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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

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

"Van Gogh in Arles" by Alfred Nemeczek

Van Gogh arrived in a snow-bound Arles on February 20th 1888; within an incredible year, both productive and destructive, he had completed his most famous works such as his Sunflowers, Starry Night, and his room, had cut off his ear and been confined in a mental hospital.

This book is mostly a textual accompaniment to some of his paintings from the period. It explains Van Gogh's artistic ideas as well as giving a little biography. He always felt that he was learning (he was still a relatively young and inexperienced painter) and believed in the "drawing, study, picture" hierarchy (p 39).

Some great lines

  • "Van Gogh was concerned throughout his life never to lose sight of the social responsibility of art, the human element in painting." (p 20)
  • "His work was not only for himself, but for a wider public to which he felt accountable." (p 39)
  • "painting and screwing a lot are incompatible" (p 55)
  • "He was often at odds with the planet on which he lived. He viewed it as a study by God ... 'this world was evidently slapped together in a hurry on one of his bad days'" (p 56)
  • "nil is a negative force" (p 65)
  • "He wanted 'to find a special brushwork without stippling ... nothing but the varied stroke ... stippling and making halos and other things ... are real discoveries, but we must ... see to it that this technique does not become a universal dogma'." (p 74)
  • "I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize" (p 74)
  • "The significance of the empty chair as a symbol of death for Van Gogh has been well documented." (p 100)

Of course the real beauty of the book lies in the wonderful pictures, some of which I hadn't seen before. Why always sunflowers? The Starry Night by the Rhone is brilliant and so is The Old Peasant Patience Escalier.

May 2018; 115 pages

Monday, 28 May 2018

"Evil Unseen" by Dave Sivers

Gang warfare in Aylesbury Vale.

Archer is your typical loner cop, physically scarred, ex-Met. Her sidekick Baines is in a relationship with his ex-wife's twin sister after the death of his ex-wife and the disappearance of his two year old son whose ghost he keeps on seeing.

A teenage reformed gang leader and a man with three identities are gunned down together. Then the National Crime Agency step in and order all the files to be transferred to them. But the deaths haven't stopped.

There are some elements of this mystery that had me gripped. The author cleverly builds up the hints and clues. As is typical of the modern form of this genre we rose to a whodunnit climax at the half way point and then resolved much of the mystery at which point the tale turned into a thriller. This always disappoints me. I find the tension of not knowing what is happening more thrilling than that of guns and chases and so on. Perhaps that is just me. I know how popular this form is now. But I measured how engaged I was by how gripped I was: Having read the first hundred pages and then been obliged to put the book down I found myself really keen to get back to it. I then devoured it up to the point where the criminal mastermind is introduced and then slowed down. I was happy to put it aside for the last few chapters and return to it the next day.

Some great lines:

  • "grill him until his skin bubbled" (p 16)
  • "At least the half-dead furniture that used to sit scattered about in the communal area at the front had been tidied up" (p 27)
  • "The guy polishing glasses behind the bar was muscled to grotesque proportions" (p 52)
  • "Blood might be thicker than water, but it could still be spilled." (p 154)
  • "He was a fry or two short of a Happy Meal" (p 189)
  • "You might as well cut yourself and then go swimming with sharks." (p 190)
May 2018; 288 pages

Saturday, 26 May 2018

"Ben-Hur" by Lew Wallace

Until Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur was the best-selling American novel. It was written by Lew Wallace who was the Governor of the territory of New Mexico who ordered the arrest of Billy the Kid.

It is melodrama. No doubt when it was published in 1880 it was written in the style of a best seller but I found it very difficult to read. There are the appeals to the reader "O! My reader" and there are the capitalisations "IT WAS THE NAZARENE", the stragne sentence structures "Both had hair and eyes black" and the preponderance of Thous and wilts and dosts and the long explanatory descriptions and the stock characters.

The first of the eight books is the story of the wise men coming to Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus and has nothing whatever to do with the main narrative which starts in book 2.

Judah is a rich young lad who lives in a big house in Jerusalem with his mum and his sister and his servants, his merchant dad having died. One of his best friends is the slightly older Roman lad called Messala (usually, for some reason, the Messala) who, perhaps because he is jealous that Judah is so extraordinarily good looking, seizes the pretext of an accident in which Judah nearly kills the Roman governor to have Judah arrested and his mum and sisters tossed into the darkest dungeons and all his property seized. Becoming a galley slave (this first part reminded me very much of The Count of Monte Cristo which is another revenge story but a far better book) kills most people within a year but it just toughens Judah until, three years later, he saves the life of a rich Roman in a shipwreck and becomes an adopted son. Of course the purpose of his life is first to find his mum and sister and second to revenge himself on Massala although he spends a good few years becoming a pampered young Roman first (learning how to become the best fighter and the best chariot racer) and then a few years more, in Jerusalem, training an army of rebels, before really setting his mind to the task.

