No. I meant crazy.'" (p 30)
  • "potted plants whose fronds rustled in the arctic air of a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit." (p 33)
  • "Yes, there is such a thing as a murderer's face. Look in the mirror." (p 41)
  • "The sweat of blonds is different from ours." (p 64)
  • "A bird in hand is no bird at all, though the bush burns." (p 79) 
  • "I had a good cry. What, I wonder, is a bad cry?" (p 80)
  • "I fled to school. Anything to get away from home." (p 89)
  • "I play a game. I must abide by the rules that I make." (p 155)
  • "In eternity, only my dreams decorate the emptiness." (p 156)
  • "Still waters run deep. Except, of course, to be precise, still waters don't run at all." (p 184)

There are moments of memorable technique:

  • One of the bizarre characters, Dr Ashok, who speaks endlessly and delivers gloriously mashed-up misquotes from "the Bawd of Arden" amongst others, rattles off a whole series of rhetorical questions which nicely outline the questions that the narrator (and the reader) must ask themselves as they progress through the plot.
  • Later he gives a large part of back story in a single breathless sentence almost half a page long.

May 2017; 274 pages

Vidal (1925 - 2012) was an important author. I have read and enjoyed other novels:

  • Julian: the fictionalised memoirs of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate as he attempts to undo the religious reforms of his uncle Constantine the Great
  • Myra Breckinridge: a very sixties novel about a man who undergoes a sex change to become a woman
  • His American history series of novels:
    • Burr: about the Vice President who lost the presidency to Jefferson following a vote in the House of Representatives after a tie in the Electoral College; Burr had an incredible life having fought under Benedict Arnold in Canada, fought under Washington in the Revolutionary War, becoming a national hero; as Vice President duelling with political rival Alexander Hamilton and killing him; and allegedly fathering US President Martin van Buren. 
    • Lincoln
    • 1876: narrated by the narrator of Burr, Charles Schuyler who returns to the US after marrying Napoleonic royalty and comments on the disputed 1876 presidential election where Hayes lost the popular vote but won the electoral college vote
    • Empire following the career of American president Teddy Roosevelt
    • Washington DC: set in the eponymous capital and following the fortunes of the dynasty started by Charlie Schuyler as well as chronicling the controversial political struggles of Franklin Roosevelt before he became a heroic war leader.

Vidal wrote a lot more. Plenty more to enjoy!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

"The Night Watch" by Sarah Waters

1947. People scarred by their experiences of life and war. Duncan, who spent a year in prison during the war, lives with Mr Mundy, 'Uncle Horace', and works at a factory with other charity cases. His sister Viv, who is having an affair with a married man, runs a lonely hearts agency with Helen, who is living with her secret lesbian lover Julia, an author. Kay, living alone, goes for long walks around London. Fraser, an ex-cellmate of Duncan's, bumps into him by chance and begins to become interested in his sister, Viv.

Waters quickly presents us with these people and their situations. We begin to ask questions. Why was Duncan in prison and what is his relationship with Mr Mundy? Why does Viv return a ring to Kay? What does Julia mean when she accuses a jealous Helen of having been unfaithful?

We return to 1943 as fire bombs rain down on a war-weary London. Kay is an ambulance driver, Duncan a prisoner. And we start to understand the answers to at least some of our questions.

Finally we visit 1941 to find out why what started it all off.

An interesting exploration of life and love amongst a few inter-connected people in wartime Britain.

Some interesting quotes:

  • "one of those women ... who'd charged about so happily during the war." (p 7)
  • "'You were in the Brownies weren't you?' 'Well they rather jibbed, you know, at Pale Ale, in my pack.'" (p 53)
  • "What did she have, to keep Julia faithful? She had only herself: her pressed-meat thighs, her onion face ..." (p 60)
  • "the yard, for ten to fifteen minutes, was like a sink with its plug pulled." (p 81)
  • "Hungry dogs will eat dirty puddings." (p 232)
  • He "rubbed his face - rubbed it in that vigorous unself-conscious way in which men always handled their own faces, and girls never did."

There are one or two moments of perfect authorly technique:

  • A well-meaning stranger comes along and, with the best and most innocent (we think) of intentions, provides a nudge which swirls the whole thing along.
  • Viv has been searching for lesbian Kay. She saw her in the streets and is trying to find her again. Can it be that Viv, having an affair with married Reggie, has had a lesbian experience? After all, Duncan her brother is gay. And when Viv meets Kay: "She took out the ring, in its cloth, from her pocket, and just touched Kay's arm ... It only took a minute or two. It was the easiest thing she'd ever done." And we are still none the wiser but we know that there was a ring and it must have immense significance. Was this a final rejection of the affair? This was a moment when we learned a little more and the darkness in which we were suspended got even darker. Brilliant!
  • Of course the whole thing was an exercise in this. Telling a story (chronologically) backwards is an interesting art: the point is that the reader has to want to know not what happened as a consequence but why it happened. So we quickly learn, for example, that Duncan has been in jail and we are taken back to why he went to jail. 
May 2017; 503 pages

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

"From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe" by Alexandre Koyre

This is from the 'Easy Reading Series' of Forgotten Books: it is relatively easy to read but the format which fails to easily distinguish between extensive quotations and the author's gloss makes it much more difficult to read than it should be.

