Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Our Man in Havana - post I

The country might be different and the characters new but Graham Greene still has an eye for detail and of course the Catholic Church makes an appearance. What makes this book more of a light hearted read is that the main character Joe Wormold a vacuum cleaner salesman is not only non-religious but much more likely to have a crack at living life in more of a way than poor Scobie did in Heart of the Matter.

Bullet points from pages 1 – 60

* Wormold is a man under pressure with a beautiful and shopaholic daughter, a business that is suffering and a love for a wife that left him to run off with an American and to top it all he is an Englishman coping with all of this in Havana

* Then things take a mysterious turn when an English visitor visits his vacuum cleaner shop and then approaches him later to become a secret service agent for the British secret service in Cuba

* Because his daughter has expensive habits, which include a horse and membership of the country club, he ends up0 taking the position as the agent on the island responsible for recruiting some sub agents and sending in reports to London

* He has no idea what he is doing but reveals what has happened to his friend a German doctor Hasselbacher who advises him just to start making things up which Wormold starts to do waiting anxiously to see if his report has been accepted by Hawthorne, his handler in London

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Aimez-vous Brahms...

The young lawyer keeps doggedly perusing the older woman and is handed a nugget when he discovers that her lover Roger is cheating on her, something he keeps to himself presumably to be used later, quite when we will see in the next couple of days

Chapter six
Simon invites Paule to a concert..Aimez-vous Brahms...and meets her in the foyer after he has been driving out in the country and she has been killing time at home. On his jaunt in the countryside he met Roger with a girl and although he doesn’t reveal that he tells Paule that she is alone and he loves her

Chapter seven
Roger returns with his mistress and heads straight round to see Paule who has just got in from the Brahms concert and is in a strange mood and reveals that she went with Simon to the concert, a fact that causes Roger anger and pain

Chapter eight
Simon writes to apologise and tells Paule that he is going to the country to work on a case and as a result will not be able to see her. Paule replies to the letter but you have to wait until the end of the chapter to find out she is giving him some encouragement

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Heart of the Matter - post IV

Poor old Scobie he reminds you of a Kafka character as he drifts through the final stages unable to resist the inevitable end being bullied by his wife, mistress, blackmailer and God. With Wilson, whom you never really get to see other than glimpses, Greene creates a character that you loathe because even after Scobie has died he is after him trying to prove he committed suicide. But presumably that is the fortune teller getting it right because he does catch his man, even after death.

Bullet points between pages 210 – 272

* With his wife back Scobie faces pressure over his relationship with Helen and is dragged along to communion and Mass in an attempt by his wife to get him to turn his back on his adultery something she becomes aware of after Wilson tells her

* Ironically Scobie is offered the position of Police Commissioner after all, which makes his wife happy, and had it happened earlier would have meant he could have avoided all of his current problems

* The struggle with God becomes almost an obsession for Scobie as he confesses frankly to the priest and keeps calling for some sort of divine retribution for his continuing sins against God and his wife

* Scobie starts to believe he cannot trust anyone and visits Yusef and opens up to him telling him that he can not even trust his servant Ali who is then sent for but turns up dead outside the Syrians office with his throat cut

* That seems to mark the turning point and after that Scobie imitates the symptoms of angina and starts storing the tablets for a fatal overdose, which he takes hoping that although it means as a catholic he is dammed he has at last found peace

* But after the death Wilson comes sniffing round and points out that entries in the diary to emphasise the illness have been added and suggests suicide a thought that obviously sticks with Louise his widow because the book ends with her arguing with the priest over why he committed suicide

A review follows in a couple of days after this has all been mulled over. Next up for a change in tone but from the same author I’m going to dust off a copy of Our Man in Havana that has been on the shelf for the past couple of years…

Lunchtime read: Aimez-vous Brahms...

Years ago in a pub I bumped into someone from Paris who although not that much older than me informed me that British men did not know how to make love and the French were the best lovers in the world. Fine, all stereotypical stuff, but what stayed with me was his unwarranted advice about older women. “Older women are great but just don’t be there when they wake up,” he said referring to the effects that natural light and smudged make-up can create. Never had the chance to put his advice to the test but it looks like Simon will if he manages to pin Paule down…

Chapter three
Roger wants it both ways with Paule on the end of a string and his flings with girls but he gets a shock when Simon sits with them at a bar and starts being forward with Paule before drinking far too much and talking nonsense before being taken home

Chapter four
Simon surprises her as she decorates a shop window and asks her out for lunch and attempts to discover a bit more about her relationship with Roger and impress himself on her a bit more

Chapter five
Roger is meant to take Paule away for a weekend but cancels and lies about work while he goes with someone else and that leaves Paule at a loose end so she decides to visit Simon’s mother and as she is leaving bumps into Simon who blocks her passage for a second increasing the sexual tension by a notch

More tomorrow…

Shaping the debate

The position of writers in society is one that is often taken for granted but because of their ability to view the past as well as the present with an empathy for characters of all classes they can have the power to influence the political debate.

The Independent reports that the points that Alexander Solzhenitsyn is making in a preface to an article he is republishing about the Russian revolution should make interesting reading in the Kremlin. He points out that the conditions that existed in the run up to the downfall of the Tsar are around now with a massive gap between rich and poor and a moral gap between rural and urbanised Russia. Of course the one ingredient missing is the First World War, and it is arguably the poor performance of the army and low troop morale that led to the Tsar’s abdication. That provided the power vacuum that led to the provisional then communist governments. But in terms of criticising the wealth gap Solzhenitsyn is making a valid point.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Heart of the Matter - post III

This is so well written because just as you think you can predict what happens next the plate’s shift and Scobie’s wife returns, Yusef moves from menacing friend to out and out blackmailer and there is still the threat of Wilson to come.

Bullet points between pages 140 - 210

* The relationship between Scobie and the child (19) widow Helen moves from friendship to love and things are sealed with an evening stay and presumably, although this is not gone into in depth, a bit of something physical

* Harris and Wilson, two occupants from the hotel, move in together in a hut next to Helen and Harris discovers in their old magazine that Wilson has written a poem about his love for Louise Scobie

* Scobie has a meeting with the commissioner and the truth about Wilson being some sort of government agent and the commissioner reveals that Scobie is being suspected as a blackmail victim by Yusef the Syrian and that Wilson trusts nobody

* The relationship between Scobie and Helen starts to get fractious after she accuses him of being so careful in their relationship he hardly cares and in response he writes her a very emotional love letter which disappears

* The reader suspects, and you feel Scobie does as well, Wilson as being the culprit but it turns out to be Yusef’s boy who has stolen the letter and as a result Scobie can be blackmailed to take a package onto a ship set for Portugal

* Scobie is in a corner because he wife has telegrammed to say she is returning so he cannot afford to have his affair revealed so takes the package and now has compromised everything and the lies keep coming when Louise returns

Of course we know that Yusef’s boy is in the pay of Wilson so the chances are that both the details of the love letter and the package blackmail will be known by someone keen to get him out of the way with the woman they love back on the scene. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Aimez-vous Brahms...

Books are great ways of travelling without moving and so for this week it seemed like an attractive idea spending some time in Paris with Francoise Sagan's character Paule, an interior designer and her troubled love-life.

Highlights from the first 20 pages

Chapter One
You get introduced to Paule who is involved in an open relationship with Roger and not enjoying it because she feels lonely and is seeking more from him, something he senses and is not prepared or able to give

Chapter Two
Paule needs to get some money so visits one of her interior designs clients and while she waits she comes across her son simon who takes a shine to her and asks her out for lunch and despite a 14 year age gap seems very keen on her

Sunday, February 25, 2007

book of books - The Tales of Ivan Belkin

Pushkin is most well known for writing Onegin, being Russia’s most famous writer and dying after a duel. But even after Onegin, a story written like an extended poem, you want more evidence of his work and this little volume is something well worth seeking out. The stories are a joy to read and he manages to grip your interest in just a couple of pages and then never lets go until the very end.

What made reading this special was the extra interest of the version of the book, which was published in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, by some sort of Russian literature organisation trying to promote the works of the state to a wider audience. The book, which is stapled with rusting metal, is full of illustrations and that added to the affection for the stories.

Of the stories my favourite two were The Undertaker and The Shot, brief explanations follow below:

The Undertaker
Adrian the undertaker has just moved into a new house which he is very pleased with when his neighbour a German calls on his and his daughters to join him the day after for a meal to celebrate his wedding anniversary. As they make toasts someone makes a joke at the undertaker’s expense asking him why he doesn’t raise a toast to his dead customers. He returns home in a rage and says he will not invite any of them to his house warming and would rather have all of his dead customers there. He returns home that night to find his house full of skeletons all coming in response to his invitation. He faints and then comes round to be told by his housekeeper it was all a drunken dream...or was it?

The Shot
The story evolves around an ex officer, Silvio, who spends his spare time in and around entertaining people from the regiment shooting his pistol. Silvio is an ace shot so when he is insulted by a new comer everyone expects a duel that will end in the life of the fresh entrant to the regiment. But there is no duel and then after receiving a letter Silvio gets ready to leave telling Belkin that he is going to revenge himself on someone who hit him in the face six years before. Five years pass and Belkin meets the count and his wife who are vesting their estate in his village and it turns out to be the man Silvio intended to kill but decided against it after accepting that he had made his rival fear death, which is revenge enough.

Is it worth reading?
To see how someone was playing around with language and literary conventions is fantastic and Pushkin introduces the book not as his own work but as the papers of a deceased landowner Ivan Belkin. This device allows him to produce a series of completely unconnected stories without any explanation. The locations change and the characters but what remains constant is the high quality of writing and anyone considering getting involved with the art of short story writing could learn a great deal from this collection. It has a rhythm, a tight structure and the ability to pull off twists in a limited number of pages.

More evidence if it were needed to justify Pushkin’s position in the Russian literary firmament

bookmark of the week

You are never too old to run around a castle swinging a stick above your head yelling ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and various other realistic knight phrases. Of course you have to pretend to be an adult again to pop into the shop and buy a bookmark…

Saturday, February 24, 2007

book of books - The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene does something rather clever having a main character that is nameless who grows throughout the book to represent something bigger than himself. In the end he is not the martyr but the cause he believes in is. Although this book came in for some flak because it has a priest who more than likes a tipple and has a daughter, it shows that even a priest is capable of going on a spiritual journey. The destination of his journey is not just death but enlightenment with him realising that to die for his faith is his purpose and the one last way to wipe away his sins.

Plot summary
Based in Mexico against a backdrop of persecution against the Catholic Church a priest is hunted down by a lieutenant who makes it his job to catch him and bring him to justice. In parallel there is an American gangster on the loose and the authorities set out to get him as well. The priest wanders through communities he knows but is eventually shunned because the police are taking hostages and shooting them unless they tell them where the priest is. After encountering a Judas figure who plans to drop the priest in it for the reward the priest lies low but his need for alcohol lands him in trouble and he is caught with a bottle of brandy and put in prison where he confesses who he is but the people protect him and in a way he finds heaven in hell. He then heads for the border and after finding a victim of the American gangster gets across to safety but the Judas comes looking for him and drags him back across the border to give last rights to the dying American and then the police capture him. He is sentenced to death and shot but that same evening another priest arrives.

Is it well written?
What you start to appreciate with Greene is that although the plot can sometimes become obvious there is such a depth to his characters and description of locations you end up wishing that it would all last longer. Both the priest and the lieutenant chasing after him are unnamed and both are united by a passion and then resignation that they have to follow what they believe in. There are lots of subtle gearshifts that keep you guessing quite what will happen but you always know that the only way the whiskey priest can find salvation and peace is at the end of a gun. Likewise Greene leaves you with a sense that no matter how hard the authorities try they will never succeed in getting rid of the priests.

Should it be read?
A few years ago Time listed this among its top 100 books and the reason is because partly the controversy it caused, with the Catholic Church understandably frowning on the depiction of a priest with a daughter and a drink problem. But it is also on that list because of the writing and although I have never been to Mexico you can start to appreciate the villages and the landscape as a result of Greene’s prose. The other slight problem for this book is that along with The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair and to some extent Brighton Rock this gets lumped together with those as a ‘catholic’ novel and while that is true it does deserve to stand alone as a work and it could be read without reference to those other books.

A whiskey priest breaking all the rules discovers that death is its own reward and those who kill him face a struggle they will ultimately lose to stamp out a religion

Version read – Vintage Classics paperback

Banned yet freely Independent

Shortly going to pop out and get The Independent, which is giving away a free copy of Clockwork Orange as part of a Banned Books promotion. The paper did a feature about banned books on Thursday and included some interesting quotes by politicians and authors about the importance of free speech. Among the best was a quote from Alfred Whitney Griswold from the New York Times who said in 1959:

“Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”

Mind you that reminds me of a quote from Stalin about ideas being dangerous: “We would not let our enemies have guns so why should we let them have ideas?” It’s for that reason those censoring books should be very careful.

Anyway I’m hoping the hardback edition of Clockwork Orange will have an introduction explaining the importance of keeping banned books in circulation. I’ll update this after I get to the newsagents…

UPDATE - very nice little hardback that comes with an introduction that sketches out a history of the book and the banning problems it had. But after getting something for free of course the catch is that the next twenty or so books in the series will each cost £3.49 each and will only be available in selected newsagents. Sounds like a lot of hassle for books you could easily get out of the library.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Heart of the Matter - post II

There is a bit in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells a young Luke Skywalker in a short monologue what the history of the rebellion and clone wars was all about and it sets things up nicely. There is a similar moment in this book where an Indian fortune teller explains to Wilson (and the reader) how the story will roughly unfold over the next hundred or so pages. Letting the reader in on the story is a device that some writers use so it will be interesting to see how Greene makes it work.

Bullet points between pages 52 – 140

* The desire of Scobie’s wife to depart for South Africa starts to cast a long shadow over his daily life and he starts to dread the subject coming up with his wife when he gets home

* Wilson eventually gives into the fortune teller waiting outside his rooms and allows his palm to be read and he is told that he will catch his man and sail away with the woman he loves

* Any doubts you might have had about the woman he loves are dispelled when he declares his love for Scobie’s wife Louise and doubts that the man he catches might be Scobie start to melt away as he in linked with a corrupt Syrian who has lent him the money to pay for Louise’s passage

* The Syrian, Yusef, keeps hinting to Scobie that Wilson is a secret agent sent to try and get to the root of the illicit trade in industrial diamonds and has a show down with Scobie after some victims of convoy torpedoing are buried

* Wilson accuses Scobie of sending Louise away because he knew that she loved Wilson but Scobie denies this but then gets a glimpse into the venom the man is storing up for the policeman as he asks him where he got the money for to pay her passage

* Things end with Scobie helping a young teacher who has lost her husband in the sea crossing and has only just started to come to life again after being saved and helped by doctors

Things are hotting up not just between Scobie and Wilson but also between Scobie and the young widow…

Lunchtime read: The Tales of Ivan Belkin

There is a rhythm to the way that Pushkin writes that reads as if it was being read out if you can sense what I mean. There is never really a moment when the pace changes except to get faster as it nears the climax of the story. The result is that these stories are all a pleasure to read.

Lady into Lassie
Two neighbouring landowners have fallen out and that situation is the norm until one landowner has his son arrive to live with him. The daughter of the other landowner is intrigued but after hearing from her maid how the young aristocrat flirts with peasant girls she goes in disguise to meet him. Illicit meetings continue but in the meantime following a horsing accident the two landowners meet and start to thaw out their friendship and in the end they agree to let their children get married. Outraged that he is going to be asked to marry someone he doesn’t love the son barges into the girls room unannounced to discover his real love is one and the same as this girl before him.

Review follows over the weekend…

Who is the greatest?

Creating coverage out of something it wrote itself has led The Guardian to devote its lead feature today to debating who is Britain’s greatest living author. What started the debate is a news story the paper produced last week that referred to Martin Amis as the person but no doubt this will run and run.

The problem with judging a living writer is that because they are continuing to produce work they still might have a War and Peace up their sleeve and it might be unwise to judge them just on the output up to date. Describing something as a ‘classic’ usually comes after the death of the writer and as a yardstick that seems a good guide. In terms of measuring greatness it’s so subjective that inevitably it will come down to either volume of sales or personal popularity.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Heart of the Matter - post I

Keeping with not just Graham Greene but also with one of his Catholic novels you go from Mexico to a West African colony and from one main character with no name to another with one that is pretty memorable. Within pages you are slowly engaged with the hot and frustrating life of Scobie and the problems he faces at work and at home.

Bullet points from pages 1 – 52

* Things start with a new arrival, Wilson, looking down from a balcony and being introduced to the heat, the cynicism and Scobie, a moment that Greene describes as something he will remember in the future

* Then the story switches to Scobie who is informed by his boss that although he is retiring Scobie has been passed over and is now expected to retire, an option that Scobie turns down despite the problems it will cause for him with his wife

* His wife Louise has no friends and is desperate to leave the colony and begs her husband to retire or at least let her move to South Africa where she has some friends who like her, instead of just Wilson who she meets and shares a mutual interest in poetry

* Scobie asks the bank for a loan but is turned down and starts to muse on the possibility of accepting bribes as one way of finding the money to pay for his wife to leave and travel to South Africa

Just like Tench in The Power and The Glory, Scobie is trapped by his lack of funds not being able to pay for passage out of the country. Quite what he will do about it remains to be seen. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Tales of Ivan Belkin

Another lunch break and another story from Pushkin and this time it has a tragic ending very much in the Russian style with the postmaster dying with a broken heart, that manifests itself in a major drink problem.

The Postmaster
The narrator stops at a post station one night and comes cross a postmaster with a beautiful daughter and he enjoys speaking and drinking with them before hitting the road. Her goes back years later and discovers the old man living alone and he tells the traveller a story about the disappearance of his daughter. She was taken by a hussar who dragged her off to Petersburg but when the old man comes looking for her he is turned away and returns home and never sees her again. When the traveller returns for as third time he is told the old man has died of drink and then a boy takes him to his grave and tells him the story of how a woman came recently and lay on the grave for a long time. Nothing is said by the traveller knows that it was the daughter from all those years before come back to try and make peace with her father.

Last tale of Belkin tomorrow…

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Banning God

The historical backdrop to The Power and The Glory is the religious persecution of the Catholics in Mexico in the 1920s when priests were shot, churches closed down and most outward signs of religion were made unlawful. As always the quick guide to what it was all about is to be found on Wikipedia.

The idea of the persecution is of course great material for writers like Graham Greene and this book was filmed a couple of times, but it does make you wonder why some political leaders try to ban God. At the end of The Power and the Glory as another priest arrives it becomes clear that despite the threat of firing squads and rejection by a scared populous there will be more men coming to carry out God’s work.

A few years ago on a trip to Russia what struck me as I wandered through some of the most amazing churches on the tourist trail, full of mosaics and gold, that had been grain stores and museums of atheism under Stalin, was that no man can ever really ban God. It has returned and those churches are now used again as places of worship. God outlasted him.

Along with a lot of deep stuff about what makes a good or bad religious person in Greene’s book there is also this question being asked about how and why politicians feel that it is possible to wipe out something millions of people believe in. For that reason alone this book has a timeless quality rising above its particular historical situation becoming something that we all have to think about and decide for ourselves what we think, particularly in this day and age where people are only too happy to try and outlaw entire religious communities.

The Power and the Glory - post III

The end for the priest draws nigh and arrives and betrayed and hated he manages to sow the seeds of doubt in his enemies and sow the seeds of love in his passing as he defends what he believes in until the end. His search for a confessor is ironically half fulfilled by the police lieutenant who has been perusing him and hates him and all he stands for. Greene also masterly pulls back from focusing on the priest in the final stages and shows how his death impacts people in the town and shows the power of the church and its persistence undermining everything the authorities believe they are achieving.

Bullet points between pages 164 – 220

* Having allowed himself to be taken back across the border by the Judas who tells him the American criminal the police have been hunting concurrently with him is dying and wants to have a priest the trap is set and he walks into it

* The criminal dies and then the lieutenant who has been pursuing him enters the hut and tells him he is under arrest for treason and then the journey back to the city starts interrupted by a theological and political discussion between the two men

* Back in the city the priest asks for someone to confess to but the priest in the town who is married and has accepted the humiliation heaped on him by the authorities fails in this last act of friendship and goes back to his slow death of daily failure

* The priest dreams of friendship, rescue and regrets for his daughter and his life and wakes in the morning ready to face the firing squad and the end but it is told by the parents of the girl who helped him, she must have died, and then from the window of Tench’s surgery

* One family, those who must have helped him at the start are talking about the priest and the lieutenant walks by and the boy who has just read of the martyrs spits at him and later that night there is a knock at the door and he thinks it might be the policeman coming back for revenge but it turns out to be another priest ready to come and risk his life

A full review will follow in the next couple of days…

Lunchtime read: The Tales of Ivan Belkin

Another story from the pen of Pushkin and this time it is like a macabre fairy tale, with a great illustration (scanned in) that adds to the nightmare.

The Undertaker
Adrian the undertaker has just moved into a new house which he is very pleased with when his neighbour a German calls on his and his daughters to join him the day after for a meal to celebrate his wedding anniversary. As they make toasts someone makes a joke at the undertaker’s expense asking him why he doesn’t raise a toast to his dead customers. He returns home in a rage and says he will not invite any of them to his house warming and would rather have all of his dead customers there. He returns home that night to find his house full of skeletons all coming in response to his invitation. He faints and then comes round to be told by his housekeeper it was all a drunken dream.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Power and the Glory - post II

Greene sets it up so well because the sympathy for the priest comes and goes with it leaving when innocent men are shot on his behalf but coming back again when you think he himself might get a bullet. There is also the question of faith and what makes him a good catholic and the scene in the prison is almost biblical in the way he finds community and friendship among murderers and thieves.

It is also worth mentioning that the main character of the priest is never named, something which I have to say I like because if he had a name then it would detract from the idea that he is simply a priest or at worst a whiskey priest

Bullet points between pages 96 – 164

* The priest understands that the man who has tagged along with him towards Carmen is planning to drop him in it with the authorities to get the reward so the priest takes the decision to let him go into the city on his mule alone

* The story then breaks and you pick it up with the priest meeting a beggar in the city and asking for a drink which takes him into contact with a relation of the governor and the police chief who sell him some wine and brandy

* As he is leaving the illegal drink buying meeting he is chased and caught by the police and when he is in a packed cell he finds the courage to tell the assembled criminals that he is a priest and finds the strength to explain he is not worthy of being a martyr and expects to die

* After cleaning out the toilets and meeting the man who planned to report him to the authorities, who realises he is onto something much better by living off the police as they search for him, he leaves with the intention of heading over the border

* On the way he reappears at the banana store where he had met the girl but it is deserted and all he finds is an Indian mother mourning her son who has been shot in mysterious circumstances

* He accompanies her to a burial ground then with a high fever travels through the mountains before stumbling across a village and finding not only safety but a place where priests are still revered

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Tales of Ivan Belkin

This story has a great twist that you don’t see coming right until the very end and is written in a gripping style that takes you from one melodrama to another.

A young couple are in love but the girl’s parents disapprove so they plan to elope and get married in a church nearby before lying low and hoping the parents will become reconciled to what has happened. But the night they plan to depart there is a terrible blizzard and the groom completely misses the church getting lost in the snow and then breaks links with the family and goes to fight against Napoleon and dies from his wounds after the battle of Borodino. Meanwhile the girl is heartbroken and almost dies of fever but years later falls in love with a young officer. But he tells her that he cannot get married because one night in a blizzard he walked by mistake into a church and ended up marrying a stranger…

Fantastic stuff. More tomorrow…

Watching is not the same

Suspicions that television is not the greatest thing for children have been in the news again. Of course there is the angle here that you can spin it out that watching TV is obviously time spent that could have been used reading or playing in a more imaginative way.

One thing I have always struggled with is the idea that watching television is educational. It is a passive activity and you might pick up a few facts and figures but it doesn’t ask as much of its audience as an author does of a reader. Children should of course have a choice but parents should not be suckered into thinking that television can replace the experience of reading.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Power and The Glory - post I

When this book first starts you can not help thinking that it is going to like that other Graham Greene book A Burnt-Out Case and be based in a remote river port with a small village with natives and expats lurking around but the spread of the Mexico opens up and you are quickly immersed kin a world of politics both national and anti-Catholic and local with the tensions of ambitious policemen and scared villagers.

Bullet points from pages 1 – 96

* Things start with the dentist in a town, Tench, walking down to see if the oxygen tanks to ease the pain of his operations for patients has arrived and there he meets a stranger dressed in black who has brandy – a magical commodity in a country where alcohol is banned

* Tench talks to the stranger who wants to catch the boat but a boy comes to the house and begs the stranger to come and heal his mother and as a result the man goes away although clearly bitterly

* You pick things up again with some background on the police who are trying to catch a priest, a job that gets you shot in Mexico during this period, and they come up with a plan to take hostages from villages the priest might have visited to try to catch him

* If you want to remain a priest, as one has done in the town, then you have to marry and forgo a lot of the activities like praying that you could have done in the past and become a demoralised advert for the failure of the church

* Still the whisky priest, it becomes obvious he has a drink problem, goes from village to village passing through his old parish until he comes to the town where his daughter lives and even there he is told to move on because of the fear of police reprisals

* The priest comes face to face with the policeman trying to catch him but dressed as a peasant slips through the net but then heads off to his home town following on the heels of the police and on the last stretch of the way he attracts the unwanted attentions of a man he is convinced plans to hand him over to the police

Will he get caught? What role does Tench the dentist have to play in this? More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Tales of Ivan Belkin

There is a great introduction to this where Pushkin describes the short life of Ivan Belkin via a neighbour who describes him as being an ex solider who through a combination of laziness and weakness allow his peasants on his estate to run rings round him and he eventually dies at the age of 30 leaving just a few pages of an unfinished novel that form the basis of the stories

The Shot
The story evolves around an ex officer, Silvio, who spends his spare time in and around entertaining people from the regiment shooting his pistol. Silvio is an ace shot so when he is insulted by a new comer everyone expects a duel that will end in the life of the fresh entrant to the regiment. But there is no duel and then after receiving a letter Silvio gets ready to leave telling Belkin that he is going to revenge himself on someone who hit him in the face six years before. Five years pass and Belkin meets the count and his wife who are vesting their estate in his village and it turns out to be the man Silvio intended to kill but decided against it after accepting that he had made his rival fear death, which is revenge enough.

A cracking little story that despite the morbid content makes you appreciate just what Pushkin was doing bringing in the mannerisms and speech of solders and counts in a way that had not be done before.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, February 18, 2007

book of books - The Pearl

This is one of those books that was part of the staple diet when I was at school and might well be on the curriculum now because it is able to take you on a rollercoaster on sharing the aspirations, understanding the greed then learning of its dangers. Where things get interesting is when you start to compare this with some of the other John Steinbeck novels you might have read because the location is different from the Californian valleys used in East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath and to unlike those desperately seeking money the irony here is that Kino finds it pretty quickly in the form of the pearl.

Plot summary
Kino and his wife Juana live in a brush hut in poverty but have a desperate need of money once their son gets stung by a scorpion and so head off for a pearl diving trip hoping that Kino can bring up the greatest pearl from the deep. He manages to do just that but the pearl dealers in town try to trick him and he ends up going against the natural laws of his community and becoming a target of thieves and jealousy. Kino announces his attention to leave but finds his canoe broken then is almost killed and murders his attacker before watching his house burn down. That night the three of them head off on foot to cross the mountains but are caught up with by trackers who in the end get killed by Kino but not before they have shot his son. The family return and Kino throws the cursed pearl back into the sea.

Is it well written?
It is a rollercoaster going from the euphoria of finding the pearl to the despair of the trickery and desperation other have for it to a point where everything the pearl could have saved and made better is destroyed. Although I didn’t refer to them in the daily posts there is also a tribal mentality expressed through the songs that Kino hears in his head to express family, joy and evil. There is not too much dialogue but the music in Kino’s head and the expressions shared between him and Juana are enough to convey a great deal of emotion and dialogue.

Should it be read?
It should but the question is when. As a teenager this book passed me by and was one of those set for assignments that because of the length looked deceptively easy and as a result never really got read properly. Coming back to it now, partly thanks to a 99p price tag in Oxfam, it is a much more powerful story. Part of the reason for that is not just that I have a family but as a man strangled by his mortgage with horizons limited by income it is possible to relate to the desire for a pearl in a different way.

Summary – poor man finds wealth but discovers the possibility of untold riches can destroy his world and leave him losing everything

Version read – Pan paperback

bookmark of the week

The web is a wonderful thing and a few weeks ago I registered my desire to help promote World Book Day on 1 March through the Quick Reads campaign, but then promptly forgot all about it. Then a package turned up with some bookmarks, pens and posters in so not only does it become bookmark of the week but if you fancy a quick reads bookmark and pen of your own then email me and I will be happy to post one out anywhere in the world.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lunchtime (bedtime) read: The Pearl

The phrase be careful what you wish for was never more apt than with this final chapter of The Pearl. Gripping until the very end there is a rapidity in the story here that is refreshing after some of Steinbeck’s longer and slower books East of Eden and even to some extent Grapes of Wrath. But just as with Mice and Men he has the ability to pull on the heartstrings with ease as Kino ends his journey with the pearl.

Chapter six
Having decided to leave and head away from the village Kino and his wife Juana pack up and head for the mountains but after a while they discover they are being tracked and in a flight of panic head for the mountains. But the trackers follow them and although Kino’s family hide in a cave the men decide to sleep at the foot of the rocks and Kino feels he has no choice other than to kill them. But before he can they shoot at what they think is a coyote and shoot the baby. In a rage Kino kills them all but now with his son dead he returns to the village and throws the pearl back into the sea.

A story like this makes you wonder if it’s worth doing the lottery…still wouldn’t it be great to win enough to be able to walk out on your job? They wouldn’t bother sending trackers…

Review to follow tomorrow

book of books - Amerika

In the 1972 Penguin version a friend of Franz Kafka’s Max Brod makes the comments that writing this book pleased Kafka and there were very few deletions and changes but he stopped writing it suddenly and it was left unfinished although the author did read out the passages about the Oklahoma theatre and had planned it to be a final chapter of reconciliation.

There is something rather difficult with a book that remains unfinished because you are left wondering how things would have developed to be given just fragments that then have the effect of making it harder. It would almost be easier if the book had petered out at the end of the section with Karl being a servant but you are left presuming that he became the trusted confidant of Brunelda the singer and then after that arrangement had ended stumbled across the Oklahoma theatre as a way to save himself and find his own part of the American dream.

Plot summary
Karl Rossmann has been sent to America from Europe by his parents after the 16 year old was seduced and then fathered a child by the housemaid. As the boat arrives in New York Karl has a stroke of luck that while defending a stoker to the captain he is introduced to his uncle a rich senator who takes him away and is in a position to offer him a life of luxury. But by accepting an invitation from a banker friend of his uncle’s Karl is cut off from his uncle and starts a transitory life that evolves around Robinson and Delamarche, two men he meets in an inn the first night he is alone. Although he has a couple of months as a lift boy in a hotel Karl eventually ends up with Robinson and Delamarche who have hooked up with a singer Brunelda and wait and dote on her respectively. Karl is introduced to her as a servant and initially fights the situation but then seems to accept it and it is at that point the main body of the book breaks off and following that there are fragments that lead you to believe he manages to get away from Robinson and Delamarche and then leaves New York altogether and joins the Oklahoma Theatre company.

Is it well written?
Although Kafka described this book as lighter than his others there is still a dark undercurrent running through it fuelled by the uncertainly caused by industrialisation on a mass scale. At the heart of it is the idea, and in this respect it reminds you a bit of Fear and Loathing by Hunter S. Thompson, about the quest for the American dream, which equates to success. But the twist added by Kafka is that those characters that should be content are in fact some of the most insecure so his uncle drops him just because he visits someone and the bankers he meets are almost unable to hold a normal conversation. The part of the American dream that Kafka displays most often is the violence that often accompanies the desire to be secure. It is not just on display with the head porter in the hotel, who is on the brink of assaulting Karl before he escapes, but also with the candidate for a judge position who’s electoral campaign ends in a brawl. Amerika moves along with the reader constantly asking questions of Karl and his environment and in that respect Kafka does achieve the aim of underlining the point that America is a different country with its own ways of working.

Should it be read?
In some ways this is an old fashioned book with the passages describing the numerous people doing the jobs that no would be done by one person or might even be automated. But for those readers interested in America’s industrial history then this along with the likes of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser adds to the picture of a rapidly evolving country where the gap between rich and poor is a wide one. Following on from something like The Trial this also adds to the Kafka style but at the same time shows that he was capable of setting his characters in different locations and with the glimpse of the final chapter able to conclude a book in a more upbeat way. So those wanting to get a feel for Kafka should pick this up because it is important to get the 360 view of his work and bypass the stereotype that all he was capable of producing was dark stories.

An expanding American economy seen through the eyes of a Czech immigrant who never quite grasps how to be a winner

Version read – Penguin Modern Classics

Friday, February 16, 2007

The right cover

Over the last week the version of Amerika I have been reading is from the latest Penguin modern classics range coming out next week. But before that copy turned up I had already managed to get my hands on a 1972 copy which has a cover by Paul Kelpe a detail from his painting Abstract No.2 for the Department of Labor in Washington. It supplements the theme of industrialisation that runs through the book slightly better than the latest cover, which I will post tomorrow along with the review. Art is subjective but it does help when a cover has the ability to chime in with the contents in a way that this one does.

Lunchtime read: The Pearl

Things go from bad to worse for poor old Kino as the greed and anger bubble up and result in reducing all of his options except that of leaving the village

Chapter five

The pearl potentially could destroy the family so Kino’s wife heads down to the shore to throw it back into the sea but her husband catches her and hits her then heads off back home

His wife returns from the shore to find Kino covered in blood coming too on the path and a dead man next to him, who she quickly hides in the bush, but they know now that they have to leave

Kino tells her to pack everything and he goes to get his canoe but discovers his most treasured possession has been punched in and as he heads back he sees the flames of his house burning and gets his wife and child to hide with him in his brother’s house

They hide all day and as evening comes get ready to set off to another city to escape the death that surely awaits them if they stay

Last chapter tomorrow…

Kafka's ingredients of fear and uncertainty

Having now read two of Franz Kafka’s three novels, Amerika and The Trial, it’s possible to start to put down some thoughts about what makes his world so different. Most of the time you feel uncomfortable because you know that even in those moments of calm there is tragedy coming and the main characters will usually be unable to prevent terrible things happening.

There are differences (see below) but in both books Kafka can use the environment – never ending corridors, stifling attics and suburban apartments – to inspire disorientation and fear. He exploits the size of America and the emerging industrialisation to disturb Karl Rossmann in Amerika and the battle between one man and a secretive legal system is the enemy for Joseph K. in The Trial.

Joseph K.
Having been woken up and told he is under arrest he never finds out what he is being charged for, how his case is progressing or who is ultimately in charge of his fate. But he does at least fight against his situation, a decision that ultimately rewards him with death, although all of the other characters involved in his case advise him to just live with the situation.

Kafka ingredients: being in the dark, facing a bureaucratic system that is extensive and faceless, struggling with the concept of losing position in society and finally being alone and forgotten when the final moment comes

Karl Rossmann
From the start he is in a difficult position because he has been sent away from home to America for seducing a maid but from landing in the country after fighting onboard the boat for the rights of a stoker he barely knows he starts to drift subject to the more aggressive personalities around him. So he ends up being thrown out by his Uncle on the most bizarre of justifications, comes under the influence of two drifters, Robinson and Delamarche, and ends up even at the end when going for an interview at the theatre being handicapped by his past with his unfinished education. Because of his youth he is constantly being held, squeezed and hit by other larger characters ranging from the head porter to Delamarche.

Kafka ingredients: violence, insecurity, vast industrial processes, a the clash of size and suffocation (for instance the large country mansion and the episode where Karl gets lost in the dark and the unknown system at work which means Karl continually fails to be allowed to get his slice of the American dream.

What leaves you feeling so disturbed is the idea that forces out of your control, both known and hidden, might be able to exert control over your life to such an extent that you are excluded from mainstream society.

The next challenge is to read The Castle to see just what delights are waiting for the main character in that book…

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Amerika - post IV

Kafka uses the vastness of America to provoke a sense of fear that is done expertly. As a result there is a sense that you either know how the country works or are locked out of the system and presumably that would have been explored more as Karl developed but because the book was left unfinished it is hard to see quite where it would have ended

Bullet points from the main body of the story pages 158 - 193

* Karl awakes on the balcony with Robinson and listens as the Irishman tells him the story of how his french companion Delamarche came to be living with the singer Brunelda and how she dismissed all of her servants and moved to be with her French lover

* Karl is outraged when Robinson tells him that he is going to be replaced as a servant by Karl and that he will have to wait hand and foot on Brunelda who sounds like a hyper sensitive hypochondriac

* Karl attempts to leave as the trio are distracted by an election campaign in the street below but is caught trying to prise open the doors with knifes and beaten up by Delamarche who knocks him out cold after throwing him against a wardrobe

* After being unconscious Karl wakes and walks out onto the balcony and notices there is a student studying on the adjacent balcony who after being reluctant to talk to Karl advises him to stay as a servant because getting another job will be very difficult

* The morning after Karl wakes with a determination to at least be a good servant and he seems to succeed in pleasing the large singer by getting and presenting a breakfast in a reasonable way and he is rewarded with some crumbs from the plate

Bullet points from the fragments pages 194 - 218

* There is a short chapter where Brunelda leaves the apartment in a bath chair helped down the stairs by Karl and the student neighbour there is no sign of Robinson or Delamarche and the singer is so obese that she is frightened of being seen so covers her self with a blanket

* Then the book ends with Karl seeing a poster advertising The Oklahoma Theatre and he goes to the racecourse where they are offering interviews for positions and manages to get offered a post as a technician and seems to know someone in the cast - Fanny - who does not appear to have been mentioned before

* All of those that have applied for jobs, which includes an Italian lift boy from the hotel Karl worked at, join the train and the last page describes the joy Karl has of seeing the vastness of America flashing by the windows as he travels to Oklahoma

Full review will be posted at the weekend...

Lunchtime read: The Pearl

Everyone dreams of winning the lottery because of what they think the money will be able to do for them and their immediate family. But there is little thought for how other people will react.

A few years ago I was working up in Blackburn not long after a chemist won £17m on the lottery and the town was gripped by lottery fever. A colleague drove me round to his house, which he had abandoned as the ‘friends’ came calling to remind him how much they liked him, and pointed out that although he had won big his life had been altered forever. My colleague did not seem to think that was a bad thing but if he had read The Pearl he might have gained an insight into the anguish that comes with having a stoke of luck that sparks envy and greed.

Chapter Three
News of the pearl discovery spreads around town with everyone from the priest to the doctor dreaming of how they can exploit Kino’s good fortune – there is a particularly galling scene where the doctor dreams of Paris just a day after leaving Kino’s child to potentially die

Surrounded by family and friends Kino starts to talk about what he might do with the money that will come from the sale of the pearl and plans to marry his wife, something he had not been able to afford, and give his son an education

The priest, who ironically had refused to marry Kino because of money, turns up and reminds him of his responsibilities to the church and mentions that he will marry the couple Then the doctor arrives and insists that only he can heal the son and puts a tablet in his mouth then comes back an hour later claiming the cure is complete

Meanwhile Kino starts to realise that there are people who will do him harm and hides the pearl in the corner of the hut but feels unsure about it so moves it again but that night he is woken with a feeling of a closeness to evil and discovers someone is trying to steal the pearl

“And Juana, sitting by the fire hole, watched him with questioning eyes, and when he had buried the pearl she asked: ‘Who do you fear?’
Kino searched for a true answer, and at last he said: ‘Everyone.’ And he could feel a shell of hardness drawing over him.” Pg 42

His wife tells him to get rid of it but he refuses and announces he will sell it the next day because he knows that it will provide his son with an education that will take him out of poverty and into the magical world inhabited by those who can read and write

Chapter Four
Kino sets off to sell the pearl and is joined by a procession of neighbours but alongside him is his brother who warns him to be careful when agreeing a price with the dealers

Sure enough the dealers try to con him and in his anger Kino replies that he will go to the capital and get a better price but this threatens to undermine the whole structure of the pearl buying and selling business

That night after being warned by his brother that he is entering dangerous territory Kino is again attacked and slashed with a knife leading to another call from his wife to destroy the pearl but instead Kino resolves on his trip to the capital

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Amerika - post III

There is something about the characters in Kafka that you struggle with because they seem to lack backbone and allow themselves to get pushed easily into terrible situations. Just like with Joseph. K in The Trial Karl Rossmann seems to walk through life with a blind acceptance of what will come. What makes it feel so suffocating is that you know that with just a little effort he would be free of the tyranny of his current situation. It makes you think that the point Kafka was making is that we are all making mistakes and allowing ourselves to be abused it’s just that it is not on a scale and as clearly as it happens to Karl and Joseph K.

Bullet points between pages 100 – 158

* Having become established at the hotel as a lift boy Karl works hard to keep his position and better it by learning about business management in his spare time and a part from the head cook’s secretary Therese he has almost no other friends

* Therese tells the story of how her mother committed suicide after finding so sanctuary from the biting cold and poverty one winter when Therese was small and you sense she is falling in love with Karl

* Things are ticking over but then Robinson turns up, the Irish man from the inn, and gets drunk and lands Karl in trouble because he deserts his post and in the end after a confrontation with the head porter and head waiter he ends up losing his job

* As he tries to leave the hotel there is a typical moment of suffocating oddness when Karl is accosted by the head porter and is on the point of becoming some sort of prisoner subjected to occasional bouts of torture when he escapes

* But he cannot escape the Irishman who takes him back to his French companion who has landed on his feet becoming the lover and assistant of a rich singer who treats Robinson like a dog and seems set to add Karl to her collection of attendants

Will Karl resist and leave Robinson and the singer or will he get trapped with them? Tomorrow’s reading should hold the answers…

The importance of being there

Comments made by Marcel Berlins in The Guardian echo about how he feels short-changed by writers, Stef Penney the Costa winner his reference point, who do not travel to the countries they set their stories in.

“As a reader, I feel short-changed and disappointed. When place plays an important part in a story, I expect the writer to have been there.”

His comments echoes thoughts I have already expressed about the concern you get when you read a book based in a foreign country and discover the writer has never set foot in it.

I think it matters because of the danger of basing your own vision of a place on someone else’s experiences. For many years I was desperate to go to Russia after having read so many books about it both fiction and non-fiction. But once I arrived there it was different not because the Hermitage looked any different from the pictures in books but because of the way being there made me feel. Bearing in mind that writers often put parts of themselves into characters by avoiding the assault ion the senses and preconceptions that comes from visiting in the flesh you miss that and it can only filter through to the text.

Lunchtime read: The Pearl

Be careful of what you dream for particularly if you are a poor man living in a tight knit community because as you fear at the end of chapter two when fortune does come your way then others plan to benefit from it.

Chapter two
With the child seriously ill after the scorpion bite Kino sets out to find a pearl that will pay for the treatment and pushes off with his beloved canoe with his son along with his wife who is praying for the pearl to be found

Kino dives down and starts picking up oysters but then sees a glint of something in one that is hidden under a rock and pulls it away and takes his haul back to the boat and starts to open and then throw back the ones without pearls in

He finally opens the large shell and inside is the largest pearl he has ever seen and at the same time his wife points to the child who is fighting against the poison and winning as the swelling goes down in his relief Kino shouts to the sky but that sends everyone sailing in his direction

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Amerika - post II

Just as there were moments in The Trial, notably in the law offices, there are passages here where you feel Karl getting lost down dark corridors and what makes it worse is the size. In America things are bigger so the five lane highway is full of cars, the hotel he gets a job in has 30 lifts and hosts banquets that are so large there is barely room to breathe.

Bullet points from pages 50 – 100

Having been invited to the banker’s house Karl is told that he will be given a letter at midnight and after wandering and getting lost in the dark corridors of the country mansion he is finally given the letter

In the letter his uncle disowns him for what seems to be the sole reason that Karl has visited someone else, returns the belongings he had on the boat and provides a third class ticket to San Francisco

On leaving the mansion Karl trudges to an inn and asks for the cheapest room, which has two beds already occupied by a Frenchman and an Irishman who once awake identify a potential source not just of money but amusement with Karl

They try to convince him to follow them to try to find work and he initially seems to be keen but it becomes clear they are going to take his money and exploit him and things come to a head after they send him to a hotel to get food and ransack his suitcase

Karl returns from the hotel, where the head cook has taken pity on him and offered him a room for the night, and has a showdown with the Irish and Frenchman and it seems to be heading for violence until a waiter from the hotel comes and breaks it up

Once in the hotel Karl becomes a lift boy and starts to discover the joys of a 12 hours shift and no sleep but starts buying into the American dream of starting at the bottom and working his way up

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Pearl

The Pearl was one of those books that were part of the school syllabus but it was only recently I picked up a copy at a second hand bookshop. For a long time, when trying to remember who wrote it, it seemed to be a Hemingway book and you forget that John Steinbeck is able to write about people in locations other than the Californian valleys.

Chapter One
You are introduced to Kino the fisherman and his wife Juana in a bush hut with a poor but idyllic life. Their baby is suspended from a basket and everything is going well until a scorpion climbs the rope leading to the child. Kino tries to get to it but the baby pulls the rope and it falls down and stings her. The father is a bit of a spare part and the mother acts swiftly to suck out the poison but then calls for the doctor, who nobody believes he will help them. Sure enough the doctor tells them that he has gone out after discovering they have no money and they are left with an ill child and no help.

What a start the sense of frustration is palpable and along with Kino your anger rises against those rich enough to live in luxury that will not help the poor.

More tomorrow…

Monday, February 12, 2007

book of books - Exile and the Kingdom

This collection of six stories by Albert Camus covers different moods and locations from the Algerian desert to the rivers of Brazil but all apart from the Artist at Work, which is more satirical, have a haunting quality.

But if I was only allowed to have read two of them then The Guest and The Growing Stone would be the choices because the first leaves you hanging metaphorically on a cliff edge and the second leaves you wondering just what happens next and what is the promised fulfilled.

At the risk of doing the entire plot summaries - please track back through the blog – I will only post those for the two stories mentioned above.

The Guest
A schoolmaster is living in a remote classroom at the top of a mountain pass, which has been made almost inaccessible by snow. For three days none of the pupils have made it to the classroom so he is alone. Then a policeman with an Arab prisoner approach and the teacher is told that he has to look after the prisoner and take him to the next town, something he refuses to do. That night there is minimal conversation but the teacher is adamant that he will not take the man to the town. In the morning the Arab has not tried to escape. The teacher gives him food and money and tells him the way to avoid the route to prison but discovers the Arab is going that way anyway. Once he gets back to the classroom there is a message telling him that he has betrayed an Arab brother and they will come and get him making him feel al alone.

The Growing Stone
A French engineer arrives in a Brazilian village with responsibility for building a pier that is going to stop the river flooding the poorest part of town. As he wanders round the town he makes an acquaintance with one of the residents of the shack housing on the rivers edge. The man explains that he was a cook on a boat but there was an accidental fire and as a result he promised Jesus that if he lived he would carry a 100-pound stone at the procession to celebrate Jesus day. He goes out the night before and dances all-night, even though the engineer warns him to stop and reserve his energy for the stone. On the day of the procession the engineer is able to watch from invited prime positions but in between seeing the start of the procession and getting into place for the arrival at the church the stone carrier drops his load. The engineer picks it up and carries it past the church and the awestruck pilgrims down into the poor quarter and drops it in the middle of the house where the original carrier lives.
There has been a key exchange where the man carrying the stone explains his promise and the engineer says that something not too dissimilar happened to him. The man replies that in that case he is carrying the stone for both of them. But when it falls to the engineer to take the load afterwards he feels released and that would only happen as a result of fulfilling a promise he had not consciously made.

Is it well written?
You can taste the salt on your lips and feel the sand brushing against your cheek in some stories and see the slippery mud road down to the shacks in another. He has a power of description that is much more subtle than you first imagine. The ability to carve out a deep character quickly and in such a short space of words is also something else that you have to admire. There is also an expectation that the reader is going to work with these stories so it is not all handed over on a plate and you have to work with the information provided to create the full picture. Making the reader work is something that not all writers manage to do as well as this and you end up being happy engaging with the stories.

Should it be read?
The blurb on the back of the book talks about the Nobel Prize handed out to Camus and mentions that it was for writing of this quality he received it. That is one reason for reading it but the other more fundamental one is that in these six short stories you can travel to different worlds, meet some pretty desperate people and see it all in front of you. The reader can choose to engage or skim but if you do the former than this book can be like taking a holiday with every chapter.

Version read – Penguin paperback

A special day

Because it is my son's 5th birthday today there will be no lunchtime read and might well not be a posting of Amerika tonight (will probably be building a Playmobil barabarian seige tower!) so the limit of the ambition today is a review as promised of Exile and the Kingdom which will come shortly...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lunchtime read: Exile and the Kingdom

If you were only allowed to take a couple of stories away from this Albert Camus collection then this one would have to be included because it grows on you much as the title does and the ending is both moving and unexpected.

The Growing Stone
A French engineer arrives in a Brazilian village with responsibility for building a pier that is going to stop the river flooding the poorest part of town. As he wanders round the town he makes an acquaintance with one of the residents of the shack housing on the rivers edge. The man explains that he was a cook on a boat but there was an accidental fire and as a result he promised Jesus that if he lived he would carry a 100-pound stone at the procession to celebrate Jesus day. He goes out the night before and dances all-night, even though the engineer warns him to stop and reserve his energy for the stone. On the day of the procession the engineer is able to watch from invited prime positions but in between seeing the start of the procession and getting into place for the arrival at the church the stone carrier drops his load. The engineer picks it up and carries it past the church and the awestruck pilgrims down into the poor quarter and drops it in the middle of the house where the original carrier lives.

There has been a key exchange where the man carrying the stone explains his promise and the engineer says that something not too dissimilar happened to him. The man replies that in that case he is carrying the stone for both of them. But when it falls to the engineer to take the load afterwards he feels released and that would only happen as a result of fulfilling a promise he had not consciously made.

Fantastic stuff and I will post a full review of the book tomorrow…

bookmark of the week

This reminds me of a particularly good afternoon spent in the walled old town of Lucca in Italy. It was like walking back in time once you walked up through the old gates and if you are ever in Tuscany well worth a visit. Because my son is called Luca some people think this place inspired his name and despite the beauty of the town it didn not because we had already chosen the name before we went there...

book of books - Dubliners

James Joyce is one of those writers that before I picked up one his books came with a certain reputation for not just being difficult but also being worshipped. A friend was telling me about ‘Bloom Day’ in Dublin where you can follow round Leopold as he does all the things he did in the 24 hours covered by the book. That sort of dedication after all these years is not the sort of thing that gets shown to just any writer.

But you have to be careful throwing the word ‘genius’ around because there would no doubt be plenty prepared to argue that if a book is almost totally inaccessible to the average reader (Ulysses) then where is the cleverness in that. Aside from that particular war of words a book like Dubliners is something that can be read by anyone and apart from a couple of references to Irish politics, particularly around the movement for independence, there are no major obstacles with this text.

Plot summary
This reminds you of a Robert Altman film with 15 stories going on but unlike something like Short Cuts there is no intention here to link the stories together. Like a patchwork of different streets and suburbs Dublin grows out of the stories of the people who live in it with the rich and the poor all represented here. The stories seem to get longer as you go through the book and ending with The Dead there is a picture completed at the end that makes you realise that whether rich or poor, religious or atheist, male or female and drunk and sober life is a struggle and what everyone wants is to find love and a safe harbour. the other attractive feature of the text is that Joyce never makes a judgement on the activities or beliefs of the characters but tells it straight handing the reader the chance to make their own judgements.

Is it well written?
It demands a fair bit of concentration to come to each chapter fresh and as a result Joyce has to pitch for your attention fifteen times. The fact he manages to do it and provoke different reactions in the reader answers the question about the success of the writing. Creative writing course tutors always talk about the importance of characters leading and shaping the story and here there are plenty of examples of how to get that process right.

Should it be read?
If Ulysses is too intimidating then this is a Joyce that can be picked up and read at leisure. Because of the nature of the separate self encapsulated chapters it makes ideal bedtime reading because you can knock off a chapter a night over a couple of weeks. I have not stumbled across anything mimicking this approach to describing a City and its people, there must be some, but for a first introduction to a living biography style it is something well worth coming into contact with.

Summary: the city of Dublin and its people come to life through these stories of rich and poor and happy and sad folk.

Version read – Penguin modern classics paperback

Saturday, February 10, 2007

More commercially minded?

Most of the books that I own go no further back than the 1960s in terms of paperbacks so I was surprised to discover after buying a 1942 copy of Russian Fables by Ivan Krylov that in the old days Penguin used to sell adverts on the inside front cover, inside back and on the outside back cover. Presumably readers in those days knew what they liked and did not require some dust jacket blurb to entice them. Mind you quite what the relationship is between Russian stories and torches is anyone's guess. This advert for Mazda colied-coil lamps is printed on the back cover.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Amerika - post I

The introduction to this book sets out the history of its development with it being written in stops and starts and although Franz Kafka originally seemed to be very pleased with it for some reason it got pushed to one side and what appeared in the meantime was A Stoker a Fragment, a short story that is included in most Kafka short story collections put out by various publishers. The advantage of having read that short story is that you have been introduced to Karl the focus of the story and understand his relationship with his Uncle, a senator and successful business man.

Bullet points between pages 1 - 50

* Karl has been sent to America by his parents after he was seduced by the house maid and fathered a child at 16 and has no idea what to do and as the boat starts to enter the New York harbour he realises that he has left his umbrella and goes back down to look for it

* He stumbles across a stoker who talks to him and starts to share his problems so Karl not only quickly forgets why he originally came below decks and he starts dreaming of becoming a stoker and is told that there will be a job going because the stoekr is resigning because of ill treatment

* Karl takes up the stoker's cause and they go to see the captain to complain and while there a man with a cane interrupts Karl and asks him who he is and explains that he is his uncle and extracts the boy from the argument between engine room hands and takes him to potentially a life of wealth and security

* Once installed in the uncle's house Karl starts to get to grips with English and begins to get introduced to his Uncle's world but only on a limited basis because the old man only wants to see him once a day

* There are signs that there is some friction between the Uncle and Karl as the young man is sent to horse riding lessons, given reluctantly a piano and finally allowed to go and visit a banker's house but only for an evening

* At the banker's country house Karl is disgusted by another guest Mr Green who has come to talk finances and ends up with the banker's daughter Klara who fights with him as she shoes him to his room and Karl who is determined to leave finds himself alone in a large dark house

Unlike the feeling you get in The Trial there is so far more effort to explain what otherwise would appear very sinister. For instance the reason why the house is in darkness is because the electricity has not been connected. But the way Karl stumbles around the house with just a candle for company is very Kafkaesque even if at this stage it is not disturbing

More to come...

Lunchtime read: Exile and the Kingdom

Due to having a lunch in London today this is being posted rather earlier than usual.

This is a different style from the stories that have gone before with a more satirical edge. Although this story is about an artist this could apply easily to other forms of creativity with writers also susceptible no doubt to the whims of fashion and fickle friends.

The Artist at Work

Gilbert Jonas is a painter who becomes successful and as he does so becomes popular and fashionable and his studio and cramped flat are always full of people that actually start to get in the way of him working. Those very same people that Jonas has seen as friends start to turn against him saying he is washed up. Jonas himself finds it harder and harder to paint to the extent that he completely stops and starts drinking and whoring. He comes clean with his wife and builds himself a make shift painting platform in the room at the top of his flat and stays up there becoming weaker and weaker until he falls down. His friends goes up to see what he has been painting on and there is a canvas turned to the wall with nothing but the single word solitary in the middle of it.

The moral here seems to be that it is unwise to trust the fickle friends of fame and unwise to give friendship and love to everyone . Creativity is something that is a precious commodity and needs the right environment to flourish and once that is removed then things go wrong.

Thoughts about the last short story in Exile and the Kingdom will come tomorrow…

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Dubliners - post IV

There is something wonderful about a story that has an ending that you had no way of predicting and this falls into that category. The reason it works so well is because you step into the mind of the main character of Gabriel and understand just how much it upsets him when he gets it wrong guessing what his wife Gretta is thinking.

The Dead
At a family get together the nephew of three aunts carries out his duty and carves the goose and then delivers a speech which wins applause and the affection of his aunts. The only fly in the ointment is that he has a row with a University colleague who accuses him of not loving his country. But she leaves early and as the evening draws to an end he is content at having a successful evening and starts to think lustful thoughts about his wife. Just before they leave she is captivated by a song sung badly by one the guests. Once home Gabriel’s lust is stirring and he starts to think that Gretta shares it when she unexpectedly kisses him but when pushed on the question of what she is thinking about it turns out that far from thinking about her husband she is dwelling on the memory of a boy she used to know that sang that song. He died, partly for her, and leaves Gabriel realising that he is struggling to match up and far from being a successful evening he is left feeling empty.

Review of Dubliners will follow at the weekend…

Stay at home researcher

Congratulations to Stef Penney who won the Costa award last night with her book The Tenderness of Wolves set in northern canada in 1860. Apparently because of agoraphobia she never managed to get to Canada but did all of the research in the British Library. According to quotes in the Guardian she said that she felt the landscape might have been more vivid because she had not been there. Add her comments to those made by Martin Amis in an Independent interview earlier this year about the fact he didn't feel the need to visit Russia to write about it, and you can either take the stay at home authors as inspirational - cutting out travel costs and the need to learn different languages - or as a sad demise of the old fashioned research that some novelists go in for. Bearing in mind my personal finances I am taking it as an inspiration if I ever get round to writing a book.

Lunchtime read: Exile and the Kingdom

Another haunting tale that is made all the more powerful by the fact that there is a communication breakdown that means someone who meant well is interpreted as intending something much more sinister.

The Guest
A schoolmaster is living in a remote classroom at the top of a mountain pass, which has been made almost inaccessible by snow. For three days none of the pupils have made it to the classroom so he is alone. Then a policeman with an Arab prisoner approach and the teacher is told that he has to look after the prisoner and take him to the next town, something he refuses to do. That night there is minimal conversation but the teacher is adamant that he will not take the man to the town. In the morning the Arab has not tried to escape. The teacher gives him food and money and tells him the way to avoid the route to prison but discovers the Arab is going that way anyway. Once he gets back to the classroom there is a message telling him that he has betrayed an Arab brother and they will come and get him making him feel al alone.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Dubliners - post III

It’s interesting reading this book along with another collection of short stories over lunch (Exile and the Kingdom) because in a way they are quite similar using the same settings - Dublin/Algeria – bedding down different characters in a location that rolls out like a patchwork of different suburbs which reflects back on the characters.

A Painful Case
A solitary man makes a friendship with a woman at a conference and starts seeing her in both the open and in secret walking through the park and talking with each other but one day they have a disagreement and breaks off the friendship. A couple of years passes and then he reads about the death of the lady in the paper – an account of her falling in front of a train and her daughter explaining that she had become a drinker. The man realizes that she must have been terribly lonely and then faces up to his own solitude.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room
Some canvassers for a politician meet up to report on their progress and moan about the lack of payment from the party organisation. More men come in and swell the ranks boasting about how many votes they could get and then some drinks finally turn up having been sent to appease the men and it works with them using the heat of the fire to pop the corks

A Mother

A cracking little story about a mother wanting what is right for her daughter but pushing it too far and losing it all. After her daughter has been signed up to sing for four concerts the mother becomes worried when one is cancelled and starts to get concerned that her daughter will not be paid so she demands payment otherwise she will not sing. She gets half the money just before the curtain goes up but is fobbed off in the interval and so is replaced after carrying out the threat not to perform and as a result loses not just the other half but her reputation as a reliable singer

This is the penultimate story in Dubliners and is so far the longest covering firstly the drunken escapades of Mr. Kernan, then the decision by his friends to go and repent at a religious retreat and then finally the retreat itself where Kernan starts the process of settling his accounts with God. Includes some religious banter about the Pope and Protestants and Catholics that is mild mannered and an insight into the willingness of people to mix if it is in the right circumstances

The final chapter comes tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Exile and the Kingdom

Camus is able, and this has to be the sign of a great writer, to use just a dozen or so pages to set up a scene that will remain with you and has the ability to display some deep universal human characteristics.

The Silent Men
Yvars has been on strike but is heading back to work after it has failed and the unions have conceded defeat and understandably there is a tension in the air as the doors to the workshop are pulled back and the staff allowed back to resume making barrels to contain oil. The boss comes in to talk to the men but one by one they refuse to talk to him because they feel the only dignity they have left is in silence. But the boss has a little girl who is ill and an ambulance is called and when the boss returns at the end of the night the men continue their silence even though they all feel for him. Once he gets home Yvars tells his wife the story and concludes that it is all the boss’s fault.

There is a real subtle examination here of the interplay between individuals and the crowd and how fear of going against a pack mentality can often make people do things against their real desires.

More tomorrow…

The happiest days of your life?

After posting up about the changes in school reading and reading Stephen Lang's response it made me think about the books I was made to read at that age and the only one I recall really enjoying was Animal Farm by George Orwell. Part of the problem was not only the choices but the restrictions that meant that once you found a writer you liked you were not given the chance to enjoy them in more depth, except of course Shakespeare, who was often taught so badly you learnt to loathe him.

In conclusion (after that rambling recollection) maybe the emphasis here is not on the books that are chosen to be put on the reading list but the way they are taught. Surely choice would be a good thing and if you want to go off and read Milton and Joyce then the teacher should be able to manage varied books being read at once. Otherwise it doesn’t matter if it’s the best book written if it is taught in such a way that every page becomes a chore to get through.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Not for young minds

Sticking with James Joyce for just a moment longer this evening it seemed right to mention that because of proposed changes in reading material in schools Joyce is being dropped in favour of some more modern writers. An article in The Independent has all the details and on the way home I was mulling over what I thought about it and my conclusion (for what it's worth) is that Joyce writes about the stuff of life, which to a readership between 11 and 14 is just goling to be beyond them on so many fundamental levels. So maybe it is a good thing to change things a little bit. Put Harry Potter on the syllabus and for once nearly everyone will pass...

Dubliners - post II

The one problem with reading a book that is written like the Dubliners is that each chapter involves a fresh mental engagement because it is not following on from what has gone before but is something different. It can make it slightly more of a struggle compared to reading a traditional novel. There is also a growing suspicion that he is writing about people based in different parts of the City and depending on where they are from there is a meaning there that would be instantly recognised by someone familiar with the City, which I am afraid I am not.

But on the positive side there is a skill in the writing here that hints and leaves gaps for you to fill in that gives you enough to expand in your mind on these short excerpts of people’s lives.

Bullet points between pages 47 – 104

Two Gallants

Two friends discuss how they have wasted time and money taking girls out to wine and dine them before seducing them. One boasts to the other that he is now able to get paid for taking the women out and tells his friend to wait until the end of his date to prove it. You sense that the price of proving it to his friend has been irreparable damage to his relationship but at the end of the night he had a gold coin in his hand.

The Boarding House
A woman separated from her drunken husband runs a boarding house with her daughter and son living there. Her daughter Polly gets involved with one of the lodgers and the mother decides that to protect her moral standing he must marry Polly so intervenes in the relationship and forces him to make that decision – one that both dread being made

A Little Cloud
Two old friends meet after a gap of eight years with one returning to Dublin with a successful career as a journalist in London under his belt. The two friends meet in an up market bar that the Dublin-based resident had been past many times but not been able to go into and as he talks of his wife and child he sows the seeds of resentment that flare up when he gets home and is left in charge of his infant son

A man who comes across as an alcoholic ruins his chances of keeping his job as a legal clerk after being rude to his boss and then pawns his watch to fund a drinking spree. But he ends up only half drunk, loses his reputation for a strong man after being beaten at arm wrestling by a younger man and then heads home and finding his wife out starts to beat one of his five children to make himself no doubt feel more of a man – an insightful take on that sort of abuse from the father’s side

Maria visits one of the men who she used to look after when he was a boy and tries to make it special by buying a cake that she leaves on the tram and those she is visiting try to make it memorable but the most powerful scene comes from the mistake the old maid makes singing a song calling on those who loved her to love her still

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Exile and the Kingdom

Another story set in the desert with the sun beating down and dry salty lips and skin in abundance along with plenty of brutality and death. There is a certain double-edged meaning to this tale with an eager missionary getting it wrong but in so doing highlighting the power of the evil that he is trying to fight.

The Renegade
You are introduced to a divided world with the Arabs being targeted by Christians as a source of conversion but one willing missionary goes out and heads into the heartlands of their religious beliefs and is rewarded with having his tongue cut out, a dose of torture and ends up with his beliefs being so overhauled that he turns against his fellow missionaries. He waits for the next missionary to come out to the town and kills him but the result is the Arabs are attacked by the French soldiers and they come looking for the renegade and kill him slowly in revenge for the trouble he has exposed them to.

More tomorrow…