About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 14 December 2017

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This tiny novel is astonishing. Starts with a hook: “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.” (p 1) What a first line! But then it more or less meanders. The narrator is a man who had been friends with Santiago and, after a gap of twenty seven years, returns to the town and talks to all the people who were there, who remembered that day. And tries to understand. 

The killers didn't really want to kill him. It was an affair of honour. They told everyone what they were going to do in the hope that someone would stop them. So more or less the whole town knew what was going to happen. Except, until the last moment, the victim. Whom no one thought to tell.

This provides a theme sufficiently compelling to keep you going. This allows the author to explore. Exploration involves wandering, rambling, seeking out and turning back. This enables the author to poke his nose into so many aspects of how people live. He is forensic in his observations and he has the facility of turning the clarity of these observations into the exact right words. 

A classic. Wonderful.

  • To put the broken memory of mirror back together from so many scattered shards” (p 5) 
  • You won't have a drink of that water as long as I'm alive.” (p 8)
  • They'd placed the sick people in the archways to receive God's medicine.” (p 20)
  • “don't comb your hair at night; you'll slowdown seafarers.” (p 31)
  • a friend of a few drinks.” (p 42)
  • we were cast adrift over an abyss of uncertainty” (p 44)
  • Both were exhausted from the barbarous work of death.” (p 49)
  • She was certain that the Vicario brothers were not as anxious to fulfill the sentence as to find someone who would do them the favour of stopping them.” (p 57)
  • My sister the nun, who wasn’t going to wait for the bishop because she had an eighty-proof hangover.” (p 71)
  • On nights of high tide the toilets would back up and fish would appear flopping about in the bedrooms at dawn.” (p 89)
  • A poor woman devoted to the cult of her defects.” (p 93)
  • She told us about the miracle but not the saint.” (p 101)
December 2018; 122 pages

Monday, 11 December 2017

"Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

This book starts slowly with the baptismal party for one-year-old Franny at which Bert, a friend of her father's, meets Beverley, her mother. Soon the two families have shuffled. In the summer Bert's four kids and Beverley's two kids holiday in Virginia, where Bert and Beverley now live. But B&B are neglectful parents and the six kids roam in the fields. Because Albie the youngest is such a pain they give him pills and gin to make him sleep while they have fun. Then tragedy strikes.

Years later Franny, haunted by her memories, meets a famous author and tells him the story of their life. Which becomes a best seller.

Shifting backwards and forwards in time, told from multiple points of view, this is a forensic dissection of families. Who'd be a mother after reading this?

It is a beautifully written book because of the compelling characters it creates and the the way the author dissects families with such ruthlessness and at the same time such compassion and these few lines below don't do it justice.

  • He looked like one of those gargoyles perched on a high corner of Notre Dame that's meant to scare the devil away.” (p 61)
  • Luggage: that which is to be lugged.” (p 72)
  • the bony protrusions of her vertebrae and clavicles were so clearly displayed she could have found work in an anatomy class.” (p 76)
  • In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.” (p 77)
  • The nuns had led her to believe that God gave preference to people who did things the hard way.” (p 125)
  • He rubbed his hands together to warm them up and then sank them deep into his pockets.” (p 135)
  • It made Albie want to take off his skin.” (p 171)
  • Life, Teresa knew by now, was a series of losses.” (p 245)
  • Theresa was shocked by the roaming idleness of her mind, as if she was sifting through trash on the side of the freeway and was stopped, enchanted, but every foil gum wrapper.” (p 290)

Patchett also wrote the wonderful Bel Canto, a faster paced book with less normality but a searingly passionate love story. I want to read more of this wonderful author.

December 2018; 322 pages

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

"Rabbit stew and a penny or two" by Maggie Smith-Bendell

A memoir of her childhood as a Romani Gypsy traveller on the road in the 1950s. They picked snowdrops and daffies and sold them door to door; they picked peas and beans for farmers; they bought and sold scrap metal. This is a fascinating record of that transient life including the hardships, the fights, the premature deaths.

There is quite a lot about the dreadful racism suffered by the Romanis and many of us house-dwellers should be ashamed of ourselves. There was one point on which I disagreed, however. During the Second World War Romani men (and their horses) might be conscripted. She seems to regard this as persecution. Of course, house-dwellers were also conscripted and it might be argued that the Romanis should have been exempted because the war was not being fought 'in their name'. Although, of course, the fate that Romanis suffered in Nazi Germany, where they were exterminated in gas camps, might suggest that at least to some degree the war was being fought 'for' them. Which brings us to an interesting 'social contract' type question: to what extent does a person who cuts themselves off from benefits from society nevertheless be obliged to contribute towards society?

