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

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

"Barrow's Boys" by Fergus Fleming

A wonderful story of exploration of the Arctic, the Antarctic and Africa in the 1800s, expeditions commissioned by the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, John Barrow.

Apart from the hideous stories of suffering in inhospitable climates (I couldn't decide whether I would rather suffer winters in the Arctic with the ever present threat of losing bit of my body to frostbite or in Africa with the constant opportunity of dying from a parasite-borne disease; this book was only slightly less horrific in this respect than the Amazonian adventures recounted in The Lost City of Z), this book was notable for the complete bonkers people who wanted to go to these awful places, sometimes, after narrow survivals including being driven to eat one's own boots, to go back. For example, these madmen included “John Franklin ... [who] refused to sully the sabbath even by writing a letter.” (C 9), John Ross ("Never one to burn one boat when two would do") and McClure, whose "temper was uncontrollable. When ... his first officer allowed the ship to hit a hurricane, he ... was arrested and sent to his cabin with two marines standing guard outside the door.” (C 26) But not all of the madmen went abroad. The First Secretary of the Admiralty (Barrow's boss) was angry when John Ross turned down a dinner invitation on the grounds that he had just learned that his only child had died. The first secretary replied “You’ll get more children, come and dine with me.” (C 4)

Some of the story is about what happened at home. The Admiralty itself "was not interested in the unknown precisely because it was unknown.” (C 1) However, “This was the age of Romanticism, where crags of ice, tempestuous seas and tribes of undiscovered savages were far more interesting than the dry perspectives of eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” (C 1) Barrow had two particular goals: to discover the North-West Passage by which ships could sail north of Canada from the Atlantic into the Pacific, thus avoiding Cape Horn, and to discover the course of the River Niger in Africa, which he believed either emptied into Lake Chad or joined with the Nile. Part of the trouble was that he was so convinced of his own, stay-at-home, geographical theories that when explorers came home he would often tell them they were wrong and rubbish their findings or significantly edit their accounts before they were allowed to be published (normally by John Murray). A second part of the trouble was that money was always short and incompetence in good supply: “In every venture Barrow sent forth there was an element of incompetence. Something, somewhere, was always lacking.” (C 5) It is interesting to read a book in which many of the characters are so roundly condemned.

But the bulk of the narrative concerns the terrible ordeals experienced by some very brave men. Sometimes they discovered remarkable things. For example, the amazing sights Parry saw included “a fascinating phenomenon whereby the sun was surrounded by two haloes in which refraction gave birth to three mini-suns.” (C 6) and, on a later voyage to the Arctic, “a magnificent rainbow of five complete arches.” (C 14) Another explorer was able to confirm that the aurora borealis made no noise. Then there were the people:

  • Polar Eskimoes ... had split from the main group of Greenland Eskimos in about 1450, and had wandered northwards during a period known as the Little Ice Age, adapting to the cold and the available food supply to such a degree that they had lost most of the usual Arctic skills ... As far as they knew, they were the only people in the world.” (C 3)
  • The Arctic Highlanders were so isolated that they had even lost their mythology.” (C 3) 
But there were horrors as well:
  • His hands had the appearance of translucent marble and was so cold that the bowl of water into which they were plunged froze over.” (C 6)
  • The road from Murzouk to Lake Chad was 700 miles long and strewn so thickly with the remains of the some 8,500 slaves who died annually on the journey north that Oudney’s party moved with an audible crunching sound. ... For days on end they tramped through the brittle remains.” (C 11)

There were interesting experiences: 
  • He attended wild parties and slept the night off in an Eskimo hut. ‘But I was awakened by a feeling of great warmth, and to my surprise found myself covered by a large deerskin, under which lay my friend, his two wives, and their favourite puppy, all fast asleep and stark naked’.” (C 8)
  • One African explorer was invited to drink water from a chamberpot which his companion recognised “as an old one of his own, which he had sold at market only a year before.” (C 13)

Other great quotes:

  • Had Ross been buried at sea he could not have been stitched up more thoroughly.” (C 4)
  • His commanding officer wrote that ‘his military exploits were worse than his poetry’ - which is saying a great deal.” (C 12)
  • When the James Ross expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle the men celebrated by getting the ship’s goat drunk. “Two days later while Billy ‘was paying the usual penance for his debauchery’, they reached the ice pack.” (C 21)
  • The Falklands ... colony was pitifully neglected with only seventy inhabitants, twenty of whom were government officials.” (C 22)

A great book but I think my travel will be more enjoyable at home.

Other great travel books include:

Some more books about exploration:

July 2019; 446 pages

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

"Tonight the Summer's Over" by Rory Waterman

I think I will give up reading poetry. I just don't know enough about it, and it is arrogant to endeavour to review it. I don't understand the standards against which I should compare it; I don't have the instinct born of sufficient educated connoisseurship to enable me to judge how good a poem is. I am ignorant and ignorance cannot assess.

I can understand some of the mechanics. I might be able to judge a poem as a machine. Here's an iamb, this line is a pentameter, here we have a rhyme pattern that follows the rules for a Petrarchan sonnet. But I don't know how to turn these artificial rules into understanding. It is like trying to appreciate wine by describing the shape of the bottle.

There are, I am sure, some remarkable poems in this collection. I learned a lot about the author and his troubled childhood. Some of the poems were based on standard patterns although the poet often failed to obey the rules it seemed he had imposed upon himself. Thus, for example, Family Business is a sort of sonnet: there are fourteen lines with a rhyming pattern ABBA CDDC EFFE GG; however, the scansion is not the iambic pentameters normal to sonnets (though some lines are and they are all nearly; they are pentameters but the feet vary); there isn’t a clear division between the first eight and the last six; and some of the rhymes aren’t quite.

I can understand that a single rule breakage can signal something momentous, like a half line in Virgil, but the rule breakage here seemed too frequent to be like that. I suppose it simply meant that the poet wanted the words to stand by themselves rather than to play second fiddle to an artificial structure. 

He certainly doesn't like the convention that each line of poetry should start with a capital.

There are a lot of families. In Visiting Grandpa a young girl plays with her grandfather's medals; but she isn't allowed to go to his funeral. There are a number of poems about the poet as a boy splitting his time between his divorced parents: mother in Lincolnshire and father in Northern Ireland. The narrator reacts to a baby in Seeing Baby Emrys in Gwynedd and a toddler in Stranger.

There are some great lines:
... you’re holding hands
with a wise dead owl, and learning something
inscrutable you still can’t understand.

