About Me

My photo
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, 19 July 2017

"The Trowie Mound Murders" by Marsali Taylor

This is the second book in the Shetland series starring intrepid sailor and part time sleuth Cass Lynch, her blond Norse God Anders and his pet Rat, DI Gavin Macrae and old Shetlander Magnie and all the other villagers, some good, some sinister. It follows the excellent Death on a Longship and precedes the utterly brilliant A Handful of Ash

Two mysterious boats come to the marina at Brae. David and Madge in the magnificent but unnamed motorboat annoy Cass and arouse her suspicions with all their questions; Peter and Sandra in the yacht want to investgate the archaeology of the Trowie Mound, and ancient neolithic earthwork. But Peter and Sandra go missing and then, one night, their yacht sails off into the night and disappears and Cass hears the haunting cry of the Selkie out at sea. Somehow all this is linked to the theft of artworks from houses which are being exported via Shetland to the Faroes and further afield. And who is making the pornographic films at the deserted house?

A brilliant murder mystery with a completely logical solution and a chase at the end. It is the realism of the characters that really makes this series stand out from others. When Cass is shut up in a dark space you can really feel her fear of the dark. The police share with her what they can but the reader can share with Cass the thrill of working out whodunnit without any artificial separation between forensic evidence and psychology. But best of all is the thorough grounding in the Shetlands. The scenery is beautifully explained and the people are real. Major characters have mixed motives and flaws. Kids are kids and grown ups are kids grown up. The pain of bereavement is honestly felt. As the book nears its climax we go to an agricultural show and it is just like any other agricultural show and the things that happen there are trivial and real and powerful and true.

Some moments:

  • A great first line: "'I know how you got that scar', the boy said, eyes travelling along the ragged indentation that ran across my cheek." (p 1)
  • "It was ill luck to go round against the sun in Shetland." (p 159)
  • "A blackbird shrilled his alarm call from the twisted sycamore at the back of the house." (p 160)
  • "I let out a relieved breath that I hadn't known I'd been holding." (p 161)
  • "I think you are half-mongoose, like the old English stories by the grandfather f the man who makes the cakes." (p 193)
  • "A west Highlands-style burn tumbled down the hill, wooded by spiky-branched electricity pylons." (p 201)
  • "The yellow boots fidgeted like a pony who's been asked to stand still." (p 214)

Some of the chapters are introduced by a Shetland proverb of which my favourites were (which I have translated into English):

  • A silk Monday makes a canvas week.
  • The stone that lies not in your path breaks not your toes. (Mind your own business)
  • It's not for the rabbit's good to be over friendly with weasels
  • What's foreborne should always be forsworn
  • He's the main string of the fiddle
  • Angry folk are always worse than angry cattle
  • Seldom comes a dove from a crow's nest

A wonderful book. July 2017; 327 pages

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

"When you are engulfed in flames" by David Sedaris

This is a book of short, humorous, essays which reflect on the oddnesses in the way we humans interact with one another. In some ways these are like the scripts for a stand-up comedian of the 'observational humour' variety. There aren't many jokes, the humour depends on a slow build. I heard Sedaris read one of these stories on the radio and I laughed aloud several times. Although so far as I can tell what he read was word for word identical with how it appears, I only laughed aloud once or twice at all the other stories in the book. I guess it is the way he tells them. Or perhaps reading is different.

Given the nature of the stories it is difficult to select single lines that give any idea of how funny Sedaris can be but here are a few:

  • "A bow tie announces to the world that you can no longer get an erection." (p 57)
  • "I wanted my first time to be special, meaning that I would know the other guy's name" (p 65)
  • "Mess with me, and I'll stick my foot so far up your ass I'll lose my shoe." (p 79)
  • "'Most people, most humans, receive a present and say thank you', I told her
  •        'Not when they get garbage like that, they don't'" (p 95)
  • "here the pathologists used hedge clippers to snip through rib cages." (p103)
  • "It's funny the things that run through your mind when you're sitting in your underpants in front of a pair of strangers." (p 113)
  • "One gets an idea of the tireless, hardworking immigrant who hits the ground running - or, more often, driving." (p 162)
  • "Take the crows that descend each winter on the surrounding fields and pluck the eyes out of newborn lambs." (p 170)
  • "If it played non-stop in a skanky-smelling dorm room, he's got it." (p 173)
  • "I could light a cigarette without thinking. Now I don't light it and think so hard about what I'm missing that there isn't room for anything else." (p 283)

"I can't make out the list of ingredients, but they taste vaguely of penis" (p 287)

July 2017; 22 stories; 310 pages

Saturday, 15 July 2017

"That's what brothers do" by Derekica Snake

Teenage Brant offers himself to the loan shark that wants to make his sister into a prostitute because their father has fallen behind on loan repayments. As Brant embarks on five years as a porn star and rent boy he comes to fall in love with his pimp. After his apprenticeship Brant starts to work for the Organization but his beauty and talents soon endear him to the chief gangster whose sex toy he becomes.

This novel is essentially gay porn doubling as wish fulfilment. The hero Brant is both beautiful and intelligent. There are explicit sex scenes. There are some very mixed-up emotions. Brant is beaten and whored out by a vicious gangster; Brant adores him. Most of the characters are brutal thugs or victims; Brant is usually submissive victim but can turn thug. The author's psychological insight seems to be that people can be trained like unruly puppies and that when, once beaten or cowed into submission, they lick the hand that feeds them the expression in their eyes is one of love.

It is a self-published book and it suffered from the lack of a good copy editor: there were misspellings and some sentences that didn't make sense. And perhaps curtail the author's use of the expression 'toasty warm'.

There were some haunting scenes:

  • The confrontation in which Brant offers to be a prostitute in the place of his sister
  • The family reunion where Brant's past is revealed to those of his sisters who were unaware of it; their shocked reactions.
  • The lovers' tiff after which Brant is left in the street: "Now, I think I know what a family dog feels like when it gets dumped off on the side of the road." (p 58)

There were also potentially brilliant scenes:

  • Brant's first porn film. Up to this point, so far as the reader is aware, Brant has never experienced gay sex. In the film he is penetrated both orally and anally. This must have been a traumatic experience yet the author is more interested in the plot.
  • The family reunion. His sisters have just found out that Brant has been a male whore for five years so that they could live normal lives. Yes, they might be disgusted but this should have been a lot more grand opera than the little tiffs we had here.

All of the mixed up morals needed far more exploration than given here.

I did at one stage think that this was a retelling of the Faust story. Perhaps it was. It could have been a fantastic story; I read it on the basis of the premise and the premise is great. But I was too disappointed by the potential not met to enjoy it properly.

With a less perfect central protagonist and a slower telling of some of the key moments this could have been a great book.

July 2017, 250 pages

Friday, 14 July 2017

"Portrait of a Man" by George Perec

Quoted from  Michael Leiris 'Manhood': "Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and, like some, I have more or less returned from it."

What a stunning start: "Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like the trails of slightly glinting snot ... I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned." (p 29 but it's the first paragraph).

Gaspard forges art works for Madera and Rufus; he has been their forger for twelve years. But this last commission, the Protrait of a Man, the Condottiere, has driven him to question what hhe has been doing. Can he stop being a fake, a creator of fakes, and find authenticity? In murder?

Some great lines:

  • "Behind you are masks. In you there is nothing. A desire to carry on living. A wish to die." (p 51)
  • "Everything you do has a price, you should know that. ... Everything has to be paid for and the cost is often high." (p 52)
  • "Wasn't it the case that all he had done for years was to glide over the surface of things?" (p 55)
  • "The bedazzlement of life." (p 60)
  • "His wrinkled and calloused hands lay on the arm of the chair and sometimes shook a little." (p 74)
  • "the appallingly slow agony of living a life that was no longer of any use." (p 75)
  • "He had pushed his plate away with a gesture of great weariness." (p 76)
  • "The life that for a moment he had thought he held in his hands, that compact, dense sum of collected memories, his quest, had shattered into a million pieces, into self-directing meteorites, each with its own life from now on, maybe still connected to his own but ruled by mysterious laws whose constants he did not know. Once again memories sharpened and then sometimes suddenly exploded and split up into a myriad impressions, into fragments of life it would have been fruitless to try to make sense of, give direction to, or separates from each other. Splinters and shreds. As if the landscape of his past life had just suffered a cataclysm. As if he no longer had the world in his arms. Did not yet have the world in his arms." (p 85)
  • "This deep chaos was like the chords played by an orchestra before the conductor mounts the podium." (p 85)
  • "In the half-light, to begin with, he had used each hand to put the glove on the other." (p 87)
  • "Blood, black and warm, as alive as a snake or a squid, trickling between the chair legs." (p 88)
  • "The tally was easy. Zero plus zero. That's all." (p 107)

Densely written beautiful prose. July 2017, 169 pages

Monday, 10 July 2017

"The Colour of Blood" by Brian Moore

On the very first page there is an assassination attempt on the Cardinal of a communist-controlled Eastern European country. Narrated from the Cardinal's viewpoint, the reader follows the Cardinal as he is arrested and escapes. But who has arrested him? And who is trying to kill him? And why? And why now? And what has this to do with the proposals from some of his priests that the church should be organising protests against the regime.

