Thursday, 6 March 2014
Uncle Fred in Springtime is one of the Blandings Castle set of novels. Not a group I'm particularly familiar with, having read rather more Jeeves and Wooster, and Psmith. Downside first of all. As a story it's not one of Wodehouse's strongest. The plot is absurd (that's fine) but it's also extremely confusing (not so good). There were quite a few instances where I found myself having to flick back through the pages to work out what exactly was going on, or did X really say that to Y a few pages before.
However where Uncle Fred really shines is in the language. This is undoubtedly one of the funniest Wodehouses I've ever read. Just a few examples. This one left me laughing out loud on a damp Ely station : "Who was the chap who was such a devil with the other sex?...Donald something" "Donald Duck?" "Don Juan", and my other favourite - probably still pertinent to the Great British Aristocracy:
"Say what you will, there is something fine about our old aristocracy. I'll bet Trotsky couldn't hit a moving secretary with an egg on a dark night."
Wodehouse at his best is just so gloriously daft. I defy anyone to read this, however awful a day they may have had, and not crack a smile. He is a comic genius. This tale of besotted lovers, less than impressed parents, and imposters is as old as the hills (or at least Shakespeare). It doesn't matter a jot; it was the most fun I'd had reading in a while. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, the incomparable P.G. Wodehouse.
Monday, 3 March 2014
The few moving images are either related to news stories that I've seen more recently - the storming of the US embassy in Saigon, the moon landing, or dog related - Dills, the canine star of The Herbs chasing his tail in an Elizabethan herb garden, or are to do with holidays - I remember being delighted by the big red London bus of Summer Holiday being viewed on the morning we were actually going on holiday. One of my earliest televisual moving memories though is just plain peculiar; and I have no idea why it is so imprinted on my brain.
"And now" says the announcer "the Cod War". Two men appear dressed in sou'westers and oilskins. They produce a large fish each and proceed to bash each other with them. The Cod War between Iceland and the UK was a part of my childhood even though I had no idea what it was really about.
Cod : a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky is a "biography" of the fish that changed the world. And it truly is amazing what an impact this food source has had. From possibly pre-Columbus European discoveries of America while on the trail of cod, to the growth of capitalism in the States and the rise to power of Boston. Now, as cod stocks have diminished it's also an object lesson in what can happen when fishing stocks are fished to the brink of extinction as fisheries and the towns that were built on that economy crash worldwide.
In the 1990s there was a bit of a fashion for books about food, and Cod was one of the most popular. There's lots to admire in this book - plenty of "I never knew that" moments - always a good thing to have in a Christmas or Birthday book; some great recipes, a look at responses across the world to similar living conditions; and it's generally very well written.
What's not to like about the book? To be honest, as a British reader I often found it extremely irritating. Kurlansky is quick to accuse the working-class British of xenophobia, he's not so quick to accuse his own countrymen of what is in essence the same thing. The English blame the Spanish or the Scots for over-fishing, the Germans blame the Icelanders, the Americans the Canadians, and the Canadians the Americans. The problem seems to be less xenophobia than a general inability of any nation to accept that there is a problem and to deal responsibly with it. Even the British consumer got a fair bit of blame here - it's our fault that cod stocks are diminishing, we won't eat any other fish, our demand for cod is causing most of the problem.
In fact, as Kurlansky himself admits, the British are not the biggest users of cod. And as far as the accusation of not wanting to eat any other fish is concerned, I think Kurlansky does have a point. But personally I think this is less to do with not being willing to eat any other fish and more to do with not being offered any other fish. Cod is still the principal fish sold in southern fish-and-chip shops, it is also usually cheaper than other fish. I would be happy to try other fish if it was available, but it doesn't seem to be.
I did enjoy the book. I loved the recipes, and it was amazingly informative. But I did think that sometimes Kurlansky's approach was rather simplistic; and this spoiled what would otherwise have been a fascinating read.
For more information on cod stocks see http://www.channel4.com/programmes/hughs-fish-fight/articles/all/cod
Friday, 28 February 2014
Actually this was a good time to read it as I'd had a rotten week. Major problems with my car meant that I had to catch the train in to work. Not usually a good situation it was made unexpectedly palatable by the train company being kind enough to suddenly start scheduling two trains an hour instead of two a day (yes, honestly!) from my local ever-so-rural station. More trains mean more passengers so the railway company had flung up a garden shed on the platform, painted it a snazzy gunmetal grey, added some pictures by local children, and a waiting room was born. On a morning of torrential rain, the blitz spirit was alive and well as eight passengers squeezed sardine-like into the "waiting-shed".
The 40 minute journey (standing room only) was also improved by Harpole & Foxberrow, which proved to be an unexpectedly good read for anyone who has ever worked in a Legal Deposit library.
Harpole & Foxberrow is about two characters, who, in an effort to re-order their lives, decide to take over a publishing company and sell books. What could be easier? And yes, that of course, is what most readers, and, I guess writers, would think. Isn't a little bookshop / publishers somewhere supposed to be most dedicated readers' dream job? The reality however proves to be very different as authors with diva tendencies, critics who can barely read, and lovelorn shopkeepers intersect via the business of Harpole & Foxberrow. And when the law invokes the dreadful power of the Legal Deposit Act, it looks as though this particular general publishers are going to struggle to stay in business.
What wasn't so good about this slim volume? Well, many of the characters have appeared elsewhere in works by Carr, including some in A month in the country. The main problem with this was that I felt that the book would have been so much better if I had read the other works by Carr. This is not altogether a problem as it has encouraged me to want to read more Carr, but not so good in that I felt this book was short-changed because I didn't have sufficient knowledge of the back story, which was several novels worth extensive.
Also, although very funny with some delicious dark humour, and occasionally satirical, the story did tend to wander off track sometimes. This didn't always matter, but sometimes I was completely lost, and the jumping from one character's viewpoint to another could be confusing.
However as a comic read Harpole & Foxberrow takes a bit of beating. It's hilarious; and I alarmed fellow passengers by chortling loudly and at length many times throughout the journey. Carr is especially good at mocking the foibles of book-lovers and the literati; and of poking sly fun at those who just don't understand why books grab people and hold on to them.
As someone who has worked in a Legal Deposit library I chortled especially loudly at any passages involving the Act. The truth of the matter is that although the Legal Deposit libraries can claim works, whether or not they get them is another story. And, I would suspect that although most publishers don't interact with the Legal Deposit Agency the way Harpole & Foxberrow did, there is a certain element reflected in this novel, where if they think they can get away without depositing they do.
Let's be fair, I can understand their perspective. If you're a small publisher, giving away six of your potentially costly volumes for free to libraries that you think might have the money to buy them anyway, must seem galling. But the truth of the matter is that the libraries don't have that kind of money to take a utilitarian approach to buying up most everything that is published in the UK. And the real reason why it's so important to deposit is that your publication will be held in perpetuity, for generations in hundreds of years time to study. And that's what's really important. The closing lines of Harpole & Foxberrow are a reflection on books : "[Characters] flounder about and need footnotes to keep them from sidling off. Whereas books have body; books (if you are listening) always will say what they said last time. Or stay silent when you shut them up."
