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, 30 September 2020

"Thursbitch" by Alan Garner

 A typical Garner novel, set on a hill in the Pennines (there is a real valley called Thursbitch). 

In the 18th century some farmers celebrate decidedly pagan rites involving bulls, snakes, and the consumption of a fermented brew made from marinated magic mushrooms. Jack, a jagger (pedlar), brings presents to his family, including the girl he has impregnated. Much of this part is written in dialect and sometimes can be very hard to follow. 'Thole' means part of a rowlock in the dictionary but it also means (in the dialect) to endure. There's a lot of tholing and other words. A glossary would have helped.

In modern days a pair of hikers, Sal,  an expert on geology, and Ian, whose area of experise must be discovered slowly, come across some of the unusual features of this landscape.

These times connect, with each getting glimpses of the other.

And the two stories both follow to their consequences.

It was really difficult to understand what was going on in the first half of the book. But it is worth it if you thole. The refusal to compromise with the language creates soime vivid characters. And as you start to unpick the unspoken motivations, as you start to learn who these people are and why they are interacting with the landscape, the book begins to grip.

Some moments:

  • "When bum hole's shut, fart's gone." (Ch 1)
  • "This here nook of the world, for me, smiles more nor any other." (Ch 6) 
  • "Sociable I have all day. Sociable is what I've come here to get away from. Do you know what sociable is? Smile without feeling." (Ch 16)

A strange book, difficult at the start. But worth it. September 2020; 158 pages

  • Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:

    • The Weirdstone of Brisingamenits sequel The Moon of Gomrathand the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
    • Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
    • The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
    • Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift. There are also several links between Red Shift and Boneland.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

"The Black Notebook" by Patrick Modiano

 M Modiano is a Nobel Laureate. This short novel is about a man trying to reconstruct, using his writer's notebook, events that happened twenty years ago, when he became involved with a woman called Dannie and the other people he met at the Unic Hotel in paris: Paul Chastagnier, Duwelc, Gerard Marciano, Aghamouri and Georges. For some reason the police interviewed him at the time. He tries to understand what was going on.

Not a lot, to be honest. The first half of the book is very unstructured, as you might expect from someone trying to remember, and he visits and revisits episodes, such as the occasions that he and Dannie went to an empty old house in the countryside, or when they let themselves into to Dannie's old flat and helped themselves to things. 

Half way through we learn that there was something sinister about the group, and that something terrible happened. 

But even as we learn more about what happened, we never see anything very clearly. And still the narrator wanders around Paris and oscillates between the present and the past, and between reality and his vivid dreams. 

There are some great moments:

  • "Even though most of the buildings were still the same, they made you feel as if you were looking at a taxidermied dog." (p 7)
  • "The present no longer  counted, with its indistinguishable days in their doleful light, which must be the light of old age, when you feel as if you're merely living on." (p 38)
  • "We live at the mercy of certain silences." (p 134)

But in the end I thought it rambled and I was never sufficiently interested in what had happened to care about the main character. He just seemed a little lost and confused. And I couldn't understand why these events that had happened to him long ago should bother him now.

September 2020;157 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:


Sunday, 27 September 2020

"As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner

 Addie Bundren has asked to be buried not near her home but over in Jefferson; this necessitates the family making an epic journey with the coffined corpse. The journey takes far longer than it should have done, because the river has flooded and the bridges cannot be crossed, and because of the attitude of Addie's husband Anse, who repeatedly refuses help because he will not be beholden to anyone. "It's like a man who has let everything slide all his life to get set on something that will make the most trouble for everybody he knows." (p 78)

The story is told in a multiple perspective stream of consciousness, a bit like Ulysses by James Joyce, except that Faulkner uses fifteen narrators while Joyce used only three and, importantly, because Faulkner's characters sometimes know things they cannot know, transcending time and place, including the by-then-dead Addie, who has a chapter reflecting upon her life.

Once again, the fifty per cent rule works: Darl articulates secrets about both Jewel and Dewey Dell exactly half way through the book.


I was immensely confused about who was who after the first thirty pages. Each chapter is headed with the name of the character who is narrating. To be helpful, here are the main characters.

  • Addie Bundren, the dying woman, later a corpse.
  • Anse Bundren, her husband. He repeatedly describes himself as a 'luckless' man but it is his dogmatism, his delaying and refusal to seek help that causes many of the problems the other characters face.
  • Addie and Anse have five children:
    • Cash the eldest boy, a skilled carpenter, methodical and careful, and incredibly stoical.
    • Darl the second eldest, the main narrator, a character who is much more fluent and articulate than any of the others, so much so that he transcends the limitations of his education.
    • Jewel, the third eldest, who loves horses; it turns out that he is not Anse's son but, apart from Addie and his biological father, and perhaps Darl, and maybe Jewel himself, no one else seems to know.
    • Dewey Dell, the girl, who has got herself pregnant and is secretly seeking an abortion.
    • Vardaman, the littlest boy, whose stream of consciousness displays his immaturity.
  • Other characters include Vernon Tull, the neighbouring farmer, and his hyper religious wife Cora (Vernon's relationship with Cora is summarised when he muses on how God could leave the Universe to Core: “I reckon if there's ere a man or woman anywhere that He could turn it all over to and go away with His mind at rest, it would be Cora. And I reckon she would make a few changes, no matter how He was running it. And I reckon they would be for man's good. Leastways, we would have to like them. Leastways, we might as well go on and make like we did.”; p 65); Peabody the doctor; and Reverend Whitfield the local pastor.

