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

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

"My Life as a Fake" by Peter Carey

I have read three other books by this Australian author: Illywhacker which I cannot remember, the True History of the Kelly Gang which was a brilliant purported biography of Ned Kelly, and Theft about an Australian painter which was one of the most fantastic characters I have met in fiction. I think this book is the best.

I could scarcely put it down. It is written from the point of view of a naive editor of a London poetry magazine who travels with poet and novelist John Slater to Kuala Lumpur where she meets an Australian poet, Chubb. He had hoaxed an Australian poetry magazine editor by inventing "McCorkle" a working class classical poet who wrote verses of genius. The editor had then been tried for publishing obscenity (the verses were obscurely risque); at the trial a man had stood up claiming to be McCorkle!

This is a retake on the story of Frankenstein and, like before, the creator and his monster pursue one another although into Malaysia rather than the Arctic.

In KL the London editor discovers that Chubb has a copy of McCorkle's work (which is truly genius). But is this Chubb's work writing as McCorkle or has McCorkle a truly independent physicality and, if so, was he created by Chubb or was he discovered by Chubb? And what is the family secret that the London editor possesses and John Slater knows? Nothing is certain as we listen to the stories in the febrile atmosphere of KL.

Carey can't half write! On page 2 Sarah Wode-Douglas, the London editor, writes "I cannot say that I understood his [Slater's] role in my parents' marriage, and only when my m other killed herself - in a spectacularly awful style - did I suspect anything was amiss. In the last minutes of her life I saw John Slater put his arms around her and finally I understood, or thought I did."

If that sentence doesn't make you NEED to read on I don't know what will.

April 2009, 266 pages

Sunday, 26 April 2009

"Thames Sacred River" by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is a phenomenon: he writes good books and he writes lots of them. A fervent Londoner, he has written some wonderful novels and many biographies, including Dickens, Chaucer and Blake (he specialises in Londoners). My favourite Peter Ackroyd book is the novel Hawksmoor which purports to be written by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor who built churches with and alongside Christopher Wren (but Hawksmoor churches always contain something a little sinister). The novel is written in seventeenth century prose which is a little difficult for the first page but then you race along.

Thames Sacred River is also well written and has many points of interest. I was particularly interested because of my walk along the Thames from the Barrier upstream to Windsor (see pictures here). Otherwise I would have found it terribly heavy going.

Part of the problem is that I was much interested in the history of the communities alongside the Thames than in the sanctity of the river. Ackroyd goes overboard on the mystical communion between man and water citing Celtic deities to Stanley Spencer's paintings. There are many pages about these themes. Sometimes the work degenerates into lists such as the three pages of churches named for St Mary.

There are many points of interest in this book and Ackroyd's reading has clearly been immense but it is eclectic. The Hell Fire club receives about two sentences whilst Lewis Carroll's boat trip on the river recurs again and again. As a work of reference it is patchy and marred by its meandering organisation; I would rather have had a chapter on every town along the river or the material organised into centuries or something rather than this thematic approach: sacred river, river of trade, working river, stream of pleasure etc.

Hard going.

April 2009 447 pages

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

"Garibaldi" by Christopher Hibbert

This is a very easy book to read chronicling the adventures of Giuseppe Garibaldi as he sought to unify Italy between 1848 and 1870.

Italy had been invaded by Napoleon and turned into three major states in the north, the centre and the south. However, the 1815 Congress of Vienna returned the conquered principalities back to their original owners so that Italy was a patchwork of states. Piedmont in the North was ruled by the House of Savoy. The Kingdom of Two Sicilies was run from Naples by the Bourbons. The Pope ruled the Papal States between these two. And the massive Austro-Hungarian empire ruled substantial chunks of Italy including Venice and Tuscany.

Garibaldi was born to a seafaring family in Nice (then part of France but soon to become part of the Kingdom of Piedmont) and then became a sailor. He became converted to the cause of Italian unification as a young man by the Saint-Simonians who preached, among other things, free love. His revolutionary zeal soon led to his escaping to exile in South America.

