About Me

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

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

"Unleashed" by Peter Laws

This is the second Matt Hunter crime thriller; he debuted in Purged.

Matt, an ex-vicar, lectures in the Sociology of Religion. His policeman friend Larry asks him to advise n a case in which a teacher has been mauled to death by a dog, trapped in a cupboard, whilst being 'protected' by many religious symbols. The teacher, Steph, was involved with a poltergeist when she was a schoolgirl in the town, with her mates Kassy and Jo and Rachel, and Rachel's little sister Holly, who committed suicide. Is this a case of demonic possession? Is someone hunting witches? Or is it related to historic child abuse? Matt investigates in a tale of demons and seances, a spooks and rabbits that go bump in the night, leading to a climax underground.

A well-written cross between a horror and a thriller and a murder-mystery. No, I didn't work out whodunnit.

Laws has a good line is great descriptive lines:

  • "A couple of decades ago she was the little pigtailed firework running around here, in cheap clothes even then." (C 1)
  • "They'd met on Tinder three months ago, where he'd described himself as 'an entrepreneur wrapped in a mechanic's body'."
  • (C 1)
  • "All the Finch family members were about as coordinated as a kite in a tornado." (C 1)
  • "Our sense of morality springs from little more than the current consensus of the human tribe." (C 2)
  • "Let us learn to find the inherent beauty of an essentially incoherent universe." (C 2)
  • "One of the top reasons to buy a kid a pet is so that it will die." (C 3)
  • "Those boys who kept wandering past them, gawping at their curves like preprogrammed lab mice." (C 9)
  • "The overflowing bin with its merry troupe of dancing flies." (C 10)
  • "A tree, stroking softly with its fingernails." (C 10)
  • "His skin was plague-victim pale." (C 26)
  • "Biscuits were the truth drug for Christians everywhere." (C 26)
  • "Funny how it's the cheap furniture that often has the most memories. Because you have to build them at home and you need others' help and you don't always get it right. Maybe there was a lesson in that." (C 46)
A great, page-turning read. February 2019; 442 pages

Monday, 25 February 2019

"Write Away" by Elizabeth George

This is a brilliant little guide to the craft of writing novels by the author of the Inspector Lynley series of novels of which she has written twenty as well as seven other fiction books. Clearly a prolific writer she suggests that her success is due to 'bum glue': when she is writing she writes five pages a day on the first draft and fifty (!) pages a day on the second draft.

But this is not an inspirational 'you too can be like me' book; rather it is a manual of tips and techniques. She is superb when she tells how to create characters:
  • “Real people have flaws. We're all works in progress on planet Earth ... No one wants to read about flawless characters ... Would anyone want a person like that as a friend, tediously wonderful in every way? ... A character possessing perfection one area should possess imperfection in another.” (p 9)
  • “As individuals we're all riddled with issues of self doubt ... So, in literature, we want to see characters who make mistakes, who have lapses of judgement, who experience weakness from time to time.” (p 10)
  • “Characters learn something from the unfolding events, and the reader learns something too, has the character is revealed slowly by the writer, who peels away a layer at a time.” (p 11)
  • “Make certain you are putting them into conflict.” (p 12)
  • “When I'm designing a character, I begin with a name ... it's impossible to create a character without one.” (p 12)
  • “You cannot bring a character to life in a book unless he or she is alive before the book begins.” (p 13)
  • “The creation of characters allows me to understand how each will talk - what his actual dialogue will be like - as well as how his narrative voice will sound ... The words a character uses, the syntax he employs, and his diction thus become another tool to reveal him to the reader.” (p 14)
She also is careful to distinguish between setting, place and landscape:
  • Landscape is “the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel, sort of like the canvas” (p 34)
  • “What I generally do is begin by going to the place ... I consider the land itself ... what grows upon it ... its shape and its texture ... the marks that succeeding cultures have left upon it ... its buildings and how they alter from one area to another.” (p 37) The sky: “clouds ... deep colour ... moisture ... the stars” (p 38) The climate and the weather. “The sounds and scents of a place” (p 38) “Wildlife or the lack of wildlife” (p 38) “What people do there or are not able to do there” (p 38)
She points out that characters have internal landscapes:
  • “What a character looks like, how he dresses, the house in which he lives, his office, his car, his bicycle, his boat, his apartment ...” (p 39)
  • “The simplest way to achieve landscape of a person is to use specific and telling details.” (p 39) Start with stereotypes and tweak them. (p 40)
  • "We all possess emotions, psyches, and souls. We have wants and needs. We engage in reflections, speculations, obsessions ...” (p 41)
  • “I’ll attempt to choose an incident or a topic that, reflected upon [by the character], can serve as a metaphor for the state of a character’s soul.” (p 41)
She is also very interesting on plot and offers a number of possible plot maps:
  • The Seven-Step Story Line
  • The Hero’s Journey
  • Gustav Freitag’s Pyramid
  • Three Act Structure
  • Double Plot: two interwoven plots
  • Hourglass: two plots which run separately until they converge in the middle and then separate again
  • Picaresque: separate events related by theme and by characters.
There is also a great many really useful practical tips in this superb book. If I can't write after reading this I can't write. For example, she lists "eight ways to wield the hook" and considers the pros and cons of different narrations. Her fundamental attitude is that the writer must "seduce the reader to continue the story.”

It is quite brilliant.

And by the way, “What Agatha Christie did was to fashion her scenes so that the clue was present but so was the red herring. And the scene pivoted around the red herring, not around the clue.”

