About Me

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

Monday, 30 April 2018

"Telling Tales" by Ann Cleves

A detective whodunnit murder mystery starring Vera Stanhope. Another one is the series is: The Seagull

The premise for this plot is similar to that of Agatha Christie's Ordeal By Innocence. Some years after an innocent person has been convicted of a murder the claimed alibi turns out to have been true (the alibi giver having left the country on the same day). But the innocent person has now died in prison.

And then someone else dies.

The first third of this book follows some of the participants: Emma, who found the body all those years ago; her husband James, who has a guilty secret; and father of the innocent scapegoat, Michael. Part two is from the point of view of detective Vera. In part three we move through multiple viewpoints again.

There was a lot of good psychology in this story although I was not convinced of the psychological likelihood of the eventual solution (probably because I didn't get the last twist). But what made this book special was the wonderful descriptions of a bleak and very flat landscape as winter begins to bite. Moments such as:

  • "The wind rattled a roof tile and hisses out from the churchyard, spitting a Coke can onto the street." (p 3)
  • "She looked around her and saw a piece of black polythene, tossed by the wind so that it looked like an enormous crow, flapping over the bean field."(p 14)

There are other beautiful pieces of writing:

  • "Emma was reminded of train journeys, strangers cramped around a table, trying to make sure their knees and feet didn't touch." (p 99)
  • The memory "came back in jagged flashes, like the sunlight on the pavements." (p 110)
  • A parent's relationship with a stroppy teenager: "fights, sulky silences, shut doors with music like sobbing seeping out from under them" (p 140)
  • "What was he regretting? Sex or age. It had to be one or the other." (p 152)
  • "There were more gaps in the Mantel file than a trawl net drying at North Shields Fish Quay. And the smell was much the same too." (p 178)

A very atmospheric murder mystery. April 2018; 410 pages

"The Will to Knowledge" by Michel Foucault

This is the first volume of Foucault's “The History of Sexuality”.

Foucault is a respected French philosopher. Were he to be a novelist this might be acceptable. The ideas would be advanced and once could dismiss them as an individual perspective on the world, sometimes extraordinarily perceptive, sometimes not. But given the eminence of this writer and his calling I was expecting to find some evidence for his views.

He rarely cites other authors and this is done hapazardly. He certainly never offers statistical evidence. And yet his thesis is that our 'discourses' about sex began to proliferate around the start of the seventeenth century. This is also (for Foucault, although again there is no evidence offered) the birth of modern capitalism and this is, for Foucault, more than a coincidence.  He uses what I call the 'wow thus' argument: offer a surprising fact such as the coincidence above and while your reader is thinking 'wow' follow up immediately with a 'thus' as if the next section of your fantasy is thoroughly grounded in evidence.

He uses a number of similar rhetoric tricks. For example, he likes to ask questions: “It is certainly legitimate to ask why sex was associated with sin ... but we must also ask why we burden ourselves today with so much guilt for having once made sex a sin.” (p 9) But these 'why' questions assume 'whether' questions: Was sex once associated with sin? If it was, do we burden ourselves with guilt for this association? 

He uses words which suggest that he has won an argument. For example,  on page 17 he says “The seventeenth century, then, was the beginning of an age of repression emblematic of what we call the bourgeois societies”. This word 'then' implies that he has successfully argued that the 17th century was the beginning of an age of repression. The entirety of this argument is on page 5: “By placing the advent of the age of repression in the seventeenth century, after hundreds of years of open spaces and free expression, one adjusts it to coincide with the development of capitalism: it becomes an integral part of the bourgeois order.” Not a lot of evidence. More an assertion. And an admission that he has 'adjusted' the start of the age of repression "to coincide with the development of capitalism". In other words he has admitted manipulating his evidence and then he uses that as if he has established truths. This isn't academic argument.

Another example. “Over these last three centuries ... it is quite possible that there was an expurgation ... of the authorised vocabulary. It may indeed be true that a whole rhetoric of allusion and metaphor was codified. Without question, new rules of propriety screened out some words: there was a policing of statements ... Areas were thus established, if not of utter silence, at least of tact and discretion.” (p 17 - 18) "It is quite possible". "It may indeed be true". These are used to weasel assertions in without having to offer evidence. "Without question" is used to back up an assertion which should be questioned. And then comes the word "thus". This is a new type of syllogistic logic. This is a conclusion built upon speculation.

It happens again. “I still do not know whether this is the ultimate objective. But this much is certain: reduction has not been the means employed for trying to achieve it. ... Our epoch has initiated sexual heterogeneities.” (p 37) A neat admission of uncertainty before a bold and unevidenced assertion. Who dare question what Foucault says?

How does he get away with statements such as: "Nineteenth century bourgeois society - and it is doubtless still with us - was a society of blatant and fragmented perversion.” (p 47) I just want to scream: where is your proof?

This much is undeniable: the learned discourse on sex that was pronounced in the nineteenth century was imbued with age old delusions, but also with systematic blindnesses: a refusal to see and to understand” (p 55) Undeniable? If it is undeniable then it doesn't need a great thinker to discover it. If it can be denied then a learned thinker needs to argue it through and provide at least some evidence.

I think I'm going on a bit.

