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, 25 April 2012

"His Illegal Self" by Peter Carey

This novel follows an 8 year old boy, Che,  and is written partly from his perspective and partly from the perspective of his ex-nanny Dial.

Che lives with his wealthy but bohemian grandmother in New York. His parents are American urban guerrillas, outlawed and in hiding. His mother arranges for Dial (who also has a radical past) to take Che from his grandmother for a single hour of agreed contact, but the plans change and Dial takes Che to Philapelphia where Che's mother is killed by the bomb she is making. The grandmother thereupon accuses Dial of kidnapping Che and they go on the run together, ending up in a Hippy-run township in the Australian bush.

The interplay between the 8 year old misunderstanding everything and the framed Dial who resents the way she has been manipulated away from the cushy bourgeois lifestyle she was about to enjoy into the desperate existence of a fugitive in the bush is excellent. Other notable characters include Trevor who rips them off and steals their money and looks after them and tolerates Che's thefts and gives them their money back because after all he is a Hippy who likes to go naked and used to be a Barnados boy who was shipped out to Australia and lived with priests. The hippy lawyer worships Jazz musicians. The head of the hippy neighbourhood hates cats because they kill birds.

And the prose is wonderful. And the ending a surprise in the penultimate paragraph.

So why didn't I want to turn every page?

I think it was just a little too weird. April 2012; 272 pages

"Winter King" by Thomas Penn

This fascinating biography of Henry VII focuses on the years between 1500 and his death in 1509. This was the time when Henry, having fought his way to the throne and married Elizabeth of York to legitimise his issue, suffered the twin succession crises of losing his first born and his queen leaving a very young Henry VIII (still only 17 when he ascended in 1509) as heir at a time when father to son succession had not occurred for nearly a century and with the Plantagenet pretender de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, waiting abroad.

And Henry VII became the richest monarch in Europe through tax avoidance (he smuggled Venetian alum to circumvent the papal monopoly) and extortion (by accusing almost anyone of trumped up crimes and then either fining them or binding them over in excessive sums).

A fascinating and compelling portrait of one of England's lesser known (and least charismatic) kings. 

But I so wanted to lerarn about the first half of the reign. After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry had to reunite the country still reeling from the divisive Wars of the Roses. His own claim on the throne was marginal (Henry V's widow, ex Princess of France, had married her household steward). So how did he persuade everyone to follow him? This story deserves to be told.

Quotes: 

  • John Skelton exhorted us to "Love poets: athletes are two a penny but patrons of the arts are rare."
  • Henry VIII's tutor Lord Mountjoy lived near Greenwich Palace at Sayes Court (later lived in my John Evelyne, Admiral Benbow and briefly Czar Peter the Great)
  • Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, lived at Collyweston Palace near Kettering
  • Henry VII confiscated Ampthill from the Earl of Kent because Kent was in debt here there and everywhere and mismanaging his lands
  • Another compulsory purchase was Hanworth which he made into a palace. 
  • Catherine of Aragon's wedding procession (to Henry VIII) went [ast the Cardinal's Hat Tavern near where the Globe now is.
A wonderful, beautifully written book. April 2012; 378 pages

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

"Herd" by Mark Earls

his is a UK take on a US-style marketing management through popular psychology book. Mark Earls works in marketing, worships Rugby and sings in a ska group. He writes well (which kept me going because I soon discovered that I wasn't really interested in marketing) but I suspect the shallowness of his research (despite lots of references he is prone to relying too much on a few academic authors and bulking this out with websites and newspapers). He is well described in the blurb as Malcolm Gladwell on speed.

His essential thesis is that we are 'super-social' animals and that therefore classical economics, marketing and management with their attempts to understand the group as the aggregate of the individuals are wrong. Rather, you need to understand the interactions in the complex organism-ations.

Most market people seek to develop one way channels of communication in an attempt to persuade people to buy their products. They fail to realise that the best marketing is done by peer-to-peer networks of word of mouth. The only way to market in the future is through developing trust by having sincere beliefs and being truly interested in other people.

On the way I learned that the Broken Windows approach to fighting crime in NY was to always mend broken windows and clean up graffiti because by taking care of the details we can persuade people that they want to live better lives and so they will start to behave in line with our aspirations. Or maybe just copy us (super-social apes imitate one another a lot) by mending their own windows and cleaning up their own graffiti. Perhaps this would also work when trying to persuade pupils to do homework.

Interesting but not overwhelmingly so. April 2012; 370 pages

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

"Peyton Place" by Grace Metalious

Peyton Place was the 'Desperate Housewives' of its day. India Knight's introduction tells me that it sold 60,000 copies in its first ten days; the TV series had an audience of 60 million. It scandalised America.