A brilliant, fast-paced thriller deep in Graham Greene and Hitchcock if not Kafka territory.

"The chickens, pecking dementedly, darted this way and that with worried, nervous looks." (p 31)
"The sun rose in the sky behind a gauzy morning mist." (p 32)
"The Colonel did not finish the sentence but, instead, drew on his cigarette and expelled smoke in a burst as though he were miming an explosion." (p 38)
"A wish granted is a wish destroyed." (p 107)
"I am alone now: not hidden but hiding." (p 107)
"The truck driver's head and shoulders were silhouetted suddenly in the theatre of the opened truck doorway." (p 119)

Wonderful from start to finish. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 1987.

July 2017; 191 pages

Saturday, 8 July 2017

"Death on a Longship" by Marsali Taylor

Chronologically the first Cassandre Lynch murder mystery. The first one I read was the third in the series: "A Handful of Ash" which is brilliant. I have now also read another stunner: the second in the series: The Trowie Mound Murders

Cass arrives back in Shetland as skipper of a replica long boat being used to make a film about Vikings; the star is doubled in the action scenes by her own twin sister who is having an affair with Cassie's dad who wants to cover Shetland with wind turbines. When Cass discovers a body on board her ship whodunnit? Was it someone from the film, or someone wanting to sabotage the film, or a wind farm protester, of Cassie's dad? And why had Cassie's handsome Norwegian shipmate deserted his watch on the night of the murder?

And will Cass, haunted by the death of a boyfriend, ever get a man?

My only problem with this book is that I read it out of order. When you have a series with long-running characters it is difficult to maintain a full list of suspects: those that appear in later books are more or less ruled out as the killer in an earlier book.

The wonderful thing about Marsali Taylor's work isn't the lyrical descriptions of Shetland scenery or the cleverly constructed plot but the reality of the characters. Cass is a character to whom we can all relate: coping with unparently parents, haunted by the past, half envying the settled life of her married friends but lured by the freedom of the sea, attracted to others but unwilling to commit. The only character I hated was Kenneth, the teacher (I used to be a teacher), about whom nothing good can be said: even he must have had a redeeming feature!

Some fantastic moments of misdirection too. I loved the Anders/ Michael relationship.

I have to source book 2.

Some great lines

  • "His nose was slightly skafe, as if he had fallen out of too many trees in his youth." (p 7) Who needs to have a translation? I just wondered if it was related to 'skew-whiff'.
  • "It wasn't a propitious week, with the silver disk of the moon draining away." (p 10)
  • "His sour mouth stretched into what, for him, could pass as a smile." (p 70)
  • "Her gaze drifted over my shoulder again, then sharpened to flint." (p 70)
  • "He had that annoying teacher's habit of repeating everything." (p 74)
  • "I heard their penguin cackle echo round the room." (p 100)
  • "I'd been too busy looking at rigging to distinguish ropes." (p 125)
  • "If you left him alone to work at his own pace, you could bet your last mooring rope on his answer." (p 127)
  • "That is like saying you do not need to listen to music. You will not die without it, but you may want to listen. Life is much more full with it." (p 136)
  • "He had the makings of a very good sailor if he managed to stay undrowned." (p 177)
An excellent book.

Friday, 7 July 2017

"The Yellow Dog" by Georges Simenon

Needless to say, a Maigret novel, atmospherically set in a French coastal town. The town is dominated by a quadrumvirate who meet in the local cafe every night and from time to time enjoy the services of the waitress: the Mayor, the Doctor (who doesn't practice), the ex-Journalist and the Wine Dealer. The last is mysteriously shot in the stomach and there is a yellow dog skulking around at the time. is it the vagrant with the larger feet who is to blame?

I think the appeal of Simenon is that he can use a few sentences to swiftly create a mood or a character:

  • "Here and there a scrap of paper scuttles along the ground."
  • "Maigret seemed to have the awkward manner of a petit bourgeois visiting an aristocratic house."

It is sparse and underwritten but that is how it achieves its bleak mood.

A nice bit of noir. July 2017; 134 pages

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

"Milton in America" by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific author of many, many books. Those I have read (links are to reviews in this blog) are:

  • Hawksmoor: stunningly brilliant; spooky; dark
  • The Last testament of Oscar Wilde
  • Chatterton: flitting in between London 1770 and London 1856 this is a thoroughly enjoyable read about reality and forgery, plagiarism and originality, truth and lies
  • The House of Doctor Dee: a timeshifting novel that didn't quite work for me
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
  • The Lambs of London: vary enjoyable with some beautifully subtle dialogue
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein: an interesting conceit but rather heavy going though with a nice twist at the end.
Non fiction:
  • Thames: an immense tome: great as reference but not to read (there are several pages just listing all the St Mary's churches on the banks of the Thames!)
  • Dickens: a superb biography
  • Blake: an immensely thorough yet at the same time readable and indeed enjoyable biography
  • Chaucer
  • Wilkie Collins: a brilliant bijou biography
  • Newton
This is a strange book. The first half ('Eden') is narrated in part by Goosequill, a poor London boy whom Milton hires as secretary and guide (Milton being blind) and in part by letters from Milton to an English acquaintance: there is a certain amount of comic potential derived from the fact that Milton regards Goosequill as a clown and a fool whereas the reader sees Goosequill save Milton's life in a shipwreck and tenderly care for him and put up with his tantrums . M & G go to America and find a puritan village which elects to be lead by the famous John Milton and to call itself New Milton

Halfway through the book, in the 'Fall', Milton wanders off and, in mystical scenes, appears to break his leg, be cared for by the Indian heathen savages he so detests and regain his sight. On his retirn his puritan zeal is intensified. Where he had been intolerant not he is bigoted. The target for his wrath is a bearby village of Papists who get on with the local Indians and preach tolerance, as opposed to the narrow-minded puritans of New Milton. Goosequill does his best to mediate but Milton's fierce hatred of anything that is not his version of the truth whips up the flames of war. This second section of the book is mostly narrated in the third person omniscient point of view.

Peter Ackroyd's prose is brilliant but difficult to capture in quotes. His true genius is in the way his characters interact. The way in which Goosequill tells his story to his new wife, with various asides about babies and making love, and her 'get along with you' rebuttals, is a masterclass.

  • "He was all toughened and weathered, and I suspected that there was a great deal of ale within him somewhere." (p 35)
  • "I tremble to think of the sordid sperm engendered by their lustiness". (p 95)
  • "If he had worked me harder, there could have been a burial service." (p 119)
  • "They do not worship their god because they say that, being god, he will do them no harm." (p 134)
  • "Where there is glory, there must also be terror, where there is reverence, there must be fear." (p 145)
  • "Even Gods have lived in the woods ... does not Dante write that the trees contain the souls of suicides? ... In the dark wood of this world I lost my way." (p 198)
  • "The blind man wandered ahead and, weeping, through the dark wood took his solitary way" (last line; echoes of Dante; and, of course, Paradise being truly lost).

A fascinating story about how intolerance breeds tragedy. I suspect that the way Milton muddles up racism with religious intolerance and the way he confuses heretical religious practices with sodomy is intended to resonate with us today; Ackroyd is using the religious battles of yesteryear as an allegory of our own intolerances and bigotries today.