He was interesting in the things he pointed out about confession. Here he seems to apply the classic philosophy tool of subjecting an idea to forensic analysis to reveal aspects that might be considered:

  • Since the 1215 Lateran Council codified penance confession has grown in importance. (p 58) “the confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations ... one confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles ... one confesses in public and in private” (p 59)
  • When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat ... since the Middle Ages, torture has accompanied it like a shadow.” (p 59)
  • Literature has changed from “heroic or marvellous narration of ‘trials’ of bravery or sainthood, to a literature ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself ... a truth.” (p 59)
  • The obligation to confess is now ... so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, ‘demands’ only to surface” (p 60)
  • We belong to a society which has ordered sex’s difficult knowledge, not according to the transmission of secrets, but around the slow surfacing of confidential statements.” (p 63)
  • In confession “the truth did not reside solely in the subject ... It was constituted in two stages: present but incomplete, blind to itself, in the one who spoke. It could only reach completion in the one who assimilated and recorded it.” (p 67)

There were lots of interesting fact snippets within this short volume. The trouble is that Foucault's cavalier treatment of logic and evidence make me wonder whether anything he says can be taken as true. Nevertheless:

  • Before the Council of Trent a confession involving sex was expected to describe “the respective positions of the partners, the postures assumed, gestures, places touched, caresses, the precise moment of pleasure.” (p 19). Afterwards vagueness was advised.
  • Erasmus advised “on the choice of a good prostitute” (p 27) 
  • For a long time hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union.” (p 38)
  • Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transferred from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” (p 43)
  • Charcot used amyl nitrate as well as ether in his public demonstrations of neurotic women having seizures etc. (p 55)
  • Where sex and pleasure are concerned, power can ‘do’ nothing but say no to them.” (p 83) “To deal with sex, power employs nothing more than a law of prohibition. Its objective: that sex renounce itself. Its instrument: the threat of a punishment that is nothing other than the suppression of sex. Renounce yourself or suffer the penalty of being suppressed.” (p 84)
  • Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.” (p 86)
  • Four figures emerged from this preoccupation with sex, which mounted throughout the nineteenth century ... the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult.” (p 105)
  • Once the mechanism of heredity was understood sex became responsible for inherited diseases and its control was a target of eugenics. (p 118)
  • The theory of ‘degenerescence’ ... explained how a heredity that was burdened with various maladies ... ended by producing a sexual pervert ... it went on to explain how a sexual perversion resulted in the depletion of one's line of descent.” (p 118)
  • The young adult man, possessing nothing more than his life force, had to be the primary target of an subjugation destined to shift the energy available for useless pleasure toward compulsory labour.” (p 120)
  • One of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death ... the power of the sovereign over his subjects could be exercised ... only in cases where the sovereign's very existence was in jeopardy ... if he was threatened by external enemies ... he could then legitimately wage war, and require his subjects ... to ‘expose their life’ ... but if someone dared to rise up against him and transgress his laws, then he could exercise a direct power over the offender’s life: as punishment, the letter would be put to death.” (p 135)
  • The ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live. ... power was exercised mainly as a means of deduction ... a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself.” (p 136)
  • It is over life ... that power establishes its dominion; death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it.” (p 138)
There are things here which might be good starting points for an investigation but the overall feeling is that this writer uses rhetorical tricks to support unevidenced assertions.

April 2018; 159 pages

Friday, 27 April 2018

"Under the net" by Iris Murdoch

This picaresque novel follows the adventures of freelance translator and writer Jake as he travels around London (and Paris). Starting with his landlady evicting him so she can marry a bookmaker he pursues ex-flame singer Anna, her sister film star Sophie, and rich firework maker turned film producer his old friend Hugo. During the course of the book he drinks copiously and often, swims in the Thames in the middle of the night, kidnaps a film star dog, has to flee from a political riot in a film set of ancient Rome, and springs an old friend out of hospital, again in the middle of the night.

And yet nothing really happens, there seems no structure, no point to anything and few lessons appear to be learned. Jake and his friends seem to be free from the normal responsibilities of life. He sofa surfs at the houses of his friends. When he gets a job it seems to be for something to occupy his time rather than a need to earn money. This is, of course, a novelistic convention. How many of us could really spare the time and money needed to investigate a mystery, or sort out family problems, that are available to some many protagonists? Perhaps 'don't give up the day job' should be a rule of novels (as it is for most novelists).

Because of the lack of a structured plot I found it difficult to become involved in the protagonist. The quest to find Anna (just another ex-girlfriend whom he hadn't seen for years) and the quest to find Hugo (whom he felt he had betrayed) didn't seem urgent. Jake's involvement in dognapping and (repeatedly) breaking and entering had the casual quality of a boyish prank. I didn't really care.

On the other hand, Iris Murdoch is a philosopher and there were times when the writing sparkled with interesting ideas:

  • The one-sidedness of inevitably egoistic solipsism: "I count Finn as an inhabitant of my universe, and cannot conceive that he has one containing me" (p 9)
  • "Women think that beauty lies in an approximation to a harmonious norm. The only reason why they fail to make themselves indistinguishably similar is that they lack the time and the money and the technique." (p 10)
  • "There's something fishy about describing people's feelings ... things are falsified from the start ... If I say afterwards that I felt such and such ... this just isn't true ... All one could say at the time would be perhaps something about one's heart beating. But if one said one was apprehensive this could only be to try to make an impression ... it would be a lie." (p 59 - 60)
  • "When I speak to you ... I'm not saying precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond." (p 60)
  • "English socialism is perfectly worthy, but it's not socialism. It's welfare capitalism." (p 99)
  • "Swimming has natural affinities with Judo. Both arts depend upon one's willingness to surrender a rigid and nervous attachment to the upright position." (p 107)
  • "Although I am not frightened of motor cars I am rather nervous of trains. This I know is illogical since, except in moments of crisis, trains run on rails and cannot pursue you across pavements and into shops as cars can." (p 140) Perhaps it is their inflexibility that makes them frightening, a bit like Daleks and stairs.

There are also some great descriptions:

  • "It was like a vast toy shop that had been hit by a bomb." (p 38)
  • "What has love ever meant to me but creaking stairs in other people's houses?" (p 40)
  • "I felt like a man who, having vaguely thought that flowers are all much the same, goes for a walk with a botanist." (p 61)
  • "If you have ever tried to sleep on the Victoria Embankment you will know that the chief difficulty is that the seats are divided in the middle." (p 155)
  • "The twisted hills of falsehood never cease to appal me, but I constantly enter them; possibly because I see them as short corridors which lead out again into the sun." (p 183) Perhaps this sentence would work better if the it were not 'hills' of falsehood. 
  • "Daytime sleep is a cursed slumber from which one wakes in despair. The sun will not tolerate it. If he can he will pry under your eyelids and prise them apart." (p 197)
  • "I felt neither happy nor sad, only rather unreal, like a man shut in a glass." (p 244)

An interesting book but lacking in passion.