The plot sets up some good situations and then wastes them. The high point of the film was the chariot race and there is no question that this is an important part of the story but it is over and done with just over half way through; not only that but Ben-Hur's victory isn't exactly fair and square. Sometimes the book sets up interesting conflicts such as the choice facing Judah between the beautiful but mysterious Egyptian, daughter of Wise Man Balthasar, and the humble slave for life Esther but in the end the choice is rather made for him. Similarly there is an interesting conflict facing Simonides, a slave who must embrace slavery if he recognises Judah, but the resolution is rather a damp squib. The potential enmity of Messala is defused too quickly and so is the problem that Judah is actually an escaped galley slave. Towards the end of the book Judah is a rich man with dreams of commanding a rebellion against the Romans. Then he meets Jesus and the conflicts between the two contrasting visions of Power and Glory are acknowledged but never properly explored.

I think my problem with the hero is that Judah shows very little character development of the sort required by modern audiences. As Simonides (whose story reveals true heroism both in his sacrifice for love and in his sacrifice to serve the Hur family) says when Judah waltzes in and demands that this faithful slave give him his inheritance because the fortune was achieved using the capital Simonides saved from the confiscation of Ben-Hur's assets, “The fortune cost him nothing - not an anxiety, not a drop of sweat, not so much as a thought” (B4C11) And this is the same all the way through. OK he has to serve three years as a galley slave but everything before and after that drops into this young man's lap.

And yet there are some areas of grey in the portrait Wallace paints of his hero. Messala's denouncement comes about after Judah drops a roof tile on the Roman governor's head; Judah says it was an accident but he wasn't framed. The victory in the chariot race is obtained by breaking the rules. Judah wants to be a resistance hero (a terrorist in modern terms?) and never really understands the message the Jesus is preaching. Judah's quest for his mum and sister is very easily diverted. There is so much potential nuancing that could be done with this. But I don't think Wallace realised that. I think Wallace was selling an Anerican dream in which you can be rich and powerful and beautiful and still a good Christian. I don't think, for all the cod theology burbled in this book, Wallace had the subtlety and psychological insight to turn this potentially brilliant story into a great work of literature. He was too busy trying to tell the Greatest Story Ever Told.

On the other hand I haven't written a best-seller.

I must be one of the few people in recent years to have read the book before watching the film. I have now watched the Oscar-winning Charlton Heston version. I was pleased to note that the film scrapped the first book (the story of the first Christmas) which underlined the fact that it had little to do with the plot. It also moved the chariot race, for many the peak of the drama, to a later position. Furthermore, it omitted the idea that Judah trains troops with the intention of starting a rebellion against the Romans; the film maximises the good boy potential of Judah. The old housekeeper is scrapped and her role in the leprosy sub-plot is taken by Esther. Esther's love rival (Balthasar's daughter) is removed which takes away this sub-plot but the fact the Esther has been seeing Judah's leper mum and sister without telling Judah provides the opportunity for a lover's tiff. The film (as with the book) climaxes with the crucifixion (which coincides with the healing) but later events have been compressed to get to where we are going in a more economical manner. The film therefore represents a tighter and better-paced plot while losing some nuances of character. However, the film has a serious time problem. It is widely accepted the the ministry of Jesus lasted three years but he is already going when Judah is sent to the galleys and Judah is in them for three years not to mention the extra time he spends as a playboy in Rome and therefore by the time he returns to Jerusalem Jesus sh ould already be dead and buried (and resurrected perhaps).

I enjoyed the following lines:
  • The sunburnt ways of the wilderness.” (Book 1, Chapter 1)
  • It was morning time. Before him was the sun, half curtained in fleecy mist.” (B1C1)
  • the lamp of Hindoo genius was let down a well, where ever since it has lighted narrow walls and bitter waters.” (B1C4)
  • The enemy of man is man, my brother.” (B1C5)
  • In the manner of customs, climate is a lawgiver everywhere.” (B2C3)
  • Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing. lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man.” (B2C4)
  • Knowledge leaves no room for chances.” (B3C2)
  • Oh, if, in being forgotten, we could only forget!” (B3C3)
  • The hair of the dancers floated free, and their limbs blushed through the robes of gauze which scarcely draped them. Words may not be used to tell of the voluptuousness of the dance.” (B4C5)
  • How many kings have you heard of who were better than their subjects?” (B4C16)
  • It is neither wise nor honest to detract from beauty as a quality.” (B5C3)
  • When God walks the earth, his steps are often centuries apart.” (B5C8)
  • It made me restless by keeping always present a feeling that I, who have so much to do, was dropping into idle habits, and tying myself with silken chains, and after a while - and not a long while either - would end with nothing done.” (B5C9)
  • Time is in the green yet; let to-morrow answer.” (B8C2)
May 2018; 436 words

Sunday, 20 May 2018

"Nightmare Abbey" by Thomas Love Peacock

I met Sean at the book launch of the second novel by Ruth Hogan whose first is The Keeper of Lost Things. Sean is the only person I have ever met to have read the complete words of Sir Walter Scott. Sean recommended Nightmare Abbey to me.

