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

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

"The Deer Park" by Norman Mailer

Mailer's best known work is The Naked and the Dead; he writes in the American tradition of macho Hemingway but without Hemingway's concise brutality.

In the Southern California resort town on Desert D'Or a crowd of Hollywood actors and actresses, directors, producers and other assorted hangers-on gather to party, do business, back-bite and swap partners. Film director Charles Eitel's career is on hold: he has been blacklisted for refusing to testify to the Committee for Subversive Activities. Ex-USAF fighter pilot and wannabe writer Sergius is determinedly blowing the $14,000 he won in a poker game. Eitel is having an affair with Elena, Producer Collie's ex-mistress, while Sergius is sleeping with Lulu, starlet and Eitel's ex-wife, who secretly marries Tony despite the fact that the Studio want her to marry gay co-star Teddy. Marion Faye, pimp, crops up from time to time.

When it was published in 1957 the slightly coy descriptions of sex (and the endless permutations of who slept with whom) led to the book being branded as shocking, filthy, degrading and perverted. Nearly sixty years later that aspect has no more power to shock. Without it the book is a somewhat rambling account of a set of rather selfish and self-justifying characters, most of whom have the leisure to sit around analysing themselves all day and party all night because they don't need to work, interspersed with some long speeches containing cod philosophy. And, because it is really difficult to care about these characters, it is difficult to commit oneself to the novel.

"When The Deer Park was first published," the blurb on the back says, "it was both hailed as a work of genius and condemned as depraved." Seen from the perspective of time it is neither. May 2013; 363 pages

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"Charles Dickens, a life" by Claire Tomalin

This is a full scale biography of Dickens, warts and all. As well as the traditional story of his rise from rags to riches, from working in the blacking factory with a father imprisoned for debt, ashamed, his intelligence and ambition seemingly frustrated, to national institution, Tomalin shows how his boundless drive led him to dominate his family, to destroy his marriage and tempted him into bitter enmities with those he once had loved.

It is also the story of his books. He published serials, often writing the next installment only days before the deadline, sometimes writing two at once. Because of this he could not reflect upon the work and revise it. He was stuck with where he'd got to. Perhaps because of this, each book is flawed. His plots are (necessarily because of the need to keep people purchasing the next installment) very complicated and usually flawed. Most of them veer close to melodrama. When he is sentimental he can go over the top, certainly by the standards of today but even for some of the contemporary critics.His characters are often caricatures. But his energy is overpowering and the wonderful grotesques and the sense of place and the comic dialogue and the rampant fight for the common man. As Tomalin points out, he writes about ordinary people as if they are important. Dwarfs and cripples are not always villains; villains are often villains for a reason. Although no book is unflawed and his heroines are often soppy, every book has moments of brilliance.

Unlike many of his contemporary authors, such as Wilkie Collins who kept two mistresses by one of whom he fathered children but who never married, Dickens attempted respectability. It was only after his poor wife,   never really loved and grown enormous after ten pregnancies, was ditched in favour of Ellen Ternan that Dickens flouted convention and even then he kept Nelly hidden and secret and was never open about her. Even in the famous railway disaster when he was travelling with Nelly and her mum (back from the continent where Nelly had given birth to and lost his child) Dickens ensured that they were away from the scene before  rendering the help for which he took a hero's credit.

But Dickens was remarkable simply because of his industry. A monthly novel required him to write 7,500 words each month. Some novels, such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, overlapped so he was writing 15,000 words per month then. He also did journalism, edited magazines and read aloud on public tours. He worked because he was so afraid of poverty: these were the days before and social welfare safety net. Later, when he had enough money for himself, he wrote because he needed to pay for an ever-larger army of dependents, from his extravagant father to his feckless sons, his unmarried daughters, his brothers and sisters and their broods once orphaned, his mistress and her family etc. At the same time he organised charitable funds for friends and acquaintances who had fallen upon hard times. He was a driven whirlwind.

This book pays a remarkable tribute to a remarkable man. May 2013; 417 pages.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

"The secret rooms" by Catherine Bailey

In 1940, John, 9th Duke of Rutland, died alone in a draughty room off the servants' quarters of Belvoir Castle, a room in which he had lived and worked alone, more or less continuously, for two years. The rooms were then sealed for sixty years.

When Catherine Bailey gained access to them, to work on a history of the First World War, she discovered that John had been assembling, or perhaps dissembling, the family archives. Here were copies of all their letters. Except there were three missing periods within the records. From the evidence of the butterfly clips that held packets of letters together, the evidence for these periods had been removed by John, while he was compiling the archives.

The first relates to a time when John was eight and his elder brother died.

The second relates to 1909, when John was a reluctant diplomat in Rome.

The third relates to a period between July and December 1915 when John was in the British Army during the First World War. The third missing period corresponds exactly to the time when John's war diary suddenly goes blank.

What were the secrets hidden by the missing evidence? Were they all linked?