Other books about how to write include

February 2019; 285 pages

Sunday, 24 February 2019

"The Double Helix" by James D Watson

The classic account of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA for which Watson and Francis Crick won a Nobel Prize. This account is a real warts-and-all account of scientific discovery. Watson regularly admits he doesn't understand the maths for some of the work, and that he is a poor experimenter who blew up a Chemistry lab by heating Benzene using a Bunsen burner. He seems to spend most of his time thinking about pretty girls which is a feature he has in common with almost all of the other young men researching science. His sexist and misogynist attitudes make for difficult reading nowadays even if, in the epilogue to this memoir, he concedes that the by then dead Rosalind Franklin was a superb experimenter whom he greatly undervalued and that her behaviour, which he regularly considers unacceptable, might possibly have been a consequence of the difficulty facing women trying to be first class research scientists in those days.

Watson and Crick are neither supposed to be working on DNA (indeed Crick's boss Bragg has angrily told himk to concentrate on finishing his thesis and Watson is misusing the his funding which is for a different problem at a different Uni in another country!) but they keep tinkering with models. Nothing seems to be working. They (and everyone else except, it seems, Franklin) are convinced that the structure is helical but is in one, two, three, four or five strands twisted together. They and the rival groups working on the same problem are convinced that the backbone of sugars and phosphates is in the inside. But when Franklin's photo B clearly reveals helicity Watson starts to develop a two-strand model, which allows replication, and starts to think of the strands as held together by the bases. He assumes the bases are paired and that Adenine is held to Adenine by hydrogen bonds, as are Thymine to Thymine, Cytosine to Cytosine and Guanine to Guanine. Then a chemist friend tells him that the structures he is using are of the wrong isomers. Using the right isomers means that this like-to-like pairing (AA, CC, TT and GG) makes the essential double helix buckle; it would no longer be fundamentally crystalline. Furthermore there would be no reason why experimental results showed, as they did, that there was always the same amount of adenine and thymine and of cytosine as guanine, even though the ratios of A to C or T to G might vary. "Suddenly I became aware that an adenine-thymine pair held together by two hydrogen bonds was identical shape to a guanine-cytosine pair held together by at least two hydrogen bonds." A double helix structure in which the ladder steps are A-T or C-G explained why the proportions of A and T are always the same as well as explaining the X-ray crystallography data. And a quest as exciting as any Hollywood blockbuster is complete.

Other moments:
"One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that ... a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid." (C 2)
After Crick had so upset his boss he had been ordered to stop work on DNA: "News of the upset confirmed the fact that Francis might move faster if occasionally he closed his mouth."
On getting a textbook for a Christmas present. "The remnants of Christianity were indeed useful."
On discovering a co-worker in his room with a girl: "The presence of popsies does not inevitably lead to a scientific future."

Lively and entertaining. February 2019; 128 pages

Saturday, 23 February 2019

"Boy, Snow, Bird" by Helen Oyeyemi

This is a strange tale about identity infused with fairy tales, in particular Snow White.

Part One deals with Boy, daughter of a New York ratcatcher, who, in 1953, gets fed up with being beaten by her parent and runs away from home to the New England town of Flax Hill. Here she meets Arturo, Julia's widower, and his impossibly beautiful blonde daughter Snow.

Part Two moves forward in time to deal with Bird, Boy's daughter, who is trying to make sense of her strange family, in particular her estranged step-sister Snow.

Part Three returns to consider the story from the perspective of Boy.

People look in mirrors but can't see themselves. Instead they see an infinity of themselves, or other people, or themselves in the past, or the future. The theme of skin colour and the identity it offers is explored, as is the theme of sexuality. Boy is a girl. Is Snow Snow White, and if she is does that make Boy a wicked stepmother? And how does it affect your life to be irresistibly gorgeous?

Oyeyemi writes some great lines:
  • “Insects dropped onto my shoulders tentatively, as if wondering whether we’d met before.” (1.2)
  • “One of those women who are corpselike until a man walks into the room, after which point they become irresistibly vivacious.” (1.2)
  • “There's something about being chased by a big strong man with yellowish eyes that makes you feel like an antelope in a bad situation.” (1.3)
  • “A single shift was like a long day out in dry rain.” (1.4)
  • “If you're not afraid of a real night out, hit the town with guys who just got out of jail.” (1.6)
  • “It seems that grown-ups just never stop interfering with each other.” (2.1)
  • “Grammy Olivia's tone of voice offers you ten seconds to do as she says or the rest of your life to be sincerely sorry that you didn't.” (2.2)
  • “Dad drives and Mrs Chen drives but Aunt Mia just gets behind the wheel and hopes it's another of her lucky days.” (2.3)
  • “I began to know what dolls know. It felt like I'd been discarded for another toy that was better, more lifelike.” (2.3)
  • “Capture all hearts and let none go free, is that the way she wants it?” (3.1)
  • “The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough.” (3.1)
This is a strange book with many layers and I feel I have but scratched the surface. February 2019; 308 pages

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

"Surprised by Joy" by C S Lewis

In the autobiography, the famous Christian writer explains how his upbringing led to his beliefs. As with all his work, it is written in an amazingly simple style and is full of wonderful insights. Furthermore it is surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, honest. Although his description of his 'loss of chastity' at an early age (thirteen?) does not make it clear whether he lost his virginity in a physical sense as opposed to a spiritual one (the details are sufficiently imprecise), the descriptions of life at his public school leave little room to doubt that homosexuality was widely practised (though not, he says, by him).