There are stupendous descriptions:

  • Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks.” (p 5)
  • It would be black, the shelf black, the still surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness.” (p 7)
  • The horse snorts, then Jewel sees him, glinting for a gaudy instant among the blue shadows.” (p 8)
  • He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body in mid-air shaped to the horse.” (p 9)
  • The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads.” (p 34)
  • She looks at us. Only her eyes seem to move. It's like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there.” (p 37 - 38)
  • He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it Ed no longer alive and don't yet know that it is dead.” (p 54)
  • "Motionless, the tall buzzards hang in soaring circles, the clouds giving them an illusion of retrograde." (p 82)
There are thought-provoking observations:

  • When I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind - and that of the ones who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.” (p 37)
  • Now and then a fellow gets to thinking about it. Not often, though. Which is a good thing. For the Lord aimed for him to do and not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain it's like a piece of machinery: it won't stand a whole lot of racking. It's best when it all runs along the same, doing the day's work and not no one part used no more than needful.” (p 63)
  • "I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn of He don't take some curious ways to show it, seems like." (p 95)
  • "You can't tell about them. Just about when you decide they mean one thing, I be durn if you not only haven't got to change your mind, like as not you got to take a raw-hiding for thinking they meant it." (p 102)
  • "A fellow can see every now and then that children have more sense than him, But he don't like to admit it to them until they have beards." (p 123)
  • "My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." (p 153)
  • "How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls." (p 188)
  • "I ain't sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he ain't." (p 214)
  • "Some folks have the smooth, pretty boards to build a court-house with and others don't have no more than rough lumber fitten to build a chicken coop. But it's better to build atight chicken coop than a shoddy court-house." (p 215)

This was one of the novels Faulkner had written before being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a read which challenges the reader to work out who is who and what their back stories are, and I'm not sure after a single read-through that I haven't missed some of the subtleties, but the inevitability of tragedy builds up and builds up until you can hardly bear to find out what must happen next.

One of those books I need to think about and re-visit.

September 2020; 240 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

"Underwater Adventure" by Willard Price

 When I was a kid I loved the Adventure books by Willard Price and this was the first that I read, serialised in Look and Learn magazine. When my son Sam was learning to read I read these books to him every night, starting with the first, Amazon Adventure and progressing through the series as chronologically written: South Sea Adventure (where Hal and Roger Hunt first meet the Polynesian sailor Omo and Captain Ike), Underwater Adventure and Volcano Adventure (where they say goodbye to Omo and Ike) and then onto Whale Adventure, African Adventure (where they are reunited with their father John Hunt), Elephant Adventure, Safari Adventure and Lion Adventure. Somewhere around here, Sam would continue reading after I left off, so I started to miss out on bigger and bigger chunks of the books. They continue with Gorilla Adventure, Diving Adventure and Cannibal Adventure of which I only read the first chapter and he finished it. I never got to Tiger Adventure and Arctic Adventure.

The format is always the same. Big brother Hal and his mischievous younger brother Roger are collecting animals or zoos around the world. They face hardships and perils enough. Somehow they manage to catch animals that more experienced hunters have never snared. There are always opportunities for some wise person to give a mini-lecture on some marvel of the natural world. But, there is also always a villain. The villains are transparently bad but somehow, because the goodies are trusting to the point of absurd naivete, they get away with their wickedness until there is some final cataclysm, usually enhanced by a natural disaster, that enables right to prevail.

It is cracking boys' own adventure stuff. In this story they fight sharks, capture a giant moray eel and an oar fish, and collect a stonefish. They also discover gold in the wreck of a Spanish galleon. Villain Skink tries to kill Hal with a scorpion and Roger with a stonefish. He teams up with other villains in a submarine to steal the treasure salvaged from the wreck. The grand finale involves a typhoon and earthquake.  

It may be formulaic and the attitudes may be outdated but it still works as a story. September 2020; 223 pages

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

"Fear of de Sade" by Bernardo Carvalho

In an introductory section, a Baron from Napoleonic France complains about being arrested after a limited orgy in which someone, he doesn't know who, died.

The second section is a dialogue between the Baron and an unidentified Voice (who might be the Devil  in Hell if the Baron was the victim of the murder as a sort of dialogic whodunnit might suggest).

The final section is about a man who has confessed to murdering his wife during a sort of tit-for-tat game based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

It's quite a strange book with a great deal of repetition. In many ways the adjective 'Karkaesque' springs to mind.

Carvalho lives in Brazil and writes in Portuguese

September 2020; 135 pages

"The Panther in the Basement" by Amos Oz

Ostensibly, this is a book about treason. It starts: "I have been called a traitor many times in my life. The first time was when I was twelve ..." Set in Jerusalem, in the last year of the British mandate of Palestine, the year before the state of Israel was created, the narrator and protagonist Proffy is in a pre-teenage gang modelled after the real Israeli freedom fighters; they plan to construct a rocket to blow up the King in London; in his spare time he peeps at the elder sister of his best mate Ben Hur. One night, coming home after curfew, he is arrested by a British soldier who turns out to be a pro-semite and lets Proffy go in return for regular Hebrew lesson. The plot meanders around these points.

