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

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

"Autumn" by Ali Smith

Elisabeth Demand sits by the bedside of dying Daniel Gluck, her centenarian neighbour, reading to him and reflecting on her friendship with him. It is the months after the Brexit referendum, someone is putting electrified fences up to enclose common land, and Elisabeth is battling her way to the front of the queue in the downsized Post Office to renew her passport only to be confronted with questions about her identity. Her own identity has been stolen. This is a collage of episodes. Elisabeth did her dissertation on Britain's only female Pop Artist, the now-forgotten Pauline Boty, who painted a lost portrait of Christine Keeler and had an uncredited part in Alfie. An advertisement for a supermarket uses music written by her friend Daniel, music which is now trending on social media; Gluck also wrote lyrics for a song a Barbra (Streisand?) sung in concert but never recorded. Elisabeth's mum appears on an episode of a TV show in which amateurs comb junk shops looking for treasures. It is as if our lives are made from disposable ephemera and who we are is made of glimpses.

Another fascinating and thought-provoking work from one of Britain's most original contemporary writers. The novelist as collage painter?

Other works by this brilliant and repeatedly original author that I have read and reviewed in this blog include:
  • The Accidental: a holidaying family is gatecrashed by a young woman
  • There but for the: a set of stories linked by a man who, at a dinner party, locks himself into one of the upstairs rooms of his host and refuses to come out
  • How to Be Both which has two halves which can be read in either order (and some copies of the book are printed one way and some the other): one half has a teenage girl trying to cope with the death of her mother; the other half is the exuberant reflections of a renaissance artist who was a woman pretending to be a man.
  • Artful which is both a ghost story and a meditation on art
  • Winter, another collage type work which weaves the story of a Christmas Carol with Cymbeline and the Nativity and reflects on Britain following the Brexit referendum.

Great quotes:

  • "Is there never any escaping the junkshop of the self?"
  • "Don't just sit there like an unstrung puppet."
  • "Crying came out of her like weather."
  • "Like entering what you think is going to be history and finding endless sad fragility."
  • "The symphony of the sold and the discarded. The symphony of all the lives that had these things in them once. The symphony of worth and worthlessness."
  • "I like nakedness. I mean who doesn't to be honest? I'm a person. I'm an intelligent nakedness."
January 2019

Monday, 28 January 2019

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

A bigoted American Baptist hellfire preacher takes his wife and four daughters to a mission station in the Congo. He starts by insulting the villagers because, at the feast thrown to welcome him, he objects to the bare breasts of the women. He compounds his mistakes by failing to understand that his great project of river baptism seems to the Congolese an attempt to lure their children down to the crocodile infested river, by his failure to understand that he can't transplant American agriculture to African soil, and is symbolised by his battle against a poisonwood tree; he tries to wrench it from the soil and it responds by living up to its name.

The story is told principally through the testimonies of the four girls:

  • Rachel, the eldest, is a beautiful blonde fifteen year old who dreams of boys and repeatedly uses delightful malapropisms: "All I need is to go back home with some dread disease. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed is bad enough, but to be Thyroid Mary on top of it?". 
  • Leah, the eldest brunette twin, is a highly intelligent girl who becomes firm friends with the orphaned schoolteacher who secretly organises for Congo's independence. 
  • Adah her twin was brain-damaged at birth; she hardly ever speaks and is a convinced but silent atheist; she likes to write words backwards and loves palindromes. 
  • Ruth-May is the baby of the family and understands things from the perspective of a young child.

The father is a man who believes passionately that God rewards virtue. He has a crippled daughter, Adah, who never speaks. When he only had a wife and three daughters he used to complain about the noise: "One Too Many Sopranos in Church". This makes Adah think  "Our Father probably interpreted Broca's aphasia  as God's Christmas bonus to one of His worthier employees." He himself has a tragic story: he was the only survivor of a US army unit that got trapped by the Japanese in the Filipino jungles. Survivor guilt means he cannot quit the Congo jungle, even though every other white person is fleeing and the civil war approaches. In the afterstory, some of his daughters are also trapped in Africa.

The plot proceeds from the difficulties of living in back-woods Africa through to the hostility of the villagers. Then Congo becomes independent and the new Prime Minister is swiftly ousted in a CIA-backed coup. There follows a civil war in which it becomes positively dangerous to be white.

The word epic is overused but this is an epic. The experiences of a single family act as a metaphor to the effect of colonialisation on Africa.

There are many metaphors within the text:

  • Methuselah, the old African Grey parrot left behind by the previous, Roman Catholic missionary, who 'went native'. When Our Father, unable to cope with a parrot who uses bad language, releases the bird from its cage, he flies off but is still reliant on the family for food. "Now he has a world. What can he possibly do with it? He has no muscle tone in his wings. They are atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery." He is a metaphor for Africa, enslaved and then set loose, with its wings atrophied, unable to fly, forever dependent on others for its survival.
  • Adah, the crippled twin (and twins themselves are a source of provocation in a land where twins are exposed at birth), who is unable or unwilling to speak, who loves to say things and see things backwards. She is 'cured' of her crippledness when she is made to learn to walk all over again, from crawling. A metaphor for how to uncripple Africa?
  • Rachel with her repeated malapropisms, is a metaphor for how the family repeatedly says or does the wrong thing. And so many of the African words are wrong. Our Father finishes his sermons by exulting that 'Tata Jesus is bangala', a word which, depending on the intonation, can mean several things including 'poisonwood'; the Minister tells his flock that Jesus is a tree that hurts.
  • Our Father himself, the hellfire preacher, is a metaphor for the clumsy understanding of his country: "The United States has now become the husband of Zaire's economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitative and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature." 

Some remarkable quotes
Book One: Genesis

  • "First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees." These are the second and third lines; the final Book is entitled The Eyes in the Trees.
  • "The very first bite slowly grew to a powerful burn on my tongue."
  • "I believe in God with all my might, but have been thinking lately that most of the details seem pretty much beneath His dignity." Leah on menstruation.
  • Rachel on the assorted rags which the Africans wear: "The attitude towards clothing seems to be: if you have it, why not wear it?"
  • "That razor strop burns so bad, after you go to bed your legs still feel stripedy like a zebra horse."
  • "Sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes ... It's hard to say which is worse, seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes." Our Father's attitude to his girl's education.
  • "If God had amused himself inventing the lilies of the field, he surely knocked His own socks off with the African parasites."

Book Two: The Revelation

  • "He was hardly a father except in the vocational sense, as a potter with clay to be molded."
  • "Last week he spoke for an hour on the nonviolent road to independence. The crowd loved it so much they rioted and killed twelve people."
  • "Anatole, the schoolteacher, is twenty-four years of age, with all his fingers still on, both hands and both feet, and that is the local idea of a top-throb dreamboat."
  • "Anatole gave her compliments left and right, which tells you right there he was either a polite young man or mentally cracked."
  • "Pure and unblemished souls must taste very bland, with an aftertaste of bitterness."
  • "If your brother is going to steal your hen, save your honor and give it to him first."
  • "He just stood there brewing like a coffeepot. Only with a coffeepot you know exactly what's going to come out of it."
  • "Waiting for a child to die is not an occasion for writing a poem here ... it isn't a long enough wait."