What emerges is a picture of an extraordinarily clever young man who is amazingly well-read. This picture accords with those given in the biographies I have read and reviewed in this blog:
C.S.Lewis: A biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper
Jack: C.S.Lewis and his times by George Sayer

My brainy sister Jane who teaches English tells me that 'surprised by joy' is is the title of a poem by Wordsworth which deals with his guilt at feeling a moment of joy when mourning the death of his daughter. She says: "It is actually a very good sonnet, using rhythm particularly effectively."

The Joy referred to in the title of this autobiography is an experience of ecstasy or bliss, such as one might experience when walking in a beautiful landscape or hearing a beautiful piece of music or reading a beautiful poem. I have used the adjective beautiful three times; it seems to me that the Joy that Lewis describes is an essentially aesthetic experience which involves beauty. It isn't pleasure : “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”He makes the point that it is not sexual desire or lust, that these are debasements, but it is an experience of desire. He seems to be talking about a religious, mystical experience of the transcendental. He has a moment of Joy on a walk. “It seemed to me that I have tasted heaven then. If only such a moment could return! But what I never realised was that it had returned - that the remembering of that walk was itself a new experience of just the same kind. True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable. ... to have is to want and to want is to have.

He is pretty hard on his pre-conversion self. For example, he castigates himself for snobbery including chronological snobbery: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? ... One passes to the realisation that our own age is also ‘a period’, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those wide-spread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

He is withering about his schooling at what he calls Wyvern but is in fact Malvern College. He describes the fundamental structure with the sporting Bloods at the top and the endless jockeying for position. There was an acknowledged undercurrent of homosexuality. CSL is pretty relaxed about sex. As he says: “Cruelty is surely more evil than lust.
  • “A Tart is a pretty and effeminate-looking small boy who acts as a catamite to one or more of his seniors ,usually Bloods. Usually, not always. Although our oligarchy kept most of the amenities of life for themselves, they were, on this point, liberal; they did not impose chastity on the middle-class boy in addition to all his other disabilities. Pederasty among the lower classes was not ‘side’ or at least not serious side; not like putting one's hands in one's pockets or wearing one’s coat unbuttoned. The gods had a sense of proportion.”
  • “The Tarts had an important function to play in making school ... a preparation for public life. They were not like slaves, for their favours were (nearly always) solicited, not compelled. Nor were they exactly like prostitutes, for the liaison often had some permanence and, far from being merely sensual, was highly sentimentalised.”
  • “A boy goes to a Public School precisely to be made a normal, sensible boy - a good mixer - to be taken out of himself; and eccentricity is severely penalised.”
  • “The whole structure of Bloodery would collapse if the Bloods played in the spirit of play, for their recreation; there must be audience and limelight.”
  • “When oppression does not completely and permanently break the spirit, has it not a natural tendency to produce retaliatory pride and contempt? We reimburse ourselves for cuffs and toil by a double dose of self-esteem. No one is more likely to be arrogant that a slave.”
There is humour:
  • “My brother ... announced every morning with perfect truth that he had done five sums; he did not add that they were the same five every day.”
  • “How a small boy who can neither flirt nor drink should be expected to enjoy prancing about on a polished floor till the small hours of the morning, is beyond my conception.”
  • “It took me years to make the discovery that any real human intercourse could take place at a mixed assembly of people in their good clothes.”
  • “I am one of those on whom Nature has laid the doom that whatever they buy and whatever they wear they will always look as if they had come out of an old clothes shop.”
He also makes some brilliant observations:
  • "They had the talent for happiness in a high degree - went straight for it as experienced travellers go for the best seat in a train.”
  • “‘The trouble about insects is that they are like French locomotives - they have all the works on the outside’. The works - that is the trouble. Their angular limbs, their jerky movements, their dry, metallic noises, all suggest either machines that have come to life or life degenerating into mechanism.”
  • “There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.”
  • “The ugliest man alive is an angel of beauty compared with the loveliest of the dead.”
  • “Having once tasted life, we are subjected to the impulse of self-preservation. Life, in other words, is as habit-forming as cocaine.”
  • “Those who think that if adolescents were all provided with suitable mistresses we should soon hear no more of ‘immortal longings’ are certainly wrong.”
  • “The materialist’s universe had the enormous attraction that it offered you limited liabilities. No strictly infinite disaster could overtake you in it. Death ended all ... The horror of the Christian universe was that it had no door marked exit.”
  • “The sword glitters not because the swordsman sets out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.”
There is Joy in the elegance of the writing of CSL; in the way that he can pin a feeling with a metaphor or write a description that is so exactly spot on that you can re-experience what he is describing. There is Joy in the unfussy simplicity of his writing: it is like a street of Georgian houses; it is death to the baroque and the rococo. I might not accept his theology but he makes some pretty cogent philosophical points and I am ever charmed by his style.

Other books by this remarkable and prolific writer which are reviewed in this blog:

Of course he wrote the Narnia children's books as well.

February 2019; 190 pages

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

Sunday, 17 February 2019

"Paddy Clarke ha ha ha" by Roddy Doyle

A fictionalised memoir of an Irish childhood. Paddy grows up with his ma and da, his brother Sinbad (Francis) and his sisters, and the other boys of the neighbourhood. They go to school, they fight, they play football, they dare one another to steal from shops, start fires, they run down construction pipes. This is no idyll; it is a raw and honest account of childhood. Teeth are lost, a boy dies, friendships are made and broken. And as the narrative progresses a dark shadow grows. Paddy's ma and da begin to argue and fight.

