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

Friday, 31 July 2020

"The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt

By the author of The Secret History and The Goldfinch

As usual, Tartt starts her book with a tremendous hook: in The Secret History it is a murder and in The Goldfinch it is a terrorist bomb explosion in an art gallery. In this book it is the death of eight-year-old Robin, found hanging from the branch of a tree in the yard.

Twelve years on Robin's mother is still living in the same house but her bereavement has turned her in to a shadow, sleeping all day. Harriet, who was a baby when Robin died, and her slightly older sister who was four and refuses to talk about that day, are cared for by the black housekeeper, Ira. On the basis of Ira talking about the no-good families in town, Harriet decides that Robin was killed by Danny Ratliff and sets out to exact her revenge.

This is a tremendous loss-of-innocence story, set in the lush greenery and abandoned places of Mississippi, with a side-cast of serpents, preachers, pool hustlers, great aunts, baptists and drug dealers. The dysfunctional Ratliff family, strung out on the drugs they are manufacturing, psychotic and hallucinating, vicious and violent dirty and and clever and pathetic, living in poverty and squalor, is a most tremendous creation.

It is a big book (555 pages in my paperback edition) and a very slow build. But the recreation of a tortured paradise, the landscape and the characters, is a tremendous achievement and well worth the perseverance. This is the recreation of the world of To Kill a Mockingbird complete with the inbuilt racism and the educated whites and the poor whites and the little girl fleeing from the people she imagines are her persecutors. But the world of Harriet is no rural idyll of childhood. Tartt's Mississippi is a dreadful place.

There's a lot of death in the book.

This is a book that overwhelms you with the powers of its detailed descriptions, not a book you can judge by a few quotes. However:

  • "The screen door slammed shut. Robin ran outside, shrieking with laughter at a joke his grandmother had told him (Why was the letter damp? Because it had postage due), jumping down the steps two at a time." (Prologue)
  • "'Life goes on'. It was one of Edie's favourite sayings. It was a lie." (Prologue)
  • "When the Cleves chose to agree on some subjective matter it became - automatically and quite irrevocably - the truth, without any of them being aware of the collective alchemy which had made it so." (C1, The Dead Cat)
  • "Her dill pickles - far from being the culinary favourite she believed them - were inedible, and that the demand for them from neighbours and family was due to their strange efficacy as a herbicide." (C1, The Dead Cat)
  • "Jesus tells us not to lie, but that doesn't mean we have to be rude to our hostess." (C1, The Dead Cat)
  • "She did not care for children's books in which the children grew up, as what 'growing up' entailed (in life as in books) was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character." (C3 The Pool Hall)
  • "If it's miracles everywhere, what's the point?" (C3 The Pool Hall)
  • "Knowing that it [puberty] was inevitable ('just a natural part of grwoing up') was no better than knowing that someday she would die." (C6 The Funeral)
  • "A despairing glassline shiver ran down Danny's neck as he sped past the funeral home. Airy methamphetamine clarity gliddered over him in nine hundred directions simultaneously." (C6 The Funeral)
  • "She thought of the pirate Israel Hands, floating in the blood-warm waters off the Hispaniola" (C6 The Funeral)


July 2020; 555 pages

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

"God in the Dock" by C S Lewis

A set of thirteen sermons and essays by  CS Lewis in which he explains his position on a variety of tenets of the Christian faith, including whether the church should allow 'priestesses' (no) and whether a man has the right to happiness (no).

Having previously enjoyed Lewis's theological writings, I was very disappointed by this one. When defending the idea of Christianity he doesn't really ever understand the objection that it might be all a made-up myth; often he depends his point of view by presupposing the truth of Christianity. He has a weak argument from ontology when he argues in favour of belief in miracles: "even to think and act in the natural world we have to assume something beyond it” (Miracles)

He seems endlessly sceptical when it comes to historical assertions and endlessly gullible when it comes to scriptural ones: “When the Old Testament says that Sennacherib’s Invasion was stopped by angels, and Herodotus says it was stopped by a lot of mice who came and ate up all the bowstrings of his army, an open-minded man will be on the side of the angels ... there is nothing intrinsically unlikely in the existence of angels ... but mice just don’t do these things.” (Miracles). He accuses science of being dogmatic because it extrapolates observations beyond what has been observed; this is how he refutes the second law of thermodynamics, a refutation needed by him in order to justify the resurrection (surely dogmatism involves asserting things against all other evidence).