Book Three: The Judges

  • "In hard times everyone's eyes get better or at least good enough."
  • "The gods you do not pay are the ones that can curse you the best."
  • "The wolf was not actually at the door but perhaps merely salivating at the edge of your yard."
  • "Watching my father, I've seen how you can't learn anything when you're trying to look like the smartest person in the room."
  • "Children should never have to die ... But if they never did, children would not be so precious ... Also if everyone lived to be old, then old age would not be such a treasure."

Book Five: Exodus

  • "Sometimes you just have to save your neck and work out the details later."
  • "Preventatives for old age are rampant here."
  • "Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach lining?"
  • "When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up."
  • "That's the principal trick of Congolese cooking: rubbing two leaves together to give colour and taste to another day's translucent, nutritionally blank ball of manioc."
  • "Rice and soy meal help when we can get them, to balance our amino acids and keep our muscle tissue from digesting itself in the process known picturesquely as kwashiorkor."
  • "After that happy-ever-after wedding, they never tell you the rest of the story. Even if you get to marry the prince,you still wake up in the morning with your mouth tasting like drain cleaner and your hair all flat on one side."
  • "the rearview mirror is always twenty-twenty."
  • "A marital record distinguished for quantity if not quality."
  • "The cranky indoor plumbing constantly grumbled at us like God to Noah, threatening the deluge."

Book Six: Song of the Three Children

  • "I have a little sign in every room telling guests that are expected to complain at the office between the hours of nine and eleven A.M. daily."
  • "Sometimes life doesn't give you all that many chances at being good."

Book seven: The Eyes in the Trees

  • "A choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotting tree stumps, sucking life out of death."
  • "Being dead is not worse than being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger."

This is the sequel to Heart of Darkness. Although, at the end, it becomes a little preachy and the Leah-Rachel dichotomy becomes a catechism with obvious answers, this book probably taught me more about the tragedy of Africa than any other. Rachel, of all people (and without being aware of it) says "things fall apart" and thus the book plays homage to the classic of African literature, Things Fall Apart. But this is a classic in the literature of apology for colonialisation.

January 2019.

Kingsolver also wrote The Lacuna, about another shameful episode in America's recent past.

Friday, 25 January 2019

"Love Over Scotland" by Alexander McCall Smith

The third in the Scotland Street series of novels that includes:

One of the difficulties when you are publishing a series of novels such as this, with a large cast of recurring characters, must be how you ensure that the books are different. This book opens with Pat fancying a boy called Wolf ... but another in the series also opens with Pat fancying a boy. Bertie plays the saxophone and battles with his mother; the family car has gone missing again. Matthew years for Pat, again. Angus takes Cyril for a walk, again. For the first third of this book I had an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu; I believed I had already read the book. Perhaps this is a strength in that it attests to the strength of the familiar characters as in a TV soap opera. Perhaps this is also why authors are forced to resort to ever more extreme plot lines.

Alexander McCall Smith gently muses over the lives of his characters inhabiting the most genteel part of Edinburgh.

The strength of the books for me lies in the astute observations that he makes. Many of these things have been said many times before ... but they are worth saying:

  • “Artists were allowed to look, he thought - no artist could really be considered a voyeur. Looking was what an artist was trained to do, and if an artist did not look, then he would not see.” (C 4)
  • “He knew that his life was an adjunct life, lived in the shadow of his master.” (C 7)
  • “Smells were like a palimpsest: odour laid upon odour, smells that could be peeled off to reveal the whiff below.” (C 7)
  • “The unmerited dislike of others made one think less of oneself. We are enlarged by the love of others; we are diminished by their dislike.” (C 14)
  • “The people with the strong, brave exteriors are just as weak and vulnerable as the rest of us.” (C 17)
  • “People fell in love with those who belonged to others. It happened all the time in fiction, and presumably in real life, too.” (C 24)
  • “How many lonely women the length and breadth of Britain found Radio Four a very satisfactory substitute for a man? And Radio Four could so easily be turned off, just like that, whereas men ...” (C 29)
  • “His eyes were fixed on the floor, hoping to locate the geological flaw which would swallow him up and save him from his current embarrassment. But of course there was none; at no time is the earth more firm than when we wish that it were not.” (C 39)
  • “Such circumstances as these, she thought, remind us of just what we are: salt and water, for the most part.” (C 47)
  • "This knowledge that Angus was not with him, made the world as dark and cold as if the sun had dropped out of the sky." (C 51)
  • "He wanted to hit Larch, but he understood that principle which everybody, but particularly politicians and statesmen, understand very well: you only ever hit weaker people." (C 54)
  • "The light thrown out by the Tilley lamp was soft and forgiving, a light that did not fight with the darkness but nudged it aside gently, just for a few feet, and then allowed it back." (C 56)
  • "Although we are most secure - in one sense - in our own homes, we are also at our most vulnerable, for the social persona, the one we carry out with us into the world, cannot be worn at ho,e all the time." (C 80)
  • "Gracious acceptance is an art - an art which most of us never bother to cultivate." (C 112)
January 2019

Thursday, 24 January 2019

"Don Carlos" by Friedrich Schiller

Schiller was the best-selling author of The Robbers (1781). This play was first performed in 1787. He thus comes towards the end of the romantic Sturm und Drang movement epitomised by his friend  Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and towards the beginning of melodrama. It is also wonderfully Gothic and includes the (albeit fake) ghost of a monk wandering through the palace cellars on the stroke of midnight and the common Gothic trope of demonising Roman Catholicism as later followed by The Monk (Lewis, 1796).

Don Carlos is a historical play written in blank verse and thus with a huge nod to Shakespeare. Schiller includes rather more detailed stage directions that Shakespeare and clearly believes that whenever one has a change of characters this means one should have a new scene (Act 4 has 24 such scenes) but I guess most modern productions would regard many of these scenelets as run-ins to proper scenes.

I saw the LAMDA production of Don Carlos at the matinee on Saturday 9th Feb 2019 in the Carne Studio theatre. This production highlighted the unstable emotional behaviour of Don Carlos, played as a hysterical neurotic by James Esler, who flung himself across the stage in a very physical performance, and his father King Philip, a paranoid gang leader who raged and collapsed and who could trust no one. This was a superb performance by Colm Gleeson. Supporting characters who impressed were Ivan Du Pontavice as a very correct militarist Duke of Alba, Branden Cook as an utterly cynical Domingo, Chloe McClay as etiquette-bound Olivarez and Olivia Le Andersen as the vengeful and regretful Princess Eboli. The adaptation really brought out the family feud at the heart of the story and managed to keep going through the bits in which Schiller expounds his political theories. It also turned Schiller's stop-start scening into a more contemporary flow. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Don Carlos is loosely based on Spanish history. Crown Prince Carlos, heir to Philip II of Spain, was mentally unstable and died after six months imprisonment by his father. But this was 20 years before the Spanish Armada, a historical fact mentioned in Schiller's play.

This play starts with a problem Before Philip II married the current Queen of Spain he had betrothed this French princess to his son Carlos. They had fallen in love. But then Philip was widowed and decided on a young bride and he himself married the Queen. So Carlos is now in the position of being in love with his stepmother. There are potential homages to Hamlet here (Don Carlos has just returned from studying abroad) and the incest based Jacobean tragedies such as 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

His best mate Rodrigues, Marquis of Posa, wants to help Don Carlos in his quasi-incestuous pursuit of love but at the same time he wants to protect the Netherlands, currently in revolt against the Spanish Empire, from the scorched earth policy promised by the Duke of Alva whom Philip wants to send to Flanders as the new Governor. Instead Rod Posa wants Don Carlos to become governor so that the two of them can initiate a far-sighted rule guaranteeing individual liberties and freedom of worship. Very German Enlightenment!