The voice is the authentic voice of Irish childhood. My friend 'Karl' writes stories about Ireland and I could here his voice in the way Doyle uses language. The words and the syntax have an authentic Irish lilt to them.

To capture the essence of young Paddy Clarke, the narrative rambles. Paddy is simply too young, or too clever, to keep his thoughts in a single track. He may be describing the building of a new housing estate but that segues into how the cows were taken from the farm in a lorry and how Uncle Eddie, the farmer's brother, hit a cow with a stick when it slipped in the mud and how he used to run down the road to get the evening paper for his brother. He may be talking about the naming of their football team but this progresses into the boys investigating the first names of their mothers. A dreadful family outing in da's new car (which he hasn't yet learned to drive) in the pouring rain has all the elements of family life including the tension between ma and da, the relationship between Sinbad and Paddy, and the fact the when little Sinbad wouldn't ever smile for his photograph.

It sounds like a nightmare. Just stream of consciousness rambling. But it allows Doyle to explore his characters in all their complexities; it allows him to build a picture of his people from all the possible angles so that we see them as real, with faults and frailties and strengths and needs. There is no shirking the genuineness of the people portrayed. The structure of this book is hidden deep down. It is not so much a narrative as an atmosphere. As childhood progresses the dark clouds slowly gather and innocence becomes maturity.

A stunning portrayal of childhood well worth the 1993 Booker Prize.

It is difficult to select quotations from this book because so much of the brilliance is diffused across the pages but here are a few samples:

  • "Jesus had his head tilted sideways, a bit like a kitten."
  • "She was Mister O'Connell's girlfriend, although she wasn't a girl at all; she'd been a woman for ages."
  • "Kevin turned his back to the sea and the wind and lit the match. He turned and saved the flame by the shield of his hand. I loved the way he could do that."
  • "When my da was standing up he stood perfectly still. His feet clung to the ground. They only moved when he was going somewhere. My ma's feet were different. They didn't settle. They couldn't make their minds up."
  • "She let go of my leg. She always said nothing when she was being annoyed. She clicked and pointed."
  • "He was younger than me, and smaller. Safe smaller; he'd never be able to kill me, even if he was a brilliant fighter."
  • "My ma said that you should chew the food well before you swallowed it. I never did; it was a waste of time and boring."
  • "I looked for lipstick on his collar ... There wasn't any. I wondered, anyway, why there'd be lipstick on the collar. Maybe the women were bad shots in the dark."
  • "They were both to blame. It took two to tango. It didn't take three; there was no room for me."
You will have your own selection when you read it and you must read it because this childish Joycean Odyssey is a masterclass in writing.

February 2019; 282 pages

Irish fiction reviewed in this blog:
  • Strumpet City by James Plunkett: a book about the poor in Dublin in the early 20th Century
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the sequel to Angela's Ashes: an Irish exile in New York
  • Dubliners by James Joyce: the classic short stories
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgworth: a classic first published in 1800
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: a boy grows up in Ireland
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan: set in the recession of the early 21st Century

Friday, 15 February 2019

"Man and the Sun" by Jacquette Hawkes

This book was written in 1962 and is a reasonably authoritative layman's guide to the relationship between man and the sun. She starts off discussing the science and how the sun drives life on Earth but her main interest lies in the realm of myth. Thus she considers the prehistoric representations of sun gods, finding solar disks in burials on Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge, before considering solar gods in the religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Incas and Aztecs, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and the followers of Mithras and Christ.

There are many interesting points she made although she sometimes allows her cultural biases to show (for example when condemning the Aztecs for their practice of human sacrifice). Often her writing is vigorous and she has a way with metaphor that can coin a memorable phrase (“We stand before the chimpanzee’s cage thinking, each one of us, there but for the grace of God swing I.”) Occasionally this can stray into the use of language for reinforcing bias, such as when she describes Neanderthals [I assume] as "less able types of human being". There is sometimes a statement made baldly without any evidence but which she clearly considers fact: “As the individual self-consciousness increased and the conscious and intellectual mind grew further apart from the unconscious, there was an equivalent tendency to set a single male divinity outside and above nature, the world being his creation, sometimes his creation as Logos, the most intellectual of conceptions. It is not easy to distinguish sharply between transcendental and immanent gods.

This is a book of its time but it is well-written and very readable.

Interesting moments:
  • “At two thousand million miles from the Sun its light is still strong enough to allow the reading of fine print - were there readers on Uranus, which orbits at about this distance.”
  • “Plants can feed on pure carbon dioxide ... The leaf wantoning in the air is eating away as steadily as a sheep in a field.”
  • “It is an all but universally recognised attribute of the inspired person to have bright-shining eyes.”
  • “There are people who have developed religious ideas that allow them to be as light-hearted and guilt-free as many of the South Sea Islanders, or as grim and guilt-ridden as the Calvinists, who rejoice in simplicity like the Quakers or in grandeur like the Roman Catholics ... Yet always ... we are inclined to think of the religion shaping the faithful instead of the faithful shaping the religion.” 
  • “Satan, Prince of Darkness, and his followers can hardly be distinguished from Ahriman and his demon host.”
  • “No more than a bird can build its nest exclusively with its own feathers could the Christian leaders build a faith, rites and church without picking up all manner of extraneous material from the Graeco-Roman environment.”
  • Leonardo da Vinci said that “whoever evokes authority for his reasoning is using not his intelligence that his memory.”

