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

Thursday, 25 December 2014

"Brunelleschi's Dome" by Ross King

This is the story of the biggest dome in the world, the dome on the Duomo (the 'House of God', the cathedral) in Florence and the man who built it, without internal scaffolding, defying all expectations and critics, when no one knew how it could be built.


My wonderful wife, Steph, and I went to Florence this year; above is my picture of the Duomo showing Brunelleschi's dome. Now that I have read the book I want to go back to see it again; now I understand what is so incredible about the construction. Mind you, now that I understand more about the unorthodox details of the construction and I know how heavy just the lantern on top of the dome is, I am not sure I want to clamber up into the roof space and stare out from the lantern at the rooftops of Florence. Scary!

There is a lot in the book that I didn't properly understand. There were a lot of technical challenges to overcome. Just hoisting massive blocks of stone to the required height was difficult with the technology of the day (the main system was powered by an ox trudging round and round and there was a complicated system of gears including a type of clutch so that stuff could also be lowered while the ox trudged in the same direction). It was difficult to understand how the mason's could reach the overhanging bricks they were building. The problem with a dome or an arch is that it isn't really stable until the keystone is put in at the end; this is why arches are usually built on top of a wooden construction which is then taken away when the arch is finished. Brunelleschi didn't do this (it would have taken too long to source all that wood). How did they build it without it falling down? The other problem is that a dome converts the downward weight of the roof into an outwards thrust which is usually countered using buttresses. Brunelleschi used no buttresses. Instead he used circular rings of stone like coopers use iron staves around barrels. I still didn't really understand.

Not only does the book fascinate with the details of the unprecedented construction but it also has brilliant vignettes of Florentine life. There is a wonderful story about Brunelleschi playing a practical joke on a carpenter to convince him that he had swapped identity for 24 hours with someone else. The bemused carpenter ended up leaving Florence and making his fortune in Hungary. Time and again, King provided wonderful details and I wanted to know how he could find out so much about a time so long ago. 

In every way this book was brilliant. This year I have also read Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper which was also excellent. These two books are both among my top five non-fiction for 2014 and I shall definitely seek out more by this brilliant author.

December 2014; 167 pages

I have now also read the wonderful and brilliant The Judgement of Paris: as the Second Empire dies in the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war, the Siege of Paris and the Commune of Paris, Impressionism is born: Meissonier, Manet, Monet and many more.

Monday, 22 December 2014

"The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole

Pretending to be the translation of an Italian story from the time of the crusades, The Castle of Otranto is a classic gothic horror story, complete with castle, a secret underground passage, a giant, long-lost noblemen, a holy friar, a curse and even a skeleton dressed as a monk. Starting ludicrously with Manfred's only son and heir being dashed to pieces by a giant helmet whilst crossing the castle courtyard on the way to his wedding, the tension mounts and the realistic passages, especially the wonderfully comic maid Bianca, so that by the end one forgives the dream-like element.

There were lots of Shakespearean overtones. The complicated love situations, pitting aristocratic arranged matches against love at first sight, together with the meddling 'holy' friar, reminded me of Romeo and Juliet while there are clear tributes to Hamlet and Macbeth. The clowning of the rustics is also a Shakespearean touch.

The silliest part of the story is the one in which best friends Matilda and Isabella both lust after Theodore, the clean cut young peasant. There is the chance of a significant amount of dramatic tension but Walpole throws it away after two pages when Isabella agrees to resign her hopes to her friend. Neither of them suggest that Theodore might want a say in the matter!

The whole idea of a suitor being good enough because he was born a nobleman even though he is a peasant (actually worse, he is a vagrant) is daft to our modern ears but they believed in it them. Blood will out. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is a story based on this premise.

It was interesting to read the long passages of dialogue in which the characters take turns to speak with no quotation marks and no separation of different voices into separate paragraphs. Bianca has brilliant dialogue; the others are too much like one another.

There is indeed very little characterisation. The noble princesses and Theodore and noble and pure and insipid. Bianca is brilliant. Father Jerome and Lord Frederic are weak. The only decent character, in a role tailor made for Alan Rickman, is the evil Manfred whose wicked designs are frustrated at every turn to his obvious impatience and frustration.

The sins of the father are visited upon the children.