... I stop
and tut and tap the wheel and find a sweet
and scrape it through its wrapper with my teeth

What Passing Bells

pallid in a damp-thick
whinny of breezing rain.

In the Avenue of Limes

Is growing older, then, forced unclenching?
An email from your mother

Arctic terns head-butt spume
Faroe Islands: notes for three photographs

A bee revs its engine
and limps from stamen
to stamen, then lifts,
chicanes to the trees.


... stretch-torsoed in the faraway
A suicide

... Then a two-foot scruff
with saucer eyes waddles to my knee,
fingers his nose as if uncorking it,
and asks me plainly, sweetly, who I am.


And beyond them the nothing sun is falling through nothing
This Shipwreck Memorial a Mile from Town

July 2019

Saturday, 27 July 2019

"The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

We first meet Harrison Shepherd, born in the US of A to an American father and a Mexican mother, as a lonely boy in Mexico, learning about life from the monkeys in the trees and the fish in the sea and the cook in the kitchen. Later he becomes plaster-mixer, cook and secretary to famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, and then cook and secretary to Trotsky until Stalin's assassin catches up with Harrison's famous boss. Thus ends the first half of the book. The second half follows Harrison to Asheville, North Caroline, where he becomes a best-selling historical novelist until he runs foul of the McCarthyite government.

The first few pages prepare us for what is to come when he is misrepresented and persecuted:

  • In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten.” (first lines)
  • The rule of fishes is the same as the rule of people: if the shark comes, they will all escape, and leave you to be eaten.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The dancers were butterflies. From a hundred paces Salome could see the dirt under these girls’ fingernails, but not their wings.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
And the lacuna? A lacuna is a gap in the record and much is made of the missing notebook that, presumably, records why Harrison was expelled from a Washington School. As his boss, painter Frida says: “The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941). It is the things that others think they know about Harrison, wrongly, that get him persecuted. For Harrison a lacuna is also an underwater cave such as he has encountered in his Mexican boyhood, an opening into another world. But to the compiler of this memoir, working from his notes, Harrison himself is the lacuna, the eternal unobtrusive observer: “He wrote as if he'd been the one to carry the camera to each and everyone of his life's events, and thus was unseen in all the pictures.” (Part One, Archivist’s Note) References to lacunae are found throughout this novel:
Our house is like an empty cigarette packet, lying around reminding you what’s not in it.” (Part One, Mexico City 1930)

This is a cleverly told story. It's chronological structure, the use of an archivist to introduce the various sections, the 'lost notebook', the way in which Harrison works for famous people before going to live in a famous town, the description of the real-life assassination of Trotsky, the inclusion in the later parts of letters and newspaper clippings, all add so much to the verisimilitude that I searched for Harrison Shepherd in Wikipedia. However, it also served to slow the story down. Although the first part foreshadowed the second half this was not apparent at the time. I loved the first half and raced towards the assassination of Trotsky, which I knew must be coming, and the second half (which is the point of the story) seemed tame in comparison. I found the made-up newspaper cuttings and fan letters unreal and distracting.  In the end I can appreciate the cleverness of the structure and I suppose it is important to judge any work of art by its wholeness. And it didn't seem to drag. I planned to read it in five days and I finished it in four. So Ms Kingsolver must have been doing something right.

I think I prefer the Poisonwood Bible, by the same author, though, probably because the characters are larger than life, whilst young Harrison always hides himself, especially when having sex.

There are some great descriptions:
  • Hunched, woolly bodies balanced on swinging limbs, their tails reaching out to stroke the branches like guitar strings.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The little cathedral looks taller than it was, and menacing, like a person who comes into the bedroom carrying a candle.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The men's high-heeled boots cut hard at the ground, drumming like penned stallions. When the music paused, they leaned across their partners in the manner of animals preparing to mate. Move away, come back, the girls waggled their shoulders.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The waitresses had white aprons and eyes wide with fright.” (Part One, Mexico City 1930)

And there is advice:
  • She never says gracias because life is made of survival not grace.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • Once you’re on the horse you have to hold on, I suppose. Even if he bucks.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • “The longer the sauce cooks, the spicier it gets.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • Love ... winks on and off like an electric bulb.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • "A story is like a painting ... It doesn’t have to look like what you see out of the window.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • Prices rise like balloons, and we all jump like children under a pinata, reaching for our material passions.” (Part Four, Asheville, North Carolina 1941 - 7)
  • Ye cannot stop a bad thought from coming into your head. But ye need not pull up a chair and bide it sit down.” (Part Four, Asheville, North Carolina 1941 - 7)
  • She was curious about how a writer decides where to begin the story. You should start with ‘In the beginning’, I told her, but it should be as close to the end as possible. There's the trick.” (Part Four, Asheville, North Carolina 1941 - 7)
  • With Archie, irony carries the mailbag right to the door of nonchalance.” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
  • In the long run, most of us spend about fifteen minutes total in the entanglements of passion, and the rest of our days looking back on it, humming the tune.” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
  • You know what the issue is? Do you want to know? It's what these guys have decided to call America. They have the audacity to say, ‘There, you sons of bitches, don't lay a finger on it. That is a finished product!’” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
  • You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap.” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
July 2019; 670 pages

Also set in Mexico: The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

"Ernest Hemingway on Writing" edited by Larry W Phillips

In this short book Phillips has collected quotes from Hemingway about writing, culled from his letters, his newspaper articles and interviews and his short stories and novels. These have then been arranged into thirteen chapters. It gives an insight into Hemingway, a man always trying to "write truly". There is little practical advice to aspiring writers (such as myself) but mostly exhortations. In this world where authors are mostly told to concentrate on technical details such as plot or character it is refreshing to see that Heningway (like Lamott in Bird by Bird or Prose in Reading Like a Writer) focuses so strongly on the words.