This is a comic novella published in 1818 which satirises Peacock's literary circle which included the poets Shelley (Scythrop), Coleridge (Mr Flosky) and Byron (Mr Cypress).

Mr Glowry lives with his son, Scythrop, in Nightmare Abbey: gloomy people in a gloomy house. They have a house party, including, at various times:

  • Mr (and Mrs Hilary). He is cheerful and the voice of common sense in the book.
  • His niece and ward Marionetta, who has “some coquetry and more caprice” (p 50) and alternately woos Scythrop and rejects his advances. She is a tease and can send up the others.
  • Mr Flosky “a very lachrymose and morbid gentleman, of some note in the literary world” who hankers after “the good old times” (p 44) He has a chapter when he spouts philsophical gibberish at Marionetta who, frustrated, concludes that he either doesn’t know or won’t tell her.
  • Mr Toobad who believes that the devil is in charge of the world and always dampens the suggestion of hope with the phrase “not in our time” (p 45) Mr Toobad manages to fall down the stairs and fall into the Abbey moat; he provides the physical comedy. 
  • Reverend Mr Larynx “a good-natured accommodating divine, who was always most obligingly ready to take a dinner and a bed at the house of any country gentleman in distress for a companion” and who can be all things to all people.
  • Mr Listless whom Mr G found in London found “stretched on the rack of too easy a chair” (p 49); when discussing ghosts he declares that “I once saw a ghost myself, in my study, which is the last place with anyone but a ghost would look for me.” (p 109) 
  • Mr Asteria, an ichthyologist, on a quest to find a mermaid, who thinks he sees one in the Abbey moat.
  • Mr Cypress, about to embark for a foreign tour of ruins.

From time to times these characters have a post-prandial discussion. At these moments the normnal prose style of the book turns into a playscript format. Discussions include modern literature

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Scythrop who is what we would today call a conspiracy theorist and has published a book (seven copies sold) about his plans to use the Illuminati to achieve world improvement. He is torn between his love for Marionetta, who represents frivolity and fun, and Celinda, who arrives late in the story, and represents learning and seriousness.

Mostly, however, the novella is a vehicle for Peacock to show of his learning and his wit. There are moments when the characters transcened their caricatures and one scene in which the delightful Marionetta, possibly the best character, is teasing Scythrop, who is besotted with her and pretending to read Dante. She says “‘I see you are in the middle of Purgatory’. - ‘I am in the middle of hell,’ said Scythrop furiously. ‘Are you?’ said she, ‘then come across the room and I will sing you the finale of Don Giovanni’.” (p 64) Shortly after she observes to Mr Listless  that a “compendious method of courtship” is to read a book from the centre turning pages randomly back and forth “and she will immediately perceive that you are desperately in love with her.” (p 65)

Some more great lines:
  • she had mistaken the means for the end - that riches, rightly used, are instruments of happiness, but are not in themselves happiness.” (p 39) 
  • She often went her daily rounds through a series of deserted apartments, every creature in the house vanishing at the creak of her shoe.” (p 40) 
  • He was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head” (p 40)
  • what, sir, is love to a windmill? Not grist, I am certain.” (p 54)
  • Laughter and merriment make a human being no better than a baboon.” (p 56)
  • Visiting ancient monuments is "much the same as if a lover should dig up the buried form of his mistress, and gaze upon relics which are anything but herself, to wander among a few mouldy ruins, that are only imperfect indexes to lost volumes of glory, and meet at every step the more melancholy ruins of human nature - a degenerate race of stupid and shrivelled slaves, grovelling in the lowest depths of servility and superstition.” (p 98)
  • a happy disposition finds materials of enjoyment everywhere” whilst a “discontented temper ... is always busy in detecting deficiencies, and feeding dissatisfaction with comparisons. The one gathers all the flowers, the other all the nettles, in its path. The one has the faculty of enjoying everything, the other of enjoying nothing. The one realises all the pleasure of the present good; the other converts it into pain, by pining after something better, because it is not present” (p 79)
  • We are most of us like Don Quixote, to whom a windmill was a giant, and Dulcinea a magnificent princess: all more or less the dupes of our own imagination.” (p 110)

May 2018; 86 pages

Thursday, 17 May 2018

"Purged" by Peter Laws

I met the author at a book launch for Ruth Hogan, who wrote The Keeper of Lost Things. It is always a worry to read a book in such circumstances: the review has to be honest and yet one doesn't want to offend. However, despite my early misgivings, I thought this book was well-written and I honestly enjoyed it very much.

Professor Matt Hunter used to be a priest but is now an atheist living with wife architect Wren, her teenage daughter Lucy and seven year old Amelia. They holiday in a cottage in deepest rural Oxfordshire, she to bid for a commission for a church extension in the village, he to complete his book. But the village is increasingly dominated by a charismatic preacher; many of the folk are born-again Bible bashers. And then women start to disappear.