The thing is that books can be "shut up" so easily - fire, theft, neglect, vandalism, loss. And that's why I think the Legal Deposit Act is important. The LD libraries can't guarantee that none of the above will happen, but between them they can guarantee that for many years ahead there will be a copy of what is published in this country now, a palimpsest of publishing time; and a vital source for the future.
Thursday, 27 February 2014
Lysander Rief is a young British actor, son of an English actor and an Austrian mother, who is staying in Vienna seeking psychiatric help inspired by the recent successes of Sigmund Freud, who has a walk-on part. Vienna is all Belle Epoque, Freud, Klimt and coffee. While there Rief becomes entangled with a neurotic young woman which will have unfortunate consequences, and which, on the eve of war, will lead him to becoming a spy in the service of Britain; but this spy drama will end up being played out rather closer to home than he had anticipated.
It's not the most perfect spy story ever. Partly because of the historical background it is occasionally clunky with the odd unfortunate anachronism, but there is much to admire in the story and the characterisation. Like Restless the uncertainty and insecurities of the spy's life gain in importance as the book progresses. And also like Restless there's an element of not knowing at the end of the novel quite what has happened. You are in effect presented with two alternatives, but is Rief telling the reader the truth?
The novel's title is all too apt as various versions of waiting for sunrise are presented to the viewer, from the lover reluctant to leave his love "Busy old fool, unruly sun", to the classic time set for an execution. Which sunrise we, the reader, are waiting for, is left to our imagination.
It's a wonderful view of pre-war Vienna, in fact the only downside to this novel is that more of it isn't set there, as this is undoubtedly the best part of the book. But if you've never read any William Boyd before this is a great spy novel with which to start.
Monday, 24 February 2014
I've always loved Christopher Brookmyre's writing. I've read several of his earlier works - A tale etched in blood and hard black pencil, Attack of the unsinkable rubber ducks, The sacred art of stealing. They're difficult to describe, even harder to classify, but they're basically crime / thrillers immersed in a deep vein of black humour, with sometimes the humour being more to the front than the crime / thriller element.
It's a long time since I'd last read a Brookmyre, but as I had to visit Edinburgh in December and happened to be in a bookshop, I was seduced by a dose of Tartan-noir. And I was surprised, as Brookmyre seems to have taken a bit of a change of direction.
For a start he is no longer Christopher but "Chris". And When the devil drives is a very different kettle of fish to the Brookmyre I'd read previously. There's much less humour, and it is more of a straight crime story. So, was I disappointed? After all it's always difficult when a favourite author suddenly seems to change direction.
The answer should be yes, but this was such a classy crime story, it's emphatically no. In fact this was one of the best modern crime novels I've read in a long time. Jasmine Sharp, failed actress, novice PI, is asked to find a missing person; a woman who's been missing for 30 years. Jasmine has no great hopes of finding her, but is disconcerted to discover that she's not the only person to be interested in her investigation. When one of Jasmine's early contacts is shot dead at a theatrical performance apparently by a professional hitman, this looks like one long-dead crime that is desperate to leap back to life...
I loved this novel. Crime story was well constructed. Great characters - feisty yet vulnerable Jasmine is a joy as is Catherine MacLeod the leading police character. Black and white comes in plenty of shades of grey here with the elite of Glasgow's gangland scene having redeeming features, while the good are nowhere near as good as they would like to be portrayed. And the Scottish countryside is pretty special too.
This was a really good detective novel. Just don't plan to do anything else at the weekend, you won't be able to stop till you finish it.
Thursday, 20 February 2014
|Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II|
Being on a Seventeenth / Eighteenth-century bad-girls roll after re-reading Manon Lescaut, I turned to one of my very favourite authors, Daniel Defoe, and his baddest of bad girls Roxana; or, The fortunate mistress. Actually the heroine would be most displeased that the novel is now generally known as Roxana, its original sub-title, as much of the novel is about the heroine's attempts to remove herself as far as possible from the nickname she's acquired, and to put her dubious past behind her.
Roxana is a very different kettle of fish from Moll Flanders. Moll is the archetypal tart with a heart. Forced into prostitution and crime by unfortunate circumstances, Moll comes smiling through. It's not that she forgets her past or tries to pretend that it hasn't happened, but rather she accepts it, but tries to change. In this she is helped by the man who will become her husband, also a bad boy (a highwayman!) made good. Whatever the morality of Moll's situation it's hard not to be engaged by her, and to want her to be redeemed. Roxana, however.....
As a modern woman, it's hard not to feel for Roxana's situation. In common with most women of her day and class, she marries young; but unfortunately the husband selected for her, although ostensibly a good catch turns out to be a business fool, and after going broke runs away leaving Roxana and her children facing penury. Saved by a tradesman, who genuinely cares for her, Roxana becomes his mistress, needing his money and security to secure herself, but being reluctant to marry him fearing that this will bring about her financial ruin again, and determined to be independent in a way that looks firmly forward to the twentieth-century woman.
Unlike Moll however, Roxana spends a lot of time beating herself up about not pursuing a more virtuous path (i.e. the marriage route). For much of the novel, I found this supremely irritating. Yes, by the standards of the day Roxana was undoubtedly a good-time girl; but most of her relationships with men appear to be long-term, and although she undoubtedly benefits from the relationships financially, this doesn't appear to be the only reason why Roxana sleeps with the guys she does. If she isn't exactly in love with them, she's not out to dupe them or misuse them either.
Towards the latter half of the novel however after the days of fun with a French Prince and (possibly) King Charles II and the Duke of Monmouth are over, Roxana becomes a much colder fish. An earlier romance appears on the scene, a man who genuinely loves her and, more importantly to Roxana, is willing to give her the independence she craves regardless of the laws of marriage. Roxana prevaricates, hoping to gain a better title from a more advantageous match, but once she has realised that this match may never happen marries her Dutch merchant.
But then the past comes back to haunt her, as one of her abandoned children becomes determined to find their mother, and risks revealing Roxana's shady past to her new husband....
|Roxana gained her nickname by dressing in the "Turkish" fashion adored at the time|
This was Defoe's last novel, and it is without doubt his darkest. There is none of the warmth or humour of Moll. This is a seventeenth-century woman's life when it all goes wrong; and even when it goes right, it's not that wonderful. Roxana may berate herself for her lewd behaviour, but even her friend the good Quaker woman is also left abandoned by an irresponsible husband. A woman's lot is not a happy one, so who can blame Roxana for aiming for a King.
Monday, 17 February 2014
This sadly was the case with The war of Don Emmanuel's nether parts. I must have bought it in the late '90s, having recently read and loved Captain Corelli's mandolin. A colleague had read Louis de Bernieres' Latin American sequence, and heartily recommended it. So I bought a copy, read a few pages, and didn't take to it. It has sat on my bookshelf ever since, lonely and unloved.