Some great quotes (this gentleman certainly had a gift for words):
  • I am trying to make ... a picture of the whole world ... boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin.” (C 1)
  • The secret is that it is poetry written into prose” (C 1)
  • The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” (C 2)
  • If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the knowledge of life that he has.” (C 2)
  • You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.” (C 3)
  • When you're in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars.” (C 5)
  • You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a licence to bring in your own improvements.” (C 5)
  • Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” (C 6)
  • "Keep them people, people, people, and don't let them get to be symbols.” (C 7)
  • Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” (C 7)
  • Eschew the monumental. Shun the Epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.” (C 8)
  • Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, and Company ... All these men were gentlemen, or wished to be. They were all very respectable. They did not use the words that people always have used in speech, the words that survive in language. Nor would you gather they had bodies. They had minds, yes. Nice, dry, clean minds.” (C 11)
  • It has always been much more exciting to write them to be paid for it.” (C 13)
  • I only think about writing truly. Posterity can take care of herself.” (C 13)
  • Some gents when they are working on a novel may be social assets but I am just about as pleasant to be around as a bear with sore toenails.” (C 13)
  • I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” (C 13)

July 2019; 140 pages

Monday, 22 July 2019

"Art Theory" by Cynthia Freeland

In this "Very Short Introduction" the author begins with a challenge by describing artworks which utilise bodily fluids and challenge the idea that beauty is necessarily pretty. Thus, the first chapter is entitled "Blood and beauty"; goriness is something shared by some very challenging modern art pieces but also by all those renaissance paintings of martyrdom. From this she extracts her first art theory: that art began as a component of a ritual (noting that the central Christian ritual of the Eucharist involves blood). However she dismisses this theory: “For participants in a ritual, clarity and agreement of purpose are central ... Most modern art .... lacks the background reinforcement of pervasive community belief that provides meaning in terms of catharsis, sacrifice, or initiation.” So she seeks alternative theories of art.

For Hume agreement on what is good art was a matter of intersubjectivity. He thought that "men of taste acquire certain abilities that lead to agreement about which authors and artworks are the best. ... in doing so, they set a ‘standard of taste’ which is universal." However she points out that this process seems akin to "cultural indoctrination".

Kant believed that Beauty was an objective quality residing in the art object. One of the criteria was that good art has “purposiveness without a purpose”. This implies that if I am sexually aroused by Botticelli’s Venus then, for me, it is not art but pornography. Kant thought that "a beautiful object feels ‘right’. “The beautiful object appeals to our senses, but in a cool and detached way ... Art should inspire a special and disinterested response of distance and neutrality.

One of the most persistent of all theories of art, the imitation theory: art is an imitation of nature or of human life and action.” Thus, the Gombrich theory of “the history of Western art ... as a search for progressively more vivid renderings of reality.” The imitation theory, inevitably, led to a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle: Plato disliked imitations because they could never match up to his "eternal ideal realities”; Aristotle (in the Poetics), on the other hand, “felt that tragedy could educate by appealing to people's minds, feelings, and senses.

Christian art theory started with Aquinas. “Aquinas theorized that Beauty was an essential or ‘transcendental’ property of God, like Goodness and Unity. Human artworks should emulate and aspire to God’s marvellous properties.” This led to the three key principles governing art in the middle ages: "proportion, light, and allegory.” The influence of proportion “dates back to Plato's Timaeus, where the creative ‘Demi- Urge’ used geometry to plan an orderly material world. The Christian God too was seen as the master builder of the Cosmos.” “Aquinas also emphasized light, using the term claritas, which denotes internal brightness and design.” hence the use in cathedrals of clerestories (clearing away the previous balconies) and therefore the need for flying buttresses.

Nietzsche ... describe the origins of tragedy from the worship of the God Dionysus. Tragic vision showed the very essence of life as violence and suffering, with no meaning or justification. The beauty of ‘Apollonian’ poetry in Tragedy provides a veil through which we tolerate the horrific get enticing Dionysian Vision.

Modern art critic “Danto concludes that a work of art is an object that embodies a meaning.” This means that "what artists can make as art depends upon the context of intentions possible for a given era and culture.” Freeland accepts this to some extent: “I do not mean to say we cannot begin to appreciate the power of nail fetish sculptures without further facts; but information add considerably to our experience.” “Richard Anderson (an ... ethno-aesthetician) argues that we can find something akin to art in all cultures: certain things are appreciated for their beauty, sensuous form, and skill of creation ... Anderson proposes to define art as ‘culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium’.

Freeland goes on to ask whether Art is about the emotions or about ideas. A bit of both, she suggests. “Expression Theory holds that art communicates something in the realm of feelings and emotions.” It was espoused by Leo Tolstoy. “Freud saw art as a form of ‘sublimation’, a gratification that substitutes for the actual satisfaction of our biologically given desires (such as the desire for oral or genital pleasure).” But “Artists are often admired because then can express ideas in ways that are original, apt, and unique to a particular medium.” "Artists share thematic concerns in a given episteme with other intellectuals, including philosophers and scientists.

In the end, she sees all this disagreement as productive. “Critics help us see more in the artist’s work and understand it better. Interpretations are superior if they explain more aspects of the artist’s work.” “Experts notice many things that regular movie audiences might not, such as the intricate shot structure of the infamous shower scene in Psycho.

An excellent brief introduction into 'What is Art?'

More great and thought-provoking quotes:
  • Blood ... has interesting similarities to paint. Fresh blood has an eye-catching hue with a glossy sheen. It will stick to a surface.” (C 1)
  • Blood is our human essence - Dracula sucks it up as he creates the undead. Blood can by holy or noble, the sacrificial blood of martyrs or soldiers. Spots of blood on sheets indicate the loss of virginity and passage to adulthood.” (C 1)
  • The cynical assessment is that blood in contemporary art does not forge meaningful associations, but promotes entertainment and profit. The art world is a competitive place, and artists need any edge they can get.” (C 1)
  • Wagner’s ...use of leitmotifs - phrases associated with particular themes or characters, as well as used for dramatic effect - recurs, for example, in John Williams's music for the Star Wars movies.” (C 2)
  • Cultures often come into contact through means that limit communication, such as imitation, shopping, and mass-market sales.” (C 3)
  • Despite gaps between cultures, intercultural contact is age-old. The art of ancient Greece was influenced by Egyptian sphinxes, Scythian goldsmithing, Syrian love goddesses, and Phoenician coin design.” (C 3)
  • When the leader of an aboriginal dance troupe stepped forward at the end of a performance to tell the audience that there were CDs for sale, the author was shocked “as though he but not I had to remain trapped in the amber of the past.” (C 3)
  • Dictators and other political powers often suppress art because it provides a point of critical resistance.” (C 3)
  • Art and money interact in many institutions - in, particular museums. Museums preserve, collect, and educate the public and convey standards about art’s value and quality - but whose standards, and how?” (C 4)
  • As John Dewey commented in 1934, ‘Generally speaking, the typical collector is the typical capitalist.’ ... J Paul Getty’s ... tales of collecting are in each case accounts of how much he spent.” (C 4)
  • "Dewey said that understanding art is like understanding another person. You may know how to interpret your beloved's smile, but can you summarize it in a sentence?” (C 6)
  • The elaborate three-minute videos broadcast worldwide on MTV specialize in rapid cuts and montage.” (C 7)