He uses the oft-repeated idea that if science cannot explain everything (as it admits) therefore his dogma MUST be true to fill the gap: “It is certainly a possible supposition that behind this mystery some mighty will and life is at work. If so, so any contrast between his acts and the laws of nature is out of the question. It is his act alone that gives the laws any events to apply to.” (The Laws of Nature) It is breathtaking how he can move from identifying a hole to filling it with "out of the question" in consecutive sentences.
  • The laws of nature explain everything except the source of events ... how there came to be space and time and matter at all.” (The Laws of Nature)
  • Either the stream of events had a beginning or it had not. If it had, then we are faced with something like creation.” (The Laws of Nature)
He is clever about reconciling Free Will with the doctrine of an omnipotent God: we have free will because God, in his wisdom, for purposes we cannot understand, permits us to have free will even though he needn't (and presumably even though his omniscience allows him to see where our exercise of freedom will end): “God has made it a rule for Himself that He won't alter people's character by Force ... He has really and truly limited his power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that He hadn’t. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn't do anything else.

In this book he does not tackle the Problem of Evil (how a supposedly omnipotent and good God can allow innocent people to suffer. In some ways, he embraces evil. He tells us that the Christian concept of the Incarnation (God came to earth in the body of a man) "lights up nature’s pattern of death and rebirth; and secondly, her selectiveness; and thirdly, her vicariousness.” (Death and Rebirth) This implies that he approves of 'selectiveness' (which he suggests is the antithesis of democracy, or egalitarianism: “I cannot conceive how one would get through the boredom of a world in which you never met anyone more clever, or more beautiful, or stronger than yourself.”; Death and Rebirth) and 'vicariousness': “one person profiting by the earnings of another person ... is the very centre of Christianity.” (Death and Rebirth). These doctrines may seem fine when you are an Oxford don in the Senior Common Room; they may seem less wonderful if you are poor and suffering. Inequality and capitalism are the way God has made the world.

He can be even more right wing. For me, the essence of being a good citizen is getting along with others and assisting those who are less fortunate than oneself. Not for CSL: “The vital elements of citizenship - loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendour, ceremony, continuity.” (Myth Became Fact).

He is a traditionalist in the church: “To cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence.” (Priestesses in the Church?)

He is dismissive of other religions: "We all know about Adonis, and the stories of the rest of those rather tedious people” although he accepts that non-Christians can live a good life ... if they cannot believe in Christianity. But being good is not that important: “Mere morality is not the end of life.” (Man or Rabbit)

Some wonderful or interesting moments:

  • The interpretation of experience depends on preconceptions.” (Miracles)
  • It is a great step forward to realize ... that even if all external things went right, real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with.” (The Trouble with X)
  • You also have a fatal flaw in your character. ... It is no good passing this over with some vague, general admission such as ‘Of course I know I have my faults’. It is important to realise that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives the others just that same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don't know about ... You say ‘I admit I drank too much last Saturday’; but everyone else knows that you are habitual drunkard.” (The Trouble with X)
  • As the state grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters.” (Priestesses in the Church?)
  • A right is “a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else's part.” (We have no right to Happiness)
I was very disappointed by this book for two reasons. Firstly, I find the the arguments advanced in favour of Christianity being true unconvincing. Secondly, I think that the version of Christianity outlined by CSL is fundamentally intolerant of other faiths (especially atheism, which he repeatedly confuses with Materialism), authoritarian and inegalitarian.

It isn't a difficult book to read: each short essay is a few pages and they could be read on their own. He is able to convey his views clearly and concisely. But other books are better.

CS Lewis was also the author of: these books reviewed in this blog:
Of course he wrote the Narnia children's books as well.

July 2020; 108 pages

Thursday, 23 July 2020

"English Passengers" by Matthew Kneale

Manxman Captain Kewley has built himself a sailing ship with a secret hold for contraband goods. But his first attempt at smuggling goes badly awry: to save himself he must carry three Enmglishmen: a Reverend, a Doctor and a Botanist, to Tasmania where the reverend believes they will discover the Garden of Eden. The voyage is marked by the Captain and his crew repeatedly getting into scrapes and escaping by the skin of their teeth.

When they reach Tasmania they hire as native guide an old man who was born as a result of a rape: his father was an escaped convict and his mother was an aboriginal woman. From his life story we discover the chilling true story of how the Tasmanian aborigines were exterminated; from his father's story we learn about the treatment of the convicts. The book is a compendium of human inhumanity.

The story is told through the testimonies of each of the witnesses, including but not limited to the main characters.Each character has a distinguishable voice and, although this technique fragments the narrative, the plot remains clear. In the end, though, the author seems to have rejected a conventional structure for the book in favour of a picaresque. Although, in the end, each character receives a resolution and often one involving poetic justice, the path to that resolution twists and turns, defying expectations.

This book has superb characterisations and drops you right into the scene and confronts you with the horror and the pity of colonialism at its rawest.