Then the other day I happened to notice it, was in the mood for something Latin American, and picked it up. And I loved it. Absolutely adored it. Proving that books, like people, have the hope of redemption. My reaction to it now was, I think, odd, because I certainly had problems with it when I first tried to tackle the novel 15 years ago.What's so strange is that reading reviews of Don Emmanuel, it's fairly clear that critics either tended to love it or loath it. You either get it, and respond to it, or it's just too way out. Something in me as a reader must presumably have changed in the interim.
The novel is set in an imaginary Latin American country (probably most closely modelled on Colombia, with a hint of Argentina, and Chile's Pinochet regime), sometime probably in the 1970s/80s. Trouble erupts when the selfish Dona Constanza decides to divert the course of a river to fill her swimming pool. As the villagers protest the army marches in determined to make a crisis out of a relatively minor drama. Meanwhile in the jungle magical things are happening, a young Indian girl is killed, along with her pet jaguar, by a landmine; and soon the villagers are beset with a plague of friendly cats, and persistent hilarity.
The hilarity is needed, because life generally is pretty grim. A corrupt regime bolstered by the dregs of the army turns on its own people; and life becomes more and more violent, as innocent victims are tortured and "disappeared" by an increasingly evil military regime.
The novel is quite astonishing mixing a great deal of humour, eroticism, a huge dose of magic realism (which seems to find Latin America a natural homeland) and some quite stunning violence. The
realistic violence set against such a background is disconcerting, but I think works all the better for that, portraying the regimes that dominated South America in an earlier time for the abhorrence that they were.
It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Some will find the juxtaposition of realism and magic realism a decidedly uncomfortable mix; but I adored this novel and heartily recommend it to anyone. I just hope that the other two novels in the sequence - Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The troublesome offspring of Cardinal Guzman are every bit as good.
Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Reading challenges mean different things to different people. For some it's competitive, fellow bloggers and blog-readers will recognise the competitive challenger - they've got to read more books on the list more quickly than anyone else, and they've got to tell everyone about it. Then there's the reader (mainly bloggers or book website types) who use a challenge as a sort of online extended reading group. You know you'll all be reading much the same kind of thing, and so can compare notes on the books you've covered over the year.
I'm not that competitive, and I'm not really into reading groups either, they remind me too much of Eng Lit lessons in school. Why I enjoy challenges is that it either prompts me to finally get around to reading that book I've been meaning to read for ages; or it draws my attention to a book that I would otherwise never have heard of. With the Before I die challenge I've tried to find a list of books that suggests that they have some worth to read. These are books, many of them classics that critics, writers and readers have genuinely cared about. I may not entirely agree with the list, but I know that I'm going to enjoy reading at least some of the books suggested.
I would never, for example, have come across Willem Elsschot's Cheese if it hadn't been for the challenge. Elsschot was from Antwerp (another famous Belgian to add to the list). He had a successful career in advertising, and on the side, unbeknown to his family was a fairly successful writer and poet. At heart I think he was a bit of a bitter man.The sort that feels he's never quite got it right, and this is reflected in the hero of Cheese.
Frans Laarmans is a lowly shipping agent. Inspired by a friend he becomes the chief cheese agent for Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. However when 10,000 rounds of Edam turn up on his doorstep with no prospect of Laarmans selling them (he doesn't even like cheese!), his dreams of business success descend into farce.
I really wanted to enjoy this novel. The premise sounded great - Monty Python on paper. And there were many enthusiastic reviews, but.......but......it just didn't grab me. Yes, there were sections that made me smile. The death of Laarman's mother raised a laugh in a rather Joe Ortonish way (30 years before Joe Orton!), but for me the novel lacked heart. And Laarman's unpleasant attitude towards his wife and son didn't endear him to me either.
Any novel that celebrates Edam can't be all bad, but personally I've always been more into Caerphilly.
Monday, 10 February 2014
I've a bit of a soft spot for eighteenth century fiction. At its best it's wonderfully rumbunctious, rude, lewd, incredibly down to earth; and what always surprises me about it, is that eighteenth century life is never quite the way you think it is.
Yes, it's not an easy life for women. There are double standards - when has life ever been any different? And yet, I think many writers have a genuine sympathy for women. This is notably so in one of my favourite novels of the period, the previously reviewed Moll Flanders. Manon Lescaut has also long been one of my favourite books, although it's been many years since I last read it.
Written by Abbe Prevost, a former priest turned soldier and novelist, who based Manon Lescaut at least partially on his own life. It's a simple tale of two lovers, the eponymous Manon, the archetypal bad girl, and her lover the naive Chevalier des Grieux. Des Grieux meets Manon en route to the local seminary, elopes with her, only for her to run off with another man, when Des Grieux is down financially on his luck. The couple drift together on and off over the next few years, with Manon a sort of high-class hooker with Des Grieux drifting in her wake. Eventually though, things go badly wrong, and the lovers are packed off to a primitive New Orleans where they have to start all over again.....
It was interesting re-reading this. The edition I've got is a Penguin Classic first published in 1949. The translator's preface makes it very clear that Manon is "no better than she should be", and that the narrative told purely from the male perspective is not kind to Manon. But in fact I found this not to be true. There is certainly a level of amorality about Manon. She is less like her nearest rival Moll Flanders (who may very well have influenced Prevost), but stunningly like the much later Zola's Nana (also reviewed on Bookhound - I evidently have a bit of a liking for bad girls).
But it's the men in Manon Lescaut who come across as weak. It is Des Grieux's decision not to marry Manon that leads to their downfall (ironically his belated decision to marry her will lead to worse); Des Grieux's uselessness as a provider that forces Manon into prostitution, and the willingness of the men she encounters to view her as easy pickings that contribute to her lifestyle. Manon may misjudge the intelligence level of the men she encounters, but their spitefulness is mind-boggling.
Ultimately, like Moll, Manon comes over as a strong woman. She may not be as strong mentally or physically as Moll, but she's tough. She does what she has to in order to survive. Prevost's women are strong women controlled (quite literally) by weak men. I don't think that Prevost's tale is really a morality tale, although you can read it like that should that be your mindset. What Prevost does is present a world which is horribly corrupt. A world in which anyone can be imprisoned for no reason just because they've crossed the wrong person. A world in which the wrong people have all the power. Perhaps Prevost is being truly revolutionary - what if women had the power? Would life be different? Or is Manon's pragmatism ultimately as doomed as any other lifestyle. None of the characters quite get it right - they are consumed by religion, or money, or the desire for revenge, or love.
So there's lots to think about politically and philosophically in this novel, but ultimately it's a great love story, and unputdownable. It still remains one of my favourite books.