According to wikipedia this was Murdoch's first novel. TIME have listed it among the hundred best English language novels since 1923. These lists are silly. The customers of Hatchards, the London bookshop, voted Trollope's The Warden as the best book of the last two hundred years. These selections show how subjective reading is (and makes it even more pointless that I should blog what I think and that you should read it).

I selected it because Michael Grant in Myths of the Greeks and Romans suggests that the title at least reflects the action of Hephaestus who used a net to entangle his wife Aphrodite in bed with her lover Ares which exposed them to mockery but also himself. There's another reference that was too subtle for me.

April 2018; 253 pages

Monday, 23 April 2018

"Tourism" by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal

Bhupinder, the narrator and protagonist, is a young male Sikh journalist who wants to be a novelist. His life is a sham: he reviews CDs without listening to them by rewriting the accompanying press releases. He likes having sex with women and he has some good friends, some of whom are moving on from a culture of heavy drinking and sleeping around, but he is weary and cynical.

Vogue called this book "tolerant". Perhaps the reviewer didn't read it. It must be the most intolerant book I have read for years. Bhupinder hates his fellow humans. Sometimes he has reasons. Two boys bullied him at school; in revenge he started supplying solvents from his dad's shop for them to sniff. Now he thinks: "Hopefully they'd graduated from lighter fuel onto heroin, lived as rent boys then died from syphilis, or maybe starvation." (p 118) [Leaving aside the ungrammatical 'hopefully'; a death sentence for being a school bully does seem disproportionately Draconian.] But more often Bhupinder hates whole groups of people.

He hates ethnicities:

  • "I hate poor white people. No one is more stupid or useless." (p 115) 
  • "Eastern Europeans ... make niggers look smart" (p 67) 
  • "The French! That bunch of cunts" (p 60) 
  • "I felt the shiver of disgust I sometimes feel when I look at white people." (p 236)

He hates the rich:

  • "She once said her dad must be paying her Filipino cleaner a fortune: 'Why else would she do such a shitty job?'" (p 55)
  • "an old white man and his young, highly passive-aggressive oriental wife. She probably wangled herself whatever she wanted: in return she'd look good and provide fellatio. That, no doubt, was the sum of their sex life; his heart wouldn't take much more and she was probably frigid. Women who like getting fucked don't marry old men." (p 207)

He hates the poor:

  • "There's nothing better for the people at the bottom than having a bunch of other saps brought in and dumped beneath them." (p 67)
  • "They're just another bunch of tramps, fighting the rest of us in this pigpen for the same fucking crap." (p 68)

He hates gays:

  • "pussy-loathing queers ... shit-head fag hags ... fruits" (p 195).
  • "faggamuffins and homeysexuals ... The love homos have for straight guys is the love that dares not speak its name. Like any other girl, the homosexual longs for a real man." (p 211)

He even hates DJs:

  • "DJs are, in essence, children's entertainers, but speak about their work as if it has substance and value in the world." (p 164)

Most of all he hates the ugly:

  • "The flesh is draped loose and rumpled over his bones; his shoulders poke obscenely from either side, his breasts hang like soggy dishrags. There's a hideous dignity to him, like an expensive, now haggard and disused, leather bag." (p 4)
  • "Fat and lazy people often use steam baths and saunas as a substitute for exercise, equating sweating to weight loss." (p 75)
  • "His dour face and parched complexion he'd achieved through hard drinking and a million cigarettes." (p 91)

He is obsessed with genetics. There are a lot of comments about how genetics make beauty, how slavery created a black man that white women long for, that Bhupinder's own ancestral home at a cultural interface has developed a mix of genes that has made him beautiful. Beauty, for Bhupinder, is the ultimate blessing. "I was grateful I wasn't ugly; I didn't have to strive for wealth to avoid a life of substandard sexual partners." (p 139) Beauty is often equated with blackness: "The magic of miscegenation: genes alchemised by a slap of the tar brush, even the ugliest honky can have enchanting offspring." (p 209)

There are times when he is absorbed in self-pity or self-loathing

  • "I could see the red sun setting on the corner of the city. Several million people were out there, ploughing several million furrows. Barely a handful knew or cared anything about me." (p 168)
  • "Most of all, I cried for me, the desperate first-born son who'd now have to pick up the tab, but couldn't afford the bill." (p 138)
  • "Nothing I've ever wanted has come true; I was tired of being let down. I was tired of my lingering, lifelong sense of incompletion. ...I hadn't wanted much from life: love, safety, a sense of belonging to somewhere or someone. Instead I had nothing." (p 162)
  • "I'm just a tourist ... I just look at the view." (p 85)

But normally he is unable to reflect on his own behaviour. "I'm a man of few talents; the one skill I have is the acceptance of disappointment." (p 162) he tells us but this is manifestly untrue. Every disappointment fuels his hatred of the human race. Whilst sitting in a steam bath recovering from a hangover he muses "I hate steam baths. I see no benefit in subjecting myself to unnatural heat, basting in my own fluids" (p 75) although two pages later he recognises that the steam is helping him "sweat out more toxins". In a gay club he thinks "It was inevitable that gay culture should fuse with that of rap music; they had so much in common: licentiousness, conspicuous consumption, misogyny and body fascism." (p 211) although this whole book is a misanthropic rant revelling in body fascism.

Why does he hate? Presumably because of his repeated failure. He is very bright (of course!) and should have become a doctor but he deliberately failed his A-levels. He then dropped out of University. He only goes home to his mother for a financial bailout. He can't even commit to attending his brother's wedding. He is desperate to escape. In one stunning image he observes a wasp and this does seem to reflect upon him (although he doesn't realise it): "A wasp raged against the glass, leaving dabs of venom on the pane as it fought to get out." (p 63)

If all this hatred is supposed to describe a portrait of a trapped wasp this book can scarcely be bettered.