In South America he took part in a number of revolutions as various countries sought liberation. This was the weakest part of the book. He was known as the 'Hero of Two Worlds' but the book treated these years very briefly.

He returned to Italy after the election of Pio Nono, Pius IX, as Pope. This pope was initially liberal, granting the papal states a measure of self rule (and even railways!) but this back-fired after the pope's prime minister was assassinated. Suddenly an agitator called Mazzini (who started the Young Italians programme which was later emulated by Ataturk as the Young Turks) led a revolution. Pio had to escape his country and by 1848 Rome was in the hands of republicans. The forces of repression (French, Austrians and Neapolitans) converged on Rome, the French (whose Emperor was Louis Napoleon, nephew of the Bonaparte) getting there first. Garibaldi led irregular forces in heroic (and often stupid) attacks on the French; these were ultimately unsuccessful and Rome was retaken by the Pope.

Garibaldi spent years in honourable exile farming on a little island near Sardinia until another opportunity presented itself in 1860. The Two Sicilies under the Bourbons had become as massively repressive police state; they seemed as repulsive as rulers get. Garibaldi led a volunteer army of 'The Thousand' (ish) to invade Sicily and through the cowardice and incompetence of the opposing armies, conquered it. He set himself up as Dictator. Then he crossed the Straits of Messina and invaded the tow of Italy, fighting his way up to Naples. Again he was amazingly lucky. Not only did every possible bullet contrive to miss him but most of his enemies preferred to surrender or run than fight. When they did fight Garibaldi often lost! Finally he entered Naples in triumph and gave it to Piedmont's King Victor Emmanuel.

He then retired again but went on a number of trips including a tour of Britain where (on page 343) "he was taken ... to the Britannia Works at Bedford to see the new steam plough'. He was now a hero across Europe.

He was recalled later to fight in the war of Piedmont and Prussia against Austria that resulted in the ceding to Italy of Venice and then retired again.

Finally, in 1870, Louis Napoleon was defeated and captured at Sedan at the start of the Franco-Prussian war. This led to Victor Emmanuel riding in triumph into Rome where he set up Italy's capital at the Quirinal Palace, formerly the summer residence of the Pope, while Pio Nono locked himself in as "the prisoner in the Vatican".

Interesting asides:
In the invasion of Sicily a Neapolitan ship was commanded by Ferdinand Acton, great nephew of Sir John Acton who had been Prime Minister of Naples under Ferdinand I. The writer Harold Acton was born in Tuscany and claimed that Sir John was his great-great-grandfather.
A hospital worker uses 'chloride of lime' as a disinfectant. Presumably this is calcium chloride.
Garibaldi sailed up the Tyne to an enthusiastic welcome in 1854, well before he had become a hero for uniting Italy. This may have been when my ancestor was named 'Garabaldi (sic) Appleby'.

April 2009 368 pages

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

"The Boys' Book of Survival" by Guy Campbell

This is part of the series The Boys' Book, the Girls' book, Mum's book etc

It contains a mixture of advice from serious (How to Light a Fire, How to Wade through Water) to facetious (How to Survive a Family Christmas, How to Survive your Teachers). The tone throughout is mildly amusing as are the pictures.

Not quite as exciting as the Shackleton survival story I read just before!!!

April 2009, 127 pages

Monday, 13 April 2009

"The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition" by Caroline Alexander

This book tells the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 31 shipmates who sailed the Endurance to the Antarctic in December 1914 in an attempt to land and then sledge across the continent. The ship got stuck in pack ice and they sat imprisoned in it till November 1915 when the pressure of the ice broke it apart. They then sat on an ice floe till April 1916 at which point the ice began to break apart and they climbed into 3 lifeboats and travelled to the nearest solid land, the uninhabited Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others climbed into another boat and travelled through the Southern Ocean seas to South Georgia. his was an astounding feat of navigation given that they only sighted the sun twice in four days and South Georgia is about the only landfall in one thousand miles. Even landing here was not the end because they landed on the uninhabited side; they then had to travel across the unmapped interior of South Georgia, over mountains and glaciers, to a whaling station which they reached in May 1916. This was STILL not the end because it then took Shackleton four months to organise a rescue boat for the 26 men left on Elephant Island who were finally rescued on August 30th 1916.