It may be a silly story but it gave birth to a genre. December 2014; 115 pages

It is strange that this classic Gothic story, written in 1764, was based in Italy whilst The Monk (1796) was based in Spain. Gothic is supposed to be Germanic. In fact, both books are ways of bashing Roman Catholicism.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

"A Question of Belief" by Donna Leon

An Italian-based police procedural murder mystery set in Venice. Commisario Brunetti is that rarity among detectives, a happily married cop. His wife, daughter of a Count, is a university lecturer on English Literature and the Commisario reads Marcus Aurelius and Tacitus. In the August heat wave, dreaming of going with his family to the still-snowy mountains where he will have to wear a cardigan, he investigates his Inspector's aunt who is busily paying huge sums of money to a fraudulent faith healer and a civil servant who seems to be involved in making the wheels of justice run even slower for a really cheap rent on his palatial Venetian apartment. Then the civil servant is brutally murdered.

Beautifully written, with great regard for local geography and local characters and a clear feeling for the ambiguous way in which Italians view the law, Leon's novel is utterly routed in the drama of the everyday.

December 2014; 262 pages

Our iceberg is melting" by John Kotter

This is a fable about a colony of penguins who discover that their iceberg is melting. They have to decide what to do next. The purpose of the story is to illustrate the eight necessary steps in change management.

(It is probably just as well that the story isn't about how to deal with global climate change because the penguins' solution is to move to another iceberg and it seems unlikely that hmans will be able to move to another planet some time soon.)

There are setbacks and barriers along the way but the five strong team of Louis, Head Penguin; Alice, pushiest penguin Fred, young creative genius the Professor; and Buddy, hunkiest penguin succeed over the nay-sayers led by Nono.

It's cure and it's a fable and it illustrates how to approach a change.
December 2014; 137 pages

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

"Smoke" by Ivan Turgenev

Waiting to meet his fiancée in Baden-Baden, Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov encounters his first love, Irina, a woman who abandoned him because she was poor and she had a financially better offer. The two of them fall back in love. But this means that Litvinov must betray his fiancee. And after all, can he trust Irina this time after what she did last time?

An interesting short story which perhaps suffers from being extended even to this barely more than a novella length.

And it is difficult to read a book where almost every page has a foreign phrase or obscure reference which can only be understood by looking up the notes at the back. It certainly disrupts the flow!

Good but nothing to compare with Fathers and Sons

December 2014; 184 pages

Sunday, 14 December 2014

"Blood at the Bookies" by Simon Brett

This is a classic whodunnit by Simon Brett who has also authored the Charles Paris theatricality themed murder mysteries.

Two very different single ladies, plump holistic masseuse and therapist Jude and self-reliant retired Home Office civil servant Carole, are neighbours in the murder-infested town of Fethering on the south coast. Jude, who likes a bit of a flutter, is in the town bookies when polish immigrant Tadeusz comes in, looks around and leaves. She notices blood and follows him in time to catch his dying word: Fifi.

Jude and Carole, once the latter has recovered from flu, investigate. The wonderful cast of characters includes racist ex-stand-up-comedian-turned-pub-landlord Ted, racist ex-Carthusian estate agent Ewan and his downtrodden son Hamish and gorgeous singing daughter Sophia, Zosia, the sister of Tadeusz, ex-bookie 'Perfectly' Frank, gambling addict Mel, and serial adulterer Drama lecturer Andy.

A thoroughly enjoyable and well-written puzzle which I guessed well before the end but which had sufficient twists to keep me wondering whether I was right.

I'd love to read more of this series.

I have now read: The Corpse on the Court and Bones Under the Beach Hut which also star Carole and Jude, and some of the Charles Paris theatrical whodunnits such as A Decent Interval.  And the prolific Brett has also written a series in which murder mystery meets P G Wodehouse in outrageously extravagant style: Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera.

December 2014; 339 pages

Friday, 12 December 2014

"The Victim" by Saul Bellow

Asa Leventhal works as a journalist on a trade paper in just post-war New York. It is very hot. His wife is away, helping her mother to move house. He get a call from his brother's wife (his brother is working away) about her very sick son and he has to trek across the city to help. Then, in the park, he meets a man he knew years ago who explains that Asa ruined his life.