Sunday, 9 February 2014
There's a popular BBC Radio series called I've never seen Star Wars in which celebrities admit to missing out on various popular cultural experiences, they then do them, and give marks for the experience. My equivalent of this is I've never seen Psycho. This is actually quite odd. I'm a huge Hitchcock fan, and have seen every one of his 50 feature length talkies except for Psycho.
I'm not quite sure why I became so set against it; but I did and have only ever seen excerpts from it. Until last night, and this was largely thanks to the film Hitchcock, which was an entertaining look at the story behind the production of Psycho, and the relationship between Hitchcock and his talented wife, Alma Revill - a top movie editor in the British film industry of the '20s and '30s, Hitchcock's right-hand woman, and (allegedly) the hidden writer of Psycho.
So.....Psycho the film. What did I think? Well, it didn't blow me away, I don't think it was the best thing that Hitchcock ever made, but.....it's an incredible bit of film making, and it really does represent Hitchcock in a nutshell. All the elements that make his films uniquely his are here, but more-so.
For a director who specialises in thrillers, Hitchcock is well-known as being the director who doesn't make Whodunits. You always know early on with Hitchcock films exactly who did the deed. Oddly with Psycho this could be reversed. You shouldn't realise till well through the film that Anthony Perkins is probably the murderer; but.....when Hitchcock publicised the film, he made it very clear from early on that the story was based on Ed Gein, the serial killer. I wondered about this as he didn't need to make this so obvious, but the murderer is as much of a McGuffin in this tale as the $40k stolen by Marion Crane.
(A McGuffin for non-Hitchcock nuts is something that's essential to move the plot along, but is not really what the film is about, so the $40k is essential, but is incidental to the central themes of madness and family loyalties)
In Psycho Hitchcock subverts the accepted norm of the genre. With crime the innocent or at least those who are repentant should be avenged or emerge triumphant, while the guilty are of course punished. But in Psycho this is reversed, mad Norman is cited by the psychologists as innocent of his actions while repentant thief Marion dies, with her intention to return the stolen money unknown to everyone except the viewer. It's clever stuff.
As with all Hitchcock it's brilliantly tightly edited. The use of black and white film neatly sidesteps any problems that the censors might have with blood, but also harks back to Hitchcock's time with UFA and German expressionist cinema. It's also darkly funny with a fantastic performance from a young and surprisingly handsome Anthony Perkins, while Janet Leigh gives a wonderfully understated performance.
Hitchcock also turns the film back on the viewer. Look at the photo of Anthony Perkins. Is he hiding behind his hands? Or is he actually the director sizing up a shot of the viewer?
One of the very best things about Psycho though is Bernard Herrmann's score. Yes, we all know the shower scene, but it's so much more than that. It's a spare score, but wonderfully well written with little leitmotifs that etch themselves into the viewers' consciousness.
So, if you've never seen Psycho, do. It's dead good...
As mentioned in my previous post, I recently saw a fantastic documentary about Genghis Khan filmed wholly in Mongolia (what a beautiful country). In the countries invaded by Khan's hordes, he's seen as the devil incarnate; but to the Mongolians he's a bit of a hero turning their country from a land of warring tribes to one proudly united. At its peak the Mongolian Empire was twice as big as the Roman Empire stretching from Hungary to Beijing, four times the size of the empire of Alexander the Great. And all under the organisation of a man born in a yurt, the second son of a minor tribal leader.
Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Genghis Khan was quite a man. And this is very clear in Wolf of the Plains, the first volume in Conn Iggulden's Conqueror series, the story of Genghis Khan. Iggulden has really done his research, and blends fact and fiction seamlessly. And what a story it is.
The child who would become the Khan of the people of the Sea of grass (the Mongolian steppes), was born Temujin. His future was not entirely assured as he was the second son, but everything changed when his father was killed by the Tartars, and for an unknown reason the family were abandoned by the tribe, and left to face the bleak Mongolian winter with no implements to assist survival. Quite how their mother, who sounds like a quite incredible woman, managed to keep her children alive through that winter is not known. But it was an amazing achievement.
Tribeless, it became increasingly important to Temujin to form a new united grouping. A group that would transcend tribal boundaries, and that would unite the people of Mongolia. He was an astonishing man - he could be cruel, although not unduly so by the standards of the time, but he was extremely astute politically, incredibly tough, able to appreciate talents in others - both physical and intellectual - and use them to his advantage. What a story, and beautifully told by Iggulden, who lets the narrative flow along. Fantastic tale, highly recommended.
I've been down with one of those nasty fluey colds over the last few days; and have spent much of the time in bed curled up with 2 helpful hounds, steaming mugs of honey and lemon,TV documentaries (have learned more than I would have thought possible about sinkholes, Genghis Khan (of which more anon), Easter Island and the making of Psycho), and, of course, a succession of good books. Where better to start than Audur Ava Olafsdottir's gentle road-trip Butterflies in November?
I've long been a fan of Scandinavian noir, and in particular of Icelandic crime writers, but after reading this I think I should read more Icelandic literature generally, as this was a beautiful, engaging comical tale, warming, funny and impossible to stop reading.
The tale is told in the first person, a 30-something female narrator with a gift for languages and sleeping with the wrong men. In a single day she manages to kill a goose, and be dumped by both her husband and her lover. Not surprisingly she feels that something in her life needs to change, but after her best-friend has an accident, when she slips on the ice outside the narrator's home (the home itself starts to turn on the narrator), the narrator is landed with her pal's 4 year old deaf son. The two then take off on a road-trip across Iceland winning the lottery en route, meeting an Estonian male voice choir with some rather less than traditional dancers, cooking, knitting, and making friends.
The narrator is trying in some small way to come to terms with her past, both the more recent, and remote scars that are still unhealed, while the small boy is trying to find his way in a world that seems unaccepting of difference.
I adored this book. It could only have been written by someone from those far northern climes, think Tove Jansson for grown-ups. There is a wonderful other-worldliness to it. And I just loved the heroine. As her life lurched from disaster to disaster, I thought "This is me, she's writing about!" It's a funny, charming read. At the conclusion of the novel nothing's really happened. There's no huge climax, no earth-shattering changes in the lives of the central characters, just this gentle experience that has impacted on their lives.
It's completely charming. It's also unusual in that I felt a great connection to the characters, but at the same time (not least because of Audur Ava's recipe selection at the end of the volume), I was aware of what a different place Iceland is to the rest of Europe sitting there, just on the edge.
One strange thing - as I was lying in bed finishing this, I heard the beat of wings, and saw a butterfly in my bedroom...in February.
Wednesday, 5 February 2014
The first book to tick the box of this year's Before I die reading challenge is David Mitchell's Booker prize nominated novel Cloud Atlas. Moving between several time-zones - a traveller in the Pacific islands in the late nineteenth century, a Fenby-Delius type relationship in the 1930s, a crusading journalist in China Syndrome mode in California, a Brave New World future, and a far-distant future in a less than Paradisical Hawaii in which humanity has largely returned to a more savage past mainly due to environmental catastrophe, Cloud Atlas is a set of largely unconnected stories with a few tenuous connections, and an overarching major link to the changes, miniscule at first, gradually causing more of an impact, that humanity can make to their environment. It's less sci-fi than eco-fi.