July 2019; 140 pages

Saturday, 20 July 2019

"A Man Could Stand Up" by Ford Madox Ford

This is the third book in the Parade's End tetralogy (which started with Some Do Not...). At the end of the second book (No More Parades) Valentine Wannop had agreed to become Christopher Tientjens's mistress starting that night nut something went wrong with the timings and Tientjens went back to the trenches of the western front in the First World War. Now it is Armistice Day and Valentine, a PE teacher at a Girls' Public School, receives a phone call telling her that Tientjens is back in his old digs. After some chapters of internal debate and talking to the Headmistress, Valentine decides to go to Tientjens. Part two flashes back to a day in the trenches when Tientjens, the second in command, relieves his drunken CO of command and prepares the battalion to stand firm in the face of an expected German attack. Part Three goes back to Armistice Day; Valentine encounters Tientjens in his flat and thinks he has been driven mad. But will she agree, a second time, to become his mistress?

So not a lot happens and there is an awful lot of Valentine's stream of consciousness as, with broken sentences and fragmented thoughts, she debates on the propriety of what she is about to do. It might have been raunchy back then but nowadays the endless disputes about a lady's reputation are outdated. Without that, the entire novel does seem a rather melodramatic storm in a teacup. But, given the author's history, one knows that the trench scenes are authentic.

Some good quotes:
  • You couldn’t call it a ménage a trois, even if you didn’t know French.” (P1, C2)
  • Edith Ethel with the sweetest possible smile would beg the pillows off a whole hospital ward full of dying.” (P1, C2)
  • Fulham, an unattractive suburb but near a bishop’s palace nevertheless.” (P1, C3)
  • If people wanted you to appreciate items of sledge-hammering news they should not use long sentences.” (P1, C3)
  • You are lying down under fire—flat under pretty smart fire—and you have only a paper bag in front of your head for cover you feel immeasurably safer than you do without it." (P2, C1)
  • This was the intimate fear of black quiet nights, in dugouts where you heard the obscene suggestions of the miners’ picks below you; tranquil, engrossed.”(P2, C1)
  • “As a well-trained dog will do when you tell it to stay in one part of a room and it prefers another. ... Creeps from the rug by the door to the hearth-rug, its eyes on your unconscious face.”(P2, C2)
July 2019

The tetralogy is completed in Last Post.

Ford Madox Ford also wrote what has been called the perfect novel: The Good Soldier

Thursday, 18 July 2019

"Let Go My Hand" by Edward Docx


The title comes from King Lear; it is the moment in Act 4 Scene 6 when the blinded Gloucester has been led by his son Edgar to what he thinks is the cliff-top at Dover, when he tells Edgar to "let go my hand" because he intends to jump.

The first chapter is set in Dover, at the ferry terminal. Lou is driving his Dad in their beaten up, much-used, family camper van, into Europe. Then, fifteen pages in, after a bit of banter, you discover that their destination is the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland where Dad, who is suffering with Motor Neuron Disease,  intends to end his life. And that is one hell of a hook.

As they travel across France Lou's half brothers, twins Ralph (extrovert ex-actor puppeteer, living a single life, crusiing from woman to woman) and Jack (ex journalist, now an insurance agent married to Roman Catholic Siobhan with twin boys of his own and a daughter) join the caravan. They are opposed to Dad's suicide while Lou, the debt-ridden primary carer (and thus with two selfish interests) Is in favour. As they travel family resentments come boiling to the surface, in particular Dad's abandonment of Ralph and Jack's mother to marry Lou's. This is a family at war, shackled together by love.

The story is told by Lou and in the present tense which makes the urgency of whether Dad will or will not go through with it all the more exciting.

There is a great deal of irony in this carefully structured work. For example, they visit the caves in France where there is primitive art. This chapter, entitled Underworld, in which they almost literally encounter the shades of the dead, is the most life-affirming moment of the book; Dad refers to this visit at the end of the book when he says: “All that a human being leaves behind is what he or she has created. Life is all about creation. The only meaning is creation." (P4 Requiem) 

There is a great deal of conflict between the carefully created characters. The twins even talk differently: Ralph is a free spirit with flowing sentences, ready to develop any idea to its absurd end, full of humour and joy. Jack is more practical, a details, man, and his sentences are more controlled and more tightly structured. They both love Lou, even though he is a symbol of their own mother's betrayal; in one memorable scene the boys, acting as baby-sitters, take Lou on from the restaurant to see their mother; she is angry and flies at Lou, they defend him with 'he's only a boy, mum'. 

This book is so well written that the author was able to insert fairly long discussions on the meaning of life without losing my attention. In some of them, one is distracted from the 'author's message' input by clever devices. In the discussion between the twins at the restaurant above, for example, Lou who has asked for lobster because he hasn't had it before, repeatedly asks his brother's how he should tackle it but is ignored. There are many such moments of humour in this book which (a) alleviates the depressing plot (b) allows greater contrast with the sad bits (c) allows savage irony; Dad is having the time of his life in his last few days.

Spoiler alert
I can't really discuss the twist at the end without at least hinting what it is so this is a spoiler alert. The last chapter is shocking and so surprising that I had to read it three times to make sure I understood what it said (and what it didn't say). Aristotle (in his Poetics) tells us that the reversal in tragic drama (which I take to be equivalent to the twist in a modern novel) has to be surprising - and this one surely was - but also that the audience must see the outcome as inevitable with hindsight, that given the characters and the plot the reversal was at least one of a possible set of outcomes. I assume that in the final chapter Lou swims to his death, or at least intends to. I certainly didn't see that coming. I can't think of anything in the book that foreshadowed it. Lou does talk about being in debt, and he is clearly fed up with his carer role, but his girlfriend Eva is waiting for him in a hotel room on the far side of the lake. At least he says she is. It is possible that Eva is simply a figment of Lou's imagination but I can't think of any clue that enabled me to see that. So for me the ending was yes a surprise but no not inevitable, in fact I would say it was wrong. I would be grateful if another reader (or Mr Docx) could show me what I have missed but at the moment Lou's death at the end is so wrong that it spoiled for me what was otherwise an absolute classic.