The plot is not really the point. The book bursts into being from chapter 18 onwards when suddenly the promises of the prose become full-blown riotously coloured, psychedelic blessings:

Such as these descriptions of temptation:

  • At first the temptations were weak and coy, hardly daring to hint to me what I really wanted. But gradually they became bolder, more explicit, licking at the toes of my sandals, tickling the palms of my hands, calling out to me brazenly, pulling me shamelessly by the sleeve.” (C 18)
  • Temptations are like sneezes, which start from nothing at all, a faint pinching sensation at the base of your nose, and then gradually take over so there's no stopping them. Temptations generally start from a little patrol to check the terrain, tiny ripples of vague, undefined excitement, and, before you know it wants of you, you start to feel a gradual glow inside, like when you switch on an electric fire and the element is still grey but it starts to make little popping noises and then it blushes very faintly and then more deeply and soon it is glowing angrily and you are full of reckless lightheadedness; so what, what the hell, why not, what harm can it do, like a very vague but wild, uninhibited sound deep inside you, coaxing and pleading with you: come on, why not.” (C 18)
  • I found in the dictionary the proper word for this sucking, suckling temptation to cast off restraint and yield to the call of sin: it is ‘seduction’. Like a cross between ‘sedition’ and ‘suction’.” (C 18)

And this wonderful description of the young Proffy savouring cooking smells such as he has never encountered (or even imagined) before: “Seventy-seven years of agony went past, as slow as torture, to the limit of endurance and beyond, and further to the point of despair, and further still till the heart sobbed, before the stock begun to bubble and boil, and the oil began to splutter and spit. Yardena turned the heat down and sprinkled on some salt and a pinch of ground black pepper. Then she put the lid on the pan, leaving a small space for the tantalising vapours to escape ... She waited until the broth evaporated, leaving behind a heavenly thick sauce enfolding the pieces of fried chicken that seemed to have grown wings and become a psalm and a dream. The whole apartment was astonished at the bevy of powerful smells wafting from the kitchen and invading every corner like frantic rioters. Such odours had not been smelled here since the building was built.” (C 20)

Other marvellous moments:

  • I stopped writing because I remembered to get up and close the bathroom door; though it might have preferred to stay open, to judge by the groan it made as I closed it.” (C 2)
  • My father was fond of the word ‘definitely’. And also of the words ‘indubitably’,’ evidently’,’ yes indeed’.”
  • My shirt stuck to my skin with fear. The blood throbbed in my temples and my neck like a tom-tom. Panting and terrified I started running monkey-like, bent double, over fences and through bushes, grazing my knees, hitting my shoulder against a stone wall, catching the turnup of my shorts on a wire fence but not stopping to loosen it: like a lizard shedding its tail I dragged myself free, leaving a tatter of cloth and a shred of torn skin in the fence’s grip.” (C 7)
  • A fighter must be on his guard, especially about against dreaming about Yardena, who, although she was almost twenty, still had a girlish habit of arranging the hem of her skirt after she sat down, as if her knees were a baby that needed to be covered up properly, not too little so as to catch cold and not too much so that it will not be able to breathe.” (C 11)
  • When she played the clarinet it was as though the music came not from the instrument but straight out of her body, only passing through the clarinet to pick up some sweetness and sadness, and taking you to a real, silent place where there is no enemy, no struggle, and where everything is free from shame and treachery and clear of thoughts of betrayal.” (C 11)
  • There's a pit inside the stomach that science hasn't discovered yet, and all the blood drained into that pit from my head, my heart, my knees, and turned into an ocean and roared like the ocean.” (C 20)
  • She suddenly burst out laughing, a wide-open, musical laughter that only girls who enjoy being girls have. And she tried to sweep her cigarette smoke away with her hand, and as though it were a fly.” (C 20)
  • There are manners and degrees of not knowing. Just as a window can be not just open or shut, but half open, or one part can be open and the rest shut, or it can be open just a crack, or be covered with a shutter on the outside and a thick curtain on the inside, for even fastened shut with nails.” (C 21)
Joyously wonderful writing. September 2020; 122 pages

Sunday, 20 September 2020

"Elidor" by Alan Garner

Four children find a gateway into another world, Elidor. They meet Malebron who gives them four treasures to take back into their world and guard against the forces of darkness who are trying to kill Elidor. Needless to say, they also encounter prophecies.

Back in Manchester strange things happen to electrical equipment and they work out that the treasures (not disguised as junk) are sending out some sort of signal. But as time passes the older children start to rationalise their experiences and only the youngest, over-imaginative Roland (the book is prefaced with a quote from King Lear: Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came), continues to believe that their house is under repeated attack. All comes to a head on New Year's Eve.

A classic Hero's Journey type of tale with overtones of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

The book transcends the genre by setting much of the action in the slums of Manchester and bringing in aspects of everyday life, such as televisions slipping out of tuning and slum clearance and buses. Many of these details, however, are probably unimaginable to today's child.

There are some great moments:

  • "They sat on the bench beneath the statue of Watt. The sculptor had given him a stern face, but the pigeons had made him look as though he was just very sick of Manchester." (C 1)
  • "There was a jam jar furred green with long-dried water." (C 1)
  • "It was the sound Roland had heard upstairs, but now it was louder, building waves that jarred the church, and went through Roland's body until he felt that he was threaded on the sound." (C 1)
  • "Dust, or ash, kicked up under Roland's feet, muffling his walk and coating his body so aridly that his skin rasped." (C 3)
  • "We had so much of ease that we did not mark the signs - a crop blighted, a spring failed, a man killed ..." (C 4)
  • "He had to read twenty pages, and he found that he was more aware of the number of a page than of what was printed on it." (C 12)
  • "Behind the sky was a bloom of darkness." (C 14)
  • "Roland shivered with the effort of looking." (C 19)

Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:

  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamenits sequel The Moon of Gomrath, and the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
  • Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
  • The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
  • Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift.
  • The definitively adult Thursbitch

September 2020; 188 pages

Friday, 18 September 2020

"The City and the Pillar" by Gore Vidal

 Chapter One starts with Jim Willard, sitting at a table in a bar, alone, and getting drunk. This is the frame. Chapter 2 is the start of the narrative making this a story within a story, explaining what has brought Jim to this position.