It's a pretty bleak tale. Although odd acts of bravery, kindness, and intelligence make a difference, ultimately the earth, or at least humanity's place on it, is ruined by carelessness, thoughtlessness, inhumanity, and plain bloody greed. (Quite literally bloody, as certain characters will stop at nothing to get what they or their corporation wants). It's grim reading.
As you would expect (hope!) from a Booker prize nominee, it's well-written. The only problem is that what makes the book enjoyable is also a potential pitfall. The narration is divided between many different voices moving forwards and then backwards in time. This was one of the best things about the book, as some of the narrative voices were brilliant. I particularly enjoyed the Sonmi story set in an Aldous Huxley dystopian future, but some I really struggled with, the narrative at the centre - Sloosha's crossing - is told in a weird voice, that I found completely irritating; while the Fenby-Delius story had borrowed so many big chunks from Fenby's own recollections that I found it quite disconcerting.
The other criticism, which may seem slightly odd, is that I thought it was quite derivative. The idea of the nesting novellas was, I felt, clever and original; but the individual "nests" all reminded me of something else - the Pacific Island story owed something to Matthew Kneale's English passengers, the composer storyline to Delius as I knew him, the nuclear plant plot China Syndrome, Sonmi Brave new world, Never let me go and Bladerunner, Sloosha's crossing Lord of the Flies, and A canticle for Leibowitz (I would suspect that this tale probably had a knock-on influence on Cormac Mc Carthy's The road).
I don't believe that you have to reinvent the wheel every time a new novel is written, but I just wonder if there was enough originality in Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to justify the plaudits it's received. I suspect that it may be the kind of book that you either put down and think "Wow" or think "Wow, but....." and I fell into the latter camp. Clever plot, clever writing, original - no. And if you're going to write sci-fi or even eco-fi originality matters.
Incidentally....I will be watching the film of Cloud Atlas at the weekend. I am completely intrigued as to how on earth they managed to adapt the book. Will the film be better or worse than the book? Well, we'll have to see....
Wednesday, 29 January 2014
The work moves from thriller to horror to literary fiction as McGrath becomes embroiled in a mystery that may have a very scientific or an equally supernatural explanation.
Pessl moves from reality to illusion seamlessly making the reader feel every bit as confused as the central protagonist. If Cordova's films have a reputation for enabling the viewer to feel disorientated, unable to differentiate between real life and life onscreen, Pessl plays exactly the same game with her reader.
OK, some of the characterisation borders on the wooden. It is sometimes hugely over the top in true Grand Guignol style, and the ending seems rather weak, but there's lots to enjoy in this big tome. There's a wonderfully blackly comic edge to it which sometimes reduced me to giggles, and it can be incredibly scary, with some sections reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. It might not be the best bit of fiction you've ever read, but if you're into thrillers and / or horror, I dare you not to enjoy it.
PS Don't read after dark!!!
Monday, 20 January 2014
|Mendelssohn on the roof of the Rudolfinum (second from the right next to Schumann)|
The novel starts out comically enough. Heydrich, Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and the principal architect of the Final Solution, is horrified when he spots a statue of the composer Mendelssohn on the roof of a Prague concert hall. A fiat goes out "Remove Mendelssohn from the roof". Unfortunately the young wannabe SS officer doesn't know what Mendelssohn looks like, so he follows the appropriate and ever correct Nazi racial guidelines and tells the Czech workers tasked with the job to remove the statue with the biggest nose.....they choose Wagner!
And so the novel begins, at terms comical and horrifying. It follows the day-to-day lives of powerful Nazis, a bizarre mix of high-culture and unspeakable violence and inhumanity; the Jews who are confined to the Prague ghetto, some of whom become complicit in the work of the Nazis in an effort to save themselves and their families, the families en route to Terezin and points east, and those who have gone underground and the brave people who shelter them.
Much of the power of the novel comes from the juxtaposition of everyday life both of the victims and the aggressors against lives which are anything but ordinary. You too are drawn into the question of what you would do in a similar situation. Perhaps most shockingly the Nazis are portrayed in all their horror, but also with their cultured backgrounds. You can't just dismiss Heydrich or his cohorts as evil, animalistic brutes - these were often educated people, who enjoyed listening to Beethoven when they weren't engaged in thuggery. Rabbi Hugo Gryn was once asked where was God in Auschwitz? His reply was "Where was man? Where was culture and art and music?" Questions that Mendelssohn is on the roof make you ask again and again.
Jiri Weil was a communist who fell foul of Stalin. Had he lived in the Soviet Union he would probably have disappeared into Stalin's murderous gulags. As it was he survived the war against the Nazis in hiding, only for his life post-war to be largely ruined by his opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. Ironically it's very clear in Mendelssohn that he still holds on to what he values in Russia. The novel is full of praise for the Red Army's liberation of the death camps and eastern Europe. By the time Mendelssohn was first published in 1960, just after Weil's death, attitudes towards the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe had changed dramatically. No longer liberated Czechoslovakia was back under the bootstrap of a totalitarian regime, but regardless of this the lesson of Mendelssohn is on the roof still resonates. Totalitarian regimes may come and go, and may for some time make their mark; but the human spirit ultimately cannot be broken. That goes on forever, long after the Heydrichs and Stalins of this world have passed into history.
I'll end with a very appropriate YouTube clip - Pavel Haas' Study for strings. Haas was a Czech composer, sent to Terezin he continued to write music, composing a number of pieces for the children of Theresienstadt, and this work among others. He died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944.
Sunday, 19 January 2014
Around Christmas 1924 there was a sudden increase in the number of children suffering from sore throats in Nome, a remote town in Alaska bordering the Bering Sea. Nome was cut off from the rest of the world once its harbour iced up in November. By New year 1925 it was clear that Nome was in the grip of a diptheria epidemic with only a small amount of serum to hand, the race was on to get more serum to Nome before children started dying en masse. The most logical way to get the serum there was by dog-team, the standard way to get the mail through in North West Alaska, and so began a dog-sled relay through blizzards and white-outs, across the frozen sea running the risk of floating out to sea on the ice floes, across frozen rivers, and the bitter tundra.
Nineteen mushers took part in the relay. They were a cross-section of Alaskans; Scandinavians who were working for the mining companies (Nome was a goldrush town), Eskimos and Athabaskans whose families were experts at wilderness survival, professional mushers who competed in dog races, hunters and trappers, mature men and 18 year olds, friends and relatives. It's an astounding story. Although Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto delivered the serum to Nome, it was Leonhard Seppala and his dog team led by 12 year old Togo, who covered the bulk of the cruellest miles, over 250 of them including the dangerous crossing of Norton Sound.