There are some delightful moments:

  • "As the wise man says, Choose you lies like you choose your wife, with care." (C 1)
  • "London dimly glinting in the distance through its own dust." (C 1)
  • "Smash a man to pieces and he will look much the same, regardless of his skin or manner of speech." (C 2)
  • "As any fool will tell you, there's near and there's near, and the two are different as pigs and parakeets." (C 3)
  • "That had seemed clear enough at the time, but then directions usually do when you're still months and miles off from needing them." (C 3)
  • "It's a fact that what seems light as daisies for a minute becomes heavy as rocks when you're hauling it mile after mile." (C 6)
  • "Sheppard who was doing the cherubs ... wasn't much skilled at them ... and they never looked like flying babies so much as fat boys with something nasty flapping on their backs." (C 8)
  • "It is hard, though, to get lovings in a dying place." (C 10)
  • "It is hard to choose dying. Dying chooses you." (C 10)
  • "My surprise would be fresh as last month's herring." (C 14)

July 2020; 458 pages

Saturday, 18 July 2020

"Living with the Gods" by Neil MacGregor

Neil Macgregor is an ex-director of the British Museum and so he starts many of the narratives in this book about the religious experience with an artefact. For example, the first chapter begins with the Lion Man, a 40,000 year old sculpture of a man with the head of a mountain lion carved from mammoth ivory during the Ice Age and found in a European cave. From these artefacts MacGregor draws out ideas although the sceptic in me rather thinks that the ideas were there and he found the artefacts to illustrate them.

There were some brilliant facts in this book but I found the overall structure confusing: the parts are entitled Our Part in the Pattern, Believing Together, Theatres of Faith, The Power of Images, One God or Many, and Powers Earthly and Divine. It was as if I was wandering through the galleries of a museum, each one with such a title. It just seemed a strange way of categorising aspects of the religious experience and consequently I found it rather rambling. Perhaps, as he suggests in  chapter 22, I am a closet monotheist.

His thesis is that religion is a universal human experience which is manifested in all sorts of religion. I dare say he is right. But to say that the religious experience is an inherent part of the human psyche is not to say that it is good. Hate and greed and lust are inherent parts of the human psyche. In fact, time and again, MacGregor shows how religion has been interpreted or devised or manipulated to serve the needs of those seeking power over others. For example, in chapter 10 MacGregor celebrates the power of communal singing and then reminds us that “Every totalitarian regime has used marching, singing and synchronized movement - many people acting as one - to rouse participants and spectators alike to a confident conviction of shared purpose.” (C 10) Many organised religions in history have behaved in the same way as totalitarian regimes, claiming a monopoly on truth and exerting a monopoly on power.

One of the interesting discussions is that between monotheism and polytheism. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are three monotheisms, each claiming a monopoly of truth. The result has often been conflict. There are other major religions, such as Hinduism, which are polytheistic. Even nominally monotheistic Sikhism in syncretic. MacGregor suggests that monotheism has assisted Science, since “If there is a single will, a single intellect that created and sustains the universe, then everything must ultimately be organized on coherent, comprehensible principles.” (C 22) However, he points out that the Romans built a long-lasting multi-faith empire by adopting other people's gods: "If you honour other people's gods, you acknowledge them, and the people who worship them, as a legitimate part of your community.” (C 21) He also quotes Mary Beard as saying that “One of the big advantages of having lots of gods is that you can have more or fewer as you decide.” (C 21) and he tells the original flood story (Noah's tale is an adaptation of what was them a widespread middle-eastern myth about Gilgamesh) which involves “a group of dysfunctional insomniac gods" who decide to drown the noisy humans keeping them awake and are thwarted when a single god rescues a single human: "The problem with the gods in assembly is that they often have beer to drink, and therefore their discussions are not always thought out properly.” In the end they decide to create death to control the human population. “They saw that their decision to unleash the flood had been a wrong one, which a dissenter had put right, allowing them to change their collective mind. It is a model of governance that is possible only if you have many gods, and only if they are, and know themselves to be, fallible.” In contrast, “In the Book of Genesis, Noah is saved because Noah alone is righteous. Those who drown are wicked: the victims are to blame for their own suffering.

Sometimes, Neil MacGregor uses other commentators in a way that shows the origins of this book in a series of radio broadcasts. So, for example, Eamon Duffy says: “In thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe there is a new kind of spiritual interiority, not just in religion but in love poetry too. People become more interested in what we would now call human psychology. This brings with it an emphasis on the emotional element in religion, cultivated particularly by the Franciscan order but also on people like Saint Anselm and the Cistercians. That approach to faith moves out into the lay world, where people explore a wider range of emotions in their religious experience. This is the beginning of the age of the Christmas carol, for example, when you think tenderly about the baby in the crib. There is none of that in the first millennium. And, in the same way, you think sorrowfully about the sufferings of the god-man on the cross. Images like this become a spiritual tool, helping people to come to their senses about what life is for.” (C 19) This linked very much to what I had just discovered about the context in which early Renaissance art operated, according to Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio.