And no one died!!

This account was put together from the recollections and diaries of the men involved. The book includes stunning photographs from Frank Hurley who was a member of the expedition. It ends by telling of the lives of the men after their incredible survival, ranging from becoming a down and out in New Zealand to becoming Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and another who was Master of St John's in Cambridge.

It is an astonishing story of almost unbelievable courage and fortitude under horrendous conditions and a thrilling read.

April 2009, 203 pages

Thursday, 9 April 2009

"Going Dutch in Beijing" by Mark McCrum

This is one of those miscellany reference books: full of interesting tit bits of information based around a theme. In this case the theme is "the weird things that foreigners do when abroad" but made pc by purporting to be a manual to assist the visitor in not offending his or her hosts.

But if this were truly so it should surely be organised by country (what not to do in China etc) rather than by theme (weddings, funerals etc).

It has moments of interest which make one wonder whether there is any truly worldwide culture and how some of the bizarre customs grew up in the first place. On the whole, however, it fails to develop any long lasting interest. Truly a dip in book.

However, I did find some lasting value from the last section which describes the general philosophies of various different cultures from the fatalistic middle east (Inshallah - god willing - bukra - tomorrow - ma'alesh - don't worry) to the saudade ('might have been') wistfulness of the Portuguese. But the best philosophy is the African ubuntu, the "deep sense that life is meaningful only if lived for and through other people".

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

"God's Own Country" by Ross Raisin

Sam Marsdyke, 19 year old son of a Yorkshire farmer, sits at the top of the Moor watching ramblers and the new people ("towns") arriving at the neighbouring farmhouse. In beautiful dialect he records the circumstances that led to his expulsion from school and subsequently lead to his friendship with the young daughter of the towns. A lad perfectly adapted to the Moors he has very little idea of other people; he is a primitive savage who is a lost innocent in the world of folk. He is like a fish, utterly at home in his natural environment but doomed the moment he is taken out of it. He just doesn't understand how other people think. Almost every interaction he has with people leads to disaster. Soon events build to their inevitable climax.

Although the plot is, on the whole, predictable, and employs mostly stock characters the novel is redeemed by the wonderful, faultless language used for Sam's monologue and which lends depth to his unique vision of the world.

April 2009, 211 pages

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

This is a step by step account of a true life murder of 4 people in a farming family by two young men in Kansas in 1959. It deals with the last day of the family, the early stages of the investigation and the flight of the killers, the late stages of the investigation and the capture of the killers, and the trial and execution of the killers. It is incredibly detailed.

All of the characters come across as complex three dimensional people. The overwhelming question is why these two young men killed four people in an attempted robbery that netted them less than eighty dollars. The character of each killer is carefully scrutinised as is the complicated relationship between them. Each is a young man who has been damaged both physically (Perry has has his legs smashed in a motorbike accident; Dick his skull cracked in a car accident) and emotionally (Perry's circus performing parents split up). Perry fantasises about get rich quick schemes, Dick is more manipulative. Although there is a strong flavour of homosexuality between them (eg Dick repeatedly calls Perry 'honey') Perry strongly disapproves of gay sex and Dick enjoys multiple relationships with women, favouring pubescent girls, and could not bear to think of himself as other than 'a normal'. None of which explains the killings but all of which makes one realise that these monsters are as human as anyone else.

I picked out two quotes:
"Nancy Clutter is always in a hurry but she always has time. And that's one definition of a lady." (p23)
"Used to be I could eat anything didn't eat me first" (p279)

This is a classic book: beautifully written; synthesising journalism and the novel; raising fundamental questions about the nature of deviance; psychologically probing what it is that gives us the characters we have. Highly enjoyable.

April 2009, 336 pages