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

Saturday, 27 February 2010

"A Room with a View" by E M Forster

This was a great book!

I though for the first 100 pages that it was an elegantly written light comedy. There were some delightful characters; chiefly the unbearable Miss Bartlett who is Lucy's chaperone and is that sort of spinster who sets more store on respectability than life and who manages to selfishly control everyone and get her own way all the time by the device of always insisting that she lives her life for the benefit of others.

The book is written as a two act play: the first act is Florence and the second act is the Surrey village of Summer Street where all the main characters coincidentally meet. Here Lucy, who encountered and was kissed by George near the end of act 1, is engaged to the hideous Cecil who sneers at the humble considerations of the simple folk of Summer Street because they are not so prententious as he is.

Charlotte Bartlett and Cecil Vyse are wonderfully written characters; perhaps it is easier to write bad people than it is to write good. Certainly the muddling clergyman Mr Beebe, Lucy's mother Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy's nemesis George, her brother Freddy, and George's father are all less well written. 

There are a number of wonderful passages:

"George and I both know this, but why does it distress him? We know that we come from the winds, and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice." (Chapter Two)

"Mr Beebe was, from rather profound reasons, somewhat chilly in his attitude towards the other sex, and preferred to be interested rather than enthralled." (Chapter Three) is a beautifully discreet way of saying that Reverend Beebe is gay. Later Mr Beebe suggests that Cecil, Lucy's erstwhile fiance, is also gay; he is quoted by Freddy as saying "Mr Vyse is an ideal bachelor ... He is like me - better detached." (Chapter Eight). Still later, George (Lucy's squeeze) himself says of Cecil: "He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman." Forster, a gay man when to be so was illegal, writes a pivotal scene of Freddy and George, "radiant and personable" young men, and Reverend Beebe, bathing naked in a pool and being surprised by the women: at least Mr Darcy kept his breeches on!

"For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it" (Chapter Seventeen, beautifully misquoted from Macbeth).

Another aspect of Forster's craft is his ability to show the substance behind the stereotype. Both Mr Vyse and Miss Bartlett, though never engaging the reader's sympathy, redeem themselves by actions which show their essential humanity. Thus they escape being caricatures. And the whole scenario of the careful manners in the Florentine pension and the bloodlessness of the Edwardian village Anglican scene is mitigated by the boys who do not want to go to church (nor does the parson's neice) and the vicar whose passion is tea, and Lucy's mother who transcends the 'silly little mother' character by being quite forthright when she detects cruelty and pomposity, and the details such as the 'horrid' little cottages that are constructed by a builder who makes them ugly because he is following the dictates of Ruskin and the ugly house that Lucy's father built on the proceeds of being a solicitor and the fact that George works as a clerk in a railway office (at least he isn't a porter!).

But after the elegant writing and the delicate characterisation and the tres amusante drawing room comedy I was suddenly gripped by the apprehension that Lucy, having chucked one fellow, would NOT go on to marry her true love but allow society's manners to make her into an old maid. The last sentence of Chapter Eighteen states "The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thrity years before." That I was so distraught at the possibility of a sad ending to the novel shows how much I had entered into the life of these characters.

And in a lovely endpiece written fifty years after the publication of the novel, Forster speculates about his characters as they progress through World Wars One and two in which George discovers that "away from his wife he did not remain chaste." This is the glory of Forster, he understands the weaknesses that are human beings.

Brilliant

Also read Howards End and Where Angels Fear To Tread and Maurice.

February 2010; 230 pages

Thursday, 25 February 2010

"Dickens" by Peter Ackroyd

This is the paperback, abridged version of Ackroyd's biography of Charles Dickens and there were times when I was grateful for the free flow of the prose and there were times when I wanted a little more detail. So I suppose that means that Ackroyd got the mix about right.

I don't know which was most interesting: the childhood; the early working life when, all at once, he became a household name; the early novels when he was writing two at the same time whilst simoutaneously editing magazines; the later novels when he had developed his craft much more highly.

Books like Pickwick, Twist and Nickleby (the last Ackroyd describes as Dickens funniest book) were written as monthly serials. Dickens wrote prodigious amounts each day. He wrote using a quill!!! He was writing comedy and tragedy simultaneously (it seemed to help him) and he was writing even when he was in rooms with other people. His energy was fantastic. He did not seem to need a plan to his writing; he relied on his invention.

For the later books he had established a writing routine and he was massively well organised and disciplined, usually knowing exactly how many words he had to write. He would write for hours in the morning and then do other things in the evening. As well as writing a lot of massive novels he also edited (and contributed to) magazines for most of his working life. Some of the later books were serialised in weekly, rather than monthly, parts; this was the way he wrote; he never seems to have indulged in the liuxury of writing a novel entire and then publishing it, even when he was getting massive advances. He always seems to have been desperate for money.

One of his themes was clearly the virgin: little Nell, little Dorrit etc. Having married his wife he went into an extended morbid mourning when her 17 year old sister died. Much later, having separated from his wife, he seems to have had a Platonic affair with an actress called Ellen Ternan. He was a bit weird about young women.

He also saw life a s a perpetual battle against illness and time and ... He struggled with obsessive energy (in this he reminded me a little of myself) to escape his poverty stricken background.

His speciality was always creating characters. It was only in the later books that he learned to plan and his fiction began to mature.