Jim is gay. It is pre-war Virginia and homosexuality is so repressed that, Jim doesn't even known that he is gay; all he understands is that he fancies his friend Bob. After a weekend being boys at a log cabin in the wilderness, Bob leaves town to go to sea and Jim soon follows, searching for the man he loves. But he can't find him so he begins an extraordinary Odyssey, starting as a sailor and then becoming a tennis pro in Hollywood, slowly entering the homosexual world, becoming the kept boy of an acto and then meeting a writer, joining the army and then going to New York. Always aware that whatever impulse he has, it has to be kept secret, except from the other initiates in this sub-culture. And always searching for love, his first love, in the person of Bob Ford.

It is a simply told narrative, carefully glossing over the sex (it was published in 1948). It broke literary ground and almost made Gore Vidal unpublishable; it was read with appreciation by Thomas Mann. There are moments when it falters: for example, there is a professor and a writer at a 'faggot party' discussing homosexuality in what strays from being the sort of conversation you might have at a party into a written academic debate. But mostly it is on the money.

Of course it helps that the protagonist Jim is incredibly innocent to the point of stupidity and so all-American (a very good looking tennis professional); it means that he can be educated by the more experienced homosexuals he meets; it makes him a sort of blank sheet everyman who can be shaped by experience. The innocence and the repression are also representative of the time. But the theme of the young American boy struggling to accept himself as a homosexual is very much better done by James Baldwin in Giovanni's Room. But that was written in 1956 and (probably necessarily) set in Paris. As for John Rechy's City of Night, the fictionalised memoirs of a frent boy, that was publsihed in 1963. It was a steep trajectory and it still took years. The City and the Pillar paved the way and for that it should be celebrated.

The City is, I suppose, Sodom, one of the Cities of the Plain in Genesis, and refers to Jim's experiences in LA and NY, and the Pillar refers to the pillar of salt that Lot's wife turned into because she looked back when she fled from Sodom and, I think, refers to the final terrible scene.

It is a little dated in its use of words which might give offence nowadays.

Some great moments:

  • "It makes a man so horny he could lay a mule, if it would just stand still." (2.3) Terrible foreshadowing.
  • "He realized it would be a difficult matter to live in a world of men and women without participating in their ancient and necessary duet." (3.2)
  • "You're not like the rest of us who want a mirror." (5.1)
  • "Tag ends of scripts tended to work their way into his conversation." (5.1)
  • "Primitives don't seem to mind what they do if it's fun." (5.2)
  • "If a man wants to be accepted by a barracks, he must listen to a great deal of talk about a very few subjects, and he must accept as a law of nature that, whenever a point is made, it will be repeated a hundred times, often in the same words, rather like part-singing." (7.2)
  • "I have such hopes for the afterlife. I see it as a riot of color! And all the angels will look like marines. Too gay!" (9.1)
  • "Trade was regarded with great suspicion; in fact, it was a part of the homosexual credo that this year's trade is next year's competition." (9.1)
  • "At his feet the water rose and fell slowly, gently, like the breathing is some vast monster." (11) 
  • "The purpose of rivers is to flow into the sea." (11)

A ground-breaking novel. September 2020; 186 pages

Also written by Vidal and reviewed in this blog: Kalki

Vidal also wrote some classics of American fiction such as Burr, and Lincoln,

Thursday, 17 September 2020

"Brazil" by John Updike


Black street/ beach boy Tristão meets rich white girl Isabel on the beach in Rio; they fall in love. The book records their subsequent adventures, as her family and fate try to separate them.

It is quite a rambling narrative. I thought at first, given the character of Tristão, this was a picaresque, but, despite his upbringing and profession as a petty thief, he isn't a rogue (his surname is Raposo which is Portuguese for fox-like or cunning but he is rather naive and innocent; his girlfriend's surname of Leme - 'rudder' - is rather more apt; she is usually the one who controls what is going on). I then sought Biblical parallels: Tristão could be Adam and Isabel Eve, her father being God; after they are expelled from paradise (the beach in Rio) Tristão is forced repeatedly to labour. He kills and is forced to wander, like Cain, although the only mark on him appears to be his blackness. But the Biblical parallels soon ran dry; since Tristão is infertile he cannot be, like Adam, father of us all. My next thought was that it was an updating of Voltaire's Candide, in which two innocent lovers are expelled from their garden  and journey across the continent (Europe and Brazil), meeting many adventures in which they are repeatedly separated and yet repeatedly reunite. Both books have 30 chapters. But I read Candide a long time ago and my memory of the details of its plot is vague, although I do recall people frequently dying and being resurrected, much loss of buttocks and the eternally optimistic Dr Pangloss, none of which seem to appear in Brazil. There is an element of magical realism in Brazil (the magic grows stronger the further they are from the cities) which is very much present in Candide. Are Isabel's six babies,none of whom are fathered by Tristão, three of whom are taken from her, in any way representative of something?

More than halfway through the book the chiastic nature of the plot appears. At the three-quarters mark there is a key reversal; the lovers then replay their lives, experiencing (many of) the locations of the first three quarters in reverse sequence, but (due to the nature of the reversal) differently. 

Wikipedia's article on the book suggests that it is a retelling of the story of Tristan and Iseult, and the names of the characters certainly support this hypothesis. There are many versions of the original tale but the key is that Tristan, a lowly knight, falls in love with Iseult, who is intended to be married to a King. 