Docx is a brilliant describer of things and people:
  • Looking at him over there ... it's as though I can feel my heart's fist uncurling and reaching out towards him like those Michelangelo fingers he took me to see one time in the Vatican when I was too young to care or notice.” (P1, Everything affects everyone)
  • Carol’s building was the colour of exhausted white underwear” (P1 Then try for understanding)
  • Above us, the sun is thrown and split by the vast stained-glass windows. Higher than seems possible, the vaulted ceiling appears alive with the play of lapis-lazuli blues, emeralds, ambers, burgundy reds. Great shafts of light fall here and there on the dwarfed human chairs” (P2, The earth’s bright edge)
  • Some kind of pasta with truffles, which has my father more or less singing, but smells to me like socks and tastes like sodden mushrooms.” (P4, Feinschmecker Hochgenuss)
But his true genius is to express the existential angst of life:
  • The lessons that the son takes too heart turn out to be those the father never realised he was teaching.” (P1, Ralph)
  • In headaches and in worry life vaguely leaks away.” (P1, L’autoroute des anglais)
  • I'm on the way to killing my father; and that is making me dislike people who are inattentively alive.” (P1, On the escarpments)
  • Life is about coming to terms with an ever-lengthening list of our losses.” (P1, On the escarpments)
  • We will have become what creation first meant to say when it whispered itself into existence from that bitter bitter nothing all those billions of years ago.” (P2, The earth’s bright edge)
  • Every gene in every life form is going absolutely mental trying to attract someone, something, anything in order to make as much love as physically possible. In order not to be lonely, in order to pass itself on ... Every gene in the world wants to fuck like there's no tomorrow. and you want to know why? Because there isn't any tomorrow. As soon as the fucking stops, we're all dead for eternity.” (P3, Denial)
  • Maybe what sort of person you are comes down to how much truth you can table and how much truth you can take.” (P4 For Whom the Bell Tolls)
  • Most people are going quietly mad inside themselves. And they're all self-medicating ... They're all trying to block out the missed opportunities and the wrong turns.” (P4 For Whom the Bell Tolls)
  • Of course everybody is doolally because that is the nature of being a human on a planet that has no interest in humans. Has to be.” (P4 For Whom the Bell Tolls)
  • The way out of the mid-life crisis turns out to be the realization that life is one long crisis. For everyone.” (P4 For Whom the Bell Tolls)
  • Just as the money worries recede, your body starts packing up. And so then you realize yet another thing ... That you were an animal all along. A mammal. Blood and tissue. Organs and limbs. With an embarrassing and pathetic best-before date.” (P4 For Whom the Bell Tolls)
  • Find a world ... and rise varying to greatness.” (P4, Feinschmecker Hochgenuss)
  • When it comes down to it, we’re a very judgmental species living in a life and death world. Have to be. Has to be. Always were.” (P4 Requiem)
  • What I want to say is this: that we are what we give. We are what we leave behind.” (P4 Requiem)
He can be wickedly, cruelly, brilliantly funny:
  • Just so you know: you’re the opposite of an aphrodisiac. Every time you talk, you push orgasm further down the agenda for the rest of humanity.” (P1, Ralph)
  • I love my thoughts. ... They are the only thing that it's the slightest bit interesting to me. Imagine if I had to rely on yours.” (P3, Denial)
  • Jack likes his smoking like he likes his aggression ... passive.” (P3 Shooting the rapids)
Other great lines:
  • I was just taking in the words like one of those whales that swallows the entire sea and then spits it all out again and hopes that something nutritious got stuck in the baleen.” (P 1, Dover)
  • You put thick people in uniform and that's what you get ... the revenge of the conceitedly thick.” (P 1, Dover)
  • He's never been able to see that his slice of the world is not the whole cake. Nowhere near. And yet, still ... still he wants urgently to share it because he thinks that everyone else must therefore be starving hungry.” (P1 Then try for understanding)
  • The enlightenment seems to have passed a great number of people by.” (P2, Peage)
  • And there is eternity's other name - Death - everywhere - in the tombs, in the statues, in the flicker of the candles, in the dying bloodstained body hanging in near-naked agony from the great crucifix ahead of us.” (P2, The earth’s bright edge)
  • To stay in the theatre you have to understand and believe two separate and contradictory things ... that what you are watching is not true but also that it is true.” (P2, Puppets and prophets)
  • They're like two of his pupils who have become famous but whose essays he never bothered to read the time.” (P3, Denial)
  • The right to an opinion does not extend to the right to having your opinion taking seriously.” (P4 For Whom the Bell Tolls)
  • Maybe the only reason I don't run and keep running is that I know I'll have to come back - because the world is round and your father is always your father.” (P4 Requiem)

An outstanding book that makes me realise how shallow my own output is.

July 2019; 417 pages

Monday, 15 July 2019

"The Mongolian Conspiracy" by Rafael Bernal

Mexican noir from the 1960s. Filiberto Garcia, a hitman working for the Mexico City police, is tasked to work with an FBI agent and a Soviet agent to untangle a plot to kill the visiting US President. As the body count mounts, Garcia becomes puzzled by inconsistencies. At the same time he begins to develop a relationship with Marta. But is she a plant?

This is Raymond Chandler transplanted south of the border and set during the height of the cold war.

One of the intriguing aspects of this novel's style is the way that the narration changes. It is always narrated from the point of view of Garcia but sometimes we are in his head as he thinks (whe he refers to himself as I or me) and sometimes we are outside him watching him act (in which case he refers to himself in the third person as Garcia). This can change between paragraphs and lends a disorienting quality to the text. I am not sure if it is meant to suggest a dissociative personality. Garcia is a killer. But he is a killer who is kept awake at night by the memories of the people he has killed.

There are a great many quotes about death in the text:
  • You've got to respect the dead. I make them dead and that's why I respect them.” (C 2)
  • The widow of that dead guy ... she stuck with me for a long time. The dead guy, too. Some dead people become very sticky, like syrup.” (C 2)
  • We are death’s doormen,but we always remain outside.” (C 4)
  • Killing someone is sending them off to be by themselves, to be alone.” (C 6)
Other great quotes include:
Nobody can live off memories, only people who haven't done anything.” (C 2)
This gringo’s got the muscles of a boxer and the face of a sonofabitch. Not a bad combination in a man who knows his trade, and it looks like this one does.” (C 3)
That business of smiling all the time, it must be the latest fad.” (C 3)
A do-it-yourself widow or you lent a hand?” (C 3)
Under her robe, there was only Annabella, lots of Annabella.” (C 3)
And she all people should have died in bed because when she was alive, that's what she used most.” (C 4)
When he entered the apartment, the dawn was spreading gray shadows everywhere, like large stains of mildew in an abandoned house.” (C 5)
If he doesn't like how I’m making my bricks, why doesn't he get in there and mix the clay?” (C 5)
Don't look at the price tag; if you like it, just buy it, don't look at the price. That's what we all do in life. We don't see what things cost.” (C 5)
Shops were opening, the trash of the night was being taken away.” (C 5)
Luciano Manrique’s exemplary life is an open book to me ... a somewhat pornographic book, like those novels they write these days, the ones they say are new art and very highbrow.” (C 5)
There’s one thing you learn from military men: being right isn’t worth shit, what matters is having buddies.” (C 5)