July 2017;

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

"Seven brief lessons on Physics" by Carlo Ravelli

This was the last book read by my dad before he died. He was an electronics engineer all his life. He worked on radar during World War II. Later he worked on the very first computers, meeting Alan Turing and Norbert Weiner. After that he researched radiocarbon dating, discovering that a fragment of wood found on Mount Ararat wasn't old enough to come from the Ark, and finally he worked as part of the team that created radio-controlled clocks.

In fewer than 80 pages, Rovelli talks about General Relativity, Quantum Physics, Cosmology, Particle Physics, Loop Quantum Physics, Thermodynamics and the nature of time, and Ourselves; I have taught Physics for 33 years and I have been a human for even longer and yet I still, repeatedly, learned fascinating things from this brilliant book. Plus it is superbly written and it tells so eloquently of the joys and challenges of being a scientist.

Just some of the brilliant insights from this wonderful little book.
  • "the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself." (p 6) This is a triumph of Descartes over Newton: a vortex space rather than one filled with action-at-a-distance. Space undulates. :
    • light curves round heavy objects
    • time goes more quickly at altitude
    • black holes exist
    • "space cannot stand still; it must be expanding" (p 8)
    • "space moves like the surface of the sea" (p 9)
  • "Why does the periodic table have this particular structure, with these periods, and with the elements having these particular properties? The answer is that each element corresponds to one solution of the main equation of quantum mechanics." (p 15)
  • "an electron is a series of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any particular place. It is not in a 'place' at all." (p 15)
  • Loop Quantum Gravity proposes that space is quantised in very small linked rings: "Space is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity" (p 41) 
  • "The passage of time ... is born in the world itself in the relationship between the quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time." (p 42). 
  • "Our universe may have been born from a bounce in a prior phase, passing through an intermediate stage in which there was neither space nor time." (p 47)
  • "How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved problem. ... when heat is diffused to the gravitational field, time and space themselves must vibrate ... what is a vibrating time?" (p 56)
  • "There is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is flow of heat. Heat is linked to probability; and probability in turn is linked to the fact that our interactions with the rest of the world do not register the fine details of reality ... due to the limitations of our consciousness we only perceive a blurred vision of the world, and live in time." (p 60)
  • "The heat of black holes is a quantum effect upon an object, the black hole, which is gravitational in nature. ... The heat of black holes is like a Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages - Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic - still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time." (p 62)
  • "We are like an only child who on growing up realizes that the world does not revolve around them alone, as they thought when little. They must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are." (p 65)
  • "All things are continually interacting with each other, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about each other." (p 68)
  • "It would be absurd to ask whether 'I' can do something different from what the whole complex of my neurons has decided: the two things ... are the same." (p 71)
  • "Our reality is tears and laughter, gratitude and altruism, loyalty and betrayal, the past which haunts us and serenity." (p 74)
  • "We are nature, in one of its innumerable and infinitely variable expressions." (p 74)

  • "And to the very last: doubt." (p 19)

What a way for my dad to end his reading career.

Magnificent. July 2017, 79 pages

Friday, 30 June 2017

"A Handful of Ash" by Marsali Taylor

I read this immediately after reading "Death of a Travelling Man" by M C Beaton and was at once impressed by the greater depth of the writing. There was more concern with character and place and language; more time was taken to build these and to build the atmosphere of "ill-viket", malevolence. The only similarity seemed to be that they were both murder mysteries set in Scotland.

I should have read this after reading the first two in the series. I have now read Death on a Longship (highly recommended) and there are many of the same characters involved which is great but you can more or less scrub long-running characters from your list of suspects. I need to read things in series! The Trowie Mound Murders, second in the series, is also a brilliant book.

This had all the ingredients of the genre done right:

  • The narrator and protagonist was a loner, damaged in the past. She yearns for love but isn't sure and that was not too heavy handed. The features of her character were different: her love of boats, her operatic mother, her religion. 
  • I guessed the killer early on but I could not be certain. There were plenty of red herrings strewn across my path and most were highly plausible. When the solution came it knitted all the clues together and it seemed the only sensible solution. 
  • There were moments of excitement when the hero's life is threatened.
  • This was a modern mystery so police were there and all the panoply of the forensics were available and yet the hero had no access to all this and so they could, just like the reader, attempt to solve it from the given clues. It worked.

There was also a real sense that the relatives of the victims grieved.

But most of all the prose was beautiful. I lost count of the fabulous descriptions of the countryside. The author is a tour guide in the Shetlands; if I could I'd fly up there tomorrow for at least a month.

The best bits:

  • "These girls knew Annette. The tallest of them was giving her a hard glare from under her dye-black fringe. Annette looked back, pleading at first, then her eyes hardened and her lips set in a straight line. The tallest girl lifted one hand, and rubbed her thumb against her first two fingers in the universal 'money' gesture. The other two sneered." (p 4)
  • "The tallest girl's hand fell slowly. Her look would have stopped a seagull in flight. The black, glossy leather, the grey frills of skirt, the poised attention of the turned heads, gave them the look of a trio of hooded crows sizing up a dying sheep. They were an ill-viket trio. If I was Annette, I'd be watching my back." (p 4)
  • "On a moonlit night, alone on deck, with the sea in a great saucer all around you, it was easy to see things." (p 9)
  • "A snakes-wedding of blue nylon rope" (p 20)
  • "Above us, the fissures between the clouds became creamy-grey, then pale blue." (p 31)
  • "His brisk walk had turned into a sleep-walking daander, feet placed unevenly as if the floor had grown unsteady under him." (p 31)
  • "There was the tin smell of snow in the air." (p 35)
  • "The little turrets had disdainful eyebrows over the latticed windows." (p 51)
  • "The wind searched out the cracks between glove and sleeve, cap and cheek, scarf and neck, and stung like a wasp." (p 51)
  • "How we rewrite the dead." (p 59)
  • "There was the green smell of moss from a grass-choked gutter." (p 61)
  • "A gossiping of starlings swirled around me" (p 61)
  • "Cloud shadows chased each other over the hills, and the sea was burnished silver." (p 150) First half of that sentence is sublime, the second less original.
  • "The cloth in my mouth tasted of fabric softener ... and the intense floral taste made me want to gag." (p 166)
What a treat. A murder mystery that works like a novel. Hope there's more!

Hune 2017; 216 pages

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Pericles Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare

I saw Pericles on Wednesday 28th June 2017 in an amateur production in the open air in the Elizabethan courtyard of the George in Huntingdon. The sky was overcast, the evening was chilly, it threatened rain throughout. The director had the bright idea of splitting Gower's narration in between the members of the case; often the appropriate character said what he or she was about to do. The fisherfolk (the men became women) were brilliantly funny; their reappearance as raddled whores in the brothel scene was less successful. Marina was especially good as was Boult. Some of the scenes (the tournament with the knights and the dancing afterwards) slow up the action; I would have cut them but I can see how they are irresistible to thespians. They were very careful to reinterpret Lysimachus's wooing of Marina in the brothel so that he became husband material before the end: they made him seem to be an honourable gentleman (seeking sex in a brothel) by cutting a couple of his lines where he asks the bawd for virgins and undiseased prostitutes; nevertheless the delicate posturing between a young man wanting sex and an honourable nobleman, possibly commonplace to Elizabethans but unacceptably hypocritical to our sensibilities, make this part difficult to credit and almost impossible to play convincingly and I felt for the actor who made a brave attempt at it.

Overall, the production was a decent attempt at a bloody difficult play.

Prologue: spoken by old Gower in iambic tetrameter: The king of Antioch is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. She is so beautiful that lots of princes try for her hand; they have to answer a riddle which alludes to the incest; if they fail to guess it right they die.

Act One: Pericles discovers that the princess he fancies is having an incestuous relationship with her father King of Antioch. He realises that this is going to make the King fear him, and hate him, and
"Murder's as near to lust as flame to smoke"
The King pretends to be nice but Pericles realises
"'Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss."
so he decides to flee to Tyre. But even there he isn't safe.

Pericles flees to Tyre but, realising that Antioch might invade to silence him and tailed by assassin Thaliard (who when he gets to Tyre finds Pericles has gone sailing and decides he will probably die at sea so gives up the search), moves on to Tarsus where there is a famine. The King Cleon is on the beach with his wife Dionyza; Cleon decides to go among the starving people and share their woes so they might feel solace in companionship although the waspish Dionyza sneers:
"That were to blow at fire in hope to quench it."
In the nick of time Pericles and his ships arrive with supplies.