There are some great stories. I found the funniest the one in which young Maggie, at school, played her first game of hockey. She understood the basics - you had to hit the ball with the stick - and ran up and down the pitch scoring goals. There was a commotion. The teacher pointed out that she should only score goals at one end because she was in a team. She hadn't understood the concept of teams.

Some great lines that possess sometimes a very different metaphor or perspective:

  • "A good, big fire would put the frost in its place wherever we  pulled in." (p 30)
  • They would go through the breeding of the horse, chamming [boasting] on for what seemed like hours.” (p 104)
  • I know what you’s like with the lush [alcohol] down your neck.” (p 111)
  • He got as drunk as a handcart.” (p 155)
  • We were not young enough to be put to bed, not old enough to be treated like adults.” (p 171)
  • If a stranger has come upon us they would’ve thought we'd been touched by the moon.” (p 186)
  • She would’ve laughed if her granny’s arse had caught fire.” (p 235)
  • To other travellers, my name became bigger than me body.” (p 250)
  • Retrospective was the new way forward!” (p 251)
  • I ... know me run as good as any rabbit in his warren.” (p 259)
Well told with some great stories, simply written. I could feel the pleasure in an outdoor way of life, knowing about badgers and pea plants, whilst at the same time regretting the hardships. I loved the integration of Romani words. But most of all I enjoyed her unique perspective on life.

December 2017; 276 pages

Sunday, 3 December 2017

"A dedicated man" by Peter Robinson

Set in a valley in the Yorkshire Dales, idyllic when the sun is shining, DCI Banks investigates the murder of a local historian amidst the usual crowd of suspects: the dead man's wife, an author of whodunnits, an internationally renowned and stunningly beautiful folk singer, the archaeologist's publisher, the medallion-wearing local entrepreneur who wanted to redevelop a field that was once a Roman camp, the folksinger's ex-Army father, the local doctor and a local religious nut. Everyone tells the police that the dead man had no enemies which is ipso facto untrue. Are the roots of the crime in the present day or ten years ago when some of the same characters gathered in the same places?

A well-written whodunnit with, mirabilis dictu, a happily married detective (pipe smoking, into opera and choral music, ex London).

Plenty of red herrings although I worked out whodunnit sometime before the end and it didn't seem to twist after that.

"The room was flickering with tiny bright flames that made the walls look like melting butter." (p 61)

December 2017; 288 pages

Thursday, 30 November 2017

"The Passport" by Herta Muller

Muller is the Romanian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2009.

Windisch is a miller in a small village in communist Romania. He is an ethnic German and has applied for passports so that he, his wife, and his daughter can emigrate to Germany. He is leaving behind the community he has lived in all his life. But village life is hard. And it is harder now that Windisch has to bribe the Mayor with sacks of flour and let the priest and the militiaman sleep with his daughter so that they will do the necessary paperwork. 

The book is written in short sections, some seemingly disconnected to the rest of the story, some realistic, some memories and some expressive of the superstitions of the cold country folk. The best way to think of this unusual book is as if each small section is a poem, the paragraphs are verses and the sentences are lines of the poem. Because the prose is so fractured as to only make sense as poetry. Some examples:
  • Windisch closes his eyes. He feels the wall growing on his face. The lime burns his forehead. A stone in the lime opens its mouth. The apple tree trembles. Its leaves are ears. They listen. The apple tree drenches its green apples.” (p 28) 
  • When the snow melted the first time, thin, pointed grass grew in the snow stone hollows. Katharina has sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good. The Hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours.” (p 74) 
  • Outside the window, the sound of rain. The prayer leader bats her short eyelashes as if the rain was running into her face. As if it was washing away her eyes. Eyelashes which are broken from praying.” (p 46)
  • For seven days the sky burned itself dry. It had wandered to the end of the village. It looked at the river in the valley. The sky drank water. It rained again.” (p 23)
It works when the images conjured are poetic. Otherwise it is rather difficult to read.