It is a strangely unbalanced plot. It starts with the author (September 2003) in self-imposed exile. He then begins to tell the story of why he's there. In May (by implication 2002?) he starts an affair with white Sophie because she is best friends with Indian Sarupa whom he has been ogling in night clubs. Sophie and Sarupa represent an upper class London which Bhupinder angrily envies. Things happen although not a lot develops. He hangs out with black Michael (who hates even more virulently than Bhupinder), alcoholic rich pretty boy Luca, and gay Rory and his boyfriend restaurateur Sham. More things happen. Out of the blue a deus ex machina arrives that enables him to get hold of some money and go abroad. It is only in October 2004 that he finds out by email that he is a father (of a baby conceived in summer 2002 or at the latest summer 2003 suggesting either an extraordinary long pregnancy or a very slow email).

So this book has an unconventional plot and a lot of intolerance. It also has a substantial amount of utterly explicit sex. And it has moments of pure magic in some of its descriptions which, at best, are totally original and drill down to the essence of the thing itself:

  • "Sometimes she'd be the perfect ingenue, unsure of her wonderful new body." (p 3)
  • "Her pose unfolded into a mass of angles ... I slouched against the sofa as she stooped ridiculously in mid-air, her thin arm extended towards me ... she collapsed back into her seat, her magazine pose in shambles, a muddle of long limbs and bony joints." (p 21)
  • "her nostrils flared, showing empty hairless sockets." (p 47)
  • "Here I can see evening fall, like watching a scrap of paper held up by the air drift slowly down to earth." (p 7)
  • "He wore an ancient pin-striped suit and sipped a glass of Scotch, a forgotten cigarette cindered between his fingers." (p 11) I love 'cindered'!!!
  • "his idea of an alcoholic was a man who was too drunk to work" (p 108)
  • "I sat and listened to the people around me laughing and joking with one another: was anyone happy, or was everything a shroud, hiding one's mediocrity and sadness?" (p 162)
  • "Michael had ordered the mixed grill - glistening shapes of processed offal steamed on the plate before him" (p 68)
  • "The boys loitered and threw me caustic stares; stymied by religion, their love lives consisted of bitter, solitary masturbation." (p 74)
  • "I felt leaden and uncomfortable, utterly sullen." (p 75)

Julie Burchill has called this book "shocking and touched with genius" and I would agree. There are brilliant insights but too often the author's intent seems to provoke. I know I shouldn't judge a book by my dislike for the characters but there is so much naked misanthropy in this book that it detracted from the experience of reading it.

April 2018; 246 pages

Friday, 20 April 2018

"Saladin" by John Man

A biography of the 12th Century Islamic warrior who confronted Richard the Lionheart in the Third Crusade.

And what a man! Son of a provincial governor, Saladin was a Kurd born in Tikrit (later famous as the home of Sadam Hussein) who grew up in Damascus. He rose to become a mostly successful warrior and a ruler (under his emir and caliph) of an area stretching from Egypt to Turkey. He managed to combine ruthlessness where necessary with justice and mercy becoming famed for his chivalry, his trustworthiness and his generosity and doing his best to negotiate rather than fight. He destroyed the crusader states that had been set up after the First Crusade, reducing the Kingdom of Jerusalem to a tiny coastal strip (which didn't include Jerusalem) although having taken Acre he lost it again to the Third Crusaders,

And what a biography. I read Man's Genghis Khan about ten years ago and found it heavy going but this was a delightful read. There was sufficient scholarship but not too much and lots of fascinating facts and some interesting perspectives: the twelfth century problems of the middle east provide a carefully curved mirror in which to view today's issues. One might almost see modern Israel as a foreign (US) sponsored crusader state in the middle of a fragmented Islamic world; Sunni and Shi'a still scrap, the Assassins were the suicide bombers of their time, and today's civil strife in Syria with its shifting and reshifting alliances are an echo of the division of Saladin's day.

And it had two really helpful maps!

There were lots of bits I thought: I must find out more about this. That's always a good sign. But here are the very best of the good bits:

  • In Baalbek in Lebanon there are thousand tonne megaliths which are even today "the worlds's greatest hewn stones ... twenty times the weight of the megaliths of Stonehenge" (p 23)
  • "medieval Islam hungered for learning and inspired brilliant scholarship. Paper displaced papyrus, bookshops thrived, libraries graced the homes of the rich ... one street in Damascus had a hundred bookshops." (p 25)
  • "The only way to survive was to flee or to fawn: 'Kiss any arm you cannot break'." (p 43)
  • On Mount Qasiyoun just north of Damascus "Cain killed his brother Abel" (p 58)
  • "He lacks words for what he sees, and then lacks words to describe his own inadequacy." (p 60)
  • "seize the chance of undistracted study and seclusion before a wife and children cling to you and you gnash your teeth in regret at the time you lost." (p 62)
  • "a grim landscape of forested valleys and bare hills, surging like a wrestler's muscles" (p 68)
  • Frank Amalric sealed an alliance with the young Caliph of Egypt with "an ungloved handshake, a precedent utterly shocking to courtiers used to their ruler's untouchability." (p 90)
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a princess without a husband must be in need of a prince - acknowledged not by the princess, perhaps, but certainly by those with the power to choose the husband" (p 136)
  • "Raymond was a legend for his bravery, good looks, charm and strength: they said he could crush a stirrup with one hand (which seems a silly way to prove one's strength; a horseshoe, maybe, but why a stirrup?)." (p 136 - 137)
  • Saladin put the Melkites in charge of the Holy Sepulchre "a sect that traces its rituals back to the Apostles." (p 253)
  • "licentious harlots ... selling themselves for gold, bold and ardent, loving and passionate, ink-faced and unblushing" (p 272)
  • "Lord Shang, writing in China in about 400 BC ... advised that for those who rule might is right, power everything. Human beings are idle, greedy, cowardly, treacherous, foolish and shifty. The only way to deal with them is to entice, terrify, reward and punish." (p 320)
  • "people who had endured terrible experiences, yet come through well psychologically ... shared a belief that the universe is fundamentally a supportive place, that it rewards action, and that any setback is a challenge to be overcome." (p 322)

A wonderful, extraordinarily readable biography. April 2018; 358 pages

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"Defectors" by Joseph Kanon

Moscow, 1961. Simon, an American publisher flies in to talk to his brother who has written his autobiography; the autobiography of a defector. Frank worked for the precursor to the CIA during WW2 whilst stealing secreta and handing them to the Russians; after the war with the FBI hot on his trail he fled to Moscow. Now he works for the Service and lives with the other ex-Spies.