One's first impression is that this is fiction where the pot has been boiled too long. The rural location with the creepy villagers (they attend a pre-Baptismal purging in which they all wear sunglasses) is straight out of B-movie horror films. The names themselves (Hunter for the hero, Wren for an architect, Seth for the local farmer) are not exactly subtle. The preacher is suitably extreme, there is a youth worker whose character screams paedophile, one of the policemen is a member of the flock: all these things are standard castings.

The plot is more thriller than whodunnit. The book opens with the killer baptising the first victim and then bashing her head in with a rock: lots of gory details. Thus, although the author hides the identity of the killer until the very end, we know he is a male. We also know the killer's motivation from the start. This sort of structure, starting with the horrific crime and letting us see things from more than the point of view of just the crime-solver, is increasingly common; another example is Hold Tight by Harlan Coben.

One increasingly common trend in books of this genre that I don't particularly like is the provision of back story. In Purged the back story comes in chunks. I prefer drip feed.

But the plot is always less important than the characters. The use of the family dynamic and the pressures and conflicts it entailed was another strong point for the book. So may detectives are solitary misfits and this means that their character is crucial to carry the book. Here the subsidiary characters were always more important, especially Wren and Lucy. Even the librarian, a walk-on part if ever there was one, was a brilliant character; it was like watching a cameo performance by a great actor. And Chris the preacher, the antagonist, was an interestingly complex character with many more dimensions than the stock baddy.

But what lifted this above the usual run of thrillers was the writing. There were scenes, such as the killing of the fox in the forest, which were original and spun from pure literary gold. There were many moments when the author deployed his techniques with skill and deftness. particularly strong at the little side descriptions that suddenly add three dimensions to a scene:
  • "A long string of wet lettuce hung out of her mouth like an alien tongue." (p 26)
  • "Marzipan lodged in his throat." (p 65)
  • "they stepped inside, nostrils instantly damp with the smell of mouldy carpet." (p 95) Wow! Damp nostrils!
  • "he saw a family of woodlice scuttling towards his foot. It felt like as good a cue as any to leave." (p 169)
  • "He listened to hundreds of people whispering at the same time, making a sound that slithered through the room like there were snakes under the chairs." (p 215)
  • The blind woman who is baptised by total immersion wearing a white shirt and a black bra. (p 239)
  • "He sat there listening to the gaunt quiet." (p 347) 'Gaunt'. Wow!
  • Looking back on the crematorium and seeing a cloud in the sky and confusing it with the smoke from the body. (p 352)
  • "He could smell the damp pavement under his feet." (p 356)
There were some vivid, original and very modern descriptions and metaphors:
  • "God on his throne clasping his hands together in watery-eyed delight as another latchkey prodigal skipped her way down the front path." (p 18) 'Latchkey prodigal'! So modern and so effective. And the image of the 'watery-eyed' deity links seamlessly to the context of baptism. Brilliant!
  • "He'd have felt less conspicuous in a dayglo mankini." (p 20)
  • "He even spotted a child's toy ... face down in a puddle of sweet and sour sauce, grinding his animatronic limbs back and forth like he was slowly screwing the spring roll wedged in his crotch." (p 25)
  • "Gangs of youths started to shimmer out of the concrete, with hoods up like medieval monks with ASBOs." (p 40) I adore 'shimmer'!
  • "Her face reminded him of those ghostly old photographs you see hanging in stately homes, only she wasn't wearing a Victorian night dress. She was wearing a leopard skin onesie." (p 123)
  • "He opened the glovebox which contained, of all things, gloves." (p 125)
  • "Every time someone talks religious round here there's this flicker on your face. Like you just sat on a syringe." (p 199)
  • "He felt like a bomb disposal expert trying to pick the right wire to cut. Only it was always more complicated when you happened to love the bomb." (p 300)
He was particularly good at weaving in of religious phrases from memory of a teenage "apocalyptic acne breakout." (p 20) to the police officer warning of rain with "the heavens are opening" (p 169)

He also had a nice line in pathetic fallacy such as "Now that the sun had truly sunk on Hobbs Hill" (p 114)

There were also some fascinating insights:
  • On church architecture: "Baptists love the Bible, so it lies there open, front and centre in the Sanctuary. Catholics love the Eucharist, so the altar sits in the spotlight." (p 95)
  • The way we can keep doing mechanical things when our minds are screaming at us to stop and pay attention to a dramatic change: "Matt heard the word dead echo in his ears and yet he still went to grab another handful of tortilla chips." (p 107)
  • "They started clapping (on beats one and three ... because white Christians never clap on two and four)" (p 111)
  • "He had that tight-lipped strutting thing going on. The move that stressed people do." (p 220)
  • "Funerals reminded him of a simple, shitty fact: that when it comes down to it, we all die alone. ... All those relationships we grow and nurture over a lifetime are just hurtling daily woards this. Cold, quiet, in a box. On our own." (p 319)
  • "Everyone he'd ever known liked to look at water. Walk along a crowded beach and you'd see families pressing the legs of their deckchairs deep into the sand ... so that they could look out. ... Water is the show and people will pay a surcharge to watch it from their hotel windows, to sleep to its whispering." (p 422
Another line I wish I had written:

  • "His eyes lingered on it, willing the shadow to rise. Astonished at how quickly sin can spread from one person to the next. Like fleas. Or the plague." (p 12)
I didn't think I would but I really enjoyed it. Must read the next!