February 2019; 240 pages

Sunday, 10 February 2019

"Winter" by Ali Smith

This is the second of the 'Four Seasons' tetralogy that Smith is writing about Britain after the Brexit referendum. It follows Autumn.

Smith has a unique way of writing. She doesn’t really narrate a single story. Instead she puts together little snippets of narrative in a sort of collage so that we can build up her characters and at the same time understand her themes. As she herself says in Part Three: “That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once.”This makes her books not simply linear, as most standard narrative fiction is, but two or even three dimensional: there is the story, the characters, the understory. We might never find out what is going to happen next but we have had a glimpse into the lives of some very real people and we understand a little more about the world in which we live. This book is a perfect example of her craft.

Each fragment of the collage is very carefully crafted. She follows Orwell's dictum that 'good prose is like a windowpane'. For example, I know exactly what she means by this description in Part One: “He is here on a communal PC the keyboard of which makes the fingers on his hands feel as inept as some love making sessions he'd rather not recall.” And this from Part Three: “The whole room turns towards her in that unnatural way owls can move their heads right round without moving the rest of their bodies.

She also has a prose style which feels very intimate in which she sort-of splurges in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, which draws you in as a friend, and yet is so sophisticated. For example, this is a woman shortly after making love: “Later on her way home, as she walks down a street, there’ll be words again, she’ll be dazed with it, blasted by it, made roofless like a house after a gale with it and the walls all down, made open, maybe such a thing as too pen because this street she’ll be on, it’s a pretty run-down street but it will be vibrant to her, though below her there’ll be nothing but a pavement, but beautiful, the pavement, well get real, pavements aren’t beautiful, and the bus shelter a beauty, buildings, scruffy, beautiful, beautiful fast food place, shockingly beautiful coin-operated launderette full of strangers whose profiles in the late evening sun are, yes, though she knows they aren’t really, but they will be, right then, unbelievably beautiful.

It might be thought that this means that the structure of the book, its 'plot', is less important to her but this book is structured after the three phases of the Christmas Carol: past (Christmas Eve), present (Christmas Day) and future (Boxing Day). Furthermore there are moments which loop back. For example, one of the first things that Sophie says to Lux is that her "face is full of little holes". At the time I thought this referred to the eye problems that Sophie might be having. But later on we are told that “It would be good to be full of holes ... Then all the things you can’t express would maybe just flow out.” This rather summarises Lux (which Lux says is short for Velux, after the window). Furthermore the vision of the head which Sophie sees at the start of the book is paired with Art's visions towards the end of a section of the coastline falling from the sky.

It starts in a very Dickensian way by adapting the start of a Christmas Carol: “God was dead, to begin with.” It then lists all the other things that are dead in a way which reminded me of the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” start to the Tale of Two Cities or the “Fog everywhere” second paragraph of Bleak House.

Part One:
In Part One, Sophie, an old lady who was once a successful businesswoman, is hallucinating a head. This reminded me of Scrooge, hallucinating Marley’s Ghost. She goes to the Opticians and the bank and is rather annoyed by what she sees as the rudeness of modern life and, again like Scrooge, the banks closing early when she wants her money. Later, in Part Two, she will be described as miserly. There is also a reminder of Christmas Carol in the way Sophie will remember Christmases from her past. She grew up with a rebellious sister called Iris who later became a peace protestor at Greenham.

We also learn about Art, Sophie’s son, who has broken up with his girlfriend Charlotte and now has to find a woman to pretend to be Charlotte when he goes to his mum’s house for Christmas.

But when Art and the hired girl, Lux, get to his mum’s rambling old mansion (which used to be the squat that Iris lived in) Sophie is unwelcoming and there is no food in the house. In an obvious reference to the Nativity story, she tells Lux to sleep in the barn. Instead, Lux phones Iris to come and help, even though she is told that the two sisters haven’t spoken for thirty years.

Great lines from Part One:

  • “The traffic jam congealing in all directions.”
  • “Your default to selfishness is not ok at all.”
  • “Solstice, she said. You said it. Darkest days ever. There's never been a time like this. Yes there has, he said. Solstices are cyclic and they happen every year.”
  • “That's what he is, a language no one else alive in the world speaks. He is the last living speaker of himself. ... He himself is dead as a disappeared grammar, a graveyard scatter of phonemes and morphemes.”

Part Two:
In Part Two there are more memories from Art and from Sophie, which suggest that Iris helped to bring Art up when he was too young to remember, a fact that his mother furiously denies. And there is a wonderful Christmas lunch, which reminded me of the brilliantly horrible dinner party in Smith’s There But For The, in which we explore the play of Cymbeline in which “A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning.” is a powerful metaphor for Britain after the Brexit vote, and compare ‘No room at the Inn’ with the refusal to accept economic migrants.