This is an extraordinary tale of an event that became an early press and Hollywood sensation. If you're a dog nut you'll love this (even if you are distressed by the fate of some of the sled dogs), but if you're interested in history or adventure or travel this is compulsive reading too. Beautifully written, and moving at the pace of a prize Iditarod team. I had problems reading this at night, as I just didn't want to put it down. Highly recommended.
|Leonhard Seppala and his trusty lead-dog, Togo|
Friday, 17 January 2014
Some of the stories are gently comic musings on everyday life, relationships gone wrong, and trying to start all over again, being stuck in that job you hate and trying to get out of it, a spot of revenge against that colleague you can't stand. All the stories are set against very ordinary backgrounds, and this seems to ratchet up both the suspense and the fear factor. The final story The most enlightened person I've ever met was a tale that made me feel genuinely uneasy, a true tale of obsession; while The nursery bear was as creepy a little story as you could hope to meet anywhere, you'll never look at your neighbours in quite the same way again.
The tales were patchy, some were undoubtedly much better than others with The octopus nest being a stand out winner; but they gave me a real feel for Sophie Hannah, whose novels I would now definitely like to read. The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets is well worth a browse, just be careful which tales you read late at night....
|Ravel in 1906|
|Las Meninas / Velasquez. 1656. Margaret Theresa is aged five.|
I must admit that I'm not generally a big fan of Velasquez, but there is something hugely endearing about this portrait. The little Infanta Margaret Theresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain, has interrupted her parents' sitting for their portrait. We are viewing the painting from the point of view of her parents smiling down at their child. Velasquez himself is in the background on the left hand side brush in hand (you can spot Philip and his wife reflected in the mirror at the back of the room), so we are cleverly seeing the painting both from the King and Queen's viewpoint but also from the artist's. Except that what we're seeing is not what the artist is seeing even though he painted this - confused???
I think the reason that I find the picture so heart-warming is that unlike so many portraits of the period it does away with formality. There's a lot of love in this portrait. The Infanta's dwarves checking to see that she's alright, her dog, who's probably bigger than her, lying at her feet, her nurse has a quick gossipy moment in the background, while the Queen's chamberlain (another Velasquez, who may have been a relative of the artist) stands like a guard-dog in the doorway protecting the small happy family. And the little girl at the centre of it all, who just appears to be a happy child. Is it just me, or doesn't she look as though she's about to dance?
|Holy Roman Empress Margaret Theresa, painted, aged 16, by Jan Thomas|
So what happened next? Margaret Theresa married the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, in 1665, the year after the death of her beloved father; and moved to Vienna. Leopold was 11 years older than Margaret, but the marriage appears to have been happy. Both loved the theatre and music. I like to think that she had a few happy years because after a series of miscarriages, and being safely delivered of only one child who survived to adulthood, Margaret Theresa died aged just 21. She is buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, a place I visited many years ago, without realising that the little girl of Las Meninas was buried there.
Many things make a great painting, and I'm no expert, but I think love lasts, and love comes bounding out of Velasquez' great work, and the piece of music by Ravel that I suspect owes at least a little to it.
Wednesday, 15 January 2014
The Mrs Tynan of Groucho's letter was the American author Elaine Dundy, then married to the critic Kenneth Tynan. The dud avocado is a quite remarkable book. Published in the same year, 1958, as Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffanys, the two novels have much in common. Both are about girls newly independent, and out to have a good time - Holly Golightly in New York, Sally Jay Gorce, the heroine of Avocado in Paris. But here they part company. Sally Jay is so much more believable than Holly (I'm speaking here of the Holly of the novel, she's a much more sympathetic and alive character in the film than in the original book).
So why has Dud Avocado nearly been forgotten? It was probably inevitable that it was going to be overshadowed by Tiffanys, Audrey Hepburn's performance alone making it a stand-out film. But that's a real shame because Avocado is great fun, and provides a real insight into life for Fifties woman on the cusp of sexual liberation and feminism. Sally Jay is in Paris to enjoy herself, and enjoy herself she does with a string of good time guys, a sweet artist, a conman, and finally the man of her dreams. She plays hard, and works reasonably hard starring in a disastrous play, a film featuring bullfighters (no surprise that Dundy was a friend of Hemingway), and a spot of nude modelling. Although she comes across as an experienced woman of the world, you quickly realise that this is a facade, Gorce is every bit an innocent who likes to believe the best of everyone; and the novel charts her growth as a person, as she becomes, sadly, more cynical.
There are some wonderfully funny moments. There were quite a few times when I, like Groucho, guffawed helplessly. But, it's also got a serious side. I suspect that this might have been the first novel where attitudes towards women were seriously questioned - both sexually and as domestic goddesses - and not just questioned as an aside, but slap in your face. There are some wonderfully funny moments as Sally Jay struggles to prove that cookery is not the evolutionary prerogative of women; or discovers the double standards by which women are judged sexually.
You may like Holly Golightly, but Sally Jay is the woman that I think many women would like to have as their best friend. She is gloriously outrageously real, and hugely likeable. For anyone who has slept with the wrong man, discovered the love of their life is a conman, or just been young, desperate to be grown-up and tasting those first heady days of independence, this is the book to read.
Sunday, 12 January 2014
The four earlier installments have previously been reviewed here on Bookhound, but just a quick recap. The series starts with the dawn of 1939, and Europe sliding into war. John Russell, a British journalist has been living in Berlin for some years with his German actress girlfriend, Effi. The first 2 novels, Zoo and Silesian Station, deal with John and Effi's time in Berlin, Stettin Station - their attempt to flee the wartorn city, Potsdam is set at the time of the fall of Berlin, while Lehrter and Masaryk Station deal with the aftermath of the war up to the time of the Berlin airlift. Russell with loyalties to Britain and America and a Communist past ends up playing several secret services against each other. And his attempts to keep juggling them while trying to maintain the moral high ground provide the bulk of the story lines.
They might not always be entirely believable, but they're a fun read and at their best there is some seriously good writing here. Zoo Station is a great spy thriller, it reminded me strongly of Ambler's Cause for Alarm (also previously reviewed on Bookhound). And Potsdam Station isn't just a great thriller, it is a seriously good novel in its own right. If you want to know what it's like to live in a city under siege, a city where the norms of civilization are breaking apart this is the novel to read. It is stunningly good.
The last two in the series Lehrter Station and Masaryk Station are in some ways weaker. All the previous novels are easily readable and understandable even if you haven't read the earlier novels. No small feat, as there's a lot of back story - Downing creates really good characters, and much of the suspense is developed because you care about what happens to them. Lehrter however, you will enjoy the novel much more if you know the background. It's also one of the weaker novels in that it revolves strongly around the Black Market, and inevitably is going to be compared to The Third Man.