This is twilight world of deceit, half-truths and betrayal. This is the world of those who betrayed their country for an ideal and now live as half-trusted pensioners in a world they can't escape. This is the world of secrets and surveillance, of snow and shortages, of dreams and disillusionment.

This book might have been a masterpiece but the thriller format interferes. For a depiction of the topsy turvey world of soviet-era Moscow I preferred the brilliant Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge. Nevertheless, this book kept me turning the pages. I got a little confused about what was happening towards the end but decided I didn't care enough about the characters to try harder.

A couple of brutally written murders.

Some great lines:

  • "the secret there, his skin warm with it" (p 83)
  • "for a moment he wondered how he should feel about that, which of his selves to ask" (p 96)
April 2018; 290 pages

Sunday, 15 April 2018

"David Golder" by Irene Nemirovsky

Published in 1929, just after the Wall Street Crash, David Golder was the breakthrough second novel by French author Nemirovsky who subsequently wrote Suite Francaise, a trio of novellas that were unfinished when the author died in Auschwitz and were subsequently rediscovered in 1998.

David Golder tells the story of a rich man. At the start he refuses to enter into a risky deal with his partner who kills himself the next day, bankrupt. Golder then suffers a heart attack on the train journey to his posh villa in Biarritz where his wife and daughter are entertaining guests and leading extravagant lives; they forever bombard him with requests for money. He is on a treadmill. Can he get off? And will he be happy if he does?

It seems that the moments when he is and was happiest is when he is or was poor.

It is a strange plot. One repeatedly feels that one is reaching the climax, the big reveal, the transformation scene. But, like the reality of any addiction, there is always the moment when the best intentions meet the flawed humanity. In this way it is more honest than its fairy tale or Hollowood correlates. The near death experience of the heart attack on the train doesn't provoke a lasting change in his lifestyle. His life keeps on going up and down. Until the end. Just like real life.

The style is strange as well. Much of it is very intense and written from a perspective clautrophobically deep inside Golder's mind. This can scarcely be otherwise for the heart attack on the train scene. "He had time to think 'I'm dying', to feel he was being pushed, thrown over the edge of a precipice into an abyss, a crater, as narrow and suffocating as a tomb. ... deep, murky water that swept over him and was dragging him down, lower and lower, into the wide gaping hole." Of course a near death experience needs to be this intense. But it is also rather cliched. Melodramatic. It reeks of nineteenth century literature (and the introduction tells us that Nemirovsky was compared to Balzac and Dostoevsky) rather than twentieth.

A near death experience can be melodramatic. Less convincing to modern readers are the characters. Although Golder himself, rich banker wondering in late life what the point of it all is, can be nuanced, his grasping wife Gloria is a pantomime villain, his daughter Joyce is utterly spolit, her gigolo boyfriend a two-dimensional parasite, the doctor a quack who will tailor his diagnosis to suit the paymaster, Golder's friend Soifer an archetypal miser and so on. Yet this story was hailed as astonishingly mature when it was published; Nemirovsky compared to Balzac or Dostoevsky.

I wondered whether the character of Carleton Myatt, the trader in currants who travels to Istanbul on Graham Greene's Stamboul Train was based on Golder. But in Greene even the minor characters have quirks and peculiarities and, in particular, inconsistencies that put flesh on their bones.

Nevertheless, David Golder is only a short book and it is worth reading just for the verve with which Nemirovsky gallops through her plot.

Some good moments:

  • "He was crushing his face into his hands in shame." (p 98)
  • "'It's a long road', he said out loud
    •  'Yes', said Soifer, 'long and hard and pointless'." (p 122)

Friday, 13 April 2018

"The Country Wife" by William Wycherley

A Country Wife was written by William Wycherley, himself a noted Restoration rake, and perhaps based on a Roman play, the Eunuch by Terence.

I saw it at Southwark Playhouse Saturday (matinee) 14th April 2018 in a production that (slightly weirdly) transferred the costumes to the 1920s but left the dialogue in 1675 (good: don't mess with dialogue!!) The production brought out the bawdy farce elements and added some wonderful moments of physical humour: we all loved the character hiding behind the screen. There was a generally strong cast with some outstanding performances by Sparkish and Pinchbeck, Alithea and Margery.

Horner, a rake, spreads the rumour that he has caught an STD and been rendered impotent. As a result Sir Jaspar Fidget decides to trust Hormer with his wife and daughter and their friend. Meantime Pinchwife's new wife, just up from the country, has seen Horner at the theatre and wants to have an affair with him. Meanwhile Pinchwife's sister, Alithea, is engaged to marry Sparkish whose best friend Harcvourt has fallen in love with her. This is a farce of true love versus cuckoldry, reputation versus honour, and trust versus betrayal.

Lots of innuendoes and double entendres and a fair amount of farce.

Some great lines, although they are often uncomfortably un-politically correct:
  • Women of quality are so civil, you can hardly distinguish love from good breeding, and a man is often mistaken.
  • Your old boys ... who like superannuated stallions are suffered to run, feed, and whinny with the mares as long as they live, though they can do nothing else.
  • A mistress should be like a country retreat near the town; not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away.
  • ‘Tis as hard to be a good fellow, a good friend, and a lover of women, as ‘tis to be a good fellow, a good friend, and a lover of money.
  • For my part I will have only those glorious, manly pleasures of being very drunk and there is slovenly.” 
  • He can no more think that men laugh at him than that women jilt him, his opinion of himself is so good.
  • Most men are the contraries to that they would seem.
  • The little, humbly fawning physician with his ebony cane is he that destroys men.
  • A marriage vow is like a penitent gamester’s oath, and entering into bonds and penalties to stint himself to such a particular small sum at play for the future, which makes him but the more eager, and not being able to hold out, loses his money again, and his forfeit to boot.
  • If a woman wants wit in a corner, she has it nowhere.
  • A beauty masked, like the sun in eclipse, gathers together more gazers then if it shined out.
  • Nothing makes a man hate a woman more, than her constant conversation.
  • Loving alone is as dull as eating alone.” 
  • Marrying to increase love is like gaming to become rich; alas, you only lose what little stock you had before.
  • A secret is better kept ... by a single person than a multitude

Thursday, 12 April 2018

"Sister" by Rosamund Lupton

Beatrice's sister goes missing days after giving birth to a still-born child. Is her art college tutor the father of the baby; has he murdered her? Did her psychologist fail to diagnose puerperal psychosis? Are the gene therapy trials a front for something more sinister? Or was she being stalked by Simon, a fellow student, for his photography project?