Act Two: Pericles is shipwrecked at Pentapolis whose king just happens to have a beautiful daughter whose hand Pericles wins at a knightly tournament. meanwhile we hear that Antiochus and his daughter/ mistress have been killed by a bolt of lightning and that the Lords in Tyre want Helicanus to be King in place of the absent Pericles. This was the bit with the rather silly knightly tournament and dancing at the subsequent ball. It started with the fisherfolk finding Pericles on the beach which included some great knockabout humour but little of this Act served to advance the plot of elucidate the characters.
"Opinion's but a fool, that makes us scan

The outward habit by the inward man."
Act Three: does the hard work. Again it is introduced by Gower. Pericles has married Thalia; she is pregnant. The letter from Tyre reaches them telling P that Antiochus is dead and Helicanus is, for the present, refusing the throne. P and his wife set out by sea for Tyre. But a storm blows up:
"the grisly north
Disgorges such a tempest forth"
The nurse brings him the baby and tells him that his wife has died in child-birth.
"O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts,

And snatch them straight away?"
The sailors tell Pericles that the only way to calm the storm is to tip the corpse overboard. They have a sealed chest which will act as a coffin. P assents and tells them to make for Tarsus because the baby won't survive until they reach Tyre. He leaves newly named Marina there. But the chest comes ashore at Ephesus where the lord, who trained in medicine, revives Thalia.
"Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches: careless heirs

May the latter two darken and expend;
But immortality attends the former,
Making a man a god."

So at the end of the act we have Thalia serving the temple of Diana in Ephesus, thinking Pericles and the baby dead, Marina in Tarsus and Pericles on his way back to Tyre, having sworn to Diana not to cut his hair till Marina be married.

Act Four: Gower comes on again to tell us that that Marina is such a great kid that she well outshines the King's own daughter so the Queen, jealous, hires a murderer to kill Marina. But just as he is about to kill her, pirates kidnap her and sell her to a brothel in Mytilene.

The pander and the bawd have a problem: too many customers and too few whores. So they get their servant to buy Miranda from the pirates. The bawd will try to teach her the ropes though she foresees problems:
"You're a young foolish sapling, and must be bowed as I would have you.
The servant asks for 'commission': 
"If I have bargained for the joint .../ Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit.
Miranda hopes to kill herself.

Meanwhile Cleon rages at his wife for killing Marina and she rages back at him for being a pussy.
"such a piece of slaughter
The sun and moon ne'er looked upon!"
This argument between man and wife is at last worthy of Shakespeare. She is ashamed of his cowardice, he is ashamed of her lack of honour. But as she points out:
"Yet none does know, but you, how she came dead,
Nor none can known, Leonine being gone."
And then she plays the angry jealous mother:
"She did disdain my child, and stood between
Her and her fortunes: none would look on her

But cast their gazes on Marina's face;

Whilst ours was blurted at and made a malkin [slattern]

Not worth the time of day. It pierced me through"
Cleon tells her:

"Thou art like the harpy,

Which, to betray, dost, with thine angel's face,
Seize with thine talons."
But as Dionyza remarks
"But yet I know you'll do as I advise."

When Pericles finds out his daughter is dead he is distraught. But Miranda is busy persuading the bad folks of Mytilene to preserve her honour. The governor of Mytilene goes to the brothel for a virgin but Miranda persuades him not to. He pays her anyway. She uses the money to persuade Boult the doorkeeper to find her a job teaching in an honest house.

Act Five: In a wonderful scene Pericles goes mad with joy on being reunited with Marina. At first he disbelieves her:
"O, I am mock'd,
And thou by some incensed god sent hither

To make the world to laugh at me.


This is the rarest dream that e'er dull sleep

Did mock sad fools withal: this cannot be:

My daughter's buried."
But when he believes he becomes almost incoherent with joy:

"Give me a gash, put me to present pain; 
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'ergear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness."

and Shakespeare treats us to a wonderful moment of a man hearing music, ordering people about, exulting, and falling asleep, exhausted by happiness.
"Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding. 
O heavens bless my girl! But, hark, what music? 


The music of the spheres!


Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?

Most heavenly music!
It nips me unto listening, and thick slumber
Hangs upon mine eyes: let me rest."
Then he goes to Ephesus and finds Thaisa and everyone is happy ever after (except for Mr and Mrs Cleon who are burned in their palace.

This is a fascinating play. It breaks all the rules. There are so many locations that it stretches theatrical incredulity to breaking point; furthermore the first few scenes in Antioch and the first wooing by Pericles have very little relation to the rest of the play and the time scale (Pericles leaves his new born daughter in Tyre for fourteen years before deciding to reclaim her) is ludicrous. Even for Shakespeare who really could write a plot this is poor stuff.

The narrator was a real person. John Gower was a contemporary of Chaucer who wrote the poem, in tetrameters, that the play is based on. He introduces every act, appears sometimes mid-act in a scene and normally but not always speaks in rhyming tetrameter couplets. He also uses a number of old-fashioned words as if he really is contemporary with Chaucer. The frenetic scene changing of the play needs such a character.

They say that the first half was written by George Wilkins and that Shakespeare came on from Act Three. Certainly Act Five Scene One is the best bit of it. But it is also said that the text we have is probably corrupt and may have been stiutched together from ear-witness copies.

Monday, 26 June 2017

"Death of a Travelling Man" by M C Beaton

This is one of the about 30 (!) Hamish Macbeth murder mysteries by the author who also brought us Agatha Raisin.

Hamish Macbeth is a policeman in a very northerly Scottish lochside town (it is described as a "tiny Highland village" but it boasts a police station house where Hamish lives with his cleaning obsessed sidekick Willie, two hotels (one closed, although its bar is still doing a roaring trade), several kirks of different denominations, a village shop run stereotypically by a Patel, a doctor's surgery and a thriving Italian restaurant). He is kept busy rescuing a child from a flooding river and two climbers from a mountainside as well as dealing with theft of money, theft of morphine and murder.

The problem with the murder is that there is really only one possible culprit that isn't one of the villagers and this reader was pretty sure that the murderer wouldn't be one of the people Hamish had known all his life although it could be the Italian restaurant proprietor who has recently arrived in the village (and who, in another fit of the stereotypes, can instantly swap role from suave maitre d to evil mafia boss).

Nevertheless, the story is gentle and charming (which also makes the gruesome murder rather unreal). I read it in a few hours. I did want to get to the end.

I liked the cop who would much rather be a cleaning woman, though he was more caricature than character. He had a way with malapropisms. My favourite was "She lives in a condom in San Francisco" (p 18).

Another nice line, after Hamish had spent all night investigating, was his girlfriend suggesting "some normal people change their clothes from day to day." (p 160)

An easy-read murder mystery. June 2017, 232 pages

"Alric of Bedanford" by Veronica Sims

When I was a kid (in the 1960s) I loved this sort of book. It is a classic boy's adventure story set in the time of the Saxons. It might not have been quite so gritty as the brilliant tales of Leon Garfield but it reminded me strongly of stories by Cynthia Harnett such as The Wool Pack and The Load of Unicorn and stories by Geoffrey Trease such as Cue for Treason, Clive King's The 22 Letters. These were wonderful stories which I as a pre-pubescent boy devoured.

Children's fiction has become more realistic and darker these days but I am sure there is still room for simple escapist adventure of this type.

The plot follows the adventures of a Saxon lad who is sent for help to the King of Mercia shortly before his home town of Bedanford (Bedford) is destroyed by Vikings. Fatherless he grows up in the Mercian court training to be a warrior. Then he is sent on a mission to Witancaester (Winchester) and subsequently sent to spy on the Danes in Grantabrycge (Cambridge). Throughout the placenames are written in the old Saxon; the book benefits from a lot of research which supports but never intrudes on the story.

The plot device by which the adventuring boy spies escaped their hostile escort was audacious to say the least.

The ending is abrupt but it promises a sequel.