However their ambitions are under attack from the sinister Domingo, confessor to Philip, and the Duke (or in one wonderful misprint in my edition, the Dude) of Alva (described by Posa as "bigotry’s relentless tool").

Also the Princess Eboli has the hots for young Don Carlos. She provides a mysterious letter and a key to let him into her apartments whither he goes under the impression that the letter and key come from his step-mum. This leads to an awkward moments when she discovers that he does not in fact love him and she decides to have her revenge by exposing the dreadful secret and potentially incestuous affair to the king.

The King is an interesting study. He has been told his wife is being unfaithful, it is hinted that his latest daughter is a bastard. But he does not know what to believe and this is the problem of being a king: people lie to you for their advantage:
“I thirst for truth. To reach its tranquil spring,
Through the dark heaps of thick surrounding error,
Is not the lot of kings.”

In the end Don Carlos is brought down not so much by the multiplicity of scheming that is going on at the Spanish court as by a plot of fiendish complexity.

There are some wonderfully romantic/ melodramatic/ gothic moments:
“Like hell's grim furies, dreams of dreadful shape
Pursue me still. My better genius strives
With the fell projects of a dark despair.
My wildered subtle spirit crawls through maze
On maze of sophistries, until at length
It gains a yawning precipice's brink.”
There are some beautifully political points. 
When the villainous Princess Eboli looks forward to going to Madrid she is told there will be an auto da fe but she says that's OK because “‘Tis only heretics they burn”.

The Queen points out that a new monarch can do anything he wants:
“make bonfires of the laws
His father left ...
Drag from his tomb, in the Escurial,
The sacred corpse of his departed sire,
Make it a public spectacle, and scatter
Forth to the winds his desecrated dust.
And then, at last, to fill the measure up
“End all by wedding with his mother.”
“Terror alone can tie rebellion’s hands:
Humanity were madness.”

“Far easier is the task
To make a monarch than a monarchy.”

“The monarch’s crown is bright with sparkling gems,
But no eye sees the wounds that purchased them.”

“He reverences the people! And is this
A man to be our king?"

“Thou speakest like a dreamer. This high office
Demands a man - and not a stripling’s arm.”

And there are other great quotes:

“Carlos is not one to yield to must
Where he hath power to will! ...
I look on naught as lost - except the dead.”

“In future, let this puppet-play of rank
Be banished from our friendship”

“Whose eye is dry was ne’er of woman born!”

“I am not wicked, father; ardent blood
Is all my failing;—all my crime is youth;—
Wicked I am not—no, in truth, not wicked;—
Though many an impulse wild assails my heart,
Yet is it still untainted.”

“Love is the only treasure on the face
Of this wide earth that knows no purchaser
Besides itself—love has no price but love.
It is the costly gem, beyond all price,
Which I must freely give away, or—bury
For ever unenjoyed”

“There are such things as double-edged swords
And untrue friends,—I fear them both.
'Tis hard to judge among mankind, but still more hard
To know them thoroughly.”

“How poor, how beggarly, thou hast become,
Since all thy love has centred in thyself!”

“Naught but the vilest falsehood!
I'll swear 'tis false! Yet what's believed by all,
Groundless and unconfirmed although it be,
Works its effect, as sure as truth itself.”

“A virtuous name
Is, after all, my liege, the only prize
Which queens and peasants' wives contest together.”

“I ne'er could stoop
To be the chisel where I fain would be—
The sculptor's self.”

“You would plant
For all eternity, and yet the seeds
You sow around you are the seeds of death!”

“He who would be of service to mankind
Must first endeavour to resemble them.”

"All virtue
Is spotless till it’s tried.”

"I have created in my Carlos' soul,
A paradise for millions! Oh, my dream
Was lovely!”

“Oh, bid him realize the dream,
The glowing vision which our friendship painted,
Of a new-perfect realm! And let him lay
The first hand on the rude, unshapened stone.
Whether he fail or prosper—all alike—
Let him commence the work. 
Tell him, in manhood, he must still revere
The dreams of early youth, nor ope the heart
Of heaven's all-tender flower to canker-worms
Of boasted reason,—nor be led astray
When, by the wisdom of the dust, he hears
Enthusiasm, heavenly-born, blasphemed.”

“Oh! it hath cost thee much; full well I know
How thy kind heart with bitter anguish bled
As thy hands decked the victim for the altar.”

“This fine-toned lyre broke in your iron hand,
And you could do no more than murder him.”

“I'm nothing now
But a forsaken, old, defenceless man!”

There are some surprisingly modern attitudes and some great writing here. Although I am not surprised that the main influence of this work has been in Opera (which loves a good melodrama) there are some astute character portraits and the some excellent lines.

January 2019

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

"The Unbearable Lightness of Scones" by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the fifth book in a series following the lives of characters living in and around 44 Scotland Street. It follows 44 Scotland Street, Espresso Tales, Love Over Scotland, and The World According to Bertie. In this installment:

  • Bertie and Tofu join the cubs, despite being too young, but bossy Olive who claims to be Bertie's girlfriend joins too.
  • Matthew, art gallery owner, and Elspeth who used to be Bertie's teacher get married and go on a honeymoon.
  • Lard O'Connell, Glasgow gangster, has a 'Reaburn' portrait of Rabbie Burns
  • Narcissistic Bruce splits up from his rich girlfriend and is spotted by a photographer as a potential model
  • Big Lou's boyfriend gets involved with a the Jacobite Pretender
  • Domenica steals a teacup
  • Cyril, dog belonging to portrait painter Angus Lordie, fathers six puppies and desires Matthew's ankles.

All of this allows gentle reflections on life. McCall Smith's Edinburgh is so genteel it makes Jane Austen's world look sinister.

Some quotes:

  • "While I'm eating lunch, people like me in Shanghai or Bombay are working - such were the implications of globalisation, that paraquat of simple security." (C 6)
  • "The moral energy, the disapproval, that had fuelled Scotland's earlier bouts of over-enthusiastic religious intolerance were still with us, as they were with any society. It ... was present now in the desire to prevent people from doing anything risky or thinking unapproved thoughts. ... All that moral outrage, that self-righteousness, that urge to lecture and disapprove - it's all still there." (C 6)
  • "The real secret in a still life, he thought, is to give the painting the sense of suppressed energy, if expectation, as if somebody were about to come into the room, to render the still life living" (C 6)
  • "He was not sure why his mother had asked him to sit like a good boy; how exactly did a good boy sit, he wondered, and, perhaps more puzzlingly, how did a bad boy sit?"(C 9)
  • "And we shouldn't deceive ourselves, Bruce thought; every single one of us makes compromises for money." (C 13)
  • "Coffee, in all its forms, looks murky, and gives little comfort to one who seeks to see something in it." (C 15)
  • "The barricades in this life ... are often in the wrong place." (C 20)
  • "That [the nose] gives life to the face, because the nose has energy and direction. Whatever the subject's eyes may be doing ... the nose has business of its own." (C 30)
  • "The architect who had designed these offices was of the school that did not believe in walls, except where utterly necessary to prevent the ceiling from falling down." (C 76)
  • "Angus decided not to argue: Domenica had made up her mind, and he would be the loser in any argument. Women always win, he thought. They just always win." (C 77)

January 2019; 328 pages

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

"Antony and Cleopatra" by William Shakespeare

I saw this play at the National Theatre in the matinee performance on Saturday 19th January 2019. Ralph Fiennes made an excellent Antony by Sophie Okonedo was simply stunning as Cleopatra.