Although the narration, jumping back and forwards from Beatrice's confessional-style testimony at the Crown Prosecution Service to telling the story of her sleuthing, is rather off-putting there is plenty in this twisting tale to grip hold of. Until the end. I'd guessed what happened about a quarter of the way through and there was a lot of subsequent evidence that confirmed my solution. But I was wrong. Really? I don't think so. My solution was far better. There were a number of pieces of evidence that the author's thrilleresque solution simply failed to address. So I still think I was right and the author wrong. Perhaps there should be a sequel about this appalling miscarriage of justice.

And before that there were a lot of moments when professional people really didn't behave anything like the way professional people would behave.

Some great lines:

  • "The Big Apple with no core." (p 6)
  • "A siren is the sound of the twenty-first-century cavalry on its way." (p 52)
  • Psychiatrists are "a hot cycle for the personality, shrinking you down to something that fits a category in a textbook" (I guess that's why they're called shrinks).
  • "A hospital world with its own no-weather and no-time in which the aberrant crises of pain, illness and death were Kafka-like turned ordinary." (p 159)
  • "For me life has always been a mountain - sheer-faced and perilous." (p 227)
  • "I saw compassion on some faces as they looked at me, and its poorer cousin pity on others." (p 248)

April 2018; 358 pages
Rosamund Lupton has also written the brilliant and tautly-paced Three Hours.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

"Dodgers" by Bill Beverly

Four black teenagers from Los Angeles are sent by their gang leader to drive in a van to drive to Wisconsin to murder a Judge who is a forthcoming witness in a trial. One of them, the narrator East, is related to the gang leader. With him are his half brother Ty, a thirteen year old psychopath, fat Walter, a genius at forging id, and Michael, the nominal leader. East, who led a team of crackhouse lookouts till a police raid closed the house down,  sleeps in an abandoned office building but pops home from time to time to look after his alcoholic mother. He finds the journey across the country a revelation.

These are bad boys, bred bad, brought up to badness, on a mission to kill. But they are still teenagers and their deprivations show at every moment. You can't help liking East and dreading the likely outcome of his criminal behaviour. 

And then there are moments when the plot twists and you walk, unsuspecting, into an ambush.

Brilliantly plotted, with great characters, great dialogue and moments of lyricism. For example:
  • Michael laughed almost every time he talked. It wasn't that he thought everything was funny; it was like his sentence wasn't finished yet without it.” (p 47)
  • All East’s life the mountains had been a jagged base for the northern sky. ... He’d never seen them broken into what they were, single peaks dotted with plants scrub and rock litter, and the open distances between.” (p 66)
  • Wandering blind, their shadows spilling out in eight directions.” (p 71)
  • The windshield filled with sunrise working its way up to blue.” (p 92)
  • He could sense something about the chasm, all the time piled up there. Close to forever. more time than he had in a hundred lives like his.” (p 96)
  • Ty belonged to nobody now, an unknowable child, indolent as bees in autumn” (p 99)
  • A thunderstorm hovered, prowling its own road.” (p 101)
  • Trying to press his gut out like a toothpaste tube.” (p 102) This is when East is sitting in the toilet, constipated. The physicality of this book is tremendously honest. When he is beaten up it hurts.
  • Gym muscles down his belly like puppies in a litter.” (p 107)
  • But do they get a signal out here? Negative bars.” (p 157)
  • Flight, they called it. One part fear, one part the blindest excitement you’d ever known. It freed you from time, from who you were or the matter of what you’d done. You darted, like a fish away from a net, like a dog outrunning a dogcatcher.” (p 206)
  • If there were such a thing as far enough, it wasn't a place you could walk to.” (p 249)

What to compare it to? It has won awards from crime and thriller writing but it isn't really in that genre.  In some ways it is a novel about a troubled teenager growing up so it is a sort of Catcher in the Rye. The road trip reminded me of the road trip in John Green's Paper Towns. But the element of honesty about a boy trying to survive in a world with a different system of morality puts it into a class of its own.

A very worthy winner of the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association in 2016. Other winners include:

Friday, 6 April 2018

"The Statement" by Brian Moore

Based on a real life case. A French war criminal, on the run in the south of France, is being followed both by assassins and the police. He is given refuge in religious houses. But how do the assassins seemingly know his every move? And who are they working for? Sinister forces are at play and they may reach right up to the highest echelons of government and their tentacles seem to spread through French Catholicism.

A well-written thriller by the author who also wrote the excellent The Colour of Blood

Some questions:
  • Why was it called The Statement?
    • This refers to the letter intended to be poinned on Brossard's corpse by the assassin once Brossard is dead. It is a statement that he has been executed for war crimes. But why name the novel after this? Rather than, for example, the fugitive?
  • How does Moore enlist your sympathy for Pierre?
    • Right at the start Brossard is a frail old man being stalked by an assassin. In the first chaspter Brossard is revealed as a cunning predator. He kills, ruthlessly. Almost immediately one is aware that he is a war criminal and a very dangerous man. No sympathy there. There are details (he is getting old, he has bad teeth, he has to keep moving, he has only three suitcases of possessions) which might enlist sympathy but after such strong early impressions I wasn't falling for it. So why did Moore choose to start like that?
  • Why are the two hired assassins only referred to by their initials?
    • The second assassin is given a girlfriend (to whom he lies) and a phobia about horoscopes. But by using initials Moore seems to be encouraging us to think that these men do not count. Their deaths do not matter. Except as it affects the game. 
  • The novel explores moral issues including those of forgiveness. To what extent this this raise the novel above the standard thriller format?
    • It is interesting how the characters are able to justify themselves. The priests consider that the secular world should not be allowed to impinge upon the religious world, that a confessed sinner is redeemed (although Brossard never shows remorse), that France lost the Second World War because the communists triumphed and that Brossard's role as a soldier for the right and for tradition somehow excuses him killing others.