There are many, many wonderful moments in this compendious book:

  • Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who requires of his followers truth, good thoughts, good words and good deeds: the consequence will be a just society.” (C 2)
  • Zoroastrian priests take and combine different kinds of fire, from the hearths of bakers and metal-workers, priests and warriors, and so on: in all, fires from fourteen sectors of the community, combined and purified, until the whole of society is emblematically brought together in one shared flame. But to achieve the sacred fire, two further fires are needed. First, from a cremation pyre, so that the dead are joined to the living in reverence of Ahura Mazda; and lastly lightning, fire from the sky, binding earth to heaven.” (C 2)
  • "The water of baptism serves as the door through which every Christian enters not just the faith but the whole Christian community, past, present and future.” (C 3)
  • The British monarchy to this day uses Jordan water for royal baptisms.” (C 3)
  • "South is the direction of death.” (C 3)
  • In English to this day we refer to mid-winter as ‘the dead of winter’ and for most of history that was no mere poetic conceit, but a lethal reality. ...European mortality rates increased substantially in the winter months.” (C 4)
  • How do the living stay in touch with the dead? Do they need our help? Or is it we who need their help? And, if so, how do we ask for it? Are the dead and the living bound, for a while at least, in a network of reciprocal obligations?” (C 5)
  • In England 500 years ago, the dead were major employers.” (C 5)
  • Every [Roman Catholic] altar - even a portable altar-stone should contain within it the relics of a saint, ideally a martyr who died bearing witness to the faith.” (C 5)
  • The Muisca used the ‘lost wax’ method to cast gold figues which they then cast into Lake Guativa during El Dorado ceremonies. “In order to have waxes with varying degrees of malleability, which would allow them to achieve the greatest possible precision in modelling, they kept several different varieties of bees.” (C 12)
  • At festival time, our ordinary lives, our everyday schedules, our plans for the future - all these are put to one side. In their place, for a few short, intense hours or days, we think about - and indeed come to feel - much larger patterns of life which contain us, but which also stretch far beyond us. And because each festival is a re-enactment of all its predecessors, we come to a powerful appreciation that life, both communitarian and cosmic, is not a lonely, one-act story with a beginning and an end, but a grand  dramatic cycle, whose end - if it has one - lies beyond our own lifetime.” (C 15)
  • The interesting thing is that this idea of the virgin really relates less to the idea of being sexually chaste than to the idea of being single and powerful, which is more the essence of the classical Greek or Roman idea of the virgo. The word is actually related to vir - the Latin for a man, a strong man - as well as to virtus, the word for virtue.” (C 16)
  • It is a major conservation hazard of Russian icons that they are on occasion kissed into extinction.” (C 17)
  • Saint Luke's account of Christ's birth seems to report a historical event which occurred when Caesar Augustus ordered a census. Neither ox nor ass, however, appears in the Gospel. Hundreds of years earlier the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had foretold that those animals would one day recognise the future master of Israel the Messiah.” (C 18)

July 2020; 470 pages

Lots of brilliant illustrations

Also see Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

"The Girl in the Red Coat" by Kate Hamer

Carmel is a precocious eight-year old living with her mum Beth. She tends to wander off. One day she disappears; she has been abducted by a strange man who believes she has a gift for faith healing and takes her to the US.

The narrative alternates between Beth's tale of how she comes to term with the guilt of losing a child and Carmel's strange life on the run with the man who says he is her grandfather.

I was a bit confused. It was a strange book. I had expected an intense, claustrophobic tale of child abduction but the time scale of this book spread the emotion; the main interest went to Carmel's strange itinerant life in the US. At the end I had many questions left unanswered: what happened to Mercy? Is the author telling us that Beth really does have supernatural powers? I read it quickly but much of the time I was skim-reading so I may have missed some details. In the end I wondered whether the abduction and the weird place in Wales was necessary to a tale which seemed to want to be about faith healing. It was as if the author was trying to tell a lot of stories and they weren't fully integrated.

And what was all that Wizard of Oz stuff?

And why does the blurb on the back say that Carmel Wakefield has gone missing when the character's name is Carmel Wakeford?

There were some delightful bits:

  • "Where are fairies and writers now when you need them?" (C 12)
  • "I got the sense of the earth opening up and releasing something that should have stayed compressed: the smell of mud; a deadly mustard gas seeping about the room." (C 16) 
  • "He was angry now, like men are when there's no action to be taken." (C 16)
  • "I'd gone back to tobacco with one swift and easy motion and it had welcomed me, through its smoky lips." (C 17)
  • "Children are like the zombies I once saw in a film at Dad's. We have to do as we're told and obey like our brains have got eaten." (C 25) I'm not convinced that even precocious eight-year olds watch zombie films with their parents.
  • "He looks down at the ground like he wants to kill it." (C 33)

July 2020; 375 pages


  • A more straightforward thriller about the abduction of a child is Found by Erin Kinsley
  • A fascinating tale of the abusive abduction of a child by her father is Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Sunday, 12 July 2020

"The Golden Strangers" by Henry Treece

Not so much a historical novel as a prehistorical novel, The Golden Strangers are Bronze Age men arriving in England to take the land from the Stone Age black haired men. There are slaves and magic and sacrifices to the gods because the Earth Mother needs blood for the barley to grow. There are wolf hunts and cattle raids; fisherfolk, hunters, pastoralists and farmers, there are jealous women and aggressive men. This is sword and sorcery but told with vivid detail and sadomasochistic relish. It is poetic and violent and weird.