There were some brilliant lines:

  • "The land of dreams and dragons" (Chapter 3)
  • "With this sun you'll leak sweat like an old leather bucket" (Chapter 4)
  • "The solid stone of sadness that seemed to be lodged somewhere in the middle of my body." (Chapter 7)
  • He "drank his ale as if the supplies were about to fail" (Chapter 17)
  • "The shadows started to creep out from behind the trees" (Chapter 19)

Great fun. June 2017. Kindle.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

"The Spring Voyage" by R J Mitchell

In 1458 two galleys travelled from Venice to the Holy Land (via Dubrovnik, Rhodes etc). They were packed with pilgrims (one of them a founding fellow at the newly established Eton College), three of whom kept detailed diaries. So this is a historical reconstruction of their trip.

They meet in Venice where they take the Venetian galleys which have been allocated, by auction (it was a lucrative trade) to take pilgrims to the Holy Land. The book details the voyage, via Dubrovnik and Rhodes and Cyprus, and the hardships the pilgrims endured (and grumbled about). They then travelled overland to Jerusalem where they 'did the sights' like any modern tourist would. There were not terrible dangers (though some of them died from sickness) nor bandits (though they encountered and escaped from a pirate ship) nor incredible rip-offs (although there were enumerable small ones). Nevertheless this book gives an authentic account of life near the end of the middle ages.

After Jerusalem most of the party returned home the way they had come although one very small group continued to the monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. On the way back this group went to Matariya, on the outskirts of Cairo, where the Holy Family (the book is of an age where all such references are capitalised) rested during the flight into Egypt and a Garden of Balm trees grew up; it was then claimed (is it still true) that this was the only place in the world where these trees (Commiphora opobalsmum) grew. Although wikipedia records that Matariya was part of the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, the gardens nor the legend of the Holy Family are not recorded; balm is recorded as stemming from a variety of trees from across the world, it is associated with the Balm of Gilead from the Bible and with a potential ingredient of Greek Fire.

Perhaps there is a book to be written on balm.

The pilgrims also saw a giraffe (a "zaraffa"): "white skinned with red spots; it is lower at the read end than at the front. It has a supple neck of three arms' length, a long head with a pointed nose, eyes that are large and rather like those of an ox, large ears like a cow's, on the top of its head two little horns like those of a young goat." (p 158). A  pretty good description"!

Other nice bits:

  • "In medieval times most laymen, as well as the great majority of clerics, led extraordinarily static and insipid lives." (p 15)
  • "Ordinary men and women ... faced the rigours and hardships without flinching, indeed, with every sign of pleasure." (p 15)
  • "a Venetian ducat ... was worth less in Cyprus than in Rhodes. It would seem that the value diminished as the distance from Venice diminished." (p 19)
  • "On a pilgrimage the mouth of your purse must always be open." (p 25)
  • "Also take with yew a lytel cawdren and frying pan, dysches, platterys, sawserrys of tre, cuppes of glas, a grater for brede, and such necessaryes." (p 51)

An interesting account of an obscure voyage: keep it for reference! June 2017; 184 pages

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

"Out of this world" by Graham Swift

Graham Swift won the Booker Prize for Last Orders and was shortlisted for Waterland, both amazing books.

Harry, son of a first world war VC turned arms manufacturer, is a photographer who specialises in recording the horror of war. He is estranged from his daughter Sophie who lives in New York with her travel agent husband and their two twins. The story is almost entirely narrated alternately by Harry and by Sophie, whose narrations are mostly talking to her therapist.

As the novel progresses we learn about the traumas of their lives, the wife lost in childbirth, the wife lost in a plane crash, the father blown up by a car bomb. Theirs is a slow journey towards reconciliation.

"Everything in the garden was lovely. Hasn't it got to be that way? So we can believe we came from Paradise? Then it gets fucked later." (p 51)
"You belong nowhere. Or rather: This is the only place you belong - this transit region, this in-between space." (p 121)

Beautifully written. June 2017; 208 pages

Monday, 19 June 2017

"Thunderball" by Ian Fleming

I have enjoyed James Bond books in the past. The Spy Who Loved Me, written from the perspective of the lady and NOTHING like the film, is a very good book; Goldfinger is a cute classic. One of the joys, also one of the problems, is that they are so firmly rooted in their time so that ransom demands seem modest and fast cars slow. Attitudes have changed too. The books contain casual sexism and racism that sound shocking to modern ears. But it is important to read these books to understand what Fleming had that made him such a popular author. Because for Goldfinger I said that Ian Fleming was a very good thriller writer.

But Thunderball, the ninth Bond book, feels tired. The first few chapters cover a subplot in which James is sent to a health farm; this has tenuous connections with the main plot which therefore only gets going on page 55. I can only presume that it is the level of detail. Felix Leiter spends two pages describing the profit margins when barmen add water and olives to gin in mixing a Martini. Ships are described in the sort of obsessive details that you get in manuals, so are cars. I have issues as to whether the electric chair method of execution would actually work (electrodes that are "concealed" are probably also insulated which means that the current created by the 3000 volts might have been sufficient to cause a heart attack but scarcely enough to kill in the manner described; to achieve this in the real electric chair requires careful attachment of electrical contacts to a prisoner). But on the whole Fleming has done meticulous research. The trouble is that he writes it all down. I mostly skipped those pages but I guess that many readers find them the best.

Occasional moments:

  • "She [Bond's Bentley] went like a bird and a bomb and Bond loved her more than all the women at present in his life rolled, if that were feasible, together." (p 92) At least that's funny although 'bird and a bomb' doesn't work for me.
  • "Bond's stomach crawled with the ants of fear and his skin tightened at the groin." (p 237)

Much of this book seems like Fleming ranting against health farms and the outrageous prices in Nassau restaurants. June 2017; 354 pages

Friday, 16 June 2017

"Bodily Harm" by Margaret Atwood

Other brilliant Atwood books reviewed on this blog include

At the beginning Rennie, a globe trotting journalist, has had surgery for a lump in her breast; her boyfriend Jake has left; someone apparently intending to assault her has broken into her flat. Which is quite a beginning.

Seeking to escape she takes an assignment to do a travel piece on an impoverished Caribbean island. This began to remind me of Graham Greene at his very best. The airport is run down and the hotel is shabby. Everyone she meets seems to have a sinister agenda. The police are corrupt and there is an impending election; one of the major industries is drug smuggling; the hurricane relief money lines the pockets of the politicians. The descriptions are brilliant, the characters perfect.

  • "Less like a background ... than a subground, something that can't be seen but is nevertheless there, full of gritty old rocks and buried stumps, worms and bones; nothing you'd want to go into." (p 18)
  • "Those who'd lately been clamouring for roots had never seen a root up close ... she'd rather be some other part of the plant." (p 18)
  • "In Griswold everyone gets what they deserve. In Griswold everyone deserves the worst." (p 18)
  • "She didn't want to die with dignity. She didn't want to die at all." (p 20)
  • "Pick a man, any man, and find the distinguishing features. They eyebrows? The nose? The body?" (p 44)
  • "The standard aimed at was not beauty but decency ... If you were a girl it was a lot safer to be decent than to be beautiful." (pp 54 - 55)
  • "You're turning me on. ... I thought you were on all the time."
  • "Being in love was like running barefoot along a street covered with broken bottles. It was foolhardy, and if you got through it without damage it was only by sheer luck. It was like taking your clothes off at lunchtime in the bank. It let people think they knew something about you that you didn't know about them, it gave them power over you. It made you visible, soft, penetrable; it made you ludicrous." (p 102)
  • "She doesn't like the sign of ravage, damage, the edge between inside and outside blurred like that." (p 85)
  • "'I'm an animal in the dark.' 'Which one ... A chipmunk?'" (p 117)
  • "I personally think it's just dandy when people can't express anger, there's enough of it in the world already." (p 165)
  • "He did make his living cutting parts off other people's bodies and patting their shoulders while they died, he used the same hands for both." (pp 196 - 197)
  • "'But up and coming' ... 'As often as possible', said Jake." (p 200)
  • "Nobody wants it [the drug trade] legalized, then you could grow it right there in your own back yard, the bottom would fall out of the market." (p 216)
  • "Love is tangled, sex is straight." (p 223)
  • "I'd like to fly like a bird but I never jumped off any roofs." (p 266)

Rennie has had surgery resulting in removal pf part of her body. Throughout the book, Rennie sees bits of body that seem to have become detached:

  • "His fingers were around her wrist. She did not see his hands but an odd growth, like a plant or something with tentacles, detachable." (p 32)
  • "My hands, she said. I've left them somewhere and now I can't find them. She was holding her hands in the air, helplessly, as if she couldn't move them.   They're right there, I said. On the ends of your arms.    No, no, she said impatiently. Not those, those are no good any more. My other hands, the ones I had before, the ones I touch things with." (p 57)
  • "She realises she's stepped over a pair of legs, trousers with bare feet at the end." (p 68)
  • "She thinks briefly of his feet, stifled in humid leather." (p 76)
  • "Without his eyes his face is expressionless, he's a faceless stranger. She's aware of his arm lying across the back of the seat." (p 98)
  • "It's her hands she's looking for, she knows she left them here somewhere, folded neatly in a drawer, like gloves." (p 116)
  • "Afterwards she could feel the shape of his hand for hours." (p 144)
  • "Fragmentation, dismemberment, this is what he sees when he looks at her." (p 258)

Wonderful. June 2017; 301 pages

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

"The Light Between Oceans" by M L Stedman

Tom, veteran of the trenches in WW1 and his wife Izzy live on a lonely Australian island  where the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean meet, manning the lighthouse there. Just after Izzy has lost a baby a boat washes up on the island containing a dead man and a baby girl. Izzy, mad with grief, determines to adopt the baby. Tom has doubts.