Great lines:
  • The numbers of dead are exaggerated, no doubt, but what matter? Sin is sin in any number.” (p 52)
  • The roulette wheel had stopped and the steel ball of his luck had dropped into a losing slot.” (p 60)
  • Now that he himself was old, he no longer saw old men in a respectful light. Now, he looked at them for signs of failure: the faltering step on the stairs, the voice hesitating over a forgotten surname, the look of quiet deception when dimming ears have missed what was said.” (p 87) 
  • In the ninth decade ... men become stubborn and unyielding, unwilling to admit error now that judgement day is close.” (p 88)
    • This is thought by Brossard, the war criminal, but it is about others. He is thinking this to assess to what extent he might be able to rely on the way the other person has always behaved. But he isn't the least self-reflective. Is this the mind of a psychopath?
  • The young ... did not want to be reminded of the leprosy of age.” (p 163)

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

"Think like an artist" by Will Gompertz

This is a delightful little book. It is written in short chapters full of pithy aphorisms and delightful examples. Very readable!

Gompertz suggests that we can all learn to be creative if we do what artists do. He starts by pointing out that we are all artists because we all create. This gets lost a bit later on as he focuses on the art of painting. I think most of his points could be equally well made if he focused on scientists: scientists are "seriously curious", scientists are "tenacious grafters", scientists build their ideas on those of others, scientists are sceptics who constantly ask questions and so on. Perhaps all schools should be science schools.

Here are his rules: 
  • Artists are enterprising
    • Artists are the CEO of their own businesses. They need to have an acute sensitivity for marketing and and implicit understanding of brand ... After all, they are in the business of supplying products have no real function or purpose.” (p 22) 
  • Artists don’t fail
    • If at first you don't succeed, don't try exactly the same thing again. You won't succeed, again.” (p 43)
    • Artists appear glamorous and blessedly detached, but in reality they are tenacious grafters.” (p 43)
    • It can be difficult to get started. We can feel that we don't have permission to test our talents ... somehow we are unworthy.” (p 51)
    • Everyone thinks they are a bit of a fraud; you just have to get over it.” (p 53)
  • Artists are seriously curious 
    • If necessity is the mother of invention, curiosity is the father.” (p 58)
  • Artists steal
  • Artists are sceptics
    • It is not simply about asking questions; they have to be the most revealing and pertinent questions.” (p 105)
  • Artists think big picture and fine detail
    • Delivering the big picture while focusing on the small detail ... requires your mind to constantly go back and forth, one moment concerned with the minutiae, the next stepping away and seeing the broader context. Spend too much time on the fine detail and you will get lost. But if you only think about the big picture you won't create or connect to anything.” (p 119)
  • Artists have a point of view
    • A point of view is not the same as a style. It is what you say, not the way you say it. And in the creativity game you're not really a player unless you have something to say.” (p 140)
  • Artists are brave
    • Boldness is required to release ideas into the world, even though it can feel alien and arrogant. I mean, who do I think I am? Some kind of genius? Surely there are far more talented people than me out there?” (p 162)
  • Artists pause for thought
    • When artists sit down in their chairs they switch personas. They stop being the creator and turn into a critic. ... Their hyper-critical eyes scrutinise the work for insincerity, sloppiness and technical mistakes.” (p 178)
He concludes that all schools should be art schools (having taught in state secondary comprehensives for 33 years I agree that he makes some extremely valid points about the factory style of education which seems utterly unsuited to the modern digital age but I think he underestimates the political inertia) and then reforms the economy so that we all have portfolio careers. Great stuff! 

More wonderful words of wisdom:
  • Artists, like a lot of us, fear being ‘found out’. But somehow they manage to summon up enough self-belief to overcome the self-doubt.” (p 12)
  • Artists don't seek permission to paint or write or act or sing; they just do it.” (p 12)
  • The very act of making and creating is deeply satisfying, life-affirming and rewarding.” (p 16)
  • Artists are no more courageous or noble or single-minded than the farmers who go to extreme lengths, in extreme weathers, to protect their herd.” (p 20)
  • I don't think there's a dignity issue in being a plumber. ... keeping water out of places you don't want it is a big deal.” (p 36)
  • Creativity isn't about making additions; it is about making subtractions. Ideas need honing, simplifying and focusing.” (p 96)
  • Piero [della Francesca] set himself the task of rethinking how the world should be represented in a painting, given the invention [by Brunelleschi] of mathematical perspective. ... He made the commitment to question everything afresh. All assumptions had to be challenged, starting with first principles.” (p 109)
  • Ernest Hemingway would sometimes spend hours on a single sentence. Not because he was attempting to write the perfect solitary line of text, but because he was trying to make that sentence successfully linked to the one preceding it and seamlessly lead on to the next - while also contributing something to the story.” (p 121)
  • Society puts enormous pressure on us to conform. It functions when we all adhere to agreed systems. We obediently drive our cars on a designated side of the road, use money as the accepted mode of exchange for goods or services received, and stand patiently in queues . It works. If we didn't respect these social conventions chaos would ensue and Society would collapse.” (p 169) 
  • Being employed can be a stifling and infantilizing experience, which is hardly conducive to creativity.” (p 198)

A remarkable book in which an enormous amount of insight is crammed into 200 small pages. April 2018; 201 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:

Monday, 2 April 2018

"The Book of Dave" by Will Self

Five hundred years from now England has been invaded by the rising sea and turned into an archipelago with an agriculturally based feudal society. There are two languages, that we would recognise today and a dialect derived from the speech of |London cabbies. The simple farmers of Ham subsist with a mammal called the Moto, a domesticated sub-human capable of speech, which they farm for its oil and its meat.