I have never read Our Mutual Friend or Martin Chuzzlewit (or the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood). I must.

A superb biography. I wish I had the energy and drive (and the organisation) of Dickens.

February 2010; 578 pages

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific author: he writes both fiction and non-fiction; he specialises in London. I adore some of his books such as the brilliant Hawksmoor and I have found others (such as Thames) very tedious. If you enjoy Dickens then I recommend his biography of another great Victorian novelist and friend of Dickens: Wilkie Collins. Alternatively you could read Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Dickens.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

This is a beautiful book.

I have now read 4 Steinbecks: The Pearl, a book I read too soon at school and never appreciated; the blockbusters East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath, both of which I read in my early twenties; now this. He is a wonderful writer and I should read more and more!

Lenny, big and stupid, and George, small and clever, make a most unlikely pair but George is Lenny's protector in the world, getting him out of all the trouble Lenny gets into. The other characters: self-possessed and astute Slim, the mean little feller Curly, Curly's wife (jailbait), Candy the old fellow, Crooks the crippled negro stable buck make a perfect cast. Men who have no future; men who only dreams. The writing is lean and elegant; the descriptions poignant and placed so that there are breathing places in the thriller dance. There is nothing in the plot that doesn't contribute to the terrible climax.

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Mice_and_Men) points out that every character has a dream (although as Burns said "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley"). They have these dreams because they are lonely: "Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley's wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you." .... The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means "solitude" in Spanish."

Of Mice and Men reads like a play and is structured in 3 'acts' each of two 'scenes': certainly the first pages are like stage directions, first describing the scenery before the two mian characters appear on stage.

Tiny but perfect.

February 2010; 121 pages

Also reviewed on this blog the tiny but perfect, haunting and elegiac Cannery Row by the same author.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

"The Owl Killers" by Karen Maitland

A Norfolk village in 1321 is ruled by the church, the manor and the Owl Masters. Nearby is a beguinage (a sort of cross between a commune and a convent). The climate is poor, disease and famine destroy the village. The gay vicar and the manor and especially the owl Masters take battle against the beguinage. Who will win?

The plot is a bit predictable and a bit of a pot boiler through which I struggled but there are a host of enjoyable characters:
  • Agatha the lord of the manor's raped daughter who becomes a beguine and uses her intelligence to question even the sacrament;
  • Servant Martha, the head of the beguinage, who feels the weight of her responsibilities;
  • Healing Martha, the nurse; (and Kitchen Martha, the cook, and Merchant Martha, the saleswoman, and Tutor Martha, the teacher, and Shepherd Martha, the shepherdess, and another Marhta I've forgotten because there are supposed to be seven)
  • Beatrice, a beguine whose married life ended after a string of still-births and whose bitterness eats away at her;
  • Pega, ex trollope, now a beguine, very free with love;
  • Father Ulfrid, who has been exiled to this miserable village after being caught with his boyfriend. Father U is one of the more interesting characters because he is sometimes a goody, very much on the side of the down-trodden villagers, and sometimes a pathetic weakling, besotted by his lover and scared of discovery, and sometimes the blackest of black-hearted villains;
  • as opposed to Phillip, nephew of the Lord of the Manor, who is supposed to be the blackest of black-hearted villains but who is so black he is reduced to caricature.

It was all right but I'd rather have read something else.

February 2010; 550 pages

Saturday, 6 February 2010

"Engleby" by Sebastian Faulks

Wow!

The start was spooky. Mike Engleby who surname is mine except for the first three letters, went to grammar school, as I did, and then to boarding school, as I did, where he got put up a year because he was clever, as I did, and then went to Cambridge, as I did. Other items in the biography are not the same: the story is set four or five years before me, his father has died, he steals and sells drugs, he is a loner. He becomes obsessed with a girl student who disappears; he is quizzed by the police. We presume he is in some way responsible. He goes to London and becomes a journalist. Then the girl's body is discovered.

He has a phenomenal memory enabling him to recite large pieces of text (including the diary he has stolen) verbatim which is one hell of an asset for a novelist's narrator! But he is utterly lonely. The first time he talks about sex is in his late twenties. Even his intelligence serves only to isolate him from others.

He has a bleak view of humanity. He believes the speciating moment at which humans split themselves off from the apes is the arrival of consciousness. This he likens to the moment that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and became self-aware. They were expelled from paradise. Consciousness is self-awareness; that faculty which means that men cannot be blissful in ignorance like animals.

“Homo sapiens, this functional ape with the curse of consciousness – that useless gift that allows him, unlike other animals, to be aware of his own futility. The story of Adam and Eve put it with childish but brilliant clarity: Paradise until the moment of self-awareness and then … Cursed. For ever cursed. (Christians call it ‘fallen’, but it was the same thing: the Fall was the acquisition of consciousness.) …. Miguel de Unamuno …. ‘Man, because he is a man, because he possesses consciousness, is already, in comparison to the jackass or the crab, a sick animal. Consciousness is a disease.’”

chapter 10 p256
At the same time Jen, the student he stalks, enjoys life in a "funny low euphoria" brought on by just being 19 and alive and living in a Cambridge of "dirty brick of the miniature terraces and the mist from the river and the cold mornings .... and then the sudden huge vista of a great courtyard ..."(p217).

An enthralling book which took me into the mind of a very strange person and made me realise how similar I am to him.