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

Thursday, 29 April 2021

H2O by Philip Ball

The 'biography' of water. 

It's not just the school science that Ball tells us such as the hydrological cycle. Ball tells us how water arrived on earth (from the meteorites and comets that coalesced into the earth) and assesses the chances of liquid water on Venus, Mars and the moons of Jupiter. One fascinating chapter considers the various theories of the origin of life and shows how the chemistry of water acts as evidence against some of these theories. He looks at the history of science with regard to water, considering pre-Socratic philosophers up to alchemists and beyond. Two chapters are devoted to the rather odd chemistry of water and the hydrogen bonds that can produce strange results, as well as different types of water. Then he goes back to the role that water plays in living processes One amusing chapter considers some scientific dead ends in which water played a part, including one which initially seemed to validate homeopathy. A final epilogue considers water as a resource and considers the possibility of water wars.

It is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, study. Ball explains ideas extremely clearly, on the whole, without dodging the difficult stuff. I found his predilection for quoting statistics a little wearisome but my main criticism is that I read it too late. It was only published in 2015 yet it is already out of date in several places. Not Ball's fault!

Ball spends a lot of time and energy trying to impress with very big (and sometimes very small) number but there are also many fascinating moments:

  • "The Polynesian cosmogeny reproduces that of the Old Testament in extraordinary detail: the supreme being Io says ‘Let the waters be separated, let the heavens be formed, let the earth be!’" (Ch 1)
  • "Water on Earth ... nurtured and sustained civilization – yet the fresh waterways that fed the cultures of ancient China and Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indian continent make up barely a tenth of a thousandth of all the liquid water on the planet. Just about all of the rest is salty, and lethal" (Ch 2)
  • "at a mythological level, the natural waters of the Earth offer humankind a journey into death. The Styx is the conduit to Hades, the Ganges even today a repository of the deceased. The Nile and the Tigris were not only holy in Near Eastern belief but the dwelling place of the dead, ruled by demigods with the power of resurrection. From the association of streams and rivers with death and rebirth comes the Christian practice of baptism." (Ch 2)
  • "The Ship of the Dead is a potent and recurring symbol: the Flying Dutchman, the Marie Celeste." (Ch 2)
  • "In deserts, evaporation is about equal to precipitation and there is essentially no run-off." (Ch 2)
  • "Once mariners considered that there were seven seas to sail: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans, the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas and the Gulf of Mexico." (Ch 2)
  • "ninety-five per cent of all land points have antipodes – equivalent points in the other hemisphere – in the sea." (Ch 2)
  • "Because of the fifty-minute difference between a terrestrial day and the lunar rotation period, high tides come twenty-five minutes later on each successive half day." (Ch 2)
  • "in Persian, in which the first word of the dictionary is ab, meaning ‘water’. Herein lies the root of the word ‘abode’, from the Persian abad" (Ch 2)
  • "There is now a rumour, however, that at least some parts of London’s water table are rising again because the big breweries, which consumed much of the water in the city’s aquifers, have moved out of town (or out of business). Londoners are warned of an impending threat of flood rising from the deep, because the capital no longer makes its own beer." (Ch 2)
  • "around six million years ago ... a period of particularly dry climate lowered the sea level and cut off the connection to the Atlantic through the shallow Straits of Gibraltar, leaving the Mediterranean a land-locked sea. Without replenishment from the global oceans, the Mediterranean then slowly dried out." (Ch 2)
  • "The floor of this desert reached two thousand metres below global mean sea level, and the rivers feeding into it from Europe and Africa faced a huge plunge at the dried-up coast, carving great gorges into the rock." (Ch 2)
  • "About five million years ago the dam at Gibraltar seems to have been breached, and the resulting waterfall, as the Atlantic fed back into the dry basin, would have made Victoria Falls look like a leaky tap. The torrent was one hundred times larger than that at Victoria, feeding about a hundred cubic kilometres of Atlantic water into the basin every day to fill up the Mediterranean again in about a century." (Ch 2)