The religion of Ing is based on the Book of Dave, a London cabby around the year 2000, and its theology, its liturgy and its practices are based on Dave's life. Heretics, called fliers, are ruthlessly persecuted.

Carl, son of the Geezer, a heretic who preached a second testament of Dave, is on the cusp of becoming a man. But he and his teacher, queer Antone, have been found guilty of entering the Forbidden Zone and they  flee Ham and travel through the hostile islands of Ing, searching for Carl's dad.

This story alternates with chapters from the life of Dave himself, angry cabby going mad and alleged father of Carl, now lost to him through the machinations of ex-wife Michelle and her new lover Cal.

There are very many parallels between the two stories and, I suppose, there are meant to be allegorical parallels between  the Geezer, preacher of the second testament, and  Jesus. But the stories are merely a vehicle for Self to show off his dazzling abilities.

First he has imagined a dystopia and fleshed it out and peopled it and every detail is described so brilliantly that you are there. You understand the flora and the fauna and the strange social customs of the people. He does the same for present-day London. "the London diorama pivoted about him: the toothpick steeples and cruet cupolas of the remaining Wren churches, the steel braces and concrete Karnak of Broadgate and the Barbican, the AstroTurf lawns and inflated, latex walls of the Tower, the brass doorknob of the Monument. Downriver a flock of pigeons clattered over the petrified wharves on the south bank, where graduate stevedores in blue striped aprons loaded boudon noir into the holds of German financial engineers." (p 453) There are magical images (toothpick steeples), there is humour (graduate stevedores) and it is all crammed together as if he is using a pneumatic hammer to cram far more in than he is allowed.

Second he has imagined not just one new language but two. By the end of the book you can read fluently both cabbie cockney of c2000 CE
Eye sumtyms fink iss awl gon arsy-versy, yernowoteyemeen? Ve C az cumminta ve lan - ve lan az gon aht 2 C” (p 465)
and the derived patois of Ham 524 After Dave which this blog doesn't give me the script to write.

This comes with its own cabbie derived vocabulary in which the words are sometimes spelt in several different ways depending on whether they are modern cabbie or future cabbie and how rural the future cabbie-speakers are: bubbery for cloth (from Burberry), blisterweed (or blistaweed) for Giant Hogweed, butterboys and nolidj boys and fonies (footmen) and fuckoffgaff (posh house) and ...

So the creation of these languages is a stunning tour de force.

And then the characters. Dave the cabbie, angrier and angrier, his inner voice ranting misogynistically and racistly and misanthropically. He hates everyone. He has good reason to hate some of them. By the end you feel sorry for poor old Dave, more abused than abuser. Michelle his ex-wife and her rich husband Cal who, despite being a stock character, races round London trying to track down his mentally ill daughter and desperately wants to be a dad to depressed teenager Carl. And in the new world there is Carl, soon to be a man, the farmboy with a way with motos, the lad who has no dad and so is adopted by them all, and Antony, the heretic teacher.

And all of this rich tapestry is a vehicle for Self to set forth his own vision of the hell we are making or our world and the even worse hell we might end up with if we let the forces of intolerance win. What if, he says, what if we allow a new religion to grow up which is based on a testament of hate written by a madman. And what he very carefully doesn't say is: what if that is the situation we are in now.

At the end of the book there is a funeral held in a Church of England church. "It was a measure of the dissipation of the Church's doctrine - its moral authority knocked over as casually as a drunk topples a beer glass - that a suicide's funeral was to be held ... But then self-murder and the mildewed hassocks, the musty drapes, the tarnished communion rail, the worm-holy rood screen, the foxed flyleaves of the prayer books - it all sat well together ... they were all the same for the impotent figures who stood in the pulpit and peered down at pitiful congregations" (p 474) Self seems to despise the modern church. But his vision of a future world run by fanatical priests in the service of a religion of hate is so appalling that I think I'll take the worm-holy rood.

Other wonderful phrases:

  • It fits tighter than a ridged dick in a ribbed condom.” (p 37)
  • Adding his own can of pain to this slopping tank of loss.” (p 44)
  • people walked the street with the jerky motion of puppets, visible strings lifting styrofoam cups to their painted lips.” (p 47)
  • there were hotels so large other hotels could have checked into them” (p 50)
  • All kids lie to their parents at that age - but I lied more.” (p 105)
  • All vain, pretty young women require at least one who is less so, to offset their own allure.” (p 107)
  • The hick from the sticks, who ... has no more conception of the city he found himself in than a worm does of the apple it bores through.” (p 193)
  • Insanity stank out the confined space like an eggy fart.” (p 278)
  • he was shooting fast down the senescent rapids.” (p 280)
  • crack criminals who’d broken into their own psyches, stolen everything worth having and left only coiled turds on the carpet of their own consciousness.” (p 284) 
  • He hacked at himself with craft knives, he upended paracetamol bottles. His stomach had been pumped more often than he’d filled it. iI the revolving door through which he entered Heath Hospital have been attached to a generator, Steve could have provided enough power for his own ECT.” (p 286)
  • They ... were grateful for his unceasing eight-year-old twitter, birdsong in their rotten garden.” (p 326) Birdsong in their rotten garden - what a wonderful way to show the desperate relationship between the mother and father of this child
  • He wanted to be where he was a lad to every dad, where he wasn't a stranger or an oddity.” (p 372)
  • we hardly have time to bolt starbuck before we must be gone for our sightseeing tour” (p 373)
  • Dave had become a cabbie to miss out on the supervisory eyes that made adult working life another fidgety classroom.” (p 391 )
  • When he penetrated her, they moved into and out of one another with fluid ease, revving and squealing, before arriving quite suddenly.” (p 392) Sex in the style of a London cab.
  • I fink they're too stops short of Dagenham. mate. said the foxy-faced cabbie, and his mate crackled. Yeah, fucking barking!” (p 401)
  • Surely it's only a tosser who says he regrets nothing at all - it means he remembers nothing ... be-because to remember is to regret.” (p 466)

April 2018; 477 pages