James Shapiro (2015) in 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear points out that despite having virtually invented the soliloquy and having used it to great effect in Macbeth, the preceding play, Shakespeare has hardly any soliloquies in Antony and Cleopatra.

James Shapiro (2015) in 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear states that Shakespeare's "account of Cleopatra is suffused with paradox and hyperbole”. The example that he gives is from Act 2 Scene 2 in which Enobarbus says that Cleopatra "makes hungry Where she most satisfies". But there are many other examples too. 

Sophie Okonedo's portrayal of Cleopatra was of someone whose behaviour depended on fickle whim. She is demanding. She wants to know how much Antony loves her and he replies: "There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.” This was a wonderful portrait of a woman who is passionate and headstrong, governed by her desires.

For Antony his life in Egypt is the dream but he is repeatedly called back to reality. Antony is also able to dissociate his two lives. Thus, for him, his marriage to Octavia is purely something political whereas Octavia is furious when, as she is attempting to broker peace between Antony and Octavius, Antony runs back to Cleopatra. In the end though Antony has very little choice in the matter. As he says, in explanation of his retreat from the battle of Actium when Cleopatra's fleet disengaged and ran away and Antony followed: "My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings".

Neither of the two protagonists is good at listening.  The play opens with Antony repeatedly refusing to listen to urgent news from home. Shortly after, still in the first act,  there is a scene in which Antony is trying to tell Cleopatra that he must return to Rome because his wife Fulvia has died but Cleopatra, assuming he is going to tell her that Fulvia has called him home, won't let him get a word in edgeways. Later there was a hilariously comic scene in which a messenger (it was played by Eros in the NT production) tries to tell her that Antony has married Octavia. “I do not like 'But yet,' it does allay/ The good precedence; fie upon 'But yet'!/ 'But yet' is as a gaoler to bring forth/ Some monstrous malefactor.” she tells him and when he finally plucks up the courage to say the words she tries to kill him (in the NT production this entailed her chasing him into the swimming pool and him floudering in it getting wetter and wetter). This demonstrates an earlier comment by Enobarbus when he says that women ‘die’ when they hear bad news: “Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment ... she hath such a celerity in dying.” (which comment, of course, foreshadows her suicide). And this refusal to listen comes to the climax when Antony repeatedly refuses the advice of his generals to fight Octavius on land rather than at sea. They are appalled:
“Your ships are not well mann'd;
Your mariners are muleters, reapers, people
Ingross'd by swift impress; in Caesar's fleet
Are those that often have 'gainst Pompey fought:
Their ships are yare; yours, heavy”

They aren't the only ones who won't listen to advice. When the triumvirs (Antony, Octavius and Lepidus) are on board Pompey's ship getting drunk, Pompey is advised to cut the cable, put to sea and cut their throats but he refuses because of his honour. This, of course, dooms him in the end.

The construction of the play is interesting. There are many foreshadowings of snakes and serpents (including the crocodile which a drunken Lepidus asks about). The play has the difficult task of trying to chronicle some complicated history. Thus, although the battle of Actium, regarded by some historians as one of the pivotal encounters of world history, is more or less at the very centre of the play, there are more battles after it which gives the feel that Actium was not that important after all. And this second battle has to be divided into two days; on the first Antony believes that he has won. So the narrative is muddled as it leads to the lovers' doom.

In the end they have to die. Antony requests his servant Eros to kill him but Eros turns the sword upon himself: this led to a gasp across the auditorim in the NT production. Then Antony botches the job of suicide, lingering until he is taken to Cleopatra and hoisted to the top of the monument where she is hiding. There she is taken alive, being tricked by the one man that Antony told her she could trust, and she has to smuggle in a snake in a basket of figs so that she too can kill herself. All a bit Romeo and Juliet in the end.

Great lines:

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;”

“Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.”

“The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack: the round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets,
And citizens to their dens: the death of Antony
Is not a single doom; in the name lay
A moiety of the world.”

“Sir, I will eat no meat, I'll not drink, sir;
If idle talk will once be necessary,
I'll not sleep neither: this mortal house I'll ruin,
Do Caesar what he can. Know, sir, that I
Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court;
Nor once be chastised with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up
And show me to the shouting varletry
Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me! rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring! rather make
My country's high pyramides my gibbet,
And hang me up in chains!”

January 2018

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

Monday, 21 January 2019

"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas

American black teenager Starr lives in the inner city where drive-by shootings, gang warfare and drug-dealing is rife but goes to a posh school in the suburbs. She is the only witness when her oldest friend Khalil is shot by the police. Should she speak up when raising one's head above the parapet might put her and her family in danger?

The structure of this book is unusual. There are many classic elements. For example, Starr's relationship with her rich white boyfriend is disrupted by the polarisation of her community into black and white. Normally classic plot points such as this are not resolved, one way or the other, until the very end of the book. But in this story there are a number of resolutions by the end of part one which is about two-thirds of the way through the book. This does introduce a degree of tension as one realises that this story is straying from convention and that therefore what might happen in the remaining third of the book might surprise.

The book is also enlivened by the entangled relationships between the members of the black community. Starr's father went to jail for the local drug baron with whose wife he had previously had a child, Starr's half-brother Seven. Starr's father is now a reformed character, a Christian and local store owner whilst still being a militant Black Panther, and there is tension between him and his son's stepfather. Starr's mother's brother, who acted as surrogate father for Starr whilst her real father was in jail, is a cop. This enables the author to extract maximum conflict from relatively few characters.

There are a couple of moments when it gets a bit preachy. Daddy puts Starr through a catechism in Chapter 10 to investigate the reasons for drug dealing in black neighbourhoods. Hailey seems to be a character developed so that the author can develop arguments about racism. But if Victor Hugo can spend page after page of Les Miserables lecturing about the Battle of Waterloo, or the iniquity of monasticism, I guess any author is entitled to disrupt their story with a page or two of preaching.

But the real beauty of this book is the freshness of the prose:
  • “There are just some places where it's not enough to be me. Either version of me.” (C 1)
  • “Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms.” (C 1)
  • “Spring in Garden Heights doesn't always bring love, but it promises babies in the winter.” (C 1)
  • “He always has ]the party] on the Friday of spring break because you need Saturday to recover and Sunday to repent.” (C 1)
  • “She's the perfect height for modelling ... but a little thicker than those toothpicks on the runway.” (C 1)
  • “Hoedom is universal.” (C 1)
  • “that's more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day.” (C 1)
  • “He wipes his nose like he always does before a lie.” (C 1)
  • “He couldn't carry a tune if it came in a box.” (C 3)
  • “How could he sell the very stuff that took his momma from him? Did he realise that he was taking someone somebody else's momma from them?” (C 4)
  • “Did he realise that if he does become a hashtag, some people will only see him as a drug dealer?” (C 4)
  • “Khalil matters to us, not the stuff he did. Forget everybody else.” (C 4)
  • “Good-byes hurt the most when the other person’s already gone.” (C 4)
  • “I left his house pissed and horny, the absolute worst way to leave.” (C 5)
  • “Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. They key is to never stop doing right.” (C 9)
  • “If babies can count as humans when they’re little, veggies can count as veggies when they’re little.” (C 12)
  • “Brave peoples’ legs don’t shake. Brave people don’t feel like puking. Brave people sure don’t have to remind themselves how to breathe ... If bravery is a medical condition, everybody’s misdiagnosed me.” (C 16)
  • "I didn't know a dead person could be charged in his own murder" (C 16)

A very enjoyable read.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

"Milk" by Mark Kurlansky

Another food-themed book following Kurlansky's phenomenal Salt and Cod. As with Cod, I found the endless recipes rather tedious; the interest in the book lies with the fascinating stories that he tells.