The stunning first page has Izzy  tending a new grave and whispering "and lead us not into temptation".

The story takes a while to get going. It is careful to build up the rights and the wrongs and the tensions. But when things break down they cascade like a bloody avalanche.

There is a brilliant moment of high drama when, just after a vase is thrown at a policeman, we get this paragraph:
"He stood perfectly still. The curtain flapped with the breeze. A fat blowfly buzzed against the fly wire. A last fragment of glass gave a dull tinkle as it finally succumbed to gravity."
Perfect change of pace. Perfect suspension of the drama. Take the reader to the wire and then look out of the bloody window! Brilliant.
Other wonderful moments:

  • "A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky" (p 13)
  • "the boy you'd suckled, bathed, scolded and cried over, was - well - wasn't." (p 32)
  • "thin as a yard of pump water" (p 41)
  • "He must turn to something solid, because if he didn't, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast." (p 53)
  • "If a wife lost her husband ... she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent lost a child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or a daughter." (p 171)
  • "The contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember. Children can grow up having no knowledge of any indiscretion of their father in his youth ... History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent." (p 214)
  • "Right and wrong can be like bloody snakes: so tangled up that you can't tell which is which until you've shot 'em both, and then it's too late." (p 247)

A great read. June 2017; 461 pages

Saturday, 3 June 2017

"The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman" by Denis Theriault

Bilodo (ironically nicknamed Libido by his friend and colleague, the wonderfully dissolute Robert) is a postman whose solitary life is enlivened by steaming open letters and reading them before delivering them. Grandpre is exchanging haikus with Segolene in Guadeloupe. When Grandpre dies in front of his eyes, Bilodo is distraught; this fascinating correspondence must come to an end. Unless ...

This is a wonderful magical book. Not only does it explore the haiku and its five-lined big brother the tanka, and many other aspects of Japanese culture, but it has moments of lyricism and many laugh aloud witticisms.

  • "If at the Olympic Games there had been a stair-scaling event, Bilodo would have stood an excellent chance of qualifying, perhaps even of mounting the ultimate, glorious top step of the podium." (p 7)
  • "He wouldn't have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world. Except perhaps with another postman." (p 9)
  • "The guys at that publishing house were obviously asleep at the wheel." (p 66)
  • "He who had never hot a fly without regretting that he couldn't give it an anaesthetic first had just hit his best friend. His ex-friend that is." (p 73)
  • "The situation hadn't only overtaken him - it now had a one-lap lead." (p 76)
  • "So icy she could have sunk a dozen Titanics." (p 78)

Brilliant and wonderful. June 2017; 1208 pages

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

"Wonder" by R J Palacio

August was born with a deformed face; after endless plastic surgery he looks like a cross between the elephant man and a zombie: "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." (p 3) "I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds." (p 3)

And Auggie has a challenge. After years of home schooling he is going to a real school. He has to face all the normal perils and pitfalls of young adolescents growing up and in particular the issue of no one wants to be my friend.

This is a delightful story about growing up, full of the language of young kids and the magic of their on-off relationships and their insecurities. But what makes it even better than the usual is that it is told from multiple perspectives:

  • August
  • His big sister, Via. She has problems of her own. And they are not helped by being Auggie's sister. "I've gotten used to not complaining, and I've gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff. I've gotten used to figuring things out on my own: how to put toys together, how to organize my life so I don't miss friends' birthday parties, how to stay on top of my schoolwork so I never fall behind in class. I've never asked for help with my homework. Never needed reminding to finish a project or study for a test. If I was having trouble with a subject in school, I'd go home and study it until I figured it out on my own. I taught myself how to convert fractions into decimal points by going online. ... My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through." (p 83) 
  • The girl who sat at his table at lunch when every other kid avoided him as if he had the plague
  • His best friend although the relationship is a bit on and off. Jack has problems too. He is very poor compared to the other kids at school and he desperately wants to be accepted by the cool kids.
  • Justin, the boyfriend of the big sister who lives half the time with his mum and half with his dad and neither of them seem to care (he avoids capital letters except for Names): "if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely and the universe doesn't. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can't see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. and a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. and even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds." (p204). If it was a great idea having multiple perspectives on the action it was an even better idea to have a character who is virtually on the fringe of it all and who can therefore observe and pass judgement like the Chorus in a Greek drama. 
  • The big sister's best friend who loves Auggie even though she is no longer friends with Via.

In fact the other characters were often even more interesting than the 'main'.

A great read. May 2017; 313 pages

Monday, 29 May 2017

"The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin

I have been reading a lot of Le Guin recently, including:

Genly Ai is an Envoy from the Hainish federation on the wintry planet Winter whose inhabitants come into heat at certain times of the month at which point they can be either male or female, father or mother. His story is interwoven with legends from the planet and the tales of others to build up a tapestry. In some ways it felt like an anthropological study of the planet and its various nations. I would have preferred a plain old-fashioned tale.

She starts well. On the first page the narrator reflects "I was in peril of my life, and did not know it." (p 1) The alien world is brilliantly imagined and the various societies that live there; the Siberian-style prison camp is brilliant. There is an epic journey across the glaciers of the icecap. I was impressed and amazed by the level of detail and the imagination. But I couldn't warm to the characters.

As always Le Guin gives us some wonderful phrases:

  • "If this is the Royal Music no wonder the kings ... are all mad." (p 2)
  • "not a nation but a family quarrel" (p 5)
  • "A man must cast his own shadow" (p 16)
  • "I came there at noon. That is, I came somewhere at noon, but I wasn't sure where." (p 44)
  • "Legends of prediction are common throughout the whole Household of Man. Gods speak, spirits speak, computers speak. Oracular ambiguity or statistical probability provides loopholes, and discrepancies are expunged by Faith." (p 44)
  • "his intelligence was as hard, clear, and polished as my rubies." (p 50)
    • "What is sure, predictable, inevitable - the one certain thing you know concerning your future and mine?
    • That we shall die.
    • Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered ... and we already know the answer ... The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next." (p 57)
  • "But the Inspectors' cars were forever snooping and spotlighting these dark streets, taking from poor men their one privacy, the night." (p 65)
  • "Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going." (p 80)
  • "They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire." (p 144)
  • "Light is the left hand of darkness" (p 190)
  • "Some shadows got shorter and some longer." (p 234)

May 2017; 245 pages

Sunday, 28 May 2017

"The Duchess of Malfi" by John Webster

On Sat 27th May I went to St Giles Church in the centre of London to see this classic Jacobean revenge tragedy in a production by Scena Mundi. It was a superb production despite the difficulties of playing in the round in a church with echoey acoustics and big windows letting in bright daylight which made the scenes in the dark particularly difficult.

For me the outstanding performance was that of Pip Brignall (@PipBrignall) playing Ferdinand as a slightly fey, always unstable, mercurial character who could flip from tenderness to rage as quickly as any spoiled princeling. Jack Christie (@ChristieWJ) was also magnificent as Bosola and made sense of this character's continual oscillations between cruelty and remorse. Thomas Winsor (@ThomasWinsor) as Antonio and Jess Murphy (@MariaFlorentina) as The Duchess were also brilliant.