  • "Today around forty per cent of deaths from acts of nature, as well as forty per cent of the societal costs of natural disasters, are the result of floods." (Ch 2)
  • "Egyptian civilization is one of the very few that has no legend of a deluge, presumably because the Nile is so vast that it was always able to act as a buffer against intense meteorological events." (Ch 2)
  • "William Hobbs, who related this tale in 1907, was also moved to speculate that a tsunami might have been responsible for the parting of the Red Sea that allowed Moses and the Israelites to evade their Egyptian pursuers. Later commentators suggested that it was perhaps not the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed but the Sea of Reeds on the Mediterranean coast, and that the tsunami was produced by the eruption of Santorini volcano in the Aegean Sea in the fifteenth century BC – an outburst that may have inundated the northern coast of nearby Crete, triggering the collapse of the Minoan civilization." (Ch 2)
  • "Certain types of phytoplankton produce a gas called dimethyl sulphide (DMS), apparently as a by-product of their metabolism. The distinctive odour of DMS is responsible for the invigorating smell of the coastal sea." (Ch 3)
  • "A fine drizzle consists of droplets of typically 200 micrometres or so across, which reach free fall at a leisurely half a metre or so per second. Cloud droplets about a millimetre across become fully fledged raindrops, heading earthwards with a terminal velocity of about nine metres per second." (Ch 3)
  • "cyclic changes in the Earth’s three orbital parameters, now called Milankovitch cycles, alter the distribution of solar radiation that the Earth receives, and their net effect triggers long-term climate change." (Ch 3)
  • "when dinosaurs were still at large ... the Earth may have been so warm everywhere that no ice sheets existed." (Ch 3)
  • "Medieval shrines to goddesses were nearly always close to wells, springs, lakes or seas;" (Ch 5)
  • "the Lady of the Lake can be identified with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love." (Ch 5)
  • "Many of the earliest autotrophs seem to have extracted hydrogen from hydrogen sulphide; some very primitive bacteria, called purple sulphur bacteria, still do. Take away the hydrogens and what’s left is sulphur. Many of the bright yellow sulphur deposits in the world today are the waste heaps of primitive autotrophs." (Ch 8)
  • "To early organisms faced with oxygen from water-splitting photosynthesis, it was as though their neighbours had started dumping toxic waste in their back yard." (Ch 8)
  • "Organelles are thought to be the remnants of once fully-fledged prokaryotic individuals, with which the eukaryotes fused in a symbiotic relationship." (Ch 8)
  • "The icefish Chaenocephalus aceratus has refined its oxygen consumption to such a degree that it can make do with no haemoglobin at all: it moves sluggishly enough that the oxygen dissolved in its blood plasma is sufficient to meet its needs. The blood of the icefish is therefore a translucent white." (Ch 8)
  • "Many people perceive something unnerving in human body fluids. Alien abductees seem to regard them as highly prized amongst extraterrestrials, and General Ripper considered his to be the victim of a Communist plot in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove." (Ch 8)
  • "Centuries of over-irrigation in the Middle East and in the Indus valley of Pakistan have led to acute problems of salinization, in the latter case giving the region one of the lowest crop productivities in the world." (Epilogue)
  • "Dumping of ‘dung and filth’ into England’s rivers was outlawed in the fourteenth century," (Epilogue)
  • "human excreta can be composted to dark, crumbly fertilizer within a year. There seems to be no strong reason other than aesthetics why compost toilets are not standard items in many modern houses." (Epilogue)

An important study, designed for the more intelligent general reader. April 2021

Ball has also written:

  • Critical Mass: a brilliant study of phase changes
  • The Devil's Doctor: a biography of Paracelsus

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 23 April 2021

"Peter Duck" by Arthur Ransome

 The third in the Swallows and Amazons series of ten novels, but this time with a difference. The four Swallows and the two Amazons sail with Captain Flint in the Wild Cat from Lowestoft to an island in the Caribbean after Peter Duck, an old sailor shipping with them, tells them a yarn of seeing pirates burying gold when he was a lad. But they are followed by Black Jake, a very modern pirate, in the black-sailed Viper. It's not just treasure hunting: there's fog, a storm and even an earthquake. Oh, and pirates.

