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

Friday, 27 August 2010

"Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann

This delightful novelette ('Der Tod in Venedig') records how an elderly novelist on holiday in plague-stricken Venice falls in  love with a beautiful Polish boy.

The story is full of signs and portents. On the boat to Venice the hero, von Aschenbach, meets a group of young men of whom one is elderly bewigged, dressed and cosmeticised to look young, the result being a travesty. This is what Aschenbach will become by the end of his homosexual paedophilic obsession. He is also rowed to his hotel by an unlicensed gondolier in a black coffin-like gondola; this boatman reminds us of Charon the ferryman of the Styx. There are also many references to classical myth:

  • Helios the sun god (who is also Apollo)
  • Narcissus the beautiful youth who fell in love with his reflection
  • Hyacinth the beautiful boy-lover of Apollo who was killed by the west wind
  • Ganymede, the beautiful boy who was carried by an eagle to Olympus and made to serve Zeus as cup-bearer
  • Of course Apollo himself was a beautiful youth
In some ways the book contrasts the Apollo who is the god of intellect, moderation, reason, light and music with Dionysus the god of ecstasy, passion and drunkenness. Aschenbach starts as a man whose writing is severely intellectual and ends as a creature wholly enslaved to passion. But to see it as a battle between two gods is perhaps naive. Music and poetry are strict and intellectual art forms and people often see this as Apollo-like; however they also have their passionate sides and Apollo is also the god of the the ecstatic prophecies of Delphi. He is clearly linked to passionate love of both men and women. I think that Mann was playing with the duality of Apollo within Aschenbach. In another contradiction Apollo, who is father of Aesculapius the god of medicine and who is himself associated with healing is also the god who shot deadly plague arrows into the Greek camp at Troy.

Finally Mann plays with the concepts of Beauty as discussed between the old ugly Socrates and the beautiful youth Phaedrus in the Phaedrus by Plato. In this book Socrates contrasts 'being in your right mind' with the madness that comes with following an erotic desire for beauty. This is clearly the situation for Aschenbach. When a soul, says Socrates, looks upon a beautiful boy it experiences the utmost joy; when separated from the boy, it feels intense pain and longing. This is the allegory of the chariot; we are pulled by passionate horses, we need to rein them in.


When Aschenbach discovers that there is cholera in Venice he decides not to tell the boy's family in case they leave. This is clearly a moral lapse for which he will be punished. (It is also one of the few points at which the film differs from the novella.)


The boy Tadzio becomes aware of Aschenbach's obsessive interest and starts to play up to it, smiling at the old man and making eye contact. At the end of the book, after his family have decided to flee Venice, Tadzio walks into the sea and beckons to Aschenbach. 


A wondrous story crammed with many, many layers of meaning in 71 short pages.


It was also a brilliant film starring Dirk Bogarde as the writer.



August 2010; 71 pages

Monday, 23 August 2010

"Milton" by Anna Beer

This is a rather ponderous biography, evoking the poetry of the famous poet.

Milton was born into a well-to-do family of scriveners and property dealers. He went to St Paul's School (yards from his home) and then Cambridge (a bit further). He was extremely studious: a kind of Stephen Fry of his generation. He had a number of close male friends and rumours of his being a sodomite pursued him through his life. He wrote a little and studied a lot. The government suspended the rule that all publications must be licensed (cleared through the censors) and an explosion of pamphleteering began similar to the blogospheric explosion of our times. Milton was just another pamphleteer until he achieved notoriety with his views on  Divorce (he believed an unhappy marriage was grounds for divorce). This might have been linked to his own first marriage: a wife many years younger than himself who went home after a month although she later returned and bore him at least four children.

He weighed in on the republican side during the English Civil War, later becoming a civil servant with the new Commonwealth government. This made him persona non grata during the Restoration: he had to go into hiding for a while. Meantime he was losing his eyesight.

Blind and unemployed; becoming poor under the Stuarts; he wrote Paradise Lost. This was immediately recognised as a classic; an MP burst into the Commons wielding it and talking about the most marvellous poem ever. Later he wrote Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes ("Eyeless in Gaza") before becoming gout ridden and dying.

Interesting points:

  • Samson Agonistes is effectively a poem in praise of terrorism; by pulling down the temple on himself Samson is the classical equivalent of a suicide bomber.
  • A Civil War rumour: that "Royalist soldiers arrived in a [Somerset] village and demanded the services of a woman. In fear, the villagers handed over a particular woman who was 'given to them all'. In the morning, the woman was ostracised by the village." (p156) Shades of the disgraceful hosts in both Sodom (Genesis) and Gilead (Judges 19).
A slow moving biography. Sadly, the most interesting bits where when she described what happened to other people during the Civil War.

August 2010; 401 pages

On His Blindness
  
WHEN I consider how my light is spent 
  E're half my days, in this dark world and wide, 
  And that one Talent which is death to hide, 
  Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent 
To serve therewith my Maker, and present         5
  My true account, least he returning chide, 
  Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd, 
  I fondly ask; But patience to prevent 
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need 
  Either man's work or his own gifts, who best  10
  Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State 
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed 
  And post o're Land and Ocean without rest: 
  They also serve who only stand and waite.