There are threads that are left loose such as the gray-eyed baby born to Isabel's dad and a black woman; I suppose that this is Tristão's half brother, who betrays them. But the gold nugget, found by Tristão and later found in the possession of Isabel's father and bequeathed to his gray-eyed son, suggests that it might be Tristão himself.

At one stage, Isabel's father hears about Tristão's 'employments': "Mining, automobile manufacture ... the sequence meant something to him, it rang a bell". Is this just that he recognises the employments of the boy he has hunted over the years (although the sequence is reversed in another chiastic ploy)? Or are we supposed to recognise something in that sequence?

Perhaps if one has to search so hard for a model one should accept that this is an original novel and if the writer himself used other works as templates he has disguised them so well that they are no more than prompts for the creative process.

There is a surprising amount of sex in this book. The author seems fascinated by how sex changes through our lives, according to our age, our experiences, our labours (the harder Tristão works the less able he is to have sex) and our roles. At the start Tristão is the experienced street boy; he deflowers virginal Isabel. By the end he is the relatively innocent one.

Updike uses the narrative to repeatedly reflect upon life. Perhaps he is the Dr Pangloss who accompanies Tristão-as-Candide. These reflections include:

  • "A man cannot make himself out of thin air, he must have materials." (C 3)
  • "These poor, like animals, had developed a tactful politics of space." (C 4)
  • "On the beach, we each seem free, naked and idle and absolute, but in fact no one is free of the costume of circumstance; we are all twigs of one bush or another" (C 5)
  • "It was strange ... how the two gray guns had, like pencils, redrawn the space of the room, reducing the infinitude of possibilities to a few shallow tunnels of warped choice." (C 8)
  • "Love is a dream ... as all but the dreamers can see. It is the anaesthetic that Nature employs to extract babies from us." (C 9)
  • "We enslave ourselves for crumbs - for the mere image and rumour of crumbs." (C 11)
  • "Even the longest life feels too short on the deathbed." (C 12)
  • "There is a melancholy, a stupidity to rural landscape ... a yawning repetitiveness, as of a man who knows only a few words but will not stop talking." (C 15)
  • "The stories ... on the scraps of creased and wadded paper, were timeless - the same five or six basic facts of human existence endlessly revolved ... Love, pregnancy, infidelity, vengeance, parting. Death." (C 16)
  • "There is no one there ... to care what your duty is! There is no God, our lives are a terrible accident! We are born in a mess of pain, and pain and hunger and lust and fear drive us on for no purpose whatsoever!" (C 20)
  • "Life robs us of ourselves, piece by small piece." (C 23)
  • "The spirit is strong, but blind matter is stronger." (C 30)

Other great moments include some fabulous descriptions: 

  • "The single church wore its lonely stark cross atop a scrolling false front upon whose chipped shoulders stone saints gesticulated." (C 15)
  • "The patchy storefront beside the bus stop bore no new posters, only a pastel quilt of faded old ones." (C 15)
  • "A distant ambulance, like an evil clown with its self-important, popping bleat, pierced the hum of humankind to come for ... the piece of litter he had become." (C 30)

And also:

  • "Her companion looked alarmed, putting a hand across her breasts in their bathing-suit as if they were treasures that might be stolen." (C 1) This image is spot on, typical of how humans react, although I was intrigued by the idea that the bathing suit belonged to the breasts.
  • "A handsome street boy. He is pretty, like a bird from the jungle, but he will not make a meal. He is all beak and claws and showy feathers." (C 3)
  • "When its inhabitants groped out past the curtain of rotting rags that hung in the place of a door, a cruelly splendiferous view of the sun-hammered sea ... opened before their wincing eyes." (C 4)
  • "He knew so many other languages that his mind was always translating; his tongue had no home." (C 9)
An intriguingly structured book with a lot of sex and some wry observations about life.

September 2020; 260 pages

Other novels by John Updike reviewed on this blog include:
  • Terrorist about a teenage terrorist in New York
Other novels about South America reviewed on this blog include:

Monday, 14 September 2020

"The Gift of Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok

The sequel to My Name is Asher Lev. Asher, now married with two children, a famous artist, travels back to the Ladover Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn for the funeral of his Uncle. The Ladover community is split over Asher, many seeing him as producing blasphemous art which is a desecration; others being proud that they can bask in the reflected glory of the great artist. Asher himself, remembering the death threat he received that sent him into his long French exile, feels suffocated and finds he cannot work. But his mother and father welcome the opportunity of getting to know their grandchildren and, as the week turns into months and longer, Asher begins to realise that there are immense and insidious pressures on him pushing him towards making a terrible decision.

The book is carefully structured. Not a great deal happens in the first quarter, there is a slow build up, as  if the writer is preparing us layer by layer. Then, around the end of the first quarter, things start happening. Asher is first called, late at night, by the Rebbe; these meetings will become a hallmark of the book, representing, I thing, the tortured meetings with God which people have when they can't sleep (it would appear the Rebbe never sleeps). Asher's daughter disappears briefly. Asher gives a pivotal taslk to his daughter's religious school. Asher discovered that his uncle has bequeathed an amazing art collection to hjim, Asher, in defiance of the anger of his children, Asher's cousins. From this point Asher begins to have extraordinarily vivid dreams, and waking dreams, in which people such as his art treacher and Picasso and religious figures including the Rebbe, begin to battle for his soul. By the half-mark the Rebbe reveals that "I am, after all, only flesh and blood. I, too, had a beginning and will one day have an end." (Ch 2, p 175) And Asher flees to France. Here, he is able to consider his situation from a greater distance; what happens to him and what he remembers and the discussions that he has conspire to gradually reveal the nature of the choice he is being asked to make. But it is not until we enter the final quarter that this choice becomes clear. From then on I read with passion and dread.