The start of this book reads like the most exciting thriller, perhaps a classic Robert Goddard such as Long time coming or Blood count. I am a fan of this genre. Bailey adds neat touches: she jumps around in time between the story of John and the story of her researches; her prose is sparse and matter-of-fact as if the mystery is quite the opposite; there is the wonderful moment when she leaves the allegedly haunted room in which the Duke died in search of a coffee, only to be surprised by a woman "in her early seventies and dressed in the costume of an eighteenth-century parlour maid."

I could scarcely read this book fast enough. However, as we approach the end the story is marred by the endless quotations from family letters. Most of these letters help to add a little extra to the puzzle but they also contain many trivial details that are not necessary. In short, she could have shortened it.

And in the end, not all the details are resolved. Thus is real life unlike a thriller but it is unsatisfactory although it gives one the sense of enduring mystery and the hope that someone one day might resolve the remaining puzzles.

Nevertheless, this was a cracking read. May 2013; 425 pages


Monday, 13 May 2013

"Wilkie Collins" by Peter Ackroyd

A brilliant bijou biography of the man who wrote The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

The brilliant and prolific Ackroyd charts the life of a man who should be better known. Wilkie Collins was the son of the painter William Collins and knew John Millais and Holman Hunt. Later he came to know and work with Charles Dickens. Short and ugly he nevertheless enjoyed the love of a good woman, or a bad woman if possible. Although he never married he kept two mistresses (they seem to have got on with one another), by one of whom he had three children. This was in perfect defiance of all the laws of Victorian society. He suffered throughout his life from gout or maybe rheumatism or maybe both.

He adored sensational and labyrinthine plots; his work is full of mistaken and assumed identities, murders and suicides, mysterious goings on and strong-minded women. In The Moonstone he more or less assembled all the classic elements of detective fiction for the first time: a country house; a list of suspects, all of whom are considered; a clever detective and an inefficient and bumbling local force; the crime solved by an amateur in a "dramatic reconstruction of the events of the fatal night". The novel also tells the story from a  multiple first-person perspective.

If he is not so popular now it is because of his love for melodrama. This showed particularly in his work for the stage. His melodramas must have been strong even for the time: two of his works were laughed off the stage.

He was typical work horse of a Victorian novelist. He wrote for serials and had to keep up with the demands of the printer. He then adapted his work into full novels and as plays. The insufficient protection of copyright mean he had to keep going.

This is a brief introduction to an author who should enjoy wider fame. Ackroyd's spare narrative rather undermine the verbose stories of his subject. Nevertheless it is fun.

Easy to read and very interesting. May 2013; 183 pages.

Friday, 10 May 2013

"The Lake Shore Limited" by Sue Miller

Billy writes a play about the guilt she feels after her boyfriend, Leslie's brother, was killed in the 9/11 disaster. Rafe, whose wife is dying, stars in the play. Sam, whose wife has died, wants to date Billy. This is a book about people's reactions to death.

It is also a book about posh people in Boston, Massachusetts. Leslie worked in a university. Billy is a playwright, Rafe and actor, Sam an architect. People like this analyse themselves constantly and worry about their feelings although this doesn't stop hopping into bed with one another. There is one very explicit sex scene.

It also seemed quite unusual in that several pages are dedicated to describing the play that Billy wrote.

It is a carefully written story told from the viewpoint of the main protagonists but at the end of the day I didn't care enough about these people to get really involved in it.

Mildly entertaining. May 2013; 270 pages



Saturday, 4 May 2013

"Into the woods" by John Yorke

Yorke, a successful television screenplay writer, explains that all drama adopts a three act or five act structure with a turning point exactly half way through (stories are almost exactly symmetrical). He illustrates his thesis with everything for Hamlet to Thelma and Louise (both five act) although he concedes that Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven acts.

At the same time, heavily referencing Joseph Campbell's Hero with a thousand faces (which I read in the mid seventies) which was itself the inspiration for George Lucas' Star Wars, he lays bare the skeleton of every story: an 'inciting incident' propels the hero into a strange world (into the woods), where he battles with an antagonist, changing, learning and developing psychologically; once he has grown he is ready to return to the normal world.

It is both inspiring and wonderful. It contains so many insights:

  • "Dialogue is not narrative ... dialogue is the characters' responses to the narrative." p150
  • The narrative fallacy is "post hoc ergo propter hoc": after this therefore because of this; the idea that because things are stated sequentially there must be some sort of causal link p215: "The wisest advice I ever received" was that Shameless "might just have been a success despite you." p216 He quotes Polly Toynbee as saying that journalists "precis a muddled reality into a narrative of right and wrong." p217


He's right. I watched the film Genova last week. After the young girl runs out of the church, seeing the ghost of her mother, and disappears IN THE WOODS I said to my wife: that's the turning point; we are exactly half way through the film. I was correct within three minutes.

This was a wonderful book and I shall keep it and dip into it again. It says a lot and I will need repeat readings to understand it all . But it has already changed the way I think about dramas.

Brilliant and thought-provoking. May 2013; 231 pages