When I was a kid I read Henry Treece's Viking books: Horned Helmet; and the trilogy Viking Dawn, the Road to Miklagard, and Viking Sunset. I also read his book about the arrival of the Roamns to Britain, Legions of the Eagle, and his book about the Children's Crusade, The Children's Crusade. I was a fan! I never knew about his adult novels. Or his poetry. He was a very prolific man.

Some great moments from this novel:

  • "This was the place of the long silence, where the most important of the People of the Hill went, to lie in their rows,back into the womb of Earth Mother, painted with bright red ochre to represent the blood of birth." (C 1)
  • "I speak in a hurry, like a man with a she-bear scratching his backside." (C 15)
  • "They were as contented as warriors could be ... They lived in the present; it was unwise to do anything else." (C 16)
  • "'Men will never forget us, my comrades'. ... Men were saying such things all the time on a war journey, but of course, men did forget them, quite soon after they had fallen; for in wartime a warrior must not keep on remembering his dead friends, how they looked, what they said, or he would lose his own courage and soon be dead and grinning like them." (C 16) That last image, in which 'grinning' sticks out as being so wrong in the context of death, until it conjures up the image of a skull, is brilliant. 
  • "Do not trust what a dog tells you. They are born liars" (C 24)
  • "A sad little song of the Hunters, as dark as the bramble-fruit, as bitter as the crab-apple, and almost as old as the chalk hills." (C 24) The last sentence is a whole part is a way of summarising the atmosphere of the book.
July 2020; 210 pages

Books reviewed in this blog which have the word 'Golden' in their title include:

Saturday, 11 July 2020

"Caravaggio" by Andrew Graham-Dixon

This biography of the artist Michelangelo Merisi (1571 - 1610), known as Caravaggio from the town outside Milan where he was born, is subtitled 'A Life Sacred and Profane'. "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights" (p 3). As well as being a painter of startling originality and huge later influence he was repeatedly in trouble with the law for fighting in the streets; his murder of a man (probably during a duel) led to a capital conviction and his fleeing from Rome, eventually to Malta where he was soon again in trouble with the authorities requiring him to break out of jail in Valletta. So there was no shortage of incident during his 38 years and AGD tells a rattling good yarn. However, this is about a painter and the art was the most important thing in Caravaggio's life, and AGD describes and explains the masterpieces in a way that enhanced my appreciation of this fabulous artist. These masterpieces are illustrated by a surprisingly large number of high quality colour plates and it is not the fault of the book that Caravaggio's extremely tenebristic style makes it difficult to see many of the details described.

AGD attempts to explain C's style by describing the context of the world in which he grew up. Milan, a city notorious for pimps, prostitutes, thieves and violence, was in thrall to Archbishop Borromeo, a priest of a Savanorolan bent, who used the confessional to operate a hierocratic police state. He encouraged the practice of 'composition' recently made popular by Jesuit leader St Ignatius Loyola (revived from methods employed by St Francis of Assissi) which aimed to get believers to “visualize Christ's sufferings ... as if you were actually present at the very time ... you should regard yourself as if you had our Lord suffering before your very eyes, and that he was present to receive your prayers.” (p 32) Thus art was an aid to devotion. AGD suggests that these practices had led to the development of realism in early Renaissance art: "artists competed with each other to create convincing illusions of actual presence, developing new techniques such as mathematically calculated perspective to paint ever more convincing images of the life and sufferings of Christ. Painters made their pictures as realistic as they could in order to assist worshippers in their own acts of mental picture-building.” (33)

In particular Borromeo encouraged the practice of 'sacred mountains' which were places where pilgrims could go and encounter crib-like Biblical scenes in which usually terracotta figures were arranged in theatrically-set groupings. “The most skilfully carved and painted of the figures have a shocking actuality about them. This is not art that seeks to idealize nor generalize life; it is art that aspires to the condition of a simulacrum of life itself.” (p 39) “The way in which he [Caraviaggio] paints the wrinkled faces and bodies of his protagonists has its exact parallel in the wizened physiognomies conjured from clay by the masters of terracotta sculpture” (p 40)

Descriptions of Caravaggio's art include:

  • "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights" (p 3)
  • His use of light and shade was so original that it gave painters nothing less than a new grammar and vocabulary.” (p 41)
  • The painter’s intense sensuality ... his feel for the flesh and blood of the human body and ... hius sensitivity to the suggestions implicit in the least exchange of glances.” (p 42)
  • an art of paroxysm and abandonment, filled with images of turmoil in dark places.” (p 52)
  • Tintoretto's brooding, monumental religious canvases, full of dramatic contrasts of light and dark - lightning strikes of supernatural illumination that shiver like spiritual electricity - are the only late sixteenth-century Italian paintings to prophesy elements of Caravaggio's own mature style.” (65)
  • Caravaggio is not merely the painter of rogues, crooks and the enchantresses of the street. He is the painter as vagabond.” (110)
  • Caravaggio seems to have had almost no interest in theories of art.” (118)
  • The transience of nature is linked to precariousness. Entropy and the fear of falling are connected in Caravaggio's mind.” (135)
  • Whomsoever the Medusa looks at, she freezes, preserving them forever in a single, charged instant of being. From the flux of life she takes a moment and makes it last for all time. That is what Caravaggio’s art does too.” (159)
  • In these later paintings he used a dark ground and worked from dark to light, a technique that he may have seen for the first time in the art of Tintoretto. It suited him in a number of ways. A dark ground enabled him to focus only on the essentials of the scene, as he imagined it. Dark paint creates an illusion of deep shadow around the principal forms and therefore also does away with the need to paint background detail.” (184)
  • Caravaggio’s habitual impatience is manifest too in his frequent practice of working wet-in-wet rather than waiting for each layer of oil paint to dry. He was unique among the painters of his time in making no preparatory drawing for his pictures, preferring to block out his compositions directly on the primed canvas. Having posed his models, he often marked the exact positions of heads and other contours by making light incisions in the base layer of paint ... No other artists of his time used such incisions.” (185)
  • Bellori said: “he never showed any of his figures in open daylight, but instead found a way to place them in the darkness of a closed room, placing a lamp high so that the light would fall straight down, revealing the principal part of the body and leaving the rest in shadow so as to produce a powerful contrast of light and dark.” (186)
  • Caravaggio's dark and monumental oil paintings would certainly have looked extremely Venetian in the chapel of a Roman church in 1600, because only in Venice, where dampness and humidity discouraged fresco painting, was it common to see such large works of religious art carried out in oil on canvas.” (204)
  • God is light, so he announces his presence among men in the elusive forms of a shadowplay. The innkeeper cannot see it, it but by standing where he does he casts a shadow on the wall that gives Christ a dark but unmistakable halo.” (223)
  • Earlier artists had often envisaged the portrayal as a chaotic crowd scene, confusing the eye with a multitude of soldiers and panicking disciples. Caravaggio’s new technique of emphatic chiaroscuro was the perfect editing device for avoiding such unnecessary complications. He uses it here as a ruthless means of exclusion, spotlighting the figures at the very centre of the drama ... In his interpretation, the whole story becomes an elemental conflict between good and evil, innocence and malignity.” (229)
  • Michelangelo's prophets are nobly idealized figures, decorously draped, but Caravaggio’s Matthew is an ordinary, imperfect human being in working clothes that leave his arms and legs bare ... a simple man stunned by the directness of his revelation.” (236)
  • Many of the technical departures of the artist’s later work are related to his circumstances: he stops painting from models, in all but a few cases, because he has no time to find them or money to pay them, and he paints quickly because he has to move on.” (331)
  • Placing such emphasis on the proximity of one man's body to another is Caravaggio’s way of heightening the horror of the scene. Torture is a misbegotten form of physical intimacy.” (346)
  • The snapshot immediacy of the image, with its extremely innovative effects of cropping and occlusion, is suggestive of alienation and abandonment.” (538)
  • He painted as if the rich and the powerful were his enemies, as if he really did believe that the meek deserved to inherit the earth.” (438)
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini ... was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s sense of light, by his narrative directness, and by his casting of poor and ordinary working people in leading roles.” (441)

Other great moments:

  • Nowhere was the misogynistic cult of celibacy stronger than in Lombardy. It did not necessarily entail sexual abstinence, merely a refusal to be yoked to any single woman.” (p 16)
  • While Bacchus symbolises inspiration, he also stands for disorder, anarchy, an unruly surrender to the senses. He is passion, opposed to the reason embodied by Apollo.” (84)
  • Counter-Reformation Rome was a city in which all manner of thieves, rogues and scoundrels thronged. Their presence was a symptom of social crisis. Recurrent plague not only destroyed lives, but ravaged economies in the cities and states where it struck.” (100)
  • Aristotle's distinction between tragedy and comedy ... held that tragedy should focus on the actions of the elite - kings and princes - while comedy should concern itself with the behaviour of those at the very bottom of the social heap.” (107) This comes from Aristotle's Poetics.
  • The polyphonic and monodic modes are at opposite ends of music’s emotional spectrum. Polyphony subsumes the individual voice within a choral harmony, reflecting the desire to conjure up an essentially otherworldly sound, such as the singing of the angelic host. Words are hard to distinguish in the layers of polyphonic singing. Syntax dissolves and sense is sacrificed for an effect of transcendence. By contrast, monody puts precise meaning and specific human emotions at the heart of music. The single melodic line, the solo voice, is easily understood ... It might be said that while polyphony aspires to heaven, monody expresses man.” (128)
  • According to the Neoplatonic thought of the Renaissance, classical myth was alive with shadowy anticipations of Christian truth. The legend of Dionysus, who died to be reborn, was regarded as a pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.” (155)
  • The centre of the city was dark. Overshadowed by unbroken lines of tall buildings, its congested lanes and alleys were rarely penetrated by direct sunlight. Despite the sunshine of southern Italy, most daily life took place in deep shadow, in a form of civic space not unlike the bottom of a well.” (338)