It is, at heart, a silly storybook yarn. But the level of detail raises it far beyond its melodramatic beginnings to the status of an absorbing novel.

Memorable moments:

  • "I met a young woman there, clipper built, you might say, with a fine figurehead to her, well found too." (Ch 6)
  • "Exploring's only going next door, but it's going on going next door without turning back." (Ch 10)
  • "The mates tried washing up after dinner, but so much water was coming aboard that it felt rather as if they were being washed up themselves." (Ch 14)

It's a rollicking yarn but it is remarkable that Ransome can put so much technical detail into a book that is for children and achieve such a success. April 2021; 397 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling 
and The Kids of God

The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:
  • Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
  • Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
  • Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
  • Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
  • Coot Club: The Ds join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
  • Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
  • The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
  • Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
  • Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
  • The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
  • Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland.

Other books by this author:

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

"Eleanor Rigby" by Douglas Coupland

 Liz is single, in her forties and lonely. Her story is about seven years ago when she was in her late thirties and single and lonely and discovered the son she had when she was sixteen and gave away for adoption. He undermines all the defences she erected as a single, lonely person. He is a charming person who has mystical visions, talks about his multiple dreadful foster families, and can sing songs backwards. And he is dying of MS.

Jeremy is an original character who grabs your attention as soon as he appears. As for Liz, his mother, she is a magnet for disaster, finding a dead body when she is still a child. These two power the novel.

As original and thought-provoking as Shampoo Planet (and Coupland also wrote Generation X). 

Memorable moments:

  • "I'd been sieving the contents of my days with ever finer mesh, trying to sort out those sharp and nasty bits that were causing me grief" (p 3)
  • "The clinic ... an architectural version of myself ... it was cool and smelled of sanitation products." (p 7)
  • "Loneliness is ... the gun that shoots the bullets that make is dance on a saloon floor and humiliate ourselves in front of strangers." (p 9)
  • "My relief after they had gone was akin to unzipping my pants after a huge meal." (p 28)
  • "'When was the last time you ate?' 'As in food?' 'No, as in tractors. Of course I mean food.'" (p 40)
  • "Visiting another country is really just the same as going into someone's house to soak up its aura." (p 66)
  • "He was the wonderful Christmas present, and I was merely the box, the wrapping paper, and the postage stamp." (p 97)
  • "What if God exists but he doesn't really like people very much?" (p 139)
  • "If our subconscious was attractive, we wouldn't have to bury it down deep inside ourselves. It'd just be another feature on our face, like our nose." (p 205)

A funny, moving and profound novel. April 2021; 249 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Monday, 19 April 2021

"La Vida del Buscon" (The Swindler) by Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas

 The father of Pablos is a thief, his mother is a witch, his uncle is a hangman. He becomes the servant of Don Diego, a young gentleman, accompanying him to boarding school where he goes hungry. Eventually he becomes a rogue, making money using any tricks he can: including theft, beggary, and card-sharping. 

This is a classic picaresque, set in 1600s Spain. It is knockabout stuff, frequently scatological, which reminded me of the crude humour of the Carry On films, but without their subtlety and euphemisms. There is no character development, unless you count the gradual learning of new tricks. It presumably provides an insight into the society of that place and time (clothes, frequently threadbare, play an important part and everyone is on the make; he spends some time in prison and the author was at one time a governor of a prison so he must have known what he was talking about) but many of the jokes are too obvious to be very funny and in the end I grew a little weary. The ending is abrupt, as if the author ran out of things to say.