Our drinking of milk is abnormal:

  • “Lactose intolerance is the natural condition of all mammals. Humans are the only mammals that consume milk past weaning, apparently in defiance of a basic rule of nature. ... As most babies get older, a gene cuts off the production of lactase and they can no longer consume milk. But something went wrong with Europeans - as well as Middle Easterners, North Africans, and people from the Indian subcontinent. They lack the gene and so continue to produce lactase and consume milk into adulthood.” (C 1)

Kurlansky moves from here to consider the history of milk:

  • “The Sumerian culture ... was among the first to milk domesticated animals.” (C 1)
  • “ Archaeological finds suggest that humans have been herding animals for ten thousand years, and they must have been living close to them for at least that long because animal pathogens started mutating into animal human diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis ten thousand years ago. Was it then that milking started?” (C 1)
  • “Records dating back to the beginnings of civilizations reveal that even back then there were many formulas and medicines for ‘failed’ mothers.” (C 2)

He then considers milk products such as yoghurt, butter and cheese
  • In Persian “there is an expression for mind your own business ... that translates into go beat your own yoghurt.”(C 2)
  • “The solid cheese that remains after the whey is removed can then be preserved through brining to produce a cheese like the Greek feta, which is one of the oldest cheeses in the world.” (C 3)
  • “More sophisticated variations of cheese were developed in Europe, where damp, cool cellars were available for aging.” (C 3)
  • “Like the Greeks, the Romans made rennet from figs. They also made it from artichokes.” (C 3)
  • “French butter makes better pastry the American butter because it contains more fat and less water.”  (C 4)
  • “When the Romans first came to the Dutch lands in 57 BCE, according to Julius Caesar, they found a cheese-eating people.” (C 7)
  • “Roquefort-sur-Soulzon has fewer than two hundred inhabitants ... only cheese that matures in the natural caves under the village ... can be called Roquefort. ... the circulation of air and the humidity trapped in the rocks creates a unique mold-growing environment.” (C 18)

He particularly considers milk and milk products in India where cows have been sacred for millennia and China which has very little dairy tradition.
  • “Krishna is said to have originally been a cowherd. He also goes by the names Govinda and Gopala which literally mean ‘friend and protector of cows’.”(C 17)

Finally he considers aspects of the modern debates over milk: hormones, GMO and organic:
  • “GMO grains, less expensive than non-GMO grains as well as insect-resistant, have literally saved the struggling family farm.” (C 20)
  • Organic dairy farms must “refuse antibiotics to a cow with an infection” (C 20)
  • “You could not feed the world organically.” (C 20)

Other fascinating facts
  • “Christians in the Middle Ages thought that milk was blood that had turned white when it travelled to the breast, which is why milk was banned on meatless holy days.” (C 1)
  • ”Young whales have to build a layer of fat quickly in order to survive, and so whale milk is 34.8 per cent fat, as opposed to human milk, which is only 4.5 per cent fat.” (C 1)
  • “Before sugar cane and beet sugar became ubiquitous, honey was the number one sweet available. Milk was a close second, though, which is why the two are often grouped together. ... In the Old Testament, there are twenty references to milk and honey.” (C 1)
  • “The last aurochs died in a seventeenth-century Poland.” (C 1)
  • "the left breast ... was thought to contain the best milk because it was closest to the heart.” (C 2)
  • “Many animals, especially cats, are great yoghurt lovers.”
  • “Animals lactate in the spring and summer, the worst possible time in the hot climate of the Middle East.” (C 2)
  • In early Christian communions, “the sip that represented the blood of Christ was often taken from a goblet of milk.”
  • “The Turks also had iced fruit beverages, which they called sorbet. Persians called it sharbate” (C 9)
  • “At the end of the eighteenth century, a Dublin hospital had a 99.6 percent infant mortality rate.” (C 10)
  • “In the sixteenth century ... the Dutch, through the use of carotene, developed the first orange carrot. Previously, carrots were either pale yellow or purple.” (C 17)
  • “The word ‘punch’ is derived from the Sanskrit for ‘five’, so called because it had five ingredients.” (C 17)
  • “Desi is a Sanskrit word that denotes native to the subcontinent.” (C 17)
  • “Italy does not have indigenous buffalo - they were brought in Roman times, probably as draft animals.” (C 17)
  • “Cows are the leading source of hamburger meat in America.” (C 19)
  • “The milking parlor of choice is a rotary milker ... In most milking parlors, cows grow restless, stamp their feet, and defecate, but this is not so on their rotating trip, which they thoroughly enjoy. When they get back to the starting point and have to step off, they clearly show their disappointment at leaving.” (C 19)
  • “A dairy cow burps and farts between 300 and 400 pounds of methane gas every day. And that figure does not include the roughly equal amount that emanates from her manure.” (C 19)

As with his other books, Milk is interesting in its own right, but the little sidefacts make it fascinating.

January 2019. Thank you Lucy for buying me this book for Christmas.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

"Richard II" by William Shakespeare

Henry Bolingbroke accuses Norfolk of treason; the two men decide to joust it out but just before they do King Richard II exiles them both. Then, when Bolingbroke's dad John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster dies, Richard disinherits the exiled Bolingbroke to raise revenue for his Irish war. This cause Bolingbroke to invade while Richard is fighting in Ireland. Returning, Richard finds himself without armies and has to abdicate in favour of Henry.

The beauty of the play is in the way it depicts Richard's torn and troubled mind as he is forced to give up being a King.

In the first Act the lines show a significant lack of enjambments and caesurae. There are also more rhyming couplets than usual. So, for example, in Act 1, Scene 1, when Henry Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray of treachery he says:
Thou art a traitor and a miscreant,Too good to be so and too bad to live,Since the more fair and crystal is the sky,The uglier seem the clouds that in it fly.Once more, the more to aggravate the note,With a foul traitor's name stuff I thy throat;And wish, so please my sovereign, ere I move,What my tongue speaks my right drawn sword may prove.
Every line end-punctuated, almost no punctuation within the lines, and the last six lines paired with rhyme, even muddling up the 'natural' order of the words in order to achieve the rhyme. All of the lines are strong endings too and most are pretty standard iambic pentameters although this is altered a little with, for example, weightier and 'with a foul'.

John of Gaunt's patriotic speech at the start of Act Two is similar:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, 
Almost every line in here stands separate, its own little strong ended iambic pentameter.

Contrast this to Richard's speeches while he is losing his crown and, perhaps, his sanity:
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd:
Several caesura. But the only enjambement is the line that runs on with an 'And' and that is a very weak run on.