As I think you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book.

July 2020; 444 pages

Sunday, 5 July 2020

"Exchange" by Paul Magrs

Simon's mum and dad are dead; he lives with his gran Winnie and his granddad Ray. He and his gran are great readers; one day they discover the The Great Big Book Exchange, a second-hand bookshop with a difference, run by Terrance who has plastic hands and Goth teenager Kelly. Will Ray and Winnie split up after a lifetime of friction? Will Simon and Kelly find love? And will the planned reunion between Winnie and her childhood friend best-selling novelist Ada be an unmitigated disaster?

A coming-of-age story told with unusual realism and sensitivity.

It has a neat construction: some spoilers in this analysis
Part One: Introductions

  • Simon and gran discover the Exchange at about 10%
  • Just before 20% we get the first mention of gran's childhood friend, the best-selling author; at the same time granddad becomes angry about gran's reading. 
  • We are introduced to Kelly just before 25%

Part Two: Rising tensions: Gran and granddad start to argue; Simon starts to go off the rails with Kelly

  • At 35% Kelly comes to tea
  • At 40% Simon and Kelly bunk off school to have a day in town. Simon has discovered grandad has a stash of glamour magazines. Grandad and gran are starting to argue and Simon suspects that gran might be falling for the man who runs the Exchange. 
  • At 50% gran and granddad have a major argument. 

Part Three: The hero is coerced into doing something bad; it has a bad consequence

  • Kelly proposes taking gran to meet Ada at about 60% and funding the cost by stealing granddad's glamour magazines.
  • The theft takes place at about 70%
  • Granddad burns the books in the house at the 75% mark

Part Four: Resolutions

  • After a brilliantly crafted literary lunch in which the tension keeps rising - will Ada and Winnie actually get on when they meet? - the actual meeting takes place at about 87%
  • But now, granddad, unwell, goes out in the snow to search for gran while gran goes off with her new friend: this keeps the tension going till the 95% mark.
  • And then the epilogue in which not all is resolved.
One niggle: I did feel that granddad's story wasn't quite resolved.

Some great moments:

  • "He found he didn't want to take up much space." (C 1)
  • "I just drift along ... collecting this stuff together. Any old stuff. No judgement, no value. No real choosing." (C 2)
  • "I'll never have enough time to read all the books I want to." (C 2)
  • "Honest? Straightforward? You can't even lie straight in your bed at night." (C 9)
  • "He thought about how precarious his memory was. Real things could be lost for ever. He would forget. Inevitably, he would forget all kinds of things." (C 9)
  • "Change was something that simply happened to you. You yourself didn't make change happen. Instead you were at its mercy. ... Change could pick you up; it could pick up everyone and everything in your life and it could wantonly destroy and randomise every factor. It could dump your whole life down again, altered out of all recognition." (C 11)

July 2020; 295 pages

Friday, 3 July 2020

"Blonde Roots" by Bernardine Evaristo

I am rather at a loss to understand how I should judge this book. It is not a novel in the sense that the works of Dickens or Conrad or Chinua Achebe are novels. Rather, it seems to be an extended satirical rant. I don't really know a comic novel quite like it.

Essentially, it is a story about slavery in a world where Africa is the dominant culture whose wealth is based on the labours of European slaves (this is presented as satire but there really were raids by North Africans to capture Europeans from European coastal regions including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, England, and even Iceland). The protagonist is a whyte woman slave who seeks to escape cruel bondage.

In books in which a fundamentally different world to our own is to be described, such as in most science fiction, the author is obliged to do what is called 'world building'. This means that time and writing must be spent describing the world. This can get in the way of developing the characters or progressing the narrative. Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, builds the world of Gilead by drip-feeding us with information do that we are not faced with too much too soon. I felt that in this book, there was more world-building than there needed to be and that this was at the expense of developing the characters. The author had a lot of fun depicting the whyte europanes as cabbage-eating peasants ("We were taught how to cook: cabbage soup, cabbage pie, fried cabbage, pickled cabbage, skillet cabbage, scalloped cabbage, cabbage and turnip bake, cabbage and potato casserole, cabbage and spinach cake"; 1.2) living in a northern serfdom and emphasising their backwardness compared to the cultural and technological superiority of the Aphrikans. She had a lot of fun describing the Aphrikan capital of Londolo and all its constituent parts: Kanada Wadi, Dartfor City, "the arsenal town of Wool Wi Che, famous for manufacturing the finwest spears, shields, crossbows, poison darts, muskets and cannons in the world." However, I found the humour rather heavy handed, perhaps because the same joke was repeated again and again.