He also quotes a lovely little poem:
If as a kid I went to school
And was a soldier when I grew,
If as a husband she gave me horns
And then I died as was my due,
What do I owe the sun
For having warmed my bones?” (C 4)

A classic example of the genre. July 2019; 213 pages

Also set in Mexico:

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.
  • Snap by Belinda Bauer: a brilliant story about a young lad who, having become a burglar in order to survive, discovers his mother's killer.
  • Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic: a murder mystery set in Australia in which the PI is deaf
  • The Closer I get by Paul Burston

Sunday, 14 July 2019

"Between the Woods and the Water" by Patrick Leigh Fermor

This might be one of the most expensive books I have ever owned. It was a gift from my good friends Mary and Danny so I acquired it for nothing but it has inspired me with longing to go for a long walk of my own which might cost me a thousand pounds, being a little older than PLF and liking more creature comforts than sleeping in the woods on a mountainside.

This book continues PLF's epic pre-WWII journey across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. The first section (to the Hungarian border) is recounted in A Time of Gifts. This volume starts as he enters Hungary and ends at the border between Romania and Bulgaria.

What is most remarkable about the writing of this book is how he can describe things with such precision and extraordinary lyricism. For example:

  •  “Not a light showed in the town except for the flames of thousands of candles ... in the hands of the waiting throng ... The glow from their cupped palms reversed the daytime chiaroscuro, rimming the lines of jaw and nostril, scooping lit crescents under their brows and leaving everything beyond these bright masks drowned in shadow.” (C 1)
  • Landing with sticks in their beaks, they [storks] picked their way along the roofs with black flight-feathers spread like tight-rope-walkers’ fingers fumbling for balance.” (C 1)
  • The roads were not good: the car pitched about the ruts and potholes like a boat in a choppy sea and the dust of our progress ... formed a ghostly cylinder.” (C 6)
  • When the afterglow following a bonfire-sunset had gone and the bed-time pandemonium of birds began to quieten.” (C 7)

But all his observations about nature and his fellows are astute and sometimes humorous:

  • An hour or so before, two storks, tired by their journey from Africa, had alighted on a disheveled nest under one of the belfries and everyone had watched them settle in. Now, alarmed by the din, desperately flapping their wings and with necks outstretched, they were taking off again, scarlet legs trailing. ... ‘A fine night they chose for moving in,’ my neighbour said.” (C 1)
  • After the hours of Latin, Magyar was bursting out in a cheerful dactylic rush.” (C 1)
  • When the sun reaches full strength, the eternal snows, the glaciers of the Alps and the banked peaks of the Carpathians look unchanged from a distance; but close to, the whole icy heart of Europe might be dissolving.” (C 1)
  • There were sleepy grunts from the sties prompted by dreams, perhaps, or indigestion, and now and then a pig, roused in the small hours by night-starvation, munched in semi-liquid bliss.” (C 1)
  • Budapest: “Life seemed perfect: kind, uncensorious hosts; dashing, resplendent and beautiful new friends against the background of a captivating town; a stimulating new language, strong and startling drinks, food like a delicious bonfire and a prevailing atmosphere of sophistication and high spirits that it would have been impossible to resist even had I wanted.” (C 2)
  • Badly played, this [Gypsy music] can sound like treacle and broken bottles.
  • Magyar ...is an agglutinative language ... The words are never inflicted as they are in Europe, ... changes of sense are conveyed by a concatenation of syllables stuck on behind the first; all the vowel sounds imitate their leader, and the invariable ictus on the leading syllable sets up a kind of dactylic or anapaestic canter which, to a new ear, gives Magyar a wild and most unfamiliar ring.” (C 2)
  • The apostolic crown ... was Hungary's most sacred object ... wrought in battered gold, with its culminating cross askew, it was the actual diadem Pope Sylvester II sent to St. Stephen when he was crowned first king of Hungary in AD 1000.” (C 2)
  • An advanced case of lamb dressed up as mutton.” (C 3)
  • ‘Let us assume’ turns in a few pages into ‘We may assume’, which, in a few more, is ‘As we have shown’; and, after a few more pages yet, the shy initial hypothesis has hardened into a brazen established landmark, all the time with not an atom of new evidence being adduced.” (C 4)
  • It was said that the newcomers were of such varied origins that a chameleon placed on a coloured population map ... would explode.” (C 5)
  • István and I parted at last, each trailing a faint cloud of hangover in opposite directions.” (C 7)
  • It would have been hard to set off much later than the cock crew that morning, as the bird itself was flapping its wings on a barrel ten yards away.” (C 7)
  • In early times, when all religions were polytheistic, gods were shared out and exchanged; they wandered from pantheon to pantheon and were welcome everywhere. ... A solitary god ... and there was discord with neighbours from the start.” (C 7)
  • It seems at times that strife can no more be separated from monotheism than stripes from a tiger.” (C 7)
  • The mountains were full of echoes. Small landslides would spread like a rumour.” (C 7)

I also learned that:

  • John Hunyadi who founded Hunedora was is the service of King Sigismund of Hungary son of the blind King of Bohemia killed at Crecy. Hunyadi’s son was Matthias Corvinus, later elected to the throne of Hungary becoming one of their greatest (conquering) kings. (C 5)
  • The star Algol is named from the Arabic El Ghoul. (C 5)
  • In Transylvania there is a cleft called the Asmach cave which is thought to be where the children from the Pied Piper of Hamelin came out of the mountainside. For centuries there have been many people in Transylvania of German extraction. (C 6)
  • “Transylvania was the oldest source of gold in the classical world.” (C 7 fn)
  • While the decree of Papal Infallibility was read out at the end of the Vatican Council in 1870 there was a spectacular thunderstorm; the next day the Franco-Prussian war broke out. (C 7)
  • In the Carpathian uplands he saw a few black squirrels (C 7); I have only ever seen one ... in Letchworth.

This is wonderful writing. I so envied this young man, wandering across mountains and making friends with swineherds and gypsies, staying in townhouses and country mansions and partying with the elegant set, skinny-dipping with a friend and encountering two young peasant girls ... and enjoying some "rough and tumble" (not to mention the car journey with Angela, unhappily married, who could only join the trip through subterfuge).