Great lines from Part Two:
  • “It might be worth it, to re-experience what it's like to be sick, because from what she remembered there was a certain pleasure in it, anarchic force of clearance.”
  • “One of those powerful liminal times in a life when death isn't just preferable to being alive, because you feel so lousy, also but that also let you negotiate with the powers that be about your own living or dying.”
  • “There was always a furious intolerance at work no matter when or where in history, she thought, and it always went for the head or the face. She thought of the burnt-off scraped-off faces of the mediaeval painted saints on the wooden altar screens in hundreds of churches.”
  • “It was meant as a warning. Take a look at what your saints are truly made of. It was the demonstration that everything symbolic will be revealed as a lie, everything you revere nothing but burnt matter, broken stone, as soon as it meets whatever shape time’s contemporary cudgel takes.”
  • “None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere. ... What does here mean anyway, I'd like to know. Everywhere’s a here, isn’t it?”
  • “It is the dregs, really, to be living in a time when even your dreams have to be post-postmodern consciouser-than-thou.”
  • “Surreal was the word. Above real.”
  • “And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we've got reality TV instead ... And soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States.”
  • “I'm me all right ... I'm more me than I care to admit.”
  • “In real life you seem detached, but not impossible.”
  • “But what will the world do ... if we can't sort the problem of the millions and millions of people with no home to go to or whose homes aren't good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls? It isn't a good enough answer, that one group of people can be in charge of the destinies of another group of people and choose whether to exclude them or include them. Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous. We've got to come up with a better answer.”

Part Three
In the third part, which starts with a scene in the future in which Art is reading A Christmas Carol with his son, reconciliations abound and there are parallels drawn between Joseph, father of Jesus, and the man Art thinks is his father.

Great lines from Part Three:

  • “Whatever being alive is, with all its pasts and presents and futures, it is most itself in the moments when you surface from a depth of numbness or forgetfulness that you didn't even know you were at, and break the surface”
  • “We’re all apocrypha.”
  • “It's the ghost of a flower not yet open on its stem, the real thing long gone, but look, still there, the mark of the life of it reaching across the words on the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle.”
Ali Smith is perhaps the most original and innovative writer in England at the moment. Her corpus is astounding. It includes: 
  • How To Be Both which contains two linked stories either of which can be read first (indeed, they are printed in a different sequence in different editions with no clue as to which you have bought until you start reading)
  • The Accidental
  • Artful which interweaves a ghost story with lectures about the art of literature.

February 2019; 322 pages

Thanks to my sister Jane for yet another brilliant Christmas present.

Friday, 8 February 2019

"Most Wanted" by Robert Crais

Devon Connor is worried about her son, Tyson. She has found a $40k Rolex under his bed. She hires Private Investigator Elvis Cole to find out where he got it. Tyson and his teenage friends are responsible for a strong of burglaries across LA. Trouble is, they have stolen something valuable beyond pearls and two killers are hunting them. Can Elvis save the situation?

A fast-paced thriller set in California.

Some nice lines:

  • "Stemms sniffed the air loudly, like a dog catching a scent. "I'm smelling bullshit."
  • "He was an excellent criminalist. He was also paranoid, needy, and burdened with less self-esteem than the average grapefruit."
  • "I like having my ass kissed but you're giving me bum-burn."
February 2019; 375 pages

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:

  • A very murderous Christmas (a short story collection)
  • 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.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

"The Outsider" by Colin Wilson

This thesis is remarkable in that it was written by a 24 year old who displays an astonishing range of reading (Herman Hesse, Sartre, Camus, GBS, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Gurdjieff; some of these he would have been forced to read in the original languages). The thesis is a fascinating blend of literary criticism, philosophy and psychology.

Wilson's thesis is that there are characters who are Outsiders. As well as the literary characters he cites among others Lawrence of Arabia, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Nietzsche, William Blake, and George Fox (the founder of the Quakers). Some of these Outsiders are highly intellectual, some highly emotional, some highly physical; mist are rather unbalanced. They are set apart from the Insiders who form the common herd of humanity (there seems to be a feeling that they are thus superior to the common man). But Wilson can square this circle by using the example of Einstein and Newton. Newtonian physics is fine for low relative speeds; so common philosophies are fine for most everyday situations and everyday folk. But you need Einsteinian relativity when relative speeds approach the speed of light. In the same way the philosophies of everyday fail in the extremes to which Outsiders push them.

The Outsider is outside because he has recognised the futility of life; “The Outsider ... is the one man who knows he is sick in a civilization that doesn’t know it is sick.” This makes them feel that the world is somehow unreal and they long to be immersed in the world's vividness. 

The Outsider “does not prefer not to believe; he doesn't like feeling that futility gets the last word in the universe; his human nature would like to find something it can answer to with complete assent.But his honesty prevents his accepting a solution that he cannot reason about.” This leads to “terror on the edge of nothingness.

Thus, the Outsider's initial experience is that of rejecting the world leading to withdrawal from it; if this withdrawal leads to a mystical revelation they may then return to the world as a prophet: “The history of prophets of all time follow a pattern: born in a civilization, the reject its standards of material well-being and retreat into the desert. When they return, it is to preach world rejection: intensity of spirit versus physical security. The Outsider’s miseries are the prophet’s teething pains.” This is quite religious: The Outsider feels himself to have a purpose. This is an intense religious feeling. But the Outsider has rejected conventional religion. His problem is therefore to develop his religious mysticism outside conventional religion. As William Blake said: “I must create my own System or be enslaved by another man's.

This is a compelling thesis and it seems backed with a great deal of evidence although sometimes Wilson's comments on others seems opinionated: “Crime and Punishment is his [Dostoevsky’s] only complete artistic success; the other novels are as unshapely as pillow-cases stuffed with lumps of concrete.