The core of the plot is that The Duchess of Malfi, a widow, secretly marries her steward Antonio Bologna from love despite having been warned by her brothers (who want to inherit her estates) not to do so. Ferdinand is incandescent with fury when he discovers that his sister has had a child; her reputation is shot. The other brother, The Cardinal, is also angry but very cold and controlled. They take their revenge. When the identity of the father is known Ferdinand locks his sister away and tortures her with fake tableaux of her husband and eldest son dead, and with madmen, before he has her, her children and her maidservant strangled by Bosola. Both Bosola and Ferdinand and then filled with remorse and Ferdinand, who has killed his twin, blames Bosola and goes mad. Bosola, fearing for his life, plots to kill the two brothers but kills Antonio by mistake before killing F and The C and getting killed himself.

A twisting plot and the motivations of the characters are difficult, especially Bosola who is filled with remorse before he kills the Duchess. Webster wasn't good on plot. The story that Ferdinand wants his sister's money only appears in Act 5. People confess when they should keep their mouths shut, the Cardinal's mistress falls in love with Bosola (and so betrays the Cardinal) in the space of a single line, she revives from death for just a moment to give a final speech before finally dying; lots of stupidities.

But the poetry is exquisite.

The Cardinal and his brother "are like plum-trees that grow crooked over standing-pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flattering panders, I would hang on their ears like a horseleech, till I were full, and then drop off." The Cardinal "is a melancholy churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the engend'ring of toads". 

"The law to him
Is like a foul, black cobweb to a spider, -
He makes it his dwelling and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him."

When the Duke relies on face to speak character Bosola says
"There's no more credit to be given to the face
Than to a sick man's urine, which some call
The physician's whore, because she cozens him."
When Duke offers Bosola gold. Bosola distrusts:
"Never rain'd such showers as these
Without thunderbolts i' the tail of them. - Whose throat must I cut?"

"'Diamonds are of most value,
They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers' hands.'
'Whores by that rule are precious.'"

"Like the irregular crab,
Which, though't goes backwards, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way"

"The marriage night
Is the entrance into some prison."

"And those joys,
Those lustful pleasures, are like heavy sleeps
Which do fore-run man's mischief."

"Say a man never marry, nor have children,
What takes that from him? Only the bare name
Of being a father, or the weak delight
To see the little wanton ride a-cock-horse
Upon a painted stick, or hear him chatter
Like a taught starling."

"He's a fool
That, being a-cold, would thrust his hands i' the fire
To warm them."

"Search the heads of the greatest rivers in the world, you shall find them but bubbles of water."
"Though lust do mask in ne'er so strange disguise,
She's oft found witty but is never wise."

"like one
That hath a little fing'ring on the the lute,
Yet cannot tune it."

Ferdinand is very angry. He threatens :
"Of her bleeding heart I make sponge ...
... I might toss her palace 'bout her ears,
Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,
And lay her general territory as waste ...
"We must not now use balsamum, but fire, 
The smarting cupping-glass, for that's the means
To purge infected blood ...
... my imagination will carry me
To see her, in the shameful act of sin ...
... with some strong-thigh'd bargeman;
Or one o' th' wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge,
Or toss the bar, or else some lowly squire
That carries coal up to her privy lodgings ...
... I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopp'd,
That their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven:
Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in't, and then light them like a match;
Or else boil their bastard to a cullis,
And give 't his lecherous father, to renew
The sin of his back ...
Till I know who leaps my sister, I'll not stir:
That known, I'll find scorpions to string my whips,
And fix her in a general eclipse."

A: We'll sleep together: -
D: Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?
C: My lord, I lie with her often; and I know
She'll much disquiet you ...
For she's the sprawling'st bedfellow.
[to A] Wherefore still when you lie with my lady
Do you rise so early?
A: Labouring men
Count the clock oft'nest Cariola,
Are glad when their task's ended.

"A politician is the devil's quilted anvil -
He fashions all sins on him, and the blows
Are never heard: he may work in a lady's chamber,
As here for proof."

"With such a pity men preserve alive
Pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough
To be eaten."

"Man is most happy when's own actions
Be arguments and examples of his virtue."

"I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in 't 'gainst my will."

"I am acquainted with sad misery
As the tann'd galley-slave is with his oar"
"What's this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste; our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in. Dids't thou ever see a lark in a cage? such is the soul in the body: this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o'er our heads, like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison."

"I know death has ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways."

"Murder shrieks out:
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards, and bedews the heavens."

"Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young."

"I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits,
Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done't."

"I'll go hunt the badger, by owl-light"

"Your bright eyes
Carry a quiver of darts in them, sharper
Than sunbeams.

"Like the mice
That forsake falling houses, I would shift
To other dependance."

"Are you so far in love with sorrow,
You cannot part with part of it?"

"The only way to make thee keep my counsel
Is not to tell thee."

"I must look to my footing:
In such slippery ice-pavements, men had need
To be frost-nail'd well; they may break their necks else ...
Security some men call the suburbs of hell
Only a dead wall between."

"Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."

"I would sooner swim to the Bermudas on
Two politicians' rotten bladders, tied
Together with an intelligencer's heart-string,
Than depend on so changeable a prince's favour."

"I will no longer study in the book
Of another;s heart"

103 pages; May 2017

Thursday, 25 May 2017

"Caught in the Revolution" by Helen Rappaport

A birthday present from my good friends Steve Lowe and Michele Smith.

The newly arrived US ambassador was "self-made millionaire" and ex-Governor of Missouri David Rowland Francis who had won for his home town of St Louis, Missouri in 1904 both the World Fair and the summer Olympics. He arrived with Model T Ford and body servant Phil Jordan, an African American who had grown up in the slums of Jefferson, Missouri among "thieves, prostitutes and drunks" as a "hard drinker and gang member", graduating to riverboats and eventually the Governor's mansion. (pp 8 - 9)

"the number of young boys with revolvers who looked me over made me feel it was a very easy time in which to be killed" (p 94)
"a soldier and his sweetheart were sitting on the parapet and chinning ... away as if they hadn't a care in the world." (p 117)

A maid who demanded an eight hour working day was asked what she meant. To work from eight till eight she answered.  (p 148)

The self-appointed "Telephone Committee" prevented people from using the telephone. (p 148)

A man accused of being a pickpocket was taken from the bus and shot. The woman who accused him then found her purse. "Nothing could be done for the unfortunate victim of 'justice' so they took the only course which seemed to them to meet the case and leading the woman out, shot her also." (p 149)

English writer Somerset Maugham, codenamed Somerville, was sent to Petrograd from San Francisco to Yokohama and rail from Vladivostok by the British "Secret Intelligent Service ... to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution ... a tall order for one solitary, tubercular, inexperienced British spy, recruited because he knew a bot of Russian from reading Chekhov" (p 251)

US embassy staff took "two hours working with four code books to decipher the formal statement telegraphed to them from Washington that President Wilson has declared war on Germany on 6 April ... the embassy received the news two days later." (p 167)

Trotsky was a "hash-slinger" (waiter) in a cheap New York diner. (p 225)

Arthur Ransome, Daily News reporter, suffered from food shortages: "If ever I do get home ... my sole interest will be gluttony" (p 231)

"No one shall eat cake until everyone has bread" (p 259)

One small quibble. The author really can't do maths. She tells us that the exchange rate is eleven roubles to the dollar and yet she costs a seven rouble chocolate bar at 75 cents (should be 63) (p 260) and, worse, a ten rouble taxi fare as 110 dollars when it should be 91 cents (p 279).

"It was the faces of the starving, shabby population standing in line that most distressed ... they seemed docile, submissive ... they just wait in the rain and the icy blast, shivering ... they had the mindset of fatalistic slaves and it mattered not which kind of government rules over them." (p 268)

"Trotzky is the king of agitators; he could stir up trouble in a cemetery." (p 271)

Loot: "a blanket, a worn sofa cushion of leather, a wax candle, a coat hanger, the broken handle of a Chinese sword." (p 290)

After the October revolution there was an election; the Bolsheviks won "only 24 per cent of the vote. Lenin was incensed." The assembly lasted twelve hours; Lenin established instead a "bayonetocracy" (p 306)

After the October revolution, as winter deepened, famine arrived. "Even the foreign colony ... heard the gray wolf howling." (p 309)

The Bolsheviks could have sold the Tsar's wine to the foreigners but they chose to destroy it instead but even if the "bottle-smashers ... refrained from drinking any of the wine themselves, they became helplessly inebriated from all the fumes." (p 313)

Kerensky, deposed head of the provisional government, escaped from Russia and died in the US in 1970!!!!!