A superb travelogue.

July 2019; 279 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Other great travel books in this blog:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

"Shakespeare's Workmanship" by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

This book is based on lectures given at Cambridge and was first published in October 1918. It analyses some Shakespearian plays from the point of view of what Q-C calls the 'workmanship' which involves identifying what Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright was attempting to achieve and then considering how (and whether) he achieved it. So it sort of chimes with what James Shapiro (in, for example, Contested Will) achieves in when he offers detailed evidence to tie the plays with the company of actors that Shakespeare was writing for.

The plays Q-C considers are Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Hamlet, as well as considering the five later plays of Pericles, Henry VIII, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest both as a group and individually. He makes some brilliant points:
  • The great artist dies into his work, and in that survives.” 
  • "The half of artistry consists in learning to make one stroke better than two. The more simply, economically, you produce the impression aimed at, the better workman you make all yourself.” (C 1)
  • Tragedy demands some sympathy with the fortunes of its hero.”  
  • Shakespeare’s liked to use darkness:
    • R&J: action starts on moonlit balcony, ends in tomb
    • Hamlet starts on battlements at night
    • Othello starts on a dark street
    • King L: dark heath and blindness
    • Macbeth: sleeplessness and sleep-walking, murder at night; darkness pervades MacB
  • In every Shakespeare play there is the Point of Rest, the punctum indifferens: “something apparently insignificant.” (This follows Coventry Patmore’s Principle in Art): “Each of these characters is a peaceful focus radiating the calm of moral solution throughout all the difficulties and disasters of surrounding fate; a vital centre, which, like that of a great wheel, has little motion in itself, but which at once transmits and controls the fierce revolution of the circumference.
    • Kent in King Lear
    • Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet
    • Horatio in Hamlet
    • Cassio in Othello
    • Bassanio in Merchant of V
  • How Macbeth is like a Greek tragedy: “Though it is full of blood and images of blood, the important blood-shedding is hidden, removed from the spectator’s sight ... Duncan is murdered off the stage; Lady Macbeth dies off the stage; Macbeth makes his final exit fighting, to be killed off the stage. There is nothing here like the blood-boltered culmination of Hamlet.”
  • Shakespeare’s uses some typical tricks/ per devices: “Shakespeare, having once employed a stage device with some degree of success, never had the smallest scruple about using it again.
    • The woman disguised as a man
    • Shipwreck
    • Mistaken identity
    • Jealous husband or lover
    • Potion which arrests life without killing
    • Commanded murderer whose heart softens
  • A dramatic author must start by mastering certain stage-mechanicsn. Having mastered them, he must - to be great- - unlearn reliance on them, learn to cut them away as he grows to perceive that the secret of his art resides in playing human being against human being, man against woman, character against character, will against will - not in devising ‘situations’ and ‘curtains’ and operating puppets to produce these. His art touches climax when his ‘situations’ and ‘curtains’ so befall that we tell ourselves, ‘It is wonderful - yet what else could have happened?’” This reminds me of Aristotle who says in the Poetics that when the plot twists we must be surprised and yet realise that this is the only thing that could have happened.
  • Every artist knows ... that the more you complicate your plot - the more threads you tie together in your nexus - the less room you leave yourself for invention and play of character.
  • Shakespeare ... set up a permanent artistic principle in the treatment of history by fiction; ... your best protagonists ...[are] some invented men or women - pawns in the game - upon whose actions and destinies you can make the great events play at will.
  • It is never a test of the highest art that it is unintelligible. It is rather the last triumph of a masterpiece - the triumph definitely passing it for a classic - that all men in their degree can understand and enjoy it.
  • Every artist of the first class ... tires of repeating his successes, but never of repeating his experiments.
  • A great artist, choosing to abandon something he has done consummately for a shot at a longer range, is liable to miss his target.
  • Shakespeare ... was instinctively chary of love-scenes save when he could handle them with raillery.

A great deal of fascinating insight into how a (great) writer works. July 2019; 362 pages

Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include:

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

"The Trial" by Franz Kafka

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” (C 1) Thus starts K's trial and Kafka's The Trial. It is written in colourless prose, as if taken from a legal manual, and in long paragraphs (disregarding the convention that in a conversation each individual speech is accorded a separate paragraph). It frequently deals in generalities as if it is discussing academic theories of justice, it is mostly abstract, although the setting is concrete and everyday. There are elements of unreality: it feels like an absurdly detailed dream. We are never told what K has been accused of (he himself does not know) and so all discussion of the case has to be in generalities. Nothing really happens (until the shocking ending). The whole feeling is one of alienation like a modernist work of art of a Brecht drama.  It must be exceptionally hard to write this sort of stuff for page after [page and to keep going without repeating yourself or running out of ideas.

I found it surprisingly easy to read. 

So what is it about? My naive feeling, before reviewing any of the critical literature, is that it is an extended allegory about religion. The judge is God who presides at the last judgement and before whom K must stand, not for a crime that can be articulated, but for all the things that he has done wrong in his life. This is why the courts are held in attic rooms. This is also why one needs an Advocate (a priest) although it is known that a priest cannot argue before a Judge but only plead, by virtue of knowing one of the lesser judges. This is why there is never any acquittal in this court system: no one is ever completely innocent; the best that can be hoped for is ostensible acquittal or postponement.

Alternatively, it is an allegory about disease. Kafka died from TB. One could see such a disease as arresting one arbitrarily one morning, although not imprisoning one but allowing one to go about their business, but identifiably as one who is diseased. That is why there is not acquittal, only remission. The Advocates in this case are doctors who cannot cure diseases but only try to ease the symptoms; this is why it is clear that there are advocates and there are quacks and why K. decides that in the end the Advicate he has is getting nowhere.

It is, of course, a classic work of literature. But is it any good?