Masaryk Station, I started off being quite disappointed by it, the pace was rather slow. Much of it wasn't set in Berlin - always Downing's best background. But the final half of the novel was great. It moved at one heck of a pace and brought all the strands of the series neatly together. I'm really going to miss this series, I've loved every moment of it, and will miss John, Effi, and their extended friends and family. Apparently Downing is about to write a new thriller series based around the First World War - I can't wait.
Friday, 3 January 2014
The good thing is that I've already read a chunk - 155 novels - and many of the ones that remain on the list are either sitting on my shelves waiting to be read, were recently given as gifts or loans, or are books that I've wanted to read for a long time. No idea how many of these I'm going to get through by the end of 2014, but making it up to 200 would be excellent.
Wish me luck!
Tuesday, 31 December 2013
For the crime strand I revisited two Agatha Christie classics, one of which I hadn't read for a long time, and had, I think, only read once before. My first Agatha was the classic And then there were none. Mine unfortunately is a very old politically incorrect edition. Nevertheless it remains as striking a novel as ever. Christie's version of a locked room mystery - 10 bodies on an island with no possibility of outside interference - remains as compelling as ever. It just shows what a clever writer she could be, innovative, and able to turn the genre on its head.
And then there were none was first published in 1939, and it was stunningly original. In fact it's never been bettered. It was so original that there's just no way of re-writing it and turning it into anything else. Oddly enough Curtain: Poirot's last case was written around the same time, or shortly after, And then there were none proving that the war years were a period of fertility for Christie.
I hadn't read Curtain for a very long time, and I was stunned by it's power. Curtain brings to the end the Poirot canon. There's an odd story here. Christie apparently became convinced that she might die during the Second World War, and so wrote a final Poirot and a finale for Miss Marple (Sleeping murder also an exceptional novel). Curtain was left in a publisher's safe until shortly before Christie's death, and was finally published in 1975.
One of the real highlights here is the characterisation. Christie is often not big on character, but her portrayal of Hastings, Poirot's loyal ally, and of the aging Poirot himself are stunning. For once Poirot is not the queer little man, he has real depth of character. And Christie's own love for her creation is very apparent. In Curtain Hastings and Poirot return to Styles, the scene of their first investigation, only to find that the house still possesses an evil atmosphere and that murder is again afoot.
It struck me that perhaps part of the power of this novel is its closeness to Christie's own situation. While Hastings is content to view the earlier period at Styles as a happy time - a time of youth with the future before him. Poirot points out that it was very different in reality. There was the shadow of the First World War, uncertainty about the future, unhappy relationships at Styles. In fact all the sorts of things that Agatha herself would have been struggling with at that period before she would have dreamt that she would become the Queen of crime.
It's a stunningly clever novel in terms of a crime novel, but there is real emotional depth to this too. It's very hard to read the final few pages without wanting to cry. Christie occasionally wrote some stinkers (witness the dreadful Secret of Chimneys), but at her best she was sublime, and one of the most innovative writers of crime fiction. Let's raise a glass to Dame Agatha.
Sunday, 29 December 2013
Then one day while on an innocent visit to the local newsagents their world is changed forever when baby Gordon is snatched never to be seen again. The mother's world implodes, and the two older siblings, already very close, are thrown together in the confusion, and as a result of the guilt they face over their less than loving feelings towards their vanished baby brother.
The novel follows Tessa and Lewis, the troubled siblings, through the rest of their lives. Tempestuous Tessa, looking for someone else to blame, who whirls through life never letting anything touch her; while Lewis becomes ever more conservative, desperate to maintain stability at whatever the cost to himself.
I think what I found troubling about this novel was that it was almost too true to life. In most novels something happens to sort the situation out, to move the characters to a better, or at least a different place. But Sweets from Morocco was like life, life just happens a lot of the time, and this was just what happened to the characters. It was oddly unsettling, but eminently readable.
Verity writes character really well, and she draws you into thinking more deeply about the emotional situations that her characters are in. She also makes you think about how their situation fits into your own life. So very thought-provoking. Sweets from Morocco would make an excellent book-club read. Not an easy read, not a comfortable one, but well worth spending some time on.
Saturday, 28 December 2013
On the book front I've read and reviewed 89 books this year, including my first reviewed for a publisher, and received some great comments via Twitter from two of the authors I reviewed. Of the 89 volumes, 25 were old friends, the rest were new reads. Just 8 were non-fiction, but they were complete crackers. I met some great new authors this year. I fell in love with the Victorian writer, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and was thrilled by Michael Jecks' medieval mysteries. Of the 89 reads over half were borrowed from libraries. An indication, if one was ever needed, that in times of economic hardship libraries are more necessary than ever. Most of the books were originally written in English although there were a fair number of translations from Spanish, Russian, Greek, French, Czech and various Scandinavian languages.
So we come to the Bookhound awards for 2013, with awards for Book of the Year, Top Fiction, Non-fiction, New read, Old friend, Crime of the year, Newly discovered author, and everyone's least favourite award Stinker of the year.
Lots of good reads this year in this category, but my top 5 contenders are: The marrying of Chani Kaufman, The big sleep, That summer, The Brothers Karamazov, Curtain: Poirot's last case.
And the winner is.....Eve Harris' wonderful Marrying of Chani Kaufman.
Not many non-fiction books this year, but all were thoroughly enjoyable. My top reads were: Travellers' Tales France, Play it again, Seven men at daybreak, Nicholas and Alexandra.
And the winner is, without any doubt, Alan Rusbridger's Play it again. For any musician this was such a stimulating read. It made me think again about the process involved in learning an instrument, and think too about my own musical journey.
There were a lot of quality new reads. My favourites were: The marrying of Chani Kaufman, Play it again, Victorian ghost stories, The small house at Allington and The house of silk.
Anthony Horowitz' re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes The House of Silk comes very close, but it's a double for Chani Kaufman.
So many well-loved old friends were visited again this year. I loved re-reading: A Christmas carol, That summer, Curtain: Poirot's last case, Wildfire at midnight and Appointment with Venus.
Mary Stewart's Wildfire at Midnight was a delight - so much better than I remembered it, while I had to rewrite this post at short notice having been blown away by the very brilliant Curtain; but the winner is Andrew Greig's moving That Summer - a beautiful book.
I discovered some brilliant authors through 2013. The wonderful Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who I discovered recently also writes a great ghost story, Michael Jecks author of medieval murder mysteries, Spencer Quinn who can make a canine PI believable, Eve Harris whose first novel blew me away, and Jiri Weil whose work is a testament to what is best in the human spirit.
For sheer enjoyment, and because I know this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, it has to be Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
Crime of the year
There was some great crime from old favourites like Curtain by Christie to the very modern but also classic in style Kate Atkinson. My five favourites were Curtain: Poirot's last case by Agatha Christie, Kate Atkinson's Case histories, Spenser Quinn's Dog on it, Raymond Chandler's The big sleep, and Anthony Horowitz' The house of silk. And the winner is Christie's superb Curtain - a lesson in how to write brilliant crime.