Koyre is concerned with the change of world view which occurred about the same time as the Copernican revolution.

He starts with the arguments of Nicholas of Cusa who "denies the finitude of the world and its enclosure by the walls of the heavenly spheres" (p 8) although he won't go so far as to assert the infinity of space, only that the universe is 'interminate', "it is boundless and not terminated by an outside shell" (p 8) but also that it "utterly lacks precision and strict determination" (p 8) so it can never reach the limit; he reaches this conclusion by using his doctrine of '"learned ignorance" (p 8) "the intellectual act ... which transcends discursive, rational thought". He illustrated this by pointing out that an infinitely large circle has straight sides (the curved side at any point will coincide with its tangent) and an infinitely small circle will also have straight sides (the side will correspond to its radius) and that therefore the big infinite and the little infinite are the same.

Unfortunately Koyre does not really explain 'learned ignorance'; I had to find Wikipedia to tell me: "docta ignorantia means that since mankind can not grasp the infinity of a deity through rational knowledge, the limits of science need to be passed by means of speculation. This mode of inquiry blurs the borders between science and ignorantia. In other words, both reason and a supra-rational understanding are needed to understand God. This leads to the coincidentia oppositorum, a union of opposites, a doctrine common in mystic beliefs from the Middle Ages."  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Docta_Ignorantia

Next he talks about a poetic philosopher named Palingenius who uses the Principle of Plenitude (again unexplained but which is the idea that God is so brilliant that all possible forms of creation are available in the world) to deny "the finitude of God's creation" (p 21).

Koyre continues to Copernicus which he says "undermined the very foundations of the traditional cosmic world-order with its hierarchical structure and qualitative opposition of the celestial realm of immutable being to the terrestrial or sublunar region of change and decay." (p 23) He points out that "the immediate effect of the Copernican revolution was to  spread scepticism and bewilderment" (pp 23 - 24) Perhaps the most convincing Copernican argument was the fact that it would take much more effort to make the large sphere of the fixed stars rotate than the much smaller Earth.

There is also a chapter on Giordano Bruno, who asserted the infinity of the heliocentric Universe and was burnt at the stake. But he wasn't that modern or perhaps he was, he asserted that since the senses were flawed and could be fooled the intellect was primary.

Then, via Galileo, comes Descartes who starts with the idea of God and therefore starts with infinity and derives the finite from the idea of the infinite. Typically weird. You start to understand where the other French philosophes have got it from.

We next get several chapters on Henry Moore, a Neo-Platonist who disputed with Descartes and taught Newton and therefore a fascinating and often overlooked philosopher of nascent science. He pointed out the daftness of Descartes endeavour to avoid the void because nothing can come of nothing as Lear might have said. |Moore suggests that the primary property of matter is not its extension but its impenetrability; he asks how "can a purely spiritual soul ... which, according to Descartes, has no extension whatever, be joined to a purely material body, that is to say something which is solely and only extension?" By exposing the contradictions inherent in the ramshackle Cartesian system which endeavours to solve scientific problems through the appeal to a wholly biased intellect, Moore laid the foundations for Newtonian science. And for infinity. Because Descartes believed that the Universe was bounded. But Moore asked: "Could Descartes not tell what would happen ... if somebody sitting at the extremity of the world pushed his sword through them limiting wall? On the one hand, indeed, this would seem easy, as there would be nothing to resist it; on the other, impossible, as there would be no place where it could be pushed." (p 89)

Moore, Koyre tells us, was a syncretist who tried to synthesise the new discoveries with the occult, magical and hermetic traditions nut nevertheless "succeeding in grasping the fundamental principle of the new ontology, the infinitization of space." (p 93) And such dabbling in weird stuff was necessary to develop the theory of, for example, gravity. This has a challenging principle of action at a distance. "Gravity cannot be explained by pure mechanics" (p 98) Koyre points out.

And so from Moore to Newton and, in particular, his letters to Mr Richard Bentley in which he states that "the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know"; nevertheless Newton realises that he can analyse its effects without knowing its causes. (p 131).

This is an interesting book but it would be an easier read if (a) some of the Latin tags were translated (I managed to work out most of them but I was taught Latin forty five years ago) and (b) if Koyre explained some of the things he mentions such as the Principle of Plenitude.

May 2017, 200 pages