And now I have. Matt Hunter's adventures continue in Unleashed.

Wonderful. May 2018; 471 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

"The Versions of Us" by Laura Barnett

Cambridge. 1958. Eva,a nineteen year old student at Cambridge, swerves to avoid a dog. What happens?

In story one Jim offers to repair her puncture. They become boyfriend and girlfriend after she has broken off her affair with actor David.

In story two she rides on, ignoring Jim. She marries her boyfriend David.

In story three Jim and Eva get together until she discovers that she is pregnant by her former boyfriend David. She refuses to ask Jim to care for another man's child. Instead she goes back to David and they get married.

And these stories, set by chance onto different arcs, continue through the years. They grow old and have children. Eva the wannabe writer writes. Jim the wannabe painter paints. David becomes a Hollywood star. As each new set of events happen we discover what is happening in story one, two, and three. Sometimes they come together for family celebrations. Sometimes their stories continue on isolated paths. The names and numbers of children on different trajectories are different. Sometimes you have to concentrate hard to remember which path you are on. Who is married to whom. But it is cleverly done, though with less humour (and fewer tears) than in One Day by David Nicholls, the book it most resembles.

I did wonder why we have to be so firmly in the glittering world of painters and writers and actors. Ordinary people were a little hard to find. And the message of the book seems to be that domesticity stifles creativity.

Lines I wish I'd written:

  • "The stranger beams at him. 'You're British!' This said triumphantly, as if he might have forgotten." (p 83)
  • "you think snow is white, but it's not - it's silver, purple, grey. Look closely. Every flake is different. You must always try to show things as they are." (p 100)
  • "Men with cruel, handsome faces and unseeing eyes. Men who always won the game, without even bothering to learn the rules." (p 101)
  • "Dullness isn't contagious." (p 117)
  • "the relief that comes with the first drink - the sense that he is reconfiguring the world, making it comprehensible." (p 247)

Although the structure of the book can make it difficult to keep track of all the elements of the stories and to make sure that they didn't cross from narrative to narrative, and perhaps that is part of the point, this book was still capable of ensuring that the reader empathised with and even identified with the characters and it packed a powerful emotional punch in the end.

May 2018; 401 pages

Thursday, 10 May 2018

"No Longer At Ease" by Chinua Achebe

This sequel to Things Fall Apart starts with Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the Okonkwo whose life made up the story of that book, on trial for having received a bribe. This book explains the pressures on a young man who has been funded by his village to get a University education in England; who, returning, discovers that he must pay back his scholarship, and pay towards his little brother's education and his mother's hospital bills, and car insurance, and income tax; and that he still cannot complain to people who salary is one tenth of his. Money troubles, and girlfriend troubles, turn his promising youth into a tragedy. As Obi, an English graduate, says: "I remember an old man in my village ... who suffers one calamity after another. He said life was like a bowl of wormwood which one sips a little at a time world without end. ... Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly for ever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions." Perhaps this refers to the story of Africa itself. (Chapter 5)

Although Things Fall Apart is regard as Achebe's classic in many ways I preferred this book to the first. Perhaps this was because it had a more conventional plot. In the first book things happened. In this book things happen for a reason. Although in the first book it could be argued that the misfortunes piled onto the head of Okonkwo stemmed from his single impious act and that therefore the hero was responsible for his own misfortune, in this book Obi seems to have been cursed by fate. The badness that he does is almost forced upon him. But the chain of events in which tragedy leads inevitably to more tragedy  is more conventionally western.

At the same time Achebe produces an interesting portrait of Nigeria in the years just before independence. One could argue that this is a portrait of a society that has been irreparably damaged by the unintended consequences of colonialism. But that would be too simplistic. There is a clear clash between traditional and modern values but Achebe is careful to ensure that all opinions are put. For example, although it is clear that bribery is wrong and that Obi is noble (although naive) in his early stands against it, people accept bribery as part of the way of doing things, an essential for hard-pressed underpaid public servants, and somethings whose origins are African although some white men are beginning to take up the practice (perhaps it could be argued that they didn't need to before):
  • "I am against people reaping where they have not sown. But we have a saying that if you want to eat a toad you should look for a fat and juicy one." (Chapter 1)
  • "He should not have accepted the money himself. What others do is tell you to go and hand it to their houseboy." (Chapter 1)
  • Another, more modern, character suggests that bribery is acceptable providing that you don't change what you would have done when you accept the bribe (so you are in effect taking a bribe and cheating the briber).
People, Achebe seems to say, are essentially selfish:
    • "We are strangers in this land. If good comes to it may we have our share ... But if bad comes let it go to the owners of the land." (Chapter 1)
Although Clara is a strong portrait of a modern African woman the overall atmosphere is still heavily patriarchal and male-dominated.