And in this example the caesurae are used to provide a call and response style but again there is only a single enjambment:
What must the king do now? must he submit?The king shall do it: must he be deposed?The king shall be contented: must he loseThe name of king? o' God's name, let it go: 
But even as he resigns the throne the tyranny of the single line continues:
Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.Now mark me, how I will undo myself;I give this heavy weight from off my headAnd this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;With mine own tears I wash away my balm,With mine own hands I give away my crown,With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,With mine own breath release all duty's rites:All pomp and majesty I do forswear;My manors, rents, revenues I forego;My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:God pardon all oaths that are broke to me! 
It seems to me that as Shakespeare grew more confident in the use of blank verse he moire and more often broke the rules in order to convey the passion behind this thoughts of his characters.

Other quotes:
Desolate, desolate, will I hence and die:
Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
O, who can hold a fire in his hand 
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus? 
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite 
By bare imagination of a feast? 
Or wallow naked in December snow 
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?

Landlord of England art thou now, not king:

The commons hath he pill'd with grievous taxes, 
And quite lost their hearts:

But time will not permit: all is uneven, 
And every thing is left at six and seven.

I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it

Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;

January 2019

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

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

"Friends, Lovers, Chocolate" by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the second book in the series starting with, and named after, The Sunday Philosophy Club starring philosopher and amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie. Like the 44 Scotland Street books, Dalhousie lives in Edinburgh which is depicted as a genteel village, everyone being middle class and educated and knowing one another. Not exactly Train-Spotting or Rebus!

In this book Dalhousie muses on life while meandering through it. She rather fancies her niece's ex-boyfriend who, unfortunately, still has the hots for the niece. There is the possibility of a dalliance with a handsome Italian. And she tries to solve the mystery of whether the memory of a heart transplant patient might be a 'cellular memory' of the killer of the heart donor.

It is remarkable how McCall Smith can weave a page-turning tale from such gentle observation of not-very-exciting gentlefolks. But he can.

There are one or two acute observations and there are lots of philosophical insights:

  • "the stone was flaking slightly, and a patch had fallen off here and there, like a ripened scab, exposing fresh skin below." (C 1)
  • "we must be judgemental ... when there is something to be judged." (C 1)
  • "The bundle of urges and wants that went with being a physical being ... were at the bottom of most disputes between people." (C 3)
  • "We were all as bad as one another, but at some point we had to overlook that fact, or at least not make too much of it. History ... could so quickly become a matter of mutual accusation and recrimination." (C 5)
  • "Weather was a test of attitude ... Nice people ... were nice about the weather; nasty people were nasty about it." (C 8)
  • "She could think of nothing worse that sitting for hours under an umbrella, an open invitation to sandflies, looking out to sea." (C 8)
  • "Narcissism was no longer considered a vice. That was what the whole cult of celebrity was about ... we feted these people and fed their vanity." (C 9)
  • "If we lived in a global village, then the boundaries of our responsibility were greatly extended. The people dying of poverty, the sick, the dispossessed, were our neighbours even if they were far away." (C 9)
  • "Should one let people express their gratitude properly, even if one is embarrassed or reluctant to do so? There is an art in accepting a present, and indeed there is sometimes an obligation to let others give." (C 9)
  • "She did not approve of promiscuity, which she thought made a mockery of our duty to cherish and respect others; an emotional fast food, really, which one would not wish on anybody. But at the same time one should not starve oneself." (C 11)
  • "To be loved by the unlovable was not something that most people could cope with." (C 13)
  • "'It's a Sisyphean labour for me. I push a rock up a hill and then it rolls down again'. 'Everyone's job is like that ... I wash things and they become dirty and need washing again'." (C 16)
  • "Equality was dull, and goodness was dull too ... Peace was dull; conflict and violence were exciting."(C 16)
  • "If one followed the well-ordered life one would start each day with the writing of one's letters of apology." (C 21)
  •  "Sometimes the trips not taken are better than those one actually takes." (C 21)
  • "Resolution. Musicians know all about that, don't they. Pieces of music seek resolution, have to end on a particular note, or it sounds all wrong. The same applies to our lives." (C 23)

AMS has also written:

January 2019

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

"A Very Murderous Christmas"

Crime short stories with a Christmas theme, including:

The man with the sack by Margery Allingham
A country house burglary takes place under the nose of Mr Albert Campion. A festive crime depressingly full of snobbery. The old rich look down their noses at the ghastly nouveaux riches. In the end the old order is triumphant.
  • He’s like a depression leaving the Azores.
  • Jail shyness, that temporary fit of nerves which even the most experienced exhibit for a week or so after their release.
  • A neck that would disgrace a crocodile.” 

The Adventure of the Red Widow” by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr
A Sherlock Holmes short story involving a guillotine.

Camberwell Crackers by Anthony HorowitzA wonderful story about the murder of the owner of a Christmas Cracker factory. Full of dazzling wit. I particularly liked the jokes but Horowitz sparkles and his detective, on his first murder case, is wonderfully incompetent. Great fun, especially the original denouement in which the reader knows who dunnit but the copper doesn’t. Brilliant.
  • A chimney which had given up smoking.
The Flying Stars by G K Chesterton
A Father Brown story
  • If you’re born on the wrong side of the wall, I can’t see that it’s wrong to climb over it.
A Problem in White by Nicholas Blake
A murder in a snowbound train in Cumberland. Not exactly the Orient Express but a challenging whodunnit.
  • A voice succulent as the breast of a roast goose.
Loopy by Ruth Rendell
A classically macabre tale in which a man devoted to his mother likes to dress up in a wolf costume ...
Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter
Scrooge-like, miserly, grumpy Morse and the case of the money that went missing at Christmas.

The Jar of Ginger by Gladys Mitchell
A discussion club debates methods of murder including a poisoned piece of ginger in a jar.

Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces by John Mortimer
Rumpole is a brilliant creation and this offering is, as they always are, full of wit and character. 
  • "My first impression of Coldsands was a gaunt church tower, presumably of great age, pointing an accusing finger to heaven from a cluster of houses on the edge of a sullen, gunmetal sea.  ... As soon as we got out of the taxi, we were slapped around the face by a wind"
  • "He made cruciform gestures, as though remembering the rubric 'spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch' and forgetting where these important items were kept.
The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse by Edward Hoch
A tale set in New England in 1931

Most of these are whimsical. The best (Allingham, despite the appalling snobbery and racism, Mortimer and Horowitz) can write really well despite the limiting temptations of the format. Those stories that focus on the solution of a puzzle are forgettable, perhaps especially so in a short story format.

January 2019

My wonderful wife bought me a subscription to Books and Beer; each month I receive a crime book and some cans of beer. The other titles I have received so far are:
  • Most Wanted by Robert Craik: a fast-paced thriller set in California
  • The Devil's Dice by Roz Watkins: a whodunnit set in the English Peak District
  • Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth: a stunning tale of crime and revenge, of temptation and sin, of evil and redemption set in 1880s Queensland and as gritty as only the Australian Outback can get.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

"Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman

This is a retelling of the Norse myths which I first encountered as a child through the magnificent Saga of Asgard by Roger Lancelyn Green. This retelling has much in common with Mythos, the retelling of the Greek myths by Steven Fry. Both authors are masters are turning tales of long ago into stories with people who might be walking down the street right now.