Sunday, 22 August 2010

"One Day" by David Nicholls

Emma and Dexter spend the night after their graduation together in bed (but without having sex) in Edinburgh. The book then revisits their relationship every year for twenty years.Although clearly meant for one another and clearly each in love with the other, they never quite get it together ... but will they by the end. Dexter shags his way through life and becomes a shallow TV presenter; Emma becomes a teacher who wants to write.

Some brilliant one-liners include:

  • "balls of steel that's what you need to be a TV presenter and a mind like a like a well quick thinking anyway"
  • "can I just explain something about the telephone? You don't have to shout into it? The phone does that bit for you..."
  • And the best bit is when Dexter finds out that Emma has been writing poetry about him. She is very cross with him but he wants to know more: "What rhymes with Dexter?" he asks and she says "Bastard. It's a half-rhyme."


A light weight and slightly predictable comedy of our time, it nevertheless had me weeping before the end.

August 2010; 435 pages

"High Life Low Morals; the duel that shook Stuart society" by Victor Stater

This is a history book written like an adventure by a brilliant author. It really made me want to read on...

Baron Mohun (pronounced Moon) and the Duke of Hamilton are engaged in a long running court case over an inheritance that was in the Hamilton family but bequeathed to the Mohuns. Since both families were desperately hard up, the estate was needed for solvency. Since Mohun was a leading Whig politician ( member of the Kit Kat Club) while Hamilton was a Tory on the Jacobite wing there was scope for fantastic dislike. Neither man was a stranger to violence, indeed Mohun had been tried for two murders before their shocking duel.

Set against a colourful background of the Tory Whig politics of the post James II era (including the Ac of Union with Scotland in which Hamilton was the leader of the opposition until he sold out), and the dissolute life of the Stuart nobility this is a brilliantly told history.

A page turner.

August 2010; 289 pages

"Birds without wings" by Louis de Bernieres

This book took me forever to finish. I started it in June, got half way, more or less gave up for over a month, and then started again.

And yet it is delightfully written. It tells the story of a village in south west Turkey. The story starts in about 1900. The Ottomans rule Turkey but the Young Turks are about to take over and Kemal Ataturk is beginning his career. The village is a delightful mixture of Christians and Moslems who share each others' loves and houses and even religious ceremonies. The story is told by the villagers (and Ataturk). We are told from the outset that we will discover about how Iskander the Potter maimed his favourite son and how Philothei the Christian girl who is a legendary beauty died. We also learn about Drousola who appears later in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The story progresses through the first world war and the birth of modern Turkey when the Armenians and Greeks are ethnically cleansed. The wonderful world of the village is forever destroyed.

There are loads of wonderful characters:

  • Iskander the Potter makes up proverbs including 'Man is a bird without winds and a bird is a man without sorrows'. He makes bird whistles for his favourite son Karatavuk (Blackbird) and his son's best friend Mehmetcik (Red Robin).
  • Karatavuk who fights at Gallipoli
  • Rustum Bey the town's agha who puts aside his first wife for her adultery and takes as a concubine a prostitute called Leyla; they fall in love

The ethnic wars between the Greeks and the Turks and the Armenians and the Russians and the Bulgarians and the Serbians and the ... in short of the peoples who once lived in the Ottoman empire and the ethnic violence that accompanied its slow disintegration is chronicled with brutal effect particularly on pages 286-7

Rustum Bey says "if a war can be holy, then God cannot" on p299

"In the case of the Armenians there was the strong belief that they were the descendants of Noah, and that this made them special. A reasonably attentive reading of the Bible would have revealed the obvious fact that if its account is true, then absolutely everyone is a descendant of Noah." (p303)

I thought it was a boring book but on reflection I think it is a great book. The critics suggest the book is too big. Clearly the attempt has been to include as many characters as possible and when you do that you have to reduce each character's complexities. Obviously I felt in the middle that it was too long and too meandering. But actually there are moments of delight and the complexities of the true character, the village, are beautifully underlined. Many things are idyllic: each house has a song-bird outside it (the bird theme is omnipresent throughout the novel). But there are instances of idyllic violence as well: Rustum Bey kills his wife's adulterous lover and then drags his wife to the village square to be stoned, a father forces his son to kill his sister because of her infidelity. And there are lovely cross-cultural bits as well: because Philothei is so beautiful she is persuaded to wear a veil even though she is a Christian so that she will not distract too many men; this makes veils fashionable because uglier women want to be thought more beautiful. When Rustum's adulterous wife is stoned she is saved by the imam in a clear reference to Jesus.

A long but beautiful book.

Looking back in April 2016, I realise that I think about this book far more than Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the book that made de Bernieres famous. It is a deeper book, with more characters and, perhaps, more bitterness. Perhaps the Nazis are too easy as enemies.