There are some great descriptions:

  • "He wore her sadness round his neck like a necklace of stone." (Chapter 6)
  • "He had very bad teeth ... One was missing in front, and when he laughed the gap looked like a vacant plot in a slum." (Chapter 7)
  • "There was always a part of him, the thinking part, which seemed to stand outside it all watching the passionate embrace with cynical disdain. The result was that one half of Obi might kiss a girl and murmur 'I love you', but the other half would say: 'Don't be silly'." (Chapter 7)
There are lots of African sayings:

  • "He that fights for a ne'er-do-well has nothing to show for it except a head covered in earth and grime." (Chapter 1)
  • "We are not empty men who become white when they see white, and black when they see black." (Chapter 5)
  • "It is not right to ask a man with elephantiasis of the scrotum to take on smallpox as well, when thousands of other people have not had even their share of small diseases." (Chapter 10)
And other original perspectives:
  • Obi is on the boat coming home form England, He looks across the sea. "What a waste of water. A microscopic fraction of the Atlantic would turn the Sahara into a flourishing grassland. So much for the best of all possible worlds. Excess here and nothing at all there." (Chapter 3); Achebe has clearly read Voltaire's Candide.
  • "the government was 'they'. It had nothing to do with you and me. It was an alien institution and people's business was to get as much from it as they could without getting into trouble." (Chapter 4)
  • "One felt very brisk after a cold bath. As with weeping, it was only the beginning that was difficult."(Chapter 13)
  • "The impatient idealist says: 'Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth'. But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace." (Chapter 19)
Written in a very flat style, this book nevertheless develops some interesting characters and is a good read.

May 2018; 133 pages

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

"Windmills in Flames" by Tom Raworth

Raworth is a modernist poet. He uses few capitals, occasional punctuation, and very little discernible structure although sometimes he seems to play games. For example, in this volume:
  • Systems Disruption has two stanzas. Each stanza contain six lines; each line contains between four and six words. The words in each stanza are identical. Just in a different order. Both seem randomly arranged. 
  • Issue them gasmasks has two stanzas. Each stanza has four lines, The first three lines have three ‘words’ each followed by a fourth line of two words. Each ‘word’ consists of a part of an English word. These usually derive from Latin. Perhaps the game is that you can make other words and therefore construct a variety of poems.
  • Seesound, which is I suppose a play of the word seesaw, contains within it some ‘matched’ lines, sometimes as couplets and at other times distributed. Thus:
    • means of impression/ means of expression
    • no room for present ... no room for poignant/ no room for pregnant
    • added value water/ added while water/ added whole water
  • Never Odd Nor Even consists of six stanzas each of seven lines. The first four stanzas are a sort of ‘theme with variations’: five of the lines from the preceding stanza are repeated with two new lines added. Sometimes the line added came from a previous stanza. Each line is repeated twice over the four stanzas. The final two stanzas have the same seven lines in each but in a different order. None of these lines appeared previously.What is he playing at? Campanology? 
The volume contains what are presumably modernist jokes:
  • i am lonely for my replaced cells is a poem that consists of the single line: "1945, 1952, 1959, 1966, 1973, 1980, 1987" and presumably alludes to the belief that every cell in one’s body is replaced every seven years. 
  • 26 is a poem about dementia. I think. Right justified, almost every line ends in the middle of a word, as if the thought has suddenly stopped.
  • Language Construction consists of a big square blacktype letter A superimposed on a letter E and a letter N and a letter G. I think. It is dedicated to Doug Lang so it might be an L instead of an E to form an anagram but it looks like an E to me

But Envoi is the poem that sneers at people like me who remember rhythm and rhyme. It starts "I could go on like this all day/ Ti-tum ti-tum and doodly-ay". I suppose Raworth is saying that he can write conventional poetry but chooses not to; he has a higher calling. The trouble is that this is a pretty poor poem in conventional terms so the point is lost.

A number of poems refer to 'pleasant butter' but this makes no more sense than anything else.

I really don't understand much of this. He sounds angry.

Some lines did resonate with me:
  • something not quite filters through eyelashes
  • where do they go/ those things we know we know
Mostly, however, I just felt confused and stupid.

May 2018; 88 pages

Sunday, 6 May 2018

"See what I have done" by Sarah Schmidt

This is a "reimagining" of the Lizzie Borden axe murder case from 1892. The history is that Lizzie's step-mother and father were murdered, her probably first, in an upstairs bedroom while he was out, him secondly after he came home, downstairs. After some investigation Lizzie was tried for the murders but acquitted. No one else was ever charged.

It is written in first person narratives of four key players: Lizzie herself, her elder sister Emma who was on vacation in a nearby town when the murders took place, Bridget the maid, and a boy named Benjamin.