But it had its moments:

  • "You are well aware of the price of this book, as you have already bought it, unless you are looking through it in the bookshop, a practice which is very tiresome for the bookseller and ought to be suppressed with the utmost rigour of the law." (To the Reader)
  • "They brought in little bowls of a soup so clear that if Narcissus had drunk it he would have fallen in quicker than into the pool." (1.3)
  • "I had no right to take anything more out of the house than my shadow." (1.8)

April 2021, 131 pages

This review was written by 
the author of Motherdarling

Friday, 16 April 2021

"My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George

 Sam Gribley runs away from his overcrowded apartment in New York to live off the land in the Catskill Mountains. 

There are distinct echoes of Robinson Crusoe. 

This is the ultimate boy's own adventure (written by a woman). Sam survives by eating plants and trapping animals and digging for mussels and catching fish; he makes fire, his own clothes and a shelter. He befriends weasels and raccoons and trains a falcon. But the hardest challenge is, perhaps, to live on his own.

The joy of the book is the way the narrative is peppered with little notes, as if they are diary entries, many of which gives clear practical tips about how to stay alive in the wilderness, so that the reader is persuaded that it might be possible for a kid to run away and live off the land. It's a clever artifice, like footnotes giving verisimilitude. 

This reminded me of Swallows and Amazons which feels like an adventure story but is grounded in a huge amount of technical detail about sailing.

I noted that the narrative starts at a moment of great drama, when Sam is snowed in at winter, and only after this prologue does the linear narrative begin.

A great story but I doubt I'll read the sequel(s). Because this story is unique.

This review was written by 
the author of Motherdarling

Thursday, 15 April 2021

"Less" by Andrew Sean Greer

 Arthur Less is a not-terribly-successful gay novelist. One ex-boyfriend is a famous poet, another ex-boyfriend is Freddy, the son of the Carlos who has been a frenemy of Arthur's all these years. Invited to Freddy's wedding to another man, Arthur decides the only way to avoid accepting is to be out of the country so he strings together a series of minor literary offers into a world tour: an interview in New York, a lecture in Mexico, a prize event in  Italy and so on. His experience are comic and tragic and most of all they are absurd (he is almost late to interview a more famous novelist because the clock in the hotel lobby isn't working and the publicist assumes Arthur is a woman; the novelist repeatedly vomits because of food poisoning etc). 

It is a gentle, rambling picaresque with some poignant observations on life from the perspective of a gay man growing old without a partner and some moments which prompted a chuckle (which is rather more than most 'comic' novels elicit from me). It is sweet and kind and amusing but, as is the common fault of picaresques, there is little structure and no drive: it is difficult to see that we are going anywhere until the last section, rather rapidly, attempts to make sense of it all. Otherwise, the most interesting thing about the book is that it occasionally lapses into the narrator talking directly to the reader; the mystery of the narrator's identity is not revealed until the end.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018

There are some magical lines:

  • "As he waits, around and around the room circles a young woman in a brown wool dress, a species of tweed humming-bird, pollinating first this group of tourists and then that one." (Less at First)
  • "It is a bad musical, but, like a bad lay, a bad musical can still do its job perfectly well." (Less at First)
  • "There follows, I am sad to say, a very long ride on a very long road ... to your final place of rest. He sighs, for he has spoken the truth for all men." (Less Mexican)
  • "The cruel checkmate logic of conversation" (Less French)
  • "Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that's a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success. If a band stays together twenty years, it's a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they're a triumph. Is this night a failure because it's going to end in an hour?" (Less Moroccan)
  • "People use the same old table, even though it's falling apart and it's been repaired and repaired, just because it was their grandmother's. That's how towns become ghost towns. It's how houses become junk stores. And I think it's how people get old." (Less Moroccan)
  • "We know there's no love of your life. Love isn't terrifying like that. It's walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in, it's doing taxes, it's cleaning the bathroom without hard feelings." (Less Moroccan)
  • "With a joy bordering on sadism, he degloves every humiliation to show its risible lining." (Less Indian)
  • "By now he is well acquainted with humility. It is the one piece of luggage he has not lost." (Less At Last).