Stinker of the year
There've been some great books this year, but also some real shockers. Among them: The secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, proof that even great writers can get it wrong, Nichola McAuliffe's dreadful but oddly endearing A fanny full of soap, another great writer gone wrong P.D. James' Death comes to Pemberley, the badly aged The Wimbledon Poisoner, and the awful The black rose of Florence by Giuttari. Writing badly yourself is bad enough, dragging Jane Austen down with you is unpardonable, the loser is Death comes to Pemberley.
Book of the year
No doubt of the contenders here, all previously mentioned. Chani Kaufman, Play it again, Curtain: Poirot's last case, That summer, and the Oxford book of Victorian ghost stories. And here, I'm afraid I have to give up, I loved all of these far too much to decide between them. They were all wonderful.
A very Happy 2014 to all readers of Bookhound. May there be a very happy year of reading ahead.
Thursday, 26 December 2013
Robert Benoist and Grover Williams both drove for Bugatti between the wars. Benoist was a skilled motor racing driver, intelligent, handsome and a bit of a ladies man; Williams had been a getaway driver for the IRA, before travelling to France where he worked as a chauffeur for the smart set before marrying the beautiful Eve and joining the Bugatti team. When war broke out Williams returned to Britain and joined the fledgling SOE. Parachuted into France he recruited Benoist, they formed an extraordinary team engaged principally in sabotage they also did some spying linking a French factory to the production of Zyklon-B.
They were unlucky though, their circuit, Chestnut, was one of the circuits that was badly hit by Henri Dericourt's(?) treachery and the nearness of the ill-fated Prosper circuit. Betrayed, the two men were captured, following torture in the notorious Avenue Foch, Benoist was murdered in Buchenwald, and Williams was believed killed at Sachsenhausen until some research by Ryan and a fellow researcher suggested that something rather different had happened.
It's an astonishingly moving tale; and a real tribute to the courage of those who worked towards the liberation of Europe. It's hard to tell where fact ends and fiction starts or vice versa in this riveting read, either way it's well worth reading.
A Christmas carol is the only book belonging to my father that I own, and it was the only book from his childhood that survived into adulthood - he came back from the Second World War to discover that his father had sold all his books (Don't ask - my grandfather was distinctly odd).
This particular edition to me is a sort of talisman of happiness. For most people music and scents bring back memories of other times and places. For booklovers, I think there is a third entryway to memory - books. If Claudine goes to school still ushers up the scent of cheese and the excitement of travelling across Europe, and News from Tartary reminds me of a frozen young woman in a snowbound Paddington Station hoping she's going to get home that night, this edition of A Christmas carol makes me think of home, of Christmas trees decorated with trumpets and baubles, of singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody and being amazed by that video on the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops, of a young labrador charging at a Christmas tree, and most of all of Mum and Dad. Dad clinically checking the Christmas cake to make sure it was cooked to perfection, while Mum raced round buying sugared mice and other goodies, and was completely caught up in the wonder of Christmas.
Both are now long dead, but that's what this book does for me. It does in fact exactly what Dickens intended, it conjures up the very best of the spirit of Christmas. It also does what the author of the preface to this volume said it would do. This short novel was my introduction to Dickens, and to Wilkie Collins, Trollope, the Brontes, Defoe, and Dostoevsky. It was what made me realise that "classic" fiction wasn't scary fiction.
I think I first read A Christmas carol when I was about 6 years old. 90 pages that have actually been quite an influence on the rest of my life. A very Merry Christmas to you all.
Monday, 23 December 2013
The novel follows the life of Jesus from the latter end of his ministry through his death and resurrection to subsequent events in the wider Jerusalem community. Although, perhaps oddly, Jesus is not really the central figure here. The novel follows the story through people who will have a central role in the story, but only for a very limited time - Mary, Judas, Caiaphas, and Barabbas. Alderman comes from an Orthodox Jewish background, and for me this was the most fascinating part of the novel - her slant on life within a Jewish context was fascinating, shedding a new light on, for example, Jesus' arguments with the priests. Less anger, and more typical of a pious man from an adversarial religious tradition engaging with other pious men.I also thoroughly enjoyed the background drawn on the historic and political context.
Alderman's main premise is that the gospels are to a certain extent (perhaps even wholly) lies; as, and I think she has a point here, is any story or version of events. Any story, even an historical tale will be coloured rightly or wrongly, inaccurately or not, by the person who is telling the story, and their outlook on it. Alderman has looked at the gospels, studied the Torah, and Josephus, and other early historical accounts of the rise of Christianity; and has come to the conclusion that the story of Jesus is probably the story of several men intermingled. With multiple Messiahs roaming the Holy Land around Jesus' time - a time of great civil and political unrest, as well as religious fervour, this wouldn't be altogether unsurprising. I don't have a problem with this contention, neither do I have a problem with what she seems to imply in her acknowledgements, that possibly Josephus' mentions of Jesus may have been "massaged" at a later period to further enhance the validity of the gospels. That, I would guess, is equally true of the writers of the gospels themselves - there is some argument, for example, that the sections of the gospels that deal with Jesus being the vindication of Old Testament prophecies were not thought of while Jesus was alive, but were added later on.
What annoyed me about The liars' gospel though was that it was being presented as a new argument, when in fact all of this - the claims of multiple men mixed together, the remodelling of Josephus - is old hat; arguments that have been around for some time. Alderman, herself, rather bizarrely comes to some confusion here citing specific passages from Matthew to uphold her narrative thrust, so choosing the bits of the gospels that she thinks support her case. A very dangerous move and one that religious fundamentalists of all persuasions have been too keen to do throughout history (NOT that I'm suggesting that Alderman falls into this category).
More worryingly some points were just historically inaccurate. Her suggestion that there was biblical re-writing to shift the blame from Rome to the Jews as Christianity becomes big business doesn't make sense. Matthew, without doubt the most anti-semitic of the gospels, was almost certainly written around the end of the 1st century AD, a period when Christians were being heavily persecuted in Rome, and when most people, I guess, would have little thought that it would become a major world religion. So when does this re-writing happen? I'm not saying that Christianity doesn't hold some measure of responsibility for the anti-semitism of later centuries. It is also true that people can be far too eager to take simplistic views, and to be swayed by actions that are, at heart, more politically than religiously motivated. This has sadly been true throughout history; but to believe that Rome itself was putting some sort of a PR spin on the gospels just seems odd to me; and I think gives the Romans credit for a lot more foresight than they could possibly have had.
It's a well-written book, in many ways fascinating. I loved the Jewish context, it made me look at the New Testament in quite a different way. For those who know little about the history of the period, or religion, the novel will probably be a bit of a shock - the general description of it by critics appears to be "visceral", but what is more visceral than the original gospel accounts, which still pack a punch? - you only need to listen to something like Bach's St. Matthew Passion to realize that. Did it make me change my beliefs? No. But, I think it's the kind of novel that can be challenging to belief - and quite right too.