Lizzie is obsessed with blood and has some very strange thoughts:
  • "She made my teeth want to sink into her flesh and eat her out of life" (p 219)
  • "There was a pop in the middle of my ear. It crawled out and lunged at the walls of the house." (p 221)
In the Lizzie chapters, Lizzie seems to be childish. In fact, having read the first chapter I assumed she was about eight; in fact she was 32. This is achieved in part by the way Lizzie describes things using word repetition: "my heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop ... The clock on the mantle ticked ticked" (pp 3 - 4) She goes to drink water and "let my hands sink into the cool sip sip" (p 6) "The clock on the mantel ticked ticked" (p 6; again). 

Her manipulation of her sister Emma and the rest of the family is mostly told through the eyes of Emma and Bridget the maid.Emma is the older child, 41 at the time of the murders, who has been pushed out by Lizzie, the baby of the family, the darling of her daddy, the favourite. She is desperate to get away but she was forced to dump the only boyfriend she had; Lizzie didn't want Emma to leave her. "Men didn't come knocking at our door, did not bother talking to me at social engagements. I hadn't realised how lonely a heart could become." (p 143) Emma's is the saddest story, forced to look after a bullying little sister whose moods verge of madness.

Bridget the maid is the normal one of the quartet, forced by economic necessity to watch the father bully the girls, the younger daughter bully everyone. Bridget is the sanest of the chroniclers and it is thanks to her that we get a true understanding of the poisoned relationships within the claustrophobic household.

There is one character who seems totally fictional. Benjamin is the outsider, met by Lizzie's Uncle John and recruited by him to put the frighteners on Lizzie's dad. He visits the house on the fateful day and plays a number of key roles: he steals the murder weapon so the police never find it (he then returns it to Lizzie ten years later precipitating the final rupture between Lizzie and her sister as Emma realises that Lizzie definitely dunnit) and letting the reader know that Lizzie dunnit. But is Benjamin a real character? He is given flesh and lots of blood and a history (of anger towards his father who leaves his mother for another woman). But in many ways Benjamin seems to be a reflection of Lizzie. He is the imaginary friend who is able to get away with murder; he is Lizzie's violent other personality. If Lizzie is strange Benjamin is psychopathic.  He is a killer, as much at home with blood and pieces of bone as Lizzie. He assaults policemen and runs away. He is the ultimate in violent bogeymen. Benjamin is violence personified.

As well as personifying Lizzie's violent streak the author has created a mood of overwhelming claustrophobia. The house itself seems to be a character, making noises throughout. Lizzie and Emma, are kept in the house by their father, unable to fly away. There is also a relentless focus on hatred and blood and other bodily fluids.

Other great lines:

  • "The place where people talked about love like it was part of breathing." (p 39)
  • "At home, Mama was a dust keeper. Hours then hours of menial tasks to keep herself from thinking. 'If I stop, I'll leave and I'm not sure I'd take the children'." (p 75)
  • "John whistled as he walked. I was already sick of his tune." (p 157)
  • "The barn was the heat of sun-fire." (p 189)
  • "My underthings clung to my sweating places." (p 200) 

A beautifully written horror story. May 2018; 319 pages

Saturday, 5 May 2018

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare

I have seen this as an amateur production in The Place Theatre in Bedford; I also saw it performed at Greenwich Theatre by the Lazarus Company (who have also performed for me Tamburlaine and Edward II, both by Christopher Marlowe). The Lazarus Dream included outstanding performances by Eli Caldwell (@EelsCaldwell) as Flute in drag as Thisbe and Tessa Carmody (@Tessa_Carmody) as Puck. In the original play the four-crossed-lovers problem is solved at the end of Act Four leaving Act Five for the knockabout humour of the dreadful Mechanicals play. This is a slightly damp squib ending. This production solved this by moving Bottom's play (minus the audience comments) to before the four lovers woke up in the forest, their differences resolved. Very clever!

The plot of the Dream revolves around Oberon, king of the fairies, using a love potion to make his wife Titania fall in love with the first thing she sees on waking, which Oberon's servant, the mischievous Robin Goodfellow, a puck, ensures is a weaver called Bottom whom Puck has given the head of an ass.

At the same time in the magical wood are a foursome of mismatched lovers. Tall blonde Helena (it would seem that Shakespeare wrote these parts for the characteristics of the two boys who played women in his theatrical company) is in love with Demetrius who doesn't love her but wants to marry short dark Hermia who doesn't want him but Lysander who loves her. So Oberon commands Puck to enchant Demetrius to love Helena but Puck gets it wrong and enchants Lysander instead. So now no one wants Hermia and both men want Helena who now thinks they are teasing her. And of course the men want to fight. The scene in the centre of the play (A3S2) is a brilliant fourway dialogue (tetralogue?)

The other plot is that of the rustics who are to perform a play in front of Duke Theseus for his wedding feast. Their rehearsals in the wood are interrupted when Nick Bottom, the weaver, is given the ass's head. This play ends with their play which, with Bottom overacting, the Wall talking and the Lion reassuring the ladies that he is not really a lion in case they are afraid, is as dreadful as it promised to be.