August 2010; 625 pages

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birds_Without_Wings_(novel)
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3620456/Trouble-in-Arcadia.html
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A02E5DA113AF932A05753C1A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2

"Alexander the Great" by Robin Lane Fox

This is, apparently, the book that inspired Oliver Stone to make the biopic. It was first published in 1973. I found it slightly heavy going.

Interesting things
  • It starts with the drama of the assassination of Phillip of Macedon; was it organised by Olympias, the wife from whom he had separated or by her son Alexander, his heir but soon to be supplanted by a new born baby to Phillip’s new wife?
  • We learn how Alexander tamed Bucephalos, the horse whose head looked like that of an ox, who would be Alexander’s faithful mount almost to the end of the Earth.
  • We discover that the Macedonian court, whilst on the fringes of civilised Greek society, attracted the great people of the day: it was probably in Macedonia that Euripides composed his Bacchae.
  • Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor and also probably taught Hephaistion, the fellow pupil with whom Alexander had a homosexual relationship which lasted until Hephaistion, now a general, died.
  • “’Sex and sleep’, Alexander is said to have remarked, ‘alone make me conscious that I am mortal.’” (p57). Hmm. Sex is what makes feel divine.
  • Cleopatra was the daughter of Olympias who was Alexander’s mother. Does this make Cleopatra his sister or his half/step sister? (91)
  • The Suez canal was d]created by the Pharaohs (96)
  • Alexander followed the Royal Road into Persia, following the route previously written about by Xenophon (103)
  • Persians called their gorgeous gardens paradeisoi (103)
  • The Babylonians were compliers, the Greeks analysers: the Babylonians recorded the heavens for nearly 2,000 years but it was only after 330 BC and Alexander’s conquest that the Greeks began to develop a theory of the heavens and calculate a more accurate value for the year (248)
  • Alexarchus, son of Antipater, Alexander’s regent in Macedonia, followed a faith healer called Menecrates. Alexarchus called himself the Sun and after Alexander died founded a religious community on Mount Athos (446)
  • In Babylon, if an astrologer foretold the death of the king, the king chose a substitute who would reign for 100 days. If the king died in the meantime the substitute, even if he was a gardener, would become king (p459)
  • Ice-cold water from the river Styx was believed to be poison although the modern Mavroneri falls suggest this is not so (463)
  • Alexander’s coffin was carried in a chariot which resembled “the ritual chariot of the god Mithras” (p478)
  • The Greeks were responsible for much technological invention when they came to India. “A simple cell for electroplating silver on to copper has been found in Parthian Babylonia and it is natural to credit its invention to a Greek.” (p491)

Thursday, 5 August 2010

"The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

In 1945, in a Barcelona still devastated by the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, 10 year old Daniel is taken by his widowed father, a bookseller, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Told to choose a book to adopt and love, Daniel chooses 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Julian Carax. He is enthralled by reading it and tries to discover more about the author. But someone is trying to acquire all copies of Julian Carax's books so he can burn them. The mysteries deepen and the shadows threaten as Daniel grows to manhood, persecuted by Javier Fumero, a Civil Guard, and assisted by Fermin Romero de Torres, a mad tramp.

This book is structurally so like Don Petro de la Hoz that I wanted to weep. Even some of the plot devices are similar. Yet somehow I was disappointed by it. Although a deep and gothic mystery, somehow the crux of the matter, the book, seems not important enough for all the evil that takes place. And somehow the passionate love affairs seem shallow.

Disappointing but still a good read.

August 2010; 506 pages

"Brixton Beach" by Roma Tearne

I expected little from this book other than a potboiler. I really got rather involved and charmed.

Alice is born in Ceylon to a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother. The Tamils are beginning to fight for equal rights with the Sinhalese. It is not a good time to be of mixed parentage. Alice's idyllic life with her painter grandfather on a beautiful beach is disturbed by violence and by her imminent emigration to England. This book tells of her life in Ceylon and England and what happens to her family.

An excellent read.

July 2010; 408 pages

"Hilaire Belloc" by A. N. Wilson

I knew Belloc from his poems: Tarantella, Lines to a Don, and the cautionary tale of Matilda. I discovered he was rather more than this. Not only a prolific writer (over 150 books including history and fiction) and a journalist (working for the Edwardian version of Private Eye that spilt the beans on the Marconi scandal involving Lloyd George) but he was also a politician serving as a rather too independent Liberal MP under Asquith.

A fascinating biography.

July 2010; 386 pages

"Fopdoodle and Salmagundi" selected by Edward Allhusen

This is a selection of words and their definitions from Dr Johnson's dictionary. Some of the words are no longer used and some are used rather differently then they are today. Sometimes a surprising definition of a word gives you insight into how we use the word today. For example, knuckle means to submit because of "the custom of striking the under side of the table with the knuckles, in confession of an argumental defeat." Nowadays we say 'knuckle under'.

There were lots of good words of which my favourites are:
above-board: because gamblers used to keep their hands above the table to show they weren't cheating
buxom: obedient
curtain-lecture: a kind of reproof given by a wife to her husband

July 2010: 208 pages