There are some clever author tricks. The author is able to use Asher's artistic output to (no pun intended) illustrate the story, such as when he reveals that his picture of Abraham and Isaac shows Abraham actually killing Isaac, based on an idiosyncratic tradition. There is the story of his wife's experience during the holocaust in which as a four year old she returns home to the flat in Paris to find her parents with Gestapo: her mother screams at her as if she is not her mother's child and so she flees and is saved. A recurrent theme is five-year-old Avrumel's rag doll with which he talks; what the doll says reveals twhat Avrumel really wants to do. 

The book is slow. It builds up and up and up using a great deal of description. Asher, as a painter, is naturally brilliant at visual descriptions but he is equally good at describing sounds and feelings and the remarkable intensity of his hallucinatory dream-life. His tender and affectionate relationships with his wife (who suffered terribly in the Holocaust and now ardently seeks God's plan even when wondering how God can be considered good), his daughter and his little son, are beautifully drawn; other characters are carefully constructed and spring from the page in three-dimensional reality. It takes time to read but it is worth the pateince: this is a remarkably well-written book.

I loved the first book. This seems slower and more intense. The power of this remarkable book made  me feel asphyxiated and left me with a terrible anger. To evoke such emotions shows that the book is well-written.

It's also good about explaining how an artist must endlessly renew himself.

There are some wonderful moments when the writer seems to see the world as a visual artist might:

  • "The cascades of colour and form; the images that had possessed me: I would gaze at them inside myself, watching them grow from the empty point of their beginnings, from the void of nonbeing, to amorphous, shapeless lumps, and then simmer slowly into a molded nucleus of life, fragile, tender, frightened, incomplete. That constant wide-eyed looking at the shapes inside myself. The strange sense of being possessed by the Other." (Ch 1, p 29)
  • "I drew him gently - the small radiating lines in the outside corners of his eyes; the rounded fullness of his nose; the high forehead with the ridge below the hairline and the slope in the lined valley below and then the twin rise of bone above the eyebrows. I made the lines soft and wispy, brushing passages from plane to plane with my middle and small fingers." (Ch 1, p 94)
  • "Along the parkway people walked leaning forward into the rain. Cars manoeuvred tortuously through the roadside construction. The wet spring morning wore the dismal look of a dying winter afternoon." (Ch 2, p 126)
  • "On the sidewalks and along the curbs, puddles of water reflect the palm trees and the sky. Pastel-colored hotels line the boulevard and face out to the sea. Later, with the night, the hotel lights and beachfront lamps will come on, the perfect curve of the coastline will blaze like a fiery necklace, and the fabled nightlife of Nice will begin." (Ch 5, p 263) 
  • "Max and John, faintly brushed by the lights, seemed ghostly and insubstantial." (Ch 6, p 291)

Other wonderful moments:

  • "It is sometimes difficult to make a distinction between 'establishing an individual style' and 'repeating oneself'." (Ch 1, p5)
  • "Do not be ironic in the presence of death. When else, if not then?" (Ch 1, p 38)
  • "We're all older, tireder, closer to the gray time before the final darkness." (Ch 1, p 73)
  • "Do not expect redemption if you enter the world of art. Redemption is death to art. Tranqullity is the poison the artist takes when he is ready to give up his art." (Ch 1, p 98)
  • "An artist ... must see the world whole, he must somehow learn to see during the blinks, he must see where no one else can see, he must see the connections, the betweenesses in the world. Even if the connections are ugly and evil, the artist must see and record them." (Ch 1, p 100)
  • "Satan works out in the open, cards on the table. He gives it to you straight, no gasmes. God plays at sweetness and goodness, and kills you." (Ch 3, p 193)
  • "She had little patience for the vacuous world of the philistine, and no comprehension of the subtle texturing of religious consciousness. She saw in both those world - the bourgeois and the religious - bigotry, small-mindedness, the clawing of the benighted; greed for money and zealousness for God." (Ch 3, p 205)
  • "If the chaos were hot, I could create in it. But this chaos is cold with the touch of money." (Ch 4, p 223)
  • "A fourth-level bureaucrat on the take could do better at running things. Master of the Universe ... You are the cruellest artist of all!" (Ch 4, p 231)
  • "Got no right to steal other people's experience. Becomes phony if you use it. Takes genius to absorb other people's experience and use it right." (Ch 6, p 293) Note the two uses of the word 'right'
  • "Most destinies come to us in simple declarative or interrogatory sentences: 'Let there be light.' 'It is not good for man to be alone.' 'Am I my brother's keeper?'" (Ch 7, p 330)

A masterpiece written by a novelist at the very top of his game. A beautifully written and profound book with a slow and inexorable build up to a terrible choice.

September 2020; 370 pages

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

"Less Than Zero" by Brett Easton Ellis

Clay, 18, returns to California from his New England college for a month over Christmas. He socialises and parties with his California friends, most of whom have parents who work in the movie industry or modelling etc. They could be clones: "thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices" (p 140). These spoilt rich kids drink, party, take drugs and sleep with one another in a hedonistic lifestyle which seems to have no cares or consequences. As the book progresses we get glimpses of a darker side: bodies and souls that have been wrecked by drug abuse, payments required, violence and death. But almost nobody seems to care.

Clay hardly ever does anything; he almost always observes.