Gaiman tells about how the world was created and the Aesir gods (and also some of the older Vanir gods such as Frey and Freya) who live in Asgard and who fight the giants. He tells of Odin, who bought his wisdom through the sacrifice of his eye and who gained his power through his own sacrifice, hanging himself for nine days from the branches of Yggdrasil, the world tree, his side punctured by the point of a spear. He tells of Thor, the strong and mighty warrior, who kills giants with his hammer. He tells of Loki, the deceitful, trickster god, who gets the gods out of the scrapes he has usually got them into in the first place. All these are tales of long ago. But Gaiman ends with a chilling account of Ragnarok, the last day, and the twilight of the gods, when the gods battle the giants and the people of Hel, with Loki, will fight the dead warriors of Valhalla, and when the children of Loki will kill and be killed by the gods.

These are brilliant stories and Gaiman is a superb storyteller. Perhaps those things go together.

There is so much in this book that was brilliant but here are a few of my favourite moments:

  • "Asgard ... was a Viking hall and collection of buildings out on the frozen wastes." (Introduction) 
  • "From the ice and the fire  that the universe begins in to the fire and the ice that end the world." (Introduction)
  • "The clouds ... were once Ymir's brains, and who knows what thoughts they were thinking, even now." (Before the beginning, and after)
  • "A world is not a world until it is inhabited." (Before the beginning, and after)
  • "The squirrel tells lies ... and takes joy in provoking anger." (Yggdrasil and the nine worlds)
  • "Some norns give people good lives, and others give us hard lives, or short lives, or twisted lives." (Yggdrasil and the nine worlds)
  • "Seldom do those who are silent make mistakes." (Mimir's head and Odin's eye)
  • "He tried to look ashamed and succeeded simply in looking pleased with himself." (The children of Loki)
  • "Dreams know more than they reveal."  (The children of Loki)
  • "The Death Ship, made from the untrimmed fingernails of the dead." (The story of Gerd and Frey)

A fabulous book by the best-selling author of, among much else, The Sandman and Anansi Boys.

Friday, 4 January 2019

"Called into Question" by Paul Canon Harris

The story of a policeman at the very start of his career being tested by his encounters with corruption, with wicked thoughtlessness, and with a prostitute with a heart of gold.

It starts with a meeting between protagonist Bruce and best mate Harpail. There is also an unnamed girl. It is not made clear, even at the end of the book, who the girl is. The meeting is three years after they last met. Presumably this first chapter is intended as a sort of prologue, to act as a hook by making us wonder what is going on.

The bulk of the book reads like a memoir of the first experiences of this young copper. It shows that the book has been intensively and extensively researched and there are some period details which help provide a solid basis of authenticity (although care needs to be taken not to make it seem that a detail has been included simply for the sake of proving that the author has done the research).

The memoir aspect of the book does mean that it is rather a slow burn. The climactic episode occurs at the 70% mark which seems rather late. Novels have a slightly different structure from memoirs.

A fascinating feature of this book are the very short chapters written in italics and clearly interjecting an alternative (female) point of view. These chapters act as a tease in the early part of the book and keep the reader going by providing a mystery hook.

Some good lines:

  • "For Bruce, who had just turned nineteen, talk of retirement dates and annuities was like hearing a language from a country he never expected to visit." (C 2)
  • "Was that what religion is about? A control mechanism in the hands of the older generation, designed to put young people on a guilt trip?" (C 15)
  • "I am not a prostitute. I work as a prostitute." (C 32)

January 2019

Thursday, 3 January 2019

"Les Miserables" par Victor Hugo

LM is a huge work. It divided into five parts and each of these parts is divided into up to fifteen books, each of which is further divided into chapters. In some ways it resembles Tolstoy's War and Peace. Just as Tolstoy spends perhaps fifty pages of his epic in discussing his theory of history, Hugo inserts into his epic his views on Waterloo, the Paris sewers and a number of other topics. However, while W&P is a family saga with a huge number of characters and a multiplicity of plots, LM focuses on a few characters who are tightly interlinked. This is typical of novels of the time but in my view it rather undermines pretensions to realism. There is no need to make Gavroche the son of Thenardier or to have Thenardier's other two sons passed off as Monsieur Gillenormand's sons. Nor does every policeman have to be Javert.

The plot is a fine one. Jean Valjean is a freed convict. However, his crime follows him around in the shape of a yellow passport which means that he has to report to the police at every town. There is no sense of having served his time. There is no thought of redemption. But this is exactly what Valjean achieves. After an encounter with a saintly Bishop (one of the most affecting moments in literature which always makes me want to weep: “Don’t forget, don’t ever forget, that you promised me to use this silver to make an honest man of yourself. ... Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you".), Valjean breaks the terms of his release by taking on a new identity and, as an enlightened businessman, redeems himself. This redemption continues when he cares for the daughter of one of his sacked workers. But his past, in the shape of suspicious Inspector Valjean, haunts him; if the Inspector catchers him he will be sent back to the galleys for life. At the same time the principal baddy, Thenardier, poses a constant danger to Valjean's chance for happiness. And then Valjean's adopted daughter falls in love with the son of a Napoleonic general who is himself manning the barricades with his insurgent friends.

To modern taste, the book is undermined by the black and whiteness of the characters. Although Jean Valjean himself is represented as oscillating between good and bad, and the fallen woman is doing her best to be good, most of the characters are fundamentally one dimensional. Thus Javert, the policeman, represents the inflexibility of unquestioning duty which is not undermined until the very end, at which point his conversion seems unlikely. Cosette, the loved adopted daughter is the ultimate in goody-two-shoes, a virginal maiden pure in every possible thought. Her boyfriend, Marius, is likewise virginal and upright and honorable and altogether too good to be true. Thenardier is an out and out rotter, the blackest of black villains, even though his daughter Eponine sacrifices herself for love and his neglected boy Gavroche sacrifices himself to help his friends. These characters just don't stand up for themselves.

The second flaw is Hugo's taste for philosophising. His description of the battle of Waterloo takes up nearly the whole of a book with only the final chapter having any relevance to the plot. His description of the Paris sewers takes a whole book. We can't have a wedding speech without Hugo giving us his views on marriage; we can't have the students at the barricades without endless sermonising from the revolutionary leader. I am not surprised that LM is possible to adapt into only six hours of TV drama; at least one third of the book could be pruned without any effect on the story or the characterisation.

Another difficulty with the book is that Hugo seems to start several times. Most authors would start the story with the arrival of the convict JV in town for his transforming encounter with the Bishop. This is a hook and a half. But Hugo spends the first book describing the character of the Bishop and doesn't introduce JV until book two. JV's convict experiences, which is the starting point for the musical, is told in flashback. Then, after the drama of JV, we switch to a romantic interlude (for a whole book) with four young men and their girlfriends and it is almost as if Hugo is frightened of keeping the momentum going. The story of Fantine than merges with that of the reformed JV and we meet Javert who becomes the nemesis for JV through the sacrificial act of the Champmatheiue Affair. In all of this the story bumps along and in book 7 Hugo shows a genius for forcing JV to make a difficult decision time and time again as every obstacle is thrown in his way. But then Part Two begins with almost an entire book devoted to the story of the battle of Waterloo and, when we get a little plot in the final chapter, it is a detail not yet connected with anything in Part One which actually happens before most of the events in Part One. After that the story gets going again although in book 7 Hugo treats himself to a rant about monasticism (at one point, oblivious to the potential self-reference, he declares: "What’s wonderful, too, is the ease with which people spout hot air."). Then in Part Three Hugo does it again. The first book is an essay on street children. Then Hugo begins another story, this time that of Marius, with a book-long essay on the Parisian street-urchin. And Part Four starts with an essay entitled 'A Few Pages of History'. Even after the excitement of the insurgency (and the discovery that JV is a crack shot) Part Five has to contain a long discussion of the Parisian sewer system. Cut it, Victor!