I found the book initially very appealing and very easy to read. I was humbled by the breadth and depth of Wilson's knowledge. Some of the later ideas, when he talks for example of Nietzsche and later of Gurdjieff, I found more difficult to understand. I think this is because (perhaps as an Outsider myself) I find it difficult to believe when a philosopher no matter how respected makes ex cathedra pronouncements. I want to shout: where is the evidence? like a little boy asking where are the emperor's clothes. So when Wilson spoke of the visionaries such as these two (and later William Blake and George Fox) I found it a little less compelling. Nevertheless, this thesis is a tour de force.

Great quotes
  • “Some are perfectly satisfied with what they have; they eat, drink, impregnate their wives, and take life as it comes. Others can never forget that they are being cheated; that life tempts them to struggle by offering them the essence of sex, of beauty, of success;and that she always seems to pay in counterfeit money.”
  • “All men and women have these dangerous, unnamable impulses, yet they keep up a pretence, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational.”
  • “Many great artists have none of the characteristics of the Outsider. Shakespeare, Dante, Keats were all apparently normal and socially well-adjusted.”
  • “Must thought negate life?”
  • “Is there no causality, no possible meaning? ... There is only being useless and knowing it and being useless and not knowing it.”
  • “The atmosphere of the Existentialist Outsider is unpleasant to breathe. There is something nauseating, anti-life, about it: these men without motive who stay in their rooms because there seems no reason for doing anything else. It is essentially an adult world, this world-without-values. The child’s world is altogether cleaner; the air tastes of expectation.”
  • “The rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not a sterile, boring state of mind; it was a period of intense and healthy optimism.”
  • “The romantic Outsider is a ‘dreamer of other worlds’ ... ‘the idle singer of an empty day’.”
  • “The Bildungsroman sets out to describe the evolution of the ‘hero’s soul’; it is fictional biography”
  • “The descent into the dark world is not necessarily evil; it may be the necessary expression of boldness and intelligence.”
  • “The Outsider is the mainstay of the bourgeois. Without him the bourgeois could not exist. ... Many Outsiders unify themselves, realize themselves as poets or saints. Others remain tragically divided and unproductive, but even they supply soul-energy to society; it is their strenuousness that purifies thought and prevents the bourgeois world from foundering under its own dead-weight.”
  • Quoting GBShaw in Buoyant Billions “I don’t want to be happy; I want to be alive and active.”
  • “The Outsider’s first business is self-knowledge.”
  • “The violence and cruelty of the desert, and its contempt for the flesh, weigh equally in opposite balance-pans.”
  • “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery ... Lawrence was “a monk in his body’s cell.” There are times he could avoid thought, while riding camels or later while riding fast motorbikes.
  • “This particular contradiction is inherent in mysticism - the saint who sees all existence as holy, and the saint who is completely withdrawn from existence.”
  • “Man is not a unity; he is many. But for anything to be worth doing, he must become a unity.
  • “His last words ... are the words of a man who feels that defeat is inevitable, that life is a baited trap; who kills himself to escape the necessity of taking the bait again.”
  • Alcohol stimulates the “mystical faculties ... that flood-tide of inner warmth and vital energy that human beings regard as the most desirable state to live in. The sober hour carries continuous demands on the energy; sense-impressions, thoughts, uncertainties, suck away the vital powers minute by minute.”
  • William James in Varieties of Religious Experience suggests a “misery line”: “The sanguine and healthy minded habitually live on the sunny side of their misery line; the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension ... Does it not appear as if one who lived habitually on one side of the pain threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?”
  • “When Van Gogh's ‘misery will never end’ is combined with Evan Strowde’s ‘nothing is worth doing’, the result is a kind of spiritual syphilis that can hardly stop short of death or insanity. Conrad's story Heart of Darkness deals with a man who has brought himself to this point.”
  • “The neo-Platonist ... is just as likely to be knocked down by a bus at Marble Arch as the deepest-dyed pessimist.”
  • “What about what the millions of men and women in our modern cities; are they really all the Outsider claims they are: futile, unreal, unutterably lost without knowing it?”
  • “Real evil ... attacks the mind, not the body.”
  • “An Eastern fable of a man who cling a shrub on the side of a pit to escape an enraged beast at the top and a dragon at the bottom. Two mice gnaw at the roots of his shrub. Yet while hanging, waiting for death, he notices some drops of honey on the leaves of the shrub, and reaches out and licks them.” (In Tolstoy’s Memoirs of a Madmen)
  • Insiders: “have aims .... some of them very distant aims: a new car in three years, a house at Surbiton in five; but an aim is not an ideal. They are not play-actors. They change their shirts every day, but never their conception of themselves ... These men are in prison: that is the Outsider’s verdict. They are quite contented in prison - caged animals who have never known freedom; but it is prison all the same. And the Outsider? He is in prison to ... but he knows it.” Insiders think “they are the prison.”
  • “He thinks too much. Thinking has thinned his blood and made him incapable of spontaneous enjoyment. He envies simpler, stupider people because they are undivided.”
  • From The Brothers Karamazov: 
    • “It’s not God I don’t accept, Alyosha - only that I most respectfully return him the entrance ticket.”
    • “The Outsider’s problems are insoluble, and we, the elect, know this”
    • “If I am a delusion of your mind, you are also a delusion of mine.”
  • “The Outsider sees with such penetration through the usual self-deluding the way in which all men and women blind themselves with their emotions. The consequence is usually a Swiftian contempt for men and women.”
  • “What is the business of intellect? It is to synthesize unendingly.”
  • The Outsider sees most men as failures but this enables him to realise “ If I can say: that man was a failure, then I must have an idea of what success means.”
  • “Man is not merely intellect and emotions: he is body too. This is easiest off all to forget.”
  • “Wells was a political witch-doctor, full of quack remedies for the age; Dickens a sentimentalist who helped to poison our language, and Shaw ... became a complacent, self-satisfied old man.”
  • Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” 
  • Kierkegaard: “The Gods were bored, so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, so Eve was created ... Then the population of the world increased, and the people were born en masse. To divert themselves, they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens.”
  • “The universe is full of life is nothing but life, life engaged in an unending attempt to reinforce its grip on matter.”
  • “Kali is depicted as a fierce, black-visaged woman, holding a sword and a dripping human head in two of her four hands ... She stands on the prostrate body of her husband Shiva, for Shiva only symbolizes conscious life; she is the life-force.”
  • “The world has no meaning for us because we do all things mechanically. One day we are inspired by some poem or piece of music or picture, and the whole world is suddenly ten times as real, as meaningful, for us.” 
February 2019;281 pages