This book includes scenes I found very disturbing:

  • The watching of a snuff movie involving children being tortured and mutilated; subsequently those watching enact a copycat gang rape of a minor
  • The discovery of the dead body of a young man in an alley which is treated as a thing to go and see
  • Drug debt leading to male prostitution (Clay's - paid - role in this is to observe the sex act taking place; reinforcing his role as the eternal onlooker)

The style of the book is an unstructured ramble which put me very much in mind of the work of Jack Kerouac in, for example, On the Road. The narrator, Clay, goes from party to party recording what occurs with the impartiality of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. There seems no 'story'. It is only after we discover the reason for Julian's repeated attempts to contact Clay that the Faustian theme emerges: there are dark and sometimes savage consequences for the way you live your life. 

The documentary feel of the first part adds verisimilitude, as does the (typically American writers' habit of) regular name checking for consumer items.

The poor make occasional appearances as maids and bystanders. They are very much in the background like Bruegel characters in the corner of the eye, mutely making a point. They are often perceived as a threat: 

  • "I don't like driving down Wilshire during lunch hour. They always seem to be too many cars and old people and maids waiting for buses and I end up looking away." (p 32) 
  • "We pass a poor woman with dirty, wild hair and a Bullock's bag sitting by her side full of yellowed newspapers ... Blair locks the doors." (p 131)

The nihilism of this book (and not just in terms of the young people, or the extended California society, but in terms of the meaning of human life) is summed up in this exchange:

When we got into the car he took a turn down a street that I was pretty sure was a dead end. 

'Where are we going?' I asked. 

'I don't know', he said. 'Just driving'. 

'But this road doesn't go anywhere', I told him. 

'That doesn't matter'. 

'What does?' I asked, after a little while. 

'Just that we're on it, dude', he said.

Other moments to treasure:

  • "I don't watch a lot of the movie, just the gory parts. My eyes keep wandering off the screen and over to the two green Exit signs that hang above the two doors in the back of the theater." (p 88)
  • "'You don't need anything. You have everything', I tell him. Rip looks at me. 'No. I don't. ... 'What don't you have?' 'I don't have anything to lose'." (p 177)
  • "The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city."

This was the debut novel of Brett Easton Ellis. Clay makes a subsequent appearance, back at college, in The Rules of Attraction. BEE also wrote American Psycho.

Brilliant and disturbing. Catcher in the Rye on cocaine. 

September 2020; 195 pages

Monday, 7 September 2020

"South of the Border, West of the Sun" by Haruki Murakami

 Hajime, an only child, looks back at his life and loves. As a boy his best friend was Shimamoto buit they drifted apart; as a teenager his first love was was Izumi but he betrayed her. Now in his thirties, running two successful jazz bars, married with two daughters, Shimamoto reappears and his steady, successful life is thrown off course.

There are some scenes in this book, with their dream-like, lyrical writing, that are beautiful and true and among the best things I have read recently.

A small selection of my favourite moments:

  • "After a certain length of time has passed, things harden. Like cement in a bucket. And we can't go back any more." (C 1)
  • "Here she is, all mine, trying her best to give me all she can. How could I ever hurt her? But I didn't understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just be living, damage another human being beyond repair." (C 2) 
  • "She closed her eyes and let me undress her. It wasn't easy. I'm all thumbs, to begin with, and girls' clothes are a pain. Halfway through, Izumi opened her eyes and took over." (C 3)
  • "When necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centred, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plauisible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal." (C 4)
  • "The four a.m. streets looked shabby and filthy. The shadow of decay and disintegration lurked everywhere, and I was part of it. Like a shadow burned into a wall." (C 7)
  • "For the first time in a long while, I looked into my own eyes in the mirror. Those eyes told me nothing about who I was. I laid both hands on the sink and sighed deeply." (C 9)
  • "As I sat on a bar stool, looking around my establishment, everything looked monotonous, lustreless. No longer a carefully crafted, colourful, castle in  the air, what lay before me was a typical noisy bar - artificial, superficial and shabby. A stage set, props built for the sole purpose of getting drunks to part with their cash." (C 15)
  • "Her face had nothing you could call an expression. No, that's not an entirely accurate way of putting it. I should put it this way: like a room from which every last stick of furniture had been taken, anything you could possibly call an expression had been removed, leaving nothing behind." (C 15)
  • "Dying is not that hard. Like the air being sucked slowly out of a room, the will to live was slowly seeping out of me." (C 15)
  • "No one will weave dreams for me - it is my turn to weave dreams for others." (C 15)

Magical. Poetic. Profound. September 2020; 187 pages

Also by Murakami and reviewed on this blog:

Other Japanese written novels reviewed in this blog include:

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

Saturday, 5 September 2020

"Let the Games Begin" by Niccolo Ammaniti

 It took me a little while to realise that this was a comic novel. It is dazzlingly original, Monty Pythonesque, with a large cast of bizarre characters and a plot that never stops being inventive. 

Told (mostly) from the alternating perspectives of a furniture salesman who has a secret life as leader of a very small Satanic cult and a best-selling writer, but with occasional forays into other PoVs, the plot involves the Satanic leader's attempt to impress rival cults by a spectacular media-worthy sacrifice. He decides to murder a pop musician at a bacchanalian party involving all of Italy's celebrities at a huge private park in Rome. Meanwhile the writer, who is just trying to keep famous and, wherever possible, have sex with beautiful women, has been invited to the party.

There are some incredible one-liners:

  • "Somaini would have liked to pout, but the Botox wouldn't let her." (C 26)
  • "She was as sexy as a lettuce leaf without any dressing." (C 34)

There are some very original and modern similes and metaphors:

  • "Zombie's face had the same complexion as a boiled cauliflower." (C 25)
  • "He felt vulnerable and confused, like a non-European Union citizen at the residents' permit office of the police department." (C 44)
I suppose the intent of the book is to poke fun at, satirise and attack our celebrity-obsessed modernity: 

  • "'Tell me a VIP. Anyone at all. Come on. The first name that springs to mind.' ... 'The Pope'. 'Oh, come on. A VIP, I said. Singers, actors, football players ...'" (C 11)

My problem was that I found the ever-more-weird convolutions of the plot that were deemed necessary to keep the frivolity going exhausted me.

Other great moments:

  • "Any balanced relationship, where he was not the star, caused unpleasant side effects: dry mouth, headspins, nausea, diarrhoea." (C 4)
  • "Ciba was overwhelmed with waves of pleasure, by endorphins trickling from his head downwards, swishing through his veins like petrol in a pipeline. ... the pleasure channelled its way into the urethra, in the epidydymides, into the femoral arteries and exploded inside his reproductive organ, which filled with blood, causing him a ferocious erection." (C 12)
  • "It often happened that he would stop talking, as if someone had unplugged him." (C 14)
  • "He had had so many ideas when he was young. Travel by train across Europe. Go to Transylvania to visit Count Vlad's castle. See the dolmen and the sculptures on Easter Island. Study Latin and Aramaic. He hadn't done eny of these things. He has gotten married too young to a woman who loved holiday villages and sifting through factory outlets." (C 15)
  • "If ethical and aesthetic principles no longer exist, looking like an idiot disappears as a consequence." (C 38)
  • "Do me the favour of leaving me alone, and if you see me on the street, change streets." (C 38)
  • "the dark years of accountancy." (C 45)
  • "He would have liked to scream, spit out all his wrath, but he just threw open his mouth, and squeezed his head between his hands." (C 59)
  • "Appetite was the expression of a replete and satisfied world, on the verge of surrender. A people that tastes instead of eating, that nibbles instead of feeding themselves, that's already dead but doesn't know it. Hunger is a synonym for life." (C 64)

September 2020; 328 pages

Thursday, 3 September 2020

"The Green Years" by A J Cronin

 Young Irish Catholic Robert Shannon from Dublin is brought to 'Levenford', a fictional Scottish, largely Presbyterian town, near Ben Lomond and the Clyde. Dumbarton where Cronin spent his early years, is a town where the River Leven meets the Clyde. 'Levenford' is also the town that Hatter's Castle (Cronin's first novel) is set in and Robert's new Papa (actually his grandfather) is a similarly stingy character to Brodie, the hat-shop owner of the title. The major influence on young Robbie's life is his great Grandfather ("Grandpa") who, in total contrast to the rest of the dour household, is a womaniser (so far as his ageing flesh will allow him) and a drunkard (when he has the funds) and a great storyteller (or liar). Robbie, the brightest in his class at school, wants to be a scientist but the family finances can't (or won't) afford to pay for his education. Can he win a scholarship? Will his dreams come true? Or will the poverty of everyday life grind him into conformity?

Published in 1944, this novel spent 17 weeks in the New York Times best-seller lists in 1945 and was made into a successful film. It feels quite autobiographical. It is a well written book and the characters or Grandpa and Grandma, Papa and Mama and Murdoch are beautifully drawn.

It is brilliantly realistic. He achieves verisimilitude with a host of minor details. I particularly enjoyed the reference to "that splendid beverage, sustainer of my youth, Barr's Iron Brew" (3.7_

The second sentence is "I was inclined to trust Mama, whom, until today, I had never seen before." That's not a bad hook!

Other great moments:

  • "Your tear-bag seems precious near your eye." (Part 1, Chapter 1)
  • "A bottle of delicious yellow aerated water named Iron Brew, with a label showing a strong man in a leopardskin lifting dumb-bells of tremendous weight." (1.4) This dates this scene to after 1899 and before 1946 when the name was changed to Irn-Bru. 
  • "I have nothing against the Catholics, except maybe their Popes. ... some of those Borgias, with their poisoned rings and sichlike, were not quite the clean potato." (1.11)
  • "Like most weak men, he attached the utmost importance to not changing his mind." (2.6)
  • "I wanted to be like Julius Caesar and Napoleon. But I was still myself." (2.6)
  • "my body lies helpless, as in a catalepsy, waiting for the first streaks of light beneath the blind that will usher me again to the tyranny of ambition." (2. 9)
  • "Sophie, in the scullery, washed the dishes with such complete absence of noise that one could almost hear the straining of her ear drums." (3.3)
  • "Life's an awful business." (3.3)
  • "Suddenly I caught sight of a little peep-hole which some mischievous passenger had cut in the wood of the dividing partition. Crushed, overwhelmed by despondency and horror, I rose nevertheless, impelled by nameless curiosity, and out my eye to the little hole. But the next compartment was empty, quite empty too." (3.4)
  • "Do you remember when we once discussed those creatures who live five miles down in the ocean, feeling their way, without eyes, in the blackness ... a sort of eternal night ... only poccasionally a faint phosphorescent gleam? And if they're brought up, nearer the light of day, they simply explode. That's us, in our relation to God." (3.5)
  • "The future rose before me like a wall." (3.7)

A well-written easy-to-read semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel set in the early 1900s with a dourly realistic setting. September 2020; 287 pages 

Other great books by this novelist:

  • Hatter's Castle, also set in Levenford about a stingy patriarch, Cronin's first book
  • The Citadel, about the career of a young idealistic doctor, regarded by many as his best, also regarded as the book that launched the British National Health Service
  • The Keys of the Kingdom, for me Cronin's masterpiece, about a self-effacing missionary in China