Saturday, March 31, 2007

weekend paper round-up

Last night on television there was a rather mixed reflection on the state of the British book industry with Richard and Judy hosting the British Book Awards. The majority of winners seemed to have brushed up against the R and J touch either having been part of the duo’s book club or guests on their afternoon chat show. I know there should be some sort of rejoicing that the pair are doing what J.K. Rowling did for children’s fiction with the adult market but it just feels so much like manipulation, a view that was hinted at in the angle taken in The Independent’s coverage of the awards.

In The Guardian a piece by Francis Beckett wonders why so many politicians are rushing to write books to try and make themselves more attractive to the voters. Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope is apparently becoming quite a role model with its combination of well-written anecdote and an eye for detail.

Finally, in The Independent's magazine author Ewan Morrison writes about the research he out in for his book about swinging. Without wanting to sound puerile it seems like a great excuse to go off and spend some time in the sexual wilderness as long as you can justify it as researching a novel. I know if I tried coming up with anything like that sort of excuse/justification for doing anything like swinging my wife would (quite rightly) kill me.

Lunchtime read: The Catcher in the Rye

Bearing in mind the lonely existence that is going from bar to bar and movie theatre to park it is no wonder that finally Holden decides to head for home. With the temperature dropping and the willingness of others to be friendly towards him disappearing he runs out of options.

Highlights from chapters 19, 19 and 20

* Walking round living through his memories, mainly of Jane and his brother Allie, he reminisces about literature and girls but he still needs the companionship of a living person so phones up someone he actually doesn’t like that much

* The old prefect, who used to lecture Holden and his classmates about sex, arrives in a plush bar and is irritated by Holden prying into his relationship with a Chinese sculptress and in the end leaves him at the bar on his way to getting drunk

* At a loose end Holden phones Sally while quite clearly drunk and promises he will come over and help her trim the Christmas Tree but then he leaves the warmth of the phone booth and ends up in a very cold Central Park

* As thoughts of pneumonia sweep his mind he decides it might not be woo wise an idea to stay out all night and so with a yearning to see his kid sister he decides to sneak back home

The final few chapters tomorrow…

Friday, March 30, 2007

Titus Alone - post II

You start to realise as the book goes on that what is missing compared to Titus Groan and Gormenghast is the character of the castle itself. Without the looming colossus that is the castle it becomes clear that it acted as a great backdrop against the weirdness of the various characters that lived and worked within it. Take those out and then change the setting from something almost medieval to something more modern and the crux of the story falls on Titus’s shoulders.

The slight problem there is that Titus is a character with a reasonably simple motive – having run away from home to wander and fight the homesickness – and therefore he is loathe to pin himself down to long relationships. It makes it a slight struggle because the other characters that pick up the dialogue when Titus is absent are not as deep as someone like the doctor or Steerpike.

But having said that the under river world shows that when it comes to imagination Peake really doesn’t have any borders and he can create numerous characters. None of his characters are run of the mill and each has been invested with effort right down to those who seem to have just one word to contribute to the dialogue.

Bullet points between pages 57 – 131

* Having been captured Titus is sent to court and although the judge thinks he is mad Juno, the woman who has been attracted to him since he fell onto her at the party, asks for him to be given into her care

* She dotes on him and looks after him for several months and they become lovers but Titus grows weary of her and tells her he must go and so leaves and heads for Muzzlehatch’s menagerie

* On the way a globe in the air follows him and Titus uses his flint stone from home to smash it but that brings a group of scientists chasing after him and so following Muzzlehatch’s advice he goes into the under river world where dark and damp surrounds home an odd collection of people

* One of the inhabitants is a spidery man who is interrupted beating up his female companion by Titus and they have a fight that would probably have ended in death for the Earl of Gormenghast if Muzzlehatch had not turned up

* They take the girl and escape and on the way to Juno’s home, a safe refuge, Titus again announces his plan to leave and departs from his protector but doesn’t seem to get too far because next he is being looked after in the shadow of the factory by the chief scientists daughter

* Having had all of his animals killed by the scientists and all sort of hope gone Muzzlehatch resolves to find Gormenghast and Titus and heads off looking for them both

More possibly over the weekend…

Lunchtime read: The Catcher in the Rye

The first mention of the Catcher in the rye occurs as Holden overhears a boy singing a song about it as he walks down the street. Apart from that it is a return to his lonely wanderings around New York looking for companionship before he faces the inevitable moment when he will have to go home and face the music.

Highlights from chapters 16 and 17

* Having arranged to meet with his friend Sally later that afternoon Holden decides to try and find his sister and give her a record he has found for her that he knows will make her laugh but she is not in her usual hangouts in the park

* Following the suggestion of another child in his sister’s school who he bumps into in the park he heads to the museum but once he arrives he doesn’t want to go in and heads back to meet Sally

* He takes her to the theatre but he doesn’t enjoy it and what makes matters worse is Sally meets a phoney in the interval and Holden is left watching them talk about places and people they know

* Finally he goes ice skating with Sally after having shrugged off the phoney but once there he makes the mistake of not only opening his heart to someone like her, who couldn’t understand, but then tells her she is a pain in the ass and ends up leaving her at the rink

More tomorrow…

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Titus Alone - post I

This might appear to be going off at a tangent but stick with me and hopefully you’ll see where I am coming from. In Franz Kafka’s book America the size and scale of normal things like hotels, factories and roads are used to great effect to unsettle both the reader and Karl the main character.

There is something quite similar going on here but it not using scale but just the difference between a world where it is all stones, ancient traditions and bright carver ceremonies into something existing in parallel with cars, glass buildings, lifts and aeroplanes. It feels odd, unsettling and incredibly hard to mentally put Titus groan seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast into that situation.

“Though his eyes shone with the thrill of his discovery, he suffered at the same time a pang of resentment – a resentment that this alien realm should be able to exist in a world that appeared to have no reference to his home and which seemed, in fact, supremely self-sufficient. A region that had never heard of Fuchsia and her death, nor of her father, the melancholy earl, nor of his mother the countess with her strange liquid whistle that brought wild birds to her from distant spinneys.
Were they coeval; were they simultaneous? These worlds; these realms – could they both be true? Were there no bridges? Was there no common land? Did the same sun shine upon them? Had they the constellations of the night in common?”

Bullet points between pages 1 – 57

* Titus has turned his back on Gormenghast but the first surprise is that as he rode out of the castle at the end of the last book he is now using a boat and drifting down a river evading capture from men wearing helmets

* But he succumbs to fatigue and is washed up and picked up by a man who doesn’t know what to do with him but then a larger than life character Muzzlehatch picks him up and puts him in the car and evades the police

* But Titus wants to get away from Muzzlehatch who is odd with his tendency to talk to animals and keep large numbers of them in cages so he heads off into the city and finds an aerodrome and then hides inside a glass building

* He observes a party and makes a dramatic entrance after falling through the glass roof and again Muzzlehatch is there to save him but this time they argue and Titus refuses his help and is captured and put into prison

More strangeness tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Catcher in the Rye

In his quest for companionship things take a nasty turn for Holden as he gets involved in a scam with a prostitute in the hotel. The way he reacts to the initimdation and theft of his money reminds you sharply of his real age and how vunerable he really is.

Highlights from chapters 12 - 15

* Holden heads out to a bar he knows and finally gets his hands on some booze as he sists in the corner but his evening is disrupted by an old friend of his brothers who askes him to join her at her table so he says he is leaving to get away from her

* Back at the hotel the lift boy asks him if he is finished for the night or fancies a girl for $5 and after Holden agrees he says he will send her up to his room but the girl who comes is not too friendly and Holden agrees to pay without having sex

* But there is a disagreement over the money, which the woman claims should be $10, and then after he refuses to pay he is visted by the girl and the lift boy who punches Holden in the stomach and takes the money despite the tears and protestations from the student

* He checks out of the hotel and calls up an old girlfriend planning to go to the movies and he bumps into a couple of nuns who ask him about his tudies and try to get an idea of if he is a catholic or not - which leads to some musings on his beliefs and the reason for the lack of them

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Gormenghast - post VI

The payoff for reading through 700 pages of the first and second volume combined is that as things reach a conclusion it gets to a can’t put down stage. Steerpike is such a great character because it is for the reasons of finding out what he will do next that you keep reading so avidly and get through the parts that might not appeal so much. In the end the quest to hunt him down consumes the castle and its main characters, although there is still time for a few nasty surprises.

Bullet points between pages

* As the flood waters rise the castle has to move to the upper floors and the Countess becomes the centre of activity ordering staff around but also constantly looking out for Steerpike hoping to use the flood waters as a net to catch him

* The bright carvers, trapped in one wind of the castle for their own protection, start to make boats and one of these is given to Titus who uses the canoe to go off and explore a part of the castle that he has not seen before

* As he climbs onto a balcony and enters a room Steerpike steals his canoe and believes he has got away without being seen but Titus saw his path of escape and heads back to the Countess to tell her where he is

* He not only tells her where he is but gives her a demonstration of independent thought, which reaches a higher stage when a messenger arrives to report that Fuchsia is dead as a result of drowning

* It’s a shame that the loveless girl thinks of suicide, sits on her window sill, and then just as she starts to think that it might not be a good idea someone knocks at the door and she slips, knocks herself out and falls into the water below

* In a rage Titus joins with the Countess to find Steerpike and they manage to surprise him trapped in a flooded room with no escape but the slippery character manages to kill the man sent into get him and then when discovered dives into the water and swims out of the room

* But watching from a room above Titus realises that Steerpike is hiding in the ivy thickly carpeting the castle wall and he climbs out to get to him and once they meet Steerpike can't resist crowing like a cock as he imagines he can kill the Earl but that moment of pride costs him his life

* With Steerpike dead and the flood waters receeding normality returns to the castle but Titus still yearns for his freedom and after visiting his sister's grave he tells his mother that he is leaving and rides off into the unknown

A full review will follow in a couple of days but it's fair to sat that this was worth waiting for and the description, particularly of the final moments of Steerpike, is excellently done...

Lunchtime read: The Catcher in the Rye

Apart from an outward confidence that he doesn’t care and flunking out of school doesn’t matter it becomes obvious that Holden is suffering from loneliness and as he tries to kill the hours he comes across as an isolated individual that craves companionship but when he gets it can’t stop lying,

Highlights from chapters 9 – 11

* After getting off the train he heads for a hotel and checks in but can barely contain an urge to phone someone so phones up the number of a girl he briefly met at a party but it is late and she turns him down

* He heads down to the hotel bar/club and dances with three girls who bore him and remind him of just how lonely he is so he starts to think about Jane, the girl he had a fight with his roommate over

* The way he reminisces about Jane it becomes clear she meant a great deal to him and the fact he is still eaten up by wondering what she got up to with his friend also upsets him

* Meanwhile you learn that he has a 10 year old sister he adores, an elder brother who has made it in Hollywood and another brother who dies but was a good friend to Holden

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gormenghast - post V

As the second volume moves towards its conclusion the pace quickens and at last there is a partial dose of justice for Steerpike who has never been quite the same since he killed Barquentine. All of a sudden after trawling through pages with strange characters and odd locations you come to a point where things start flying and you are so grateful that you took the decision to read the book.

Bullet points between pages 247 – 317

* Flay wanders the corridors at night and stumbles across the courtship Steerpike is making of Fuchsia and worries not just at the lack of tradition for such a relationship but also of the girl’s safety and he can’t help himself but warn her from the shadows

* Almost immediately afterwards Steerpike turns up and calls her a fool for lighting her candle and pushes her into a private room where they meet but because of his roughness things are not the same and she decides to end the relationship

* Angry that he made another slip Steerpike decides to seduce her that night and then blackmail her and at the same time he is planning to kill Titus in an accident that will clear his path to take over the world of Gormenghast

* Flay fetches Titus who in turn fetches the doctor and all three follow Steerpike through the castle until the room where the twins died is opened and they encounter the murderer as he dances around their skeletal corpses

* Steerpike kills Flay and then disappears and the castle goes onto a war footing but the fugitive manages to kill eight people with his catapult in the next few days while the castle gets ready for the bright carvers festival

* Meanwhile the Countess has discovered that The Thing, Keda’s child, has been eating a lot of her birds and she shouts at the wild child in fury in the woods and then has to suffer again as the girl disrupts the bright carving festival

* Titus runs away from the castle to find the girl and as the rain beats down and floodwaters rise they meet in the cave used by Flay and as Fuchsia arrives and the wild girl escapes she is struck by lightning and killed

The brother and sister head back to a flooded castle and agree to go their separate ways leaving you wondering just which of them will run into Steerpike first…

Lunchtime read: The Catcher in the Rye

One of the weird things about Catcher is that although a lot of the background is just simply that it is so well described that a British person with just a vague experience of the US college system can picture the scene. Almost ten years ago I visited a college near Kansas, where my brother was studying for a year, and the dorm block described here was almost the same.

Highlights from chapters 3 – 8

* Although it seemed as if Holden was heading straight out of the college after his meeting with the history teacher he in fact heads back to the dorm and the delights of his room mate and next door neighbour

* Holden is interrupted, put upon and has his possessions borrowed but he doesn’t seem to mind expect when he stud of a roommate reveals that that night he is dating someone who Holden used to know when she was younger

* As his time at the college draws to an end he starts to loathe those around him and after his room mate returns they have a fight and in the middle of the night Holden decides to leave and check into a hotel before heading home for the holidays

* On the way to a hotel in a train he bumps into the parent of a fellow pupil and can’t stop lying about how great the student is and loads of things about the college

More tomorrow…

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gormenghast – post IV

As the pages start to mount the ever so clever Steerpike starts to slip and the material is there for those that have the time and moment to put it together, namely the doctor and Flay. The Countess, who you initially suspected as being the person who might sniff Steerpike out is focusing on The Thing, which is rivalling her for attention of the birds.

Bullet points between pages 167 – 247

* The headmaster and Irma declare their feelings for each other in a dark arbour in the garden without either revealing their physical faults and as they head back to the house a laugh out loud moment happens concerning one of the old professors who rushes past them naked and jumps the garden wall to disappear forever

* Steerpike decides it is time to rid the world of his master but he underestimates the stubborn strength of Barquentine and as he tries to burn the old retainer they wrestle and although they fall into the moat and the old man dies Steerpike is not only burnt and scarred but his confidence is undermined

* Meanwhile Titus and Fuchsia head out to meet Flay and tell the old servant what has happened with Barquentine dying and Steerpike taking over but the most important news for Flay is the existence of a tunnel into the castle

* Flay starts coming into the castle, particularly when the castle is snowed in for a month, and he is the last to hear the starving and insane twins lose their fight with life, and he sets out to sniff out the evil in the castle

* Back at the doctor’s house Irma is infatuated with Bellgrove the headmaster while her brother muses on what his patient Steerpike said when he was in a delirium recovering from his burns

“He had been thinking of Steerpike’s accession to the key position that he now occupied. He had also been reflecting upon the way he had behaved as a patient. His fortitude had been matchless and his will to live quite savage. But