I found it almost unreadable. Even allowing for the fact that the sexual mores seem desperately outdated, I found it really badly written. Most novelists know the detailed back story of each or their characters and, using hints, make the reader interested in the characters whilst wanting to read more to understand the mysteries that the author has not yet set out in full. Metalious  introduces you to each of the characters in turn by explaining their back story. In full. Perhaps on the theory that in a small town there are no secrets. Except that her thesis is that Peyton Place is a small town run on the secrets that everybody hides or at least tries to hide from everyone else. There are a lot of characters. By page 100 I was bored. And the focus was on this silly spoilt little girl who was growing up.

The pace varies widely. Sometimes the book jumps a couple of years. Some critical episodes are described in a few pages; trivia is given as much space. Allison and Norman go on a picnic and discuss which sandwiches they prefer which has absolutely no bearing on either plot or character development; this just wastes words.

Characters don't really develop. Like robots in a Greek tragedy they follow their predestined dooms, wearing masks, except that they don't even discover their fatal flaws because every aspect of their personalities has been laid bare by Metalious. She doesn't believe in 'show, don't tell'. She explains everything.

The very worst bit is where Tom explains his view of sexuality to Constance. This is like an essay entitled 'what I have learned from the Kinsey report'. It should have a box around it and the words 'author's message' in bold above.

Yes, shocking things happen. But I did not care enough about any of the characters to really care. In any case, the wicked eventually got their just deserts and the good triumphed. This book is more like an extended morality play than a novel.

A dreadful potboiler. April 2012; 475 pages

Sunday, 8 April 2012

"The Last Day of a Condemned Man" and "Claude Gueux" by Victor Hugo

A novella and a short story in a slim volume.

"Le dernier jour d'un condamnee" is a plea for the abolition of the death penalty purportedly written by the condemned man himself. He sits in his cell reflecting upon his trial (although we never learn the exact nature of his crime) and his six weeks awaiting his appeal. Following the rejection of the appeal events move swiftly. In the single day he is transported to another prison, dreaming up pathetic escape strategies. He meets his daughter who is too young to remember him and has indeed been told that her father is already dead. Various priests try to comfort him but he is unable to imagine his fate, let alone reconcile himself to it. At the end he begs for five more minutes in the hope that a reprieve may come.

Given that this was written in the era of sentimental romanticism it could have been dreadful. But Hugo keeps the melodrama at bay and produces a powerful and eloquent plea for abolition. It is a clear precursor of Les Miserables; it mentions the yellow passport which means that a released convict cannot find honest work and so soon returns to a life of crime.

Claude Gueux continues the theme that noble characters might, because of the circumstances and social classes into which they were born, thieve by necessity and be relegated to the dregs of society but can still retain nobility whilst their captors can be brutal.

Beautifully written, powerful and short. April 2012; 130 pages


Thursday, 5 April 2012

"One flew over the cuckoo's nest" by Ken Kesey

This is the story of how a petty criminal called McMurphy blags his way into a mental asylum with a psychopath diagnosis because he thinks it will be a cushy alternative to the work farm. But he is a natural rebel and refuses to fit in with the rules of Big Nurse Ratched, even after he realises that he had been Committed and will never get out unless she endorses his sanity. So he and Big Nurse lock horns. She is for order and control and he is for laughter and gambling. She keeps the patients bullied and downtrodden; he tries to free them.

The story is narrated by a giant half-Indian who plays deaf and dumb. He remembers his old life in the hills and forests and rivers of Oregon before the government "tried to buy their right to be Indians" and build a hydro-electric scheme on their river. Now he sees and hears the machinery whirring as the Combine process human beings in their factory.

Because this book is about who controls us and how they control us and how we are complicit in our own control (most of the patients are voluntary but they are too frightened of the world outside to be able to escape from this frankly horrible ward). Big Nurse is the symbol of totalitarian authority. McMurphy is the little man against the system, the rebel who adopts a cause, the joker, the spirit of chaos who always threatens to destroy the world that we have organised. You want him to win so much.

Brilliant book: strong characters in a gripping plot with some laugh out loud moments and an ending to make one mad.

April 2012; 280 pages

Monday, 2 April 2012

"Mary Boleyn" by Alison Weir

This book is subtitled 'The Great and Infamous Whore'; Mary Boleyn, wife of the more famous Anne,  was said to have slept with both Francois I of France and Henry VIII of England.

The problem with the book is that there is very little information about Mary Boleyn but a great deal of speculation. Alison Weir spends an awful lot of this book debunking the rumours and ending with the statement that 'we just don't know'. Thus we don't know whether Mary slept with Francois I but Weir assumes she did but not for very long. We don't know whether Mary slept with Henry VIII but Weir assumes she did, for some years. We don't know whether Katherine Carey was Henry's daughter (but Weir assumes she was) or Henry Carey was Henry VIII's son (but Weir assumes not). We don't know whether Mary spent years in Calais or when she was born or whether she was older or younger than Anne.

All of which makes this book somewhat unsatisfying. It reads more like an academic trying to score points off the other scholars who have gone before her rather than a popular history book. There are large sections when we sift through other people's comments and the endless Henrys and Katherines and Marys, most of whom change their surnames as they marry or as they come into yet another temporary title.

Not exactly a ripping read.

April 2012; 256 pages