Perhaps a little superficial but cute and clever. April 2021; 261 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Other Pulitzer Prize winners reviewed in this blog include:

Monday, 12 April 2021

"Miracle at Sant' Anna" by James McBride

 It's World War II. The Americans are fighting their way up Italy. Four soldiers (three African Americans and one Puerto Rican) get lost in the mountains. They find a traumatised Italian orphan in a destroyed church and seek refuge in an Italian village. The partisans are in the hills and there are Germans all around.

And in the midst of the distorting horrors of war, miracles occur.

There is no sentimentality about this book. The soldiers, and the Italians, and the partisans are all fully rounded characters, with strengths and weaknesses. There are moments of brutality and moments of comedy and many moments of great honesty.

Some great moments:

  • "There is a saying in Florence that Florentines don't agree on anything. They simply say no to everything and continue saying no again and again ... Fourteen centuries of continually getting their asses kicked ... have, if nothing else, taught Florentines the value of silent virtue and cautious negativity." (Ch 5)
  • "I think your cheese slid off your biscuit." (Ch 6)
  • "When they pulled out their pistols, they touched the trigger and told the hammer to hurry." (Ch 7)
  • "Put down that heavy sack and come over here, 'cause Somebody Special wants you. And He don't have no anger. He don't know no pain. He don't give no orders. He's a pain-getting-rid-of-er. That's His job. To get rid of your pain faster than this lemonade can do down your little red lane. Why? Ain't no why! He ain't gotta explain Hisself! He'll hurl your enemies down to low stones like he hurled Satan outta heaven, 'cause He's mighty. He's the baddest kitty kat in the firmament! He's got the mojo and the sayso. He knows truth. He knows justice. He knows your pain. And He will heal your pain right now, for free, if you just trust in Him. Ain't no cost to it! Ain't no buy-now-pay-later to this." (Ch 7)
  • "I want your soul. You got an appointment to keep and I'm the secretary!" (Ch 7)
  • "White folks own the world, goddammit. We're just rentin'" (Ch 12)
  • "Chasing tail like they couldn't wait to get back to the womb." (Ch 14)
  • "Everything he did had an error in it. He was a mistake, as his father used to say, a mistake that made more mistakes that were followed by still more mistakes." (Ch 20)

James McBride also wrote Deacon King Kong

This review was written by the 
author of Motherdarling

Saturday, 10 April 2021

"Silence" by Shusako Endo

 A Portuguese priest travels to Japan as a missionary during the Shogunate. But, after an initial period in which missionaries were welcome, now Christianity is forbidden and Christians tortured and killed. Will the priest be captured and if he is what will happen to him? Apostasy or martyrdom? And, crucially, why is God silent?

The book has obvious parallels with Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, also a story about a priest in a land where priests are forbidden, where to be a priest is a capital crime; and with Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, a story about the interrogation of an old Communist, both of which I read fifty years ago, at school. 

The prose is interesting. In some ways it is a minimalist style, recounting only the facts. There is no great melodramatic over-analysis of emotion (I read it immediately after Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and the contrast could not have been greater). It is like the difference between a Chinese painting and a Baroque battle scene. Endo achieves his effects using a minimum of perfectly selected images: "Holding the string attached to the kite, they ran up the slope, but there was no wind and the kite fell idly to the ground." (Ch 10) On the other hand, he repeats and repeats and repeats some images and ideas as if he is hammering them into you. I found this combination of deceptive simplicity and ostinato powerful.

The form is also interesting. After a prologue, the first four chapters are told in the form of letters from the priest; from chapter five the story becomes a straightforward first person narrative. There are two epilogues: one in the form of notes made by a Dutch merchant, the other extracts from a Japanese prison log.