The dialogue reminds me of Beckett, it is stilted and sometimes you get the feeling that neither character is actually talking to the other but rather that they are both rehearsing their own anxieties. But the matter-of-fact way in which the stranger, Albee, insinuates himself into Leventhal's life, trading on Leventhal's guilt and good will, and the way in which this relationship changes the way that Leventhal acts to others, making him paranoid and angry, is like a Pinter play. Add in the nightmarish quality of the setting, New York in a heat wave, full of dark and shadows, but at the same time rooted in mundane reality, everyday and banal, is pure Kafka.

An Anerican classic. December 2014; 264 pages

Saturday, 6 December 2014

"Martin Chuzzlewit" by Charles Dickens

The sixth of the 15 novels of Dickens and the last of the early series, Martin Chuzzlewit had disappointing sales for a novelist who had burst on the scene with Pickwick and Oliver Twist. Martin Chuzzlewit, rather like Nicholas Nickleby, is a picaresque novel. The moral message is that money taints. Old Martin, grandfather of the eponymous hero, is rich and all his relatives are jockeying to become heir to his fortune. As a result he despises them and does not know whom to trust. So he has brought up an orphan who knows she will inherit nothing and who is his disinterested companion; when he discovers that she and Martin are in love he suspects his grandson of trying to worm his own way into the will and so he cuts him off without a penny. So Martin goes off to find his fortune in America.

The portrait of America, eternally boasting of their freedom whilst glorying in slavery (Chuzzlewit was written in 1843, almost twenty years before the American Civil War), and full of gluttons and sharks who will do their very best to fleece every one they can, must have damned Dickens in the USA. There is only one good American who eventually lends Martin the money he needs to escape back to England.

In terms of the book, the sojourn in America is a good chance for Dickens to be at his most bitingly sarcastic but does nothing to feed the plot except to bring Martin to his lowest point and, upon redemption, to rid him of his selfishness. As a consequence, Dickens has to keep the action moving back and forth across the Atlantic so that the main focus of the story becomes the behaviour of Jonas Chuzzlewit, nephew to old Martin, who comes into his own inheritance when his own father dies, marries, becomes a wife-batterer, and then falls in with a fraudulent insurance company.

In many ways this novel is classic Dickens. There are tremendous descriptive passages which can go on for pages with metaphor upon extended metaphor. These really slow the action down, especially in the vulnerable early part of the book. Later on there are some utterly cringing declarations of love and purity. Dickens really couldn't see a pudding without over-egging it. And he really couldn't do 'show don't tell'. We know from page one that Pecksniff is a hypocrite because Dickens tells us. And of course Pecksniff has no redeeming features. We know straight away that Tom Pinch is a saint because Dickens tells us. And Tom has no faults. Even the characters who change, Martin and Mercy, scarcely change. And you have to feel sorry for Charity not just because her marital ambitions are multiply thwarted but because Dickens so clearly revels in thios, seeing it as just punishment for her crime which is basically being Pecksniff's daughter. The other daughter, Mercy, also comes off worst.

So the book is full of the faults of Dickens. But it is also full of his strengths. There are some brilliant characters:

  • Pecksniff himself, the self-righteous hypocrite who is so brilliantly adept at always being found accidentally in possession of the moral high ground.
  • Mark Tapley, a bit of a clone of Sam Weller, who is irrepressibly jolly and so decides that in order to gain moral credit he has to put himself into the worst possible situation so that his natural optimism is tested in as hot a furnace as possible.
  • Sairey Gamp, the alcoholic nurse, who holds monologues of breathtaking brilliance which purport to be dialogues between herself and 'Mrs Harris' but which always show Sairey herself in the best possible light.
  • Mercy (Merry) Pecksniff who persuades Jonas to court her by the stratagem of always putting him down and calling him 'that fright'.
  • Bailey Junior, a bit of a bit part, but one of the cheeky young cockney boys in whom Dickens excelled.
  • Montague Tigg, the shady financier.
  • Jonas Chuzzlewit, a baddy in the Alan Rickman mould, whose downfall is a rather neat piece of irony.


But there are others who are there merely to help get the lead characters out of difficult situations and to resolve the story. Old Martin and John Westlock are the most obvious.

If there is one thing I would learn from this novel it is the comic brilliance of Mrs Gamp.

Huge. Could be cut down to 300 pages without missing much. But plenty of fun and some great Dickensian characters and dialogue. December 2014; 837 pages.