The characters, as befits a satire rather than a novel, were fundamentally stereotypes. The vast majority of the blak characters were evil: as slave owners and the wives and sons and daughters of slave owners they were viciously selfish, greedy and lustful and violent, and unredeemed by any suggestion of good. By contrast, most of the whyte characters were slaves and the salt of the earth.

The narrator of sections one and three, the protagonist Doris Scagglethorpe, was from peasant stock who had been enslaved. The descriptions of the slave voyage was terrible, the conditions in which she lived were awful, she has been raped and abused ... and yet she didn't seem angry or bitter. Early in the book she complains that her Mistress insists she wears her hair in the 'Ambossan' fashion: "My long blonde hair was threaded through with wire and put into plaited hoops all over my head. I wanted to protest that we whytes just didn't have the bone structure to carry it off." (1.1) Bone structure? This woman who has been abducted and enslaved and raped and abused worries about bone structure. She sounds more like a sulky teenager than an angry woman. Much of the book is energised by outrage but then you find moments of bathos, such as when the rag dolls are modelled after Aphrikan ideals of beauty which "was so bad for our self-esteem" (1.1) When reading a novel one has to suspend one's disbelief and these were moments when, for me, that suspension was made difficult.

I suppose that my fundamental problem was that this is a novel about slavery. Slavery is like the Jewish holocaust of the Second World War. They are huge topics. Unbelievably horrible things happened to people; the people doing these things were unbelievably evil. Except that they were normal people, people who, within the context of their societies, were respectable. To tackle that subject in a novel is extraordinarily difficult. A traditional, character driven novel would explore these issues in depth.  There would be room for moral ambiguity (because humans are defined by moral ambiguity). Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which not explicitly about slavery, was an attempt to do this. (There is one moment when she appears to quote from Heart of Darkness: "What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror ..." (2.4; as a further clue to the identification, the chapter is entitled Heart of Greyness).

Blonde Roots is not a traditional character driven novel. It seeks to mine humour from slavery. That is a hard challenge and risks trivialising the horror. So Blonde Roots tries to remind you of all the awful things that happened during slavery. My problem was that because I found the characters stereotypical and because the protagonist was upset at the trivialities leaving little room for her to be outraged, I did not invest in the characters and so, ultimately, I did not care about their terrible experiences as profoundly as I should have done.

There were moments when I worried about the editing:

  • "Our shack was constructed out of corrugated iron which was boiling in summer nights." (1.1): It must have been hot if the iron boiled!
  • "When I asked for chilli pepper to spice it all up, my gracious host retorted that his palette could no longer take it." (2.5); palette should be palate.

There are some wonderful moments:

  • "Dreams and disappointment were inseparable bedfellows." (1.1)
  • "Such was the demand for sugar, the price of a sweet tooth was a toothless smile. Such was the demand for coffee, the price of caffeine was addiction, heart palpitations, osteoporosis and general irritability. The price of rum was chronic liver disease, alcoholism and permanent memory loss. The cost of tobacco was cancer, stained teeth and emphysema." (1.1)
  • "In this life there were 'fairy-tale castles' and 'peasant shit-houses', and wasn't it a pity not to have a choice." (1.2)
  • "I could see he needed a drink now because he kept twitching ... as if flies were landing on different parts of his anatomy." (1.4)
  • "Their eyes were flint in the act of ignition." (1.6)
  • "The humid air draped itself languorously over the surface of my lungs so that I could barely breathe." (3.4)
  • "Real men were so damned sexy women got wet just looking at dat fine-lookin hunk-a-beef ova dere. Women cried, fought, poisoned, even killed over them, but when their real men let them down, they complained about having to put up with dat bastard filandara and dere iz no good man in-a dis place. But the good men - not tall enough, broad enough, well-endowed, sexy, handome, confident, cocky, muscular or sweet-talking enough - weren't real men so they didn't count." (3.6)
  • "I had put my childhood in its rightful place, as history to be revisited but not relived." (3.7)

If you want a book to chronicle the effect of colonialism on African society then read the trilogy of novels starting with Things Fall Aparand continuing with No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe. Each one is a great book. If you want a book in which white and black swap places read Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (but don't watch the TV version which castrated itself by changing the ending). Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is another book about slavery. Sins of the Fathers by James Pope-Hennessey is a slightly old-fashioned history of the slave trade.

July 2020; 261 pages