It is difficult to select quotes in a work that seems to try deliberately to write as boringly as possible, in a work where the whole must be so much greater than the sum of the parts. But here are some:
  • You may object that it is not a trial at all; you are quite right, for it is only a trial if I recognize it as such.” (C 2)
  • It may happen that one sees no point in an interview, and that is the case here.” (C 4)
  • K. wished to exaggerate nothing, he knew that Fraülein Bürstner was an ordinary little typist who could not resist him for long.” (C 4)
  • His uncle was always in a hurry, for he was harassed by the disastrous idea that whenever he came to town for the day he must get through all the programme he had drawn up for himself, besides missing not a single chance of a conversation or a piece of business or an entertainment.” (C 6)
  • She was so close to him she gave out a bitter exciting odour as of pepper” (C 6)
  • One could draw up genuinely effective and convincing pleas only later on, when the separate charges and the evidence on which they were based emerged more definitely or could be guessed at from the interrogations.” (C 7)
  • It seemed to K. as though two giants of enormous size were bargaining above his head for himself.” (C 7)
  • If you have the right eye for these things, you can see that accused men are often attractive.” (C 8) This might refer to the belief that people with TB, because they were pale (?), were physically beautiful.
  • People under suspicion are better moving than at rest, since at rest they may be sitting in the balance without knowing it, being weighed together with their sins.” (C 8)
  • The Advocate’s methods ... amounted to this: that the client finally forgot the whole world and lived only in hope of toiling along this false path until the end of his case should come in sight. The client ceased to be a client and became the Advocate’s dog.” (C 8)
  • You know quite well that in these matters opinions differ so much that the confusion is impenetrable. This judge, for instance, assumes that the proceedings begin at one point, and I assume that they begin at another point.” (C 8) This sounds like the start of a debate on abortion: when does life itself begin? or, indeed, death? Would such arguments have been current in Kafka's time?
  • The scriptures are unalterable and the comments often enough merely express the commentator’s bewilderment.” (C 9)
  • ‘Like a dog!’ he said: it was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.” (C 10)
July 2019; 250 pages

In an 'In Our Time' programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th November 2014 Steve Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, stated that Kafka's world is one of "extraordinary strangeness that can burst into everyday life but rendered with an oddly insistent levelness and muted lucidity” and that although The Trial focuses on “The Law ... as a system of deferral, a system of indirectness, it stands for all systems that don’t seem to have a centre or a purpose or a point.” He points out that nearly all of the chapters start "One day ..." and that
“we really don’t know how all of these episodes join up”; the final chapter, which was written very early in the writing process, “feels very staged and forced" and is "too conclusive” although the final words suggest there is no end.

In an 'In Our Time' programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th November 2014, Elizabeth Boa, Professor Emerita of German at the University of Nottingham, stated that “The characters in the Trial are not psychological studies, they have no depth”; she suggests that the characters “come to life ... through the places they are associated with." These places are on “the margins of life ... the places you forget about”, says Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature at the University of Oxford on the same programme. He goes on to suggest that The Trial is about “how the victim of authority is complicit with authority ... colludes with his own oppression” and points out that Josef K never actually asks what he is charged with.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

"Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands" by Judith Schalansky

The author grew up in East Germany; her ability to travel curtailed by the Communist bloc. So she wandered in her imagination, helped by atlases and libraries. This is a selection of fifty of the most remote islands in the world "I have not visited and never will". Each entry involves a map of the island as well as how far the island is away from three selected destinations) but no indication of the direction one should travel), a timeline of the known history of the island, and two pages recounting one chosen incident in the history of the island. These can be idiosyncratic. Thus:

  • Bear Island: the story of a bird killing and egg-collecting expedition
  • St Helena: the arrival of the ship which will take Napoleon's body back to Paris
  • Taongi Atoll: the mystery of the discovered grave of a shipwrecked sailor ... with no indication of who buried him and how (or whether) they escaped from the island
  • Rapa Iti: the story of a boy born in the Vosges who speaks a language unknown to anyone ... until aged 33 he meets a woman from this island and finds it is her mother tongue
  • Amsterdam Island inhabited only by male scientists and plastered with porn expect for the district chief's office which contains an unsurprisingly blank register of births and marriages; each night the scientists gather in the cinema to watch porn, each sitting in a separate row ...
  • Tikopia whose 1200 inhabitants practise strict birth control measures to limit their population to what the island can sustain ... including suicide, infanticide, abortion and coitus interruptus
  • Floreana where a complicated battle between the first immigrant couple and a baroness (soon self-proclaimed empress of the island) and her two lovers results in the mysterious death or disappearance of four of the five
  • The ecological disaster of Easter Island (caused by total deforestation)

As the prologue says: “There is no untouched garden of Eden lying at the edges of this never-ending globe. Instead, human beings travelling far and wide have turned into the very monsters they chased off the maps.”

Great fun

July 2019; 239 pages

Monday, 1 July 2019

"All you should be" by Nicky Kemp

"All you should be" is a debut novel by a novelist who shares the same initials as her principal protagonist. Given that it is also told in chronological sequence (except, in this case, for the framing device of the discovery of the grandmother's body) and there is an abundance of detail which massively adds verisimilitude (but doesn't necessarily advance the story) I suspect this is a fictionalised memoir.

It is also a 'large canvas' novel, extending over thirty years and involving a large cast of characters. The temptation with such a novel is to fill it as full of incident as a Brueghel painting. This novel includes a rape and an attempted rape (and sexual abuse of a minor which is also rape) and several other incidents of sexual abuse as well as two adulterous conceptions. The disadvantage of having a lot of incident is that you can't cover every incident in detail, risking superficial treatment.

Similarly, the large cast of characters meant that few of them could be fully explored. Sometiumes I was a little confused about who was who. For me the most interestingly complex characters with unconventional character arcs were Sam the father, Doug the husband and (most of all) Ruth the mother. I would have loved to have spent more time exploring them.

One strategy of coping with a large canvas is to use lots of dramatically told scenes. But these require length (a good example of a large canvas multiple scene novel would be the famously long War and Peace). Too many short scenes and your narrative becomes fragmented. On more than one occasion I turned a page and found myself in a new scene and needed some time to work out the participants.

My favourite moments were these laugh out loud scenes: 
  • first, in which Nina loses her virginity to to dubiously appropriate quoting of Macbeth; 
  • second, when the second year discovers that sixth formers in school read dirty books. 
The novelist has a great turn of phrase and there were some memorable lines:
  • "Their resulting stoicism and resilience were precarious and founded not on safe ground, but on quicksand."
  • "Skunks would play Scrabble ... before she would ever read aloud her intimate observations."
  • "What we leave behind tells our story ... and I want to be editor of mine."
  • "He had known her long enough to be able to detect a hidden agenda in a pea soup fog."
  • "Mia had seemed to overreact to that observation by scrutinising him at length, as if he were a rare museum exhibit."
  • "Honesty can sometimes be the most selfish course of action."

The key to the appreciation of any book is whether the pages are turned. I read the book in a couple of evenings which is quick for me. It was a great first novel and I look forward to the next.

July 2019; 257 pages