The political situation is captured in an altercation between the prayer leader at the funeral and skinny Wilma. The prayer leader says it is raining across the whole country but Wilma disagrees: “Our weather comes from Austria, not from Bucharest.” (p 46)

Other interesting lines:
Windisch feels his temples beating and thinks, 'My head is a clock'.” (p 8)
“'God knows,' says Windisch, 'what they’re for, women'.” (p 10)
Water snakes and trickles under the chairs. It glistens among the shoes.” (p 45)
The music is cold. The big drum sounds dull and wet. Above the village, the roofs are leaning towards the water.” (p 47)
The gypsy girl lifts her skirt. The tractor driver empties his glass. The gypsy girl takes the bank note from the table. She twists the plait around her finger and laughs.” (p 53)
Onion rings float on eyes of fat in the pot.” (p 58)
Her heels are full of cuts.” (p 62)
A strip of tin foil falls out of Amalie's handbag onto the carpet. It is full of round white warts.” (It is the pill)
It pushes crooked furrows like partings through his hair.” (p 71)
Your understanding is tiny ... it doesn't even stretch from your forehead down to your mouth.” (p 79)

It captures the hopelessness of old people in a dying village and the shabbiness of corruption. It captures the everyday sex of the poor people. There is no romance. But it feels so real!

November 2017; 92 pages

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

"Corpsing" by Toby Litt

Protagonist-narrator Conrad goes for a meal with his ex-girlfriend, advert-actress Lily. Half-way through a hitman arrives and murders Lily. Conrad is shot three times but survives.

Six months later, after a coma and therapy, Conrad decides to investigate and exact revenge. 

More thriller than whodunnit (there really aren't a lot of suspects and the few clues dropped along the way are fairly obvious), what makes this book exceptional is the six chapters interspersed into the text that trace the passage of each bullet in intimate ballistic and anatomical detail. These are brilliant pieces of writing. 

It is also quite realistic as to how a fairly ordinary bloke might blunder around trying to sleuth and buy a gun and wonderfully realistic about the effects of grief and trauma.

There are some good lines:
  • I just came along to animate the suit.” (p 3)
  • mainstream- kinky” (p 5)
  • If you want something that looks exactly like spunk, use shampoo” (p 7)
  • It felt as if I had popped up into the world like ... a flayed man, peeled of all protection, experiencing breeze as hurricane, cough as cataclysm, smell as orgasm (if nice) or disembowelment (if nasty), touch as torture.” (p 25) 
  • She was turning her environment into one vast sea-anenome-type-labia-fest - frills and pink prettiness.” (p 180)
  • The symptoms of imminent death was there for all to behold: pallor, clamminess, dilated pupils, lack of sensitivity to pain.” (p 190)
  • I could hear her distress hissing - like tears falling into a deep-fat fryer.” (p 224)

November 2017; 373 pages

Friday, 24 November 2017

"In the Winter Dark" by Tim Winton

The Sink: a lonely valley in rural Australia. An old farmer and his wife; their neighbour, retired from the city, and a pregnant girl.

Something is out there in the darkness, killing their animals.

But is it real or is it something that their haunted, guilty memories have created?

This book is written with lyrical beauty. Stunning.

I don't know if my selection of lines has properly done justice to the power of the writing but:

  • He set off, but something stopped him still as a stump. Between the trees he saw something. A movement. A silhouette. It was travelling. Loping, that was the word that came to him. He squinted ... The shadow seemed to stop, slip sideways between apple rows. And then there was nothing.” (p 6) 
  • The car left in the only direction it could - away.” (p 8)
  • she rested her low, full belly against the windowsill in the front room and felt the baby slip and kick inside her.” (p 9)
  • Out in the dark she saw the anaemic cheek of a full moon rising from the forest.” (p 9) 
  • And then everything crumbled and went the taste of shit in her mouth, the taste of blotting paper.” (p 10)
  • you could tell Ida had ideas for later when she cooked pork, but after nearly forty years of falling for it every time, a man has to pretend he doesn't know when he's being seduced.” (p 13)
  • I should have taken Ida out of this valley thirty years ago and never come back. To spare her the hardships, the hidden things, this night.” (p 15)
  • Was he having everyone's recollections, was it history that tormented him?” (p 17)
  • Oh, how the clink of knife and fork spoke its own language.” (p 27)
  • When are the continents begin to shift in you, you can't tell tomorrow from yesterday, you run just like that herd of pigs, over the cliff and into the water.” (p 34)
  • The Sink is the kind of place that always failed to deliver.” (p 36)
  • The rich think everybody's rich. That's their sin, forgetfulness.” (p 37) 
  • The pain would be like a hand clamping down on her skull and she could almost feel fingers creeping in under her scalp going hot and cold in waves that made her too frightened to move her eyes.” (p 59)
  • The night is full of stories. They float up like miasmas, as though the dead leave their dreams in the Earth where you bury them, only to have them rise to meet you in sleep.” (p 73)
  • She was as silly as a wheel.” (p 79)
  • Run a farm? You couldn't run a bloody tap” (p 86)
  • The drip of sagging gutters.” (p 94)

How have I never heard of this writer before? I must read more!

November 2017; 110 pages