Nevertheless, Hugo (or possibly the translator) is brilliant at writing ordinary people. The exchanges between a gardener and a gravedigger in the exciting burial scene of Part Two and the wonderful character of street-urchin Gavroche are moments of joy.

Furthermore, despite my struggles with the structure, particularly given Hugo's tendency to speechify, he often comes up with witty or insightful comments:
Part One: Fantine
Book 1
  • "True or false, what is said about people often has as much bearing on their lives and especially on their destinies as what they do."
  • “Man is made of flesh and that flesh is both a burden and a temptation to him. He drags it around with him and he yields to it."
  • “To be a saint is the exception; to be a just person is the rule. Err, stumble, commit sin, but be one of the just. “Sin as little as possible—that is the law of mankind. Not to sin at all is the dream of the angel. All earthly things are subject to sin. Sin is like gravity.”
  • “The sins of women and children, domestic servants and the weak, the poor and the ignorant, are the sins of the husbands and fathers, the masters, the strong and the rich and the educated.”
  • “Those who are ignorant should be taught all you can teach them; society is to blame for not providing free public education; and society will answer for the obscurity it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sin will be committed. The guilty party is not he who has sinned but he who created the darkness in the first place.”
  • "Prosperity presupposes Capability. Win the lottery and you are a clever man. The winner is revered. Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that’s all that counts. Be lucky and the rest will fall into place. Be fortunate, and you’ll be thought great."
  • "There’s nothing wrong with being an arriviste as long as you’ve arrived."
  • "They mistake the constellations of the cosmic void for the stars made by ducks’ feet in the soft mud of the bog."
Book 2
  • "People who are overwhelmed with troubles never do look back. They know only too well that misfortune follows in their wake."
  • "laws that look on man with anger"
  • "prisoners, those eternal enviers of flies and birds."
  • "Release is not the same as liberation. You get out of jail, all right, but you never stop being condemned."
Book 3
  • "If a girl wants to remain virtuous she can’t be too soft on her hands."
Book 5
  • "books are remote but reliable friends."
  • "There is no such thing as a weed and no such thing as a bad man. There are only bad cultivators.”
  • "No one pries as effectively into other people’s business as those whose business it most definitely is not."
Book 7
  • "To travel is to be born and to die at every instant."
  • "Probity, sincerity, candour, conviction, a sense of duty, are things that, when they go wrong, can become hideous."
Part Two: Cosette
Book 2
  • "The ultimate smile is God’s alone."
  • "It does not appear that the devil had the wit to invent gunpowder before Roger Bacon"
Book 4
  • "It is possible to conceive of something more terrible than a hell where one suffers and that is a hell where one is bored."
  • "Wherever a railway station has been set on the edge of a capital city, it has spelled the death of a local neighbourhood and the birth of a township."
Book 5
  • "It must be remembered that, at the time, the police were not exactly at ease; they were hampered by a free press. The song and dance over a few arbitrary arrests, denounced by the newspapers, had been heard all the way to the Chambers and made the prefecture timid. To attack the freedom of the individual was a grave matter. The officers were afraid of getting things wrong, for the prefect put the blame on them; a mistake meant dismissal."
  • "Before you grab a stick with thorns, you put gloves on."
Book 6
  • "To brush your teeth lies at the top of a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies: losing your soul."
Book 7
  • "Monastic communities are to the broader social community what mistletoe is to the oak, what warts are to the human body."
  • "The Spanish convent was the Catholic convent par excellence. You got a whiff of the East there. There, the archbishop, Aga Khan of heaven, locked up and spied on this seraglio of souls reserved for God. The nun was the odalisque, the priest the eunuch. In their dreams, the fervent females were chosen by and possessed Christ. At night, the gorgeous naked young man came down from the cross and became the ecstasy of the cell."
  • "Claustration, castration."
  • "You will feel yourself shudder before the habit and the veil, those two shrouds of human invention."
Part Three: Marius
Book 1
  • “In today’s civilization, still so incomplete, it is not so unusual to see such breakdowns, with families falling apart in the shadows, parents having little idea of what has become of their children and spilling their guts on the public highway. Hence dark destinies.”
  • “A touch of Egypt and Bohemia in the lower orders accommodated the upper spheres and suited the purposes of the high and mighty. Hate-filled opposition to the education of lower-class children was a dogma. What was the good of “a little learning”? That was the catchcry. Well, the stray child is the corollary of the ignorant child.”
Book 2
  • “The peculiar thing about prudery is that, the less the fortress is under threat, the more it puts sentries around.”
Book 3
  • “You may be old, you may be a prude, you may be devout, you may be the aunt; but it is always nice to see a lancer step into your bedroom.”
  • “The lancer gave the complacent grin of a pickpocket praised for his probity.”
Book 4
  • “To err is human, to stroll, Parisian.”
Book 7
  • “Evil starts with dead eyes. Faced with someone whose eyes see nothing, think carefully and be afraid.”
  • “The first form elegance takes is idleness; and the idleness of a pauper means crime.”
Book 8
  •  “They are rare, those who have fallen without being damaged on the way down”
Part Four: The Idyll of the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis
Book 1

  • “The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down.”
Book 2
  • “That blue hour of the evening when dreamers are at their saddest,
  • "That indefinably frightened and pathetic look that a stint in jail adds to misery.”
Book 3
  • “There are meditative states that we might call vertical; when you are at the bottom, it takes time to come back up to the surface.”
Book 5
  • “The shadow was assuredly not a ghost. Ghosts hardly ever wear round hats.”
  • “The old are made for going out at the right moment.”
Book 6
  • “Growing plays such tricks on you. Your skirt becomes too short the moment your nakedness becomes indecent.”
  • “It’s raining again! God Almighty, if this continues, I’m cancelling my subscription."
Book 9
  • “What devastates Othello is water off a duck’s back to Candide.”
Book 10
  • “For everything there is a theory that proclaims itself “common sense”; ... the offer of a compromise between the true and the false; explanation, admonition, a somewhat arrogant mitigation that, because it is mixed with blame and excuse, believes itself to be wisdom yet is often only pedantry. An entire school of politics, known as the happy medium, has emerged from this.”
  • “The same stoical men die at twenty for their ideas, at forty for their families.”
Book 11
  • “The four corners of old age—decay, decrepitude, ruin, and sorrow.”
Part Five: Jean Valjean
Book 1

  • “Equality has an organ: free and compulsory education.”
Book 4
  • “Thinking always involves a certain amount of inner revolt.”
Book 7
  • “When you are old, you feel like a grandfather to all little children.”
Book 9
  • “Nature divides the living into those on the way in and those on the way out.”
  • “Just because you don’t like the way things are ... that’s no reason to be unfair to God.”

A classic, but immensely flawed as a work of literature.

January 2019