Classic error-strewn, knockabout Shakespearean comedy with the added bonus that one can really feel the characterisations (there is a wonderful moment right at the start when Lysander, angered that Hermia's father wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, says “You have her father's love, Demetrius;/ Let me have Hermia’s. Do you marry him.” Snarky!).

I have also listened to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ programme (18th April 2019) on ‘A MIdsummer Night’s Dream’ hosted by Melvyn Bragg with guests Helen Hackett, Tom Healy, and  Alison Findlay. Interesting points included:
  • There was a political aspect to the play. It was written c1595 when Elizabeth I was ageing, unpopular and refusing to name an heir. In the first scene Theseus says: Theseus: “O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires, / Like to a step-dame or a dowager / Long withering out a young man’s revenue.” Furthermore, the two queens Hipployta and Titania both end up being subjugated by male Kings. 
  • Unusually for a Shakespeare play there is no single source; sources includeOvid’s Metamorphoses, Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and folklore.
  • Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet at the time and there is a clear parallel in the star-crossed lovers who die with the play within a play of Pyramus and Thisbe.
  • Not only is a distinction made netween nobles who speak in verse and working men who speak in prose but the verse of the fairies starting in Act Two has a different rhythm.
  • Acts One and Five are the reality bookends for the dream sequence of Acts 2, 3 and 4. Titania and Oberon are, as it were, dream personae for Hipployta and Theseus. There was a contemporary best selling book which interpreted the symbols seen in dreams.
  • Shakespeare's encomium to the imagination was deeply radical at the time when the imagination was seen as dark, dangerous and sinful. For example, the Bible says that The hearts of men are full of wicked imagination (Gen 6.5???)  and legal treason was defined as “to compass or imagine” the death of the monarch. Medical books warn disordered imagination creates delusions.
  • The affair of Bottom with Titania was intended to be erotic; Elizabethan audiences would have known that  “The ass has the longest and hardest phallus of any animal on earth” (AF)

And, of course, there is the poetry:

... how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue

Who'd be a nun?
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

The world is out of sorts:
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.

Helena tells them not to take the piss:
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment.

Why should he stay whom love doth press to go?

You thief of love - what, have you come by night
And stol’n my love’s heart from him?

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,
At whose approach ghosts, wand’ring here and there,
Troop home to churchyards; damned spirits all
That in cross-ways and floods have burial
Already to their wormy beds are gon

Cupid is a knavish lad
Thus to make poor females mad.

These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far off mountains turned into clouds

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

May 2018

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

Thursday, 3 May 2018

"Research" by Philip Kerr

Best-selling author John uses an 'atelier' of ghost writers including Don, who narrates the first part of this book. When John's wife is found shot in his fancy Monaco apartment and John disappears the Monagesque police come to London to interview Don. Whodunnit? And then John skypes Don pleading ignorance and asking for help.

About half way through the book we discover the true identity of the killer and the whodunnit turns into a thriller as John and Don flee across the south of France in a borrowed Bentley, stopping only at fine restaurants and luxurious hotels.

This has all the hallmarks of the wish-fulfillment thriller. The Monagesque police interview Don over lunch at Claridges in the course of which they drink two bottles of expensive wine. No opportunity to name drop is passed up: for example, we learn that posh luggage has identity codes on metal plates sewn into the insides and that it is difficult to sell a second-hand million pound watch encrusted with black diamonds without the box. One of the more endearing habits is the way Don continually quotes from books he has read and loved. But mostly this is boy's stuff: the women are there to shag, to betray, to be betrayed by, and to shop.

There was some good advice about how to write a thriller:

  • "Words only appear to be your friends; but you should think of them as the speed bumps on your page; they can slow the story down as much as they can keep it bowling along." (p 39)
  • "Cliches ... are the verbal particle accelerators to finishing books." (p 40)
  • "If you want to use similes and metaphors then go and write fucking poetry." (p 40)
  • "It was Picasso's genius to know exactly what you could leave out of a painting." (p 65)
  • "That's the thing about writing people just don't understand. It's about making yourself so bored that there's nothing else to do except to write." (p 154)
  • "Travel might broaden the mind but it means you get less writing done." (p 353)

Other great quotes:

  • "It doesn't matter where the fuck you come from; what matters is where you're going." (p 53)
  • "No one ever takes the stairs in our building. Most of the other residents would need a defibrillator if they climbed into their beds a bit too quickly." (p 127)
  • "You would always be getting into scrapes as long as you believed that you did things to girls instead of with them." (p 139) Not that this author takes his own advice judging from his entirely passive female characters.
  • "For a few moments it felt as if we two were at peace and had become so unmoored from the realities of everyday life that we were floating high above the rest of the world. Then again, that's how most writers feel, most of the time." (p 246)
  • "Zero sugar philosophy for muppets." (p 258)
  • "I'm the kind of person who if ever I were asked on Desert Island Discs would much prefer to be cast away with eight books instead of eight records. Music I can live without, but reading, no." (p 274)
  • "The place is about as shallow as a Martini glass." (p 356)

May 2018; 373 pages