Some great moments:

  • "Man is a strange being. He always has a feeling somewhere in his heart that whatever the danger he will pull through." (Ch 3)
  • "Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt." (Ch 3)
  • "Judas was no more than the unfortunate puppet for the glory of that drama which was the life and death of Christ." (Ch 4)
  • "Sin ... is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind." (Ch 5)
  • "In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijiro was not even worthy to be called evil. He was thin and dirty like the tattered rags he wore." (Ch 6)
  • "True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters." (Ch 6)
  • "What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard, the voice of the cicadas, the whirling wings of the flies. A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened." (Ch 6)
  • "You look upon missionary work as the forcing of love upon someone? Yes, that's what it is - from our standpoint." (Ch 7)
  • "Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani! It is three o'clock on that Friday; and from the cross this voice rings out to a sky covered with darkness. The priest had always thought that these words were that man's prayer, not that they issued from terror at the silence of God." (Ch 7)
  • "Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither." (Ch 7)
  • "Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew." (Ch 8)

A brilliant book.

April 2021; 267 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Other Japanese books reviewed in this blog include:

Thursday, 8 April 2021

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne"

 A classic of American literature. It has been praised by classic authors George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Henry James. I thought it was dreadful.

It was written in 1850 and is firmly in the melodrama school. As a historical novel it reminded me of Walter Scott. It is full of 'thee and thou' dialogue, with tortured sentence structures:

  • "'One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,' continued the scholar. 'Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise, mine!'"
  • "'Sayest thou so?' cried the Governor. 'Nay, we might have judged that such a child's mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy type of her of Babylon!'"

It starts with a long rambling frame narrative in which Hawthorne recounts the tribulations of working in a Customs House and eventually gets round to a discovery he has made of a manuscript. The 'Scarlet Letter' story is based, he claims, is based on this manuscript.

At last we get into the story proper. In the first scene Hester Prynne and her baby girl are on the pillory in a puritan New England town in the early days of settlement: she has been convicted of adultery and sentenced to three hours humiliation and a lifetime of wearing on her clothes a scarlet letter A. There are two mysteries. Who is the hunchbacked stranger who, that very moment, has been brought out of the forest by the Indians? And who is the father of Hester's child? The first mystery is resolved within a few chapters: the hunchbacked stranger becomes a vengeful devil. The solution to the second we are pretty sure of long before the half way mark when it is finally revealed (in so much as a Victorian novelist can reveal extra-marital sex). There is therefore very little dramatic tension in the story. 

The characters are stereotypical. Of course the hunchback is a villain. Of course the accused Hester is an angel. The child is a proto-hippy wild child as a 'natural' child would be in the imagination of a Victorian. There is an old crone who cackles about meeting the devil in the woods. 

There are some redeeming moments in which the author makes some cogent observations about life:

  • "Neither the front not the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise." (Introductory)
  • "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison." (Ch 1)
  • "A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician." (Ch 9)
  • "Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognise his enemy when the latter actually appeared." (Ch 10)
  • "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." (Ch 20)

Pointless frame narrative, dreadful dialogue, melodramatic but predictable plot, stereotypical characters. At least it is short compared to other Victorian novels.

April 2021; 287 pages

This review was written by 
the author of Motherdarling

Monday, 5 April 2021

"Too Dear for my Possessing" by Pamela Hansford Johnson

The first of a trilogy, this book is a bildungsroman following Claud, whom we first encounter as a young English boy living in Bruges just after the first world war with his father, an author of cheap detective fiction and his father's mistress, the wonderful Helena. In four almost equally long parts, he moves to London, then to Paris and finally to Bruges again, falling in unrequited and requited love.

It is written in the past tense till the last chapter which is framed by the present tense.

The story is a chronicle of the time, It reflects on the roaring 20s and the ominous 30s: Claud is a part-time art critic for fringe and later more mainstream magazines: as such he is on the fringes of an artistic set whilst being firmly grounded by his full-time occupation as an officer of an insurance and banking company. This semi-outsider status is tweaked by his being the childhood friend of a singer and dancer who becomes a star. It is an interesting perspective, the middle-class lad who needs to work for his living: he has a degree of independent income thanks to his legacy, his schooling moves from independent school to grammar school, he has to work for his living but in a respectable job, he lives in London flats. 