The head of the Anglican church in Petrograd was recompensed by the British government for 8 years service with £50; nearly £44 was then deducted for the costs of his reparation!

A fascinating book. I hadn't realised there were, in effect, three revolutions. I still don't understand how a few people in a single city could take over a whole nation. Or how Lenin, heading a minority party, and less charismatic than Trotsky, ended up being the big bosser.

May 2017; 334 pages

Monday, 15 May 2017

"The Dispossessed" by Ursula Le Guin

As well as writing children's fantasy books (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu) this talented author also write science fiction.

It starts with the brilliant image of a wall around a space port. "Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on." (p 5) From one point of view the wall encloses the space port and the space ships that come and go and by extension space and the universe; leaving the rest of the planet 'free'; from the other perspective the wall encloses the planet: "a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine." (p 5) What a great first page!

Anarres has been colonised from its twin planet Urras. The colony is still small and works on purely cooperative principles; the people equal to one another in respect and dignity; each contributes what they can and takes what they need.  Shevek, the top physicist from Anarres, is the first man ever to return to the capitalist, battling, home world of Urras.

Despite the utopian vision of Anarres, a sort of global kibbutz, these are still people with their needs. One of the early compelling moments is when the lads, Shevek and his mates, raised in dormitories together, play at prisons (echoes of the Stanford Prison Experiment) and imprison one of their number, taking on the role of guards: "They were not playing the role now, it was playing them" (p 35). There is real tension here, although Shevek feels ashamed afterwards. And in the famine, as people starve, they turn selfish and greedy and violent. And systems can be manipulated by those who seek power to prevent the people they dislike from succeeding. And public disapproval, even not backed by any rule, can make a person miserable.

With echoes of Mao's cultural revolution, soviet Russia, and the worst excesses of capitalism, this is a book about an individual struggling to achieve fulfilment against the backdrop of two very different societies, each of which, in their own way, conspire to prevent him.

  • "To die is to lose the self and rejoin the rest. He had kept himself and lost the rest." (p 9)
  • "All through those hurried days ... he had not felt that he was doing all the things he did, but that they were doing him." (p 10)
  • "You admit no religion outside the churches, just as you admit no morality outside the laws." (p 16)
  • "There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them though he was perpetually hiding behind them." (p 17)
  • "prostitution ... copulation in the economic mode." (p 18)
  • "'I never thought of that before ...'
    • Comments from the other three on the self-evidence of this remark." (p 37)
  • "There are people of inherent authority; some emperors actually have new clothes." (p 49)
  • "The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on." (p 62)
  • "You can't have a nervous system without at least a ganglion, and preferably a brain." (p 82)
  • "Shevek walked in rain as the Ioti walked in sunshine, with enjoyment." (p 112)
  • "Sterility. Sterility on all sides. As far as the eye can see the infertile desert lies in the pitiless glare of the merciless sun, a lifeless, trackless, feckless, fuckless waste strewn with the bones of luckless wayfarers ..." (p 150)
  • "Life, said the stream of quick water down on the rocks in the cold dark." (p 152)
  • "exuberance was perhaps the essential quality of life." (p 155)
  • "In a pen by himself the herd sire, ram or bull or stallion, heavy-necked, stood potent as a thundercloud, charged with generation." (p 172)
  • "As if deserving meant anything! As if one could earn beauty, or life!" (p 172)
  • "He had often seen that anxiety before ... Was it because, no matter how much money they had, they always had to worry about making more, lest they die poor? Was it guilt, because no matter how little they had, there was always somebody who had less?" (pp 172 - 173)
  • "People do not usually gaze at one another intently at very close range, unless they are mothers with infants, or doctors with patients, or lovers." (p 180)
  • "We think that time 'passes', flows past us; but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new? It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers." (p 184)
  • "When the enemy enthusiastically embraces you, and the fellow-countrymen bitterly reject you, it is not hard to wonder if you are, in fact, a traitor." (p 292)
  • "We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward." (p 295)
  • "They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?" (p 317)
The greatest thing about this book is its incredibly detailed vision of a society of anarchists in which everyone has to struggle to make ends meet and no one is very rich, in which the individual has the ultimate right to live life as they wish and contribute nothing to society, and yet where most individuals volunteer to contribute far more to society than they could ever be made to. A vision of an altruistic anarchist society on an unforgiving world worked out in every particular. Incredible.

May 2017; 319 pages

"Dead Boys Can't Dance" by Michel Dorais

Written by the man who also wrote Rent Boys, this is a sociological inquiry to understand why the rate of suicide amongst homosexual male youths is sixteen (sixteen!) times higher than for their heterosexual counterparts.

He suggests that there are two scenarios for gay boys: they can be identified as gay early on by other people because of their behaviours. One respondent stated: "At the age of six, I was being called a fag. I was already the school fag. Others therefore knew what I was before I did." (p 33) Others come out or are outed when they are older.

Dorais identifies four "adaptive scenarios in response to rejection" (p 37):

  • "The Perfect Boy wishes to live up to expectations ... he will not reveal his homosexuality to others ... his great fear is the anticipated embarrassing event that will compromise him." (pp 37 - 38) For Jean-Francois this happened when his mum read his diary. His parents ostracised him. "They no longer celebrated his birthday." Wow! That's rejection! (p 39) The Perfect Boy scenario tends to end in one of two tragic ways: "The young man reveals his homosexuality and the responses are disbelief, followed by the general dismay of all around him. He is perceived as a traitor and also as an intruder who has been lying about his real desires. He feels, with reason, that he is not understood, and that he is being judged and rejected." (p 40) Alternatively "Instead of revealing his homosexuality, the young male attempts suicide so that he will take his secret with him and hide forever the desires perceived to be so shameful." (p 40)
  • "The Token Fag ... pegged as homosexual at an early age ... the object of ridicule, harassment, and psychological and/or physical violence. Given the inaction of adults when faced with his abuse, he feels powerless in these situations, and he will sometimes consider his fate to be sealed." (p 41) One said "I wanted to be between the paint and the wall because I wanted to be invisible." (p 41)
  • "The Chameleon's varies from being one who pretends to be and at other times is an imposter. ... This situation reaches crisis levels when he no longer wants to be a part of the masquerade that is suffocating him. ... Arriving at a balance between his secret inner life and his everyday life is difficult for him, and the older he gets, the more he fails to see how to escape the situation ... I felt that I was human garbage because I was gay. ... I was a monster, someone who should not exist: human garbage." (pp 44 - 45)
  • The Rebel rejects homophobia and develops a resistance but in one case the rebellion led to drug addiction.

There are some telling insights:

  • "Claude found himself on the street with only the clothes he was wearing ... It was therefore in silence, destitution and solitude that he began to cope with family rejection." (pp 52 - 53)
  • "My mother, I saw her as a saint. ... When I told her I was questioning the possibility of being gay, she said: 'You better leave now. I don't ever want to see you again.' It's not easy at sixteen to find yourself alone and having to somehow survive. I will always remember that." (p 55) 
  • "I slept in saunas and under balconies." (p 66)
  • "My parents were fervent believers. ... God rejected and hated gays. A god of love, so it seems." (p 69)
  • "It would seem that compatibility is impossible between religious beliefs and homosexuality for those interviewed young men who described themselves as believers, or as having been so. The journey to acceptance of being gay must pass through religious rejection, they say." (p 69)
  • "Being treated as a fag is the worst thing that could happen to a boy's status as a male." (p 79)
  • "To flourish, human beings must perceive themselves to be part of a whole greater than self." (p 87)
  • "Suicide is a final solution to a temporary problem" (p 105)

Ways in which gay men can be resilient (p 85):

  • "A healthy determination to criticize and contradict the opinions of others ... I have the right to be different"
  • "A sense of humour when facing adversity ... a creativity that permits one to dream as a way of compensating for reality"
  • "Well-established significant relationships"
  • "The awareness or even the celebration of one's potential in spite of degradation by others."

A fascinating book. May 2017; 114 pages