Saturday, 2 February 2019

"Snap" by Belinda Bauer

Jack is eleven when his mum's car breaks down and she walks down the hard shoulder to find a phone for help. She never returns. Three years on and he is looking after his sisters by burglary. Then he burgles one house to find evidence of what happened to his mother.

One of the best crime novels I have read for a long time. There are so many wonderful characters:

  • Jack the teenage professional burglar, a real Artful Dodger
  • Joy his sister, obsessed with newspapers that might have some item about their dead mother, filling up their house with piles of newsprint
  • Reynolds the celibate copper who tries to do everything by the book but makes mistakes left right and centre
  • Adam, pregnant Catherine's loving and sometimes not so loving husband.
  • Smooth Louis, the burglar turned fence, obsessed with removing every trace of his body hair and bringing up his baby son properly.
  • Veronica, the old lady with cats

Added to this are the wonderful observations of everyday life and some laugh out loud humour.

Great lines:

  • "It was so hot in the car that the seats smelled as though they were melting. Jack was in shorts, and every time he moved his legs they sounded like sellotape."First lines
  • "The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again."
  • "There was a long, hot blink of arid time."
  • "Jack Bright's eyes were narrow as a smoker's and pale grey, as if all the colour had been cried out of them."
  • "Marvel didn't know what was worse: too much sky above or too much green beneath. He'd been born and bred in the city, and was suspicious of both."
  • "It was tiny in the way that only modern houses could be - with space for all mod cons but no room for character."
  • "The Lego-trained architect had tried to inject some personality into the neighbourhood by aligning each carbon-copy house at a different angle on its handkerchief plot, but that only made the place look untidy, rather than interesting."
  • "Louis clipped an extendable dog-lead to a belt-loop on his tiny jeans, which made babysitting not unlike flying a chubby kite - reeling him in for orange squash, or yanking him off a collision course with drowning or dog poo."
  • "Catherine's risotto was a triumph ... but Jan went on and on about it as if she'd spit-roasted a unicorn."
  • "You don't want to be chumming a river."
  • "Hands that shook as if he'd uncovered King Tut's tomb on a Tiverton housing estate."
  • "She was going to cry. Jack remembered when she used to do that all the time and get her own way. None of them cried now. It never got them anywhere."
  • "By the end of the show the northerners were sent packing like pregnant housemaids."
  • "He'd had many hours that were not his finest. He was a murder detective. The interests of the corpse came first."
  • "A cup of Pepsi sitting in a puddle of its own sweat."
  • "He hated cats. Couldn't bear the hoity-toity little fuckers. But he was a whore for information."
  • "She'd been eating the same thing for supper since 1992."

This must read novel redefines what a crime novel should be. I need to read more from this author!

February 2019
Many thanks to my sister Jane for this inspired Christmas present.

Friday, 1 February 2019

"Daybreak" by Pat McGrath

Beatnik culture in 1970's London: squatting and hitch hiking and taking drugs and pretending to write poetry. A sort of cross between On the Road and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Hippy culture meets gritty realism.

It opens with Rick returning home with his end of school exam results clutched in his hand to find that his mother has been on an alcoholic spree. He looks after his little sister, getting her first to a neighbour's and then to his gran's in Southend; then he abandons any further responsibility to leave home and shack up in a squat with Marie. From then on we follow his occasional forays taking drugs or hitchhiking into Wales to see his writing teacher and to Southend for Christmas with his family; he is occasionally reminded he has familial responsibilities but there is little serious conflict here. The book meanders, rather like Rick's life, with the only real question being whether Marie will stay with him.

Great lines:

  • "A teenage mind tangled up in barbed wire knots."
  • "I breathed in the sweet clouds of cancer."
  • "I ... was oblivious of all the reality around me, unaware of the weight of life on grown-ups' minds."
  • "I was alive like a ripple on a river - something deep was happening."
  • "How long would we have to die in this queue?"
  • "We lay body to body, warm skin to skin, warm soft lips to lips, soft tongue to tongue, teeth biting, legs tangled, arms locked around flesh, moving, crying out as we lost control together."
  • "In London you were really content to know that the theatres were there, but really it was very rare that you'd actually go to one."
  • "We were now self-contained in a magic box with a pink light, beds, carpet, compartments, curtains."
  • "I was a young man thinking I've got a whole life ahead of me, what a drag."
  • "It must be a hell of a life being a tree in this weather."

February 2019