I think its fundamental purpose is as a portrait of a society in which divorce was essentially unacceptable forcing some people to live unconventional lives and others to be unhappy. 

The plot is conventional and predictable. Unlike Claud's father's books there is little excitement. The saving grace is the wonderful character of Helena: a passionate mistress and temperamental step-mother but even she matures and mellows into a something quite conventional.

It is well written and there are some great moments:

  • "I had possessed one of those frightening sopranos that most people admire and I detest, a voice pure enough, high enough, inhuman enough to crack a tumbler." (1.1)
  • "There was one girl without eyebrows who looked as if she would dance, were she not at death’s door" (1.4)
  • "Sometimes I hungered for her as I hungered for rich foods certain to make me sick." (2.1)
  • "I longed for Helena, who had treated me like dirt, because she was unsolid, unloving and rich, and because she made me laugh." (2.1)
  • "She walked as if in contempt of alien soil" (2.1)
  • "It was plain that Hampstead was too small for Helena. A sudden move and she would put her head through the roof of the sky, knock down a police-station or a public baths with her elbow, demolish the tube station with her foot." (2.1)
  • 'I’m glad to do anything for Richard’s wife,' said Uncle as if it were a one-line part in a play and he were having difficulty with it." (2.1)
  • "By the time we had finished the tea, the toast, and a raspberry sponge with cream spread over the jam, I was as settled as a cat let in out of the rain." (2.1)
  • "I thought how odd it was that to nearly every pair of girls there was one pretty and one plain, one leader and one led, one the voice and one the echo." (2.1)
  • "He liked to lay the board flat on his knees and to bend right over it so that his nose nearly touched the paper; a trick, I have always thought, that accounts for the curious effect of foreshortening noticeable in all his work." (2.3)
  • "We can close our eyes as we like to the world, but the world will touch us, for as much as we shut our doors to the winter the wind freezes, and as much as we draw our blinds against the summer the sun bleaches and burns, and as much as we draw our curtains to the night the darkness is about us." (2.4)
  • "Till 1930 people talked about the last war; after 1930 they talked about the next." (3.1)
  • "Waking suddenly from sleep to find dawn like a watching ghost in the room, I slid delicately from the sheets and went to the window." (3.3)
  • "Coming out into a morning clean after rain, we walked along pavements full of the bright sky." (4.1)
  • "Think of a blinded ghost! It would bump into you." (4.3)
  • "It seems to me absurd that we should expect another life, for that expectation insists that we have no purpose in this one. We change the world for a new generation and we die. Isn’t that a big enough thing to do, to change the world a little?" (4.3)
  • "We may say that we are not wasted utterly, because our flesh and bones fertilize new soil; but good God, is that all man is fitted for? To be manure?" (4.3)
  • "Yet I wish I believed, I wish I had the confidence of Helena, who has planned precisely what she will say to Father when she meets him in Heaven." (4.3)
  • "It seems a vain task, like putting In Memoriam notices in the newspapers; for whom are those notices meant? The dead, we presume, have no morning papers and it is no business of the living how much we may or may not remember. " (4.4)

I suppose it is valuable as a picture of the interwar years but this novel didn't enthral and I doubt I shall attempt the others in the trilogy. If you want to read PHJ at her best, try The Unspeakable Skipton, a much livelier story. 

April 2021

This review was written by 
the author of Motherdarling

Friday, 2 April 2021

"Lazarillo de Tormes" by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (?)

 Lazarillo is the first of the Spanish picaresque novels and was published in 1554 in Burgos and Alcala and Antwerp; it was published anonymously and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza is only the most popular candidate for authorship. My edition was translated by Michael Alpert and published by Penguin in 1969. 

Picaresque novels are slightly unstructured and follow the adventures of a 'picaro', a rogue. Lazaro is a young lad whose mother gives him as servant to a blind beggar; he then works for a priest, then an impoverished nobleman and other masters. It is amusing and very short (fewer than 60 pages). It reminded me of Candide without the characterisation and the philosophy.

There were some great moments:

  • "We find very few authors who are prepared to write just for themselves. After all, it's not easy to write a book and if they go to the trouble they want to be rewarded, not financially but with the knowledge that their work is bought and read and praised if it deserves praise." (Prologue)
  • "Cicero says 'Honour encourages the arts'. Who thinks that the soldier who reaches the top of the scaling-ladder first hates like the most? No, of course he doesn't; it's desire for praise that makes him expose himself to danger. It's the same in the case of the arts and in literature." (Prologue)
  • "How many people must there be in the world who run away from others in fright because they can't see themselves?" (Ch 1)
  • "Charity had not only begun at home but stayed there too." (Ch 3)
  • "So skinny that he looked like a pedigree greyhound" (Ch 3)
  • "I had to find a fourth employer and he turned out to be a friar of the Order of Mercy. ... I left him because ... of one or two things that I'd rather not mention." (Ch 4)

Extremely short, easy to read and amusing. April 2021

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Thursday, 1 April 2021

"Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere" by Jan Morris

 This exploration and evocation of "a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic sea." (Prologue) is written in remarkably beautiful prose. Trieste is perhaps the post-modern place: "a liner terminal without liners, an air station without aircraft". Jan Morris is a wonderful wordsmith who uses her observations of this unforgettable city to meditate on aspects of life. 

My only criticism of this almost perfect little gem of travel writing is that there are no maps. She refers to places that I cannot envisage and I resorted to Google but even Google doesn't (yet) do historical maps. Please, in the next edition, add maps!

This book is full of memorable moments:

  • "Those arcane moments of hush that sometimes interrupt a perfectly ordinary conversation, and are said to signify the passing of an angel. Perhaps on biblical grounds - something to do with the Crucifixion? - these are popularly supposed to happen at ten minutes before the hour" (Prologue)
  • "The Trieste effect ... is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere." (Prologue)
  • "Young people tell me they find the civic ethos oppressive. Others say it is being whittled away by the influx of migrants from Italy, who bring with them what one informant defined for me as caosmismo, chaoticness." (Ch 5)
  • "Imaginary illnesses have always been prevalent here ... a malade imaginaire is worse than the real thing because it is incurable." (Ch 6)
  • "If race is a fraud ... then nationality is a cruel pretence. There is nothing organic to it. You can change your nationality at the stroke of a notary's pen ... It is not usually racial prejudice that incites hooligans to bash each other in football stadiums, but particularly unaccomplished convictions of nationhood." (Ch 10)
  • "I am of the opinion that lust is one of the more banal impulses, essentially functional and familiar not just to the birds and the diligent bees, but to any old lop-eared tomcat." (Ch 11)
  • "I sometimes think that transient love, the sort that is embodied in a one-night passion, or even a passing glance, is no less real than the lifelong sort." (Ch 11)
  • "A great city that has lost its purpose is like a specialist in retirement. He potters around the house. He tinkers with this hobby or that. He reads a little, watches television for half an hour, does a bit of gardening, ... But he knows that the real energy of his life, the fascination of his calling that has driven him with so much satisfaction for so many years, is never going to be resumed. He no longer reads the technical journals because they make him feel outdated. He no longer goes to professional conventions. The world forgetting, but the world forgot! What's it all been for, he wonders. Sometimes he feels he is cracking up or fading out, and he avoids the newspaper obituaries because ..." (Ch 14)
  • "Jeans Best for Hammering, Pressing and Screwing." (Ch 14)
  • "Joyce liked the fact that Trieste was in no sense a tourist city, unlike Rome, which suggested to him a man making a living by exhibiting the corpse of his grandfather." (Ch 15)
  • "The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You've never been here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become more alien the older you get." (Epilogue)
  • "dear God we are all transients, and sooner or later we all become out of date." (Epilogue)

Apart form the map thing, perfection.

April 2021; 188 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Many thanks to my wonderful friends Danny and Mary for buying this book for me. Other selections from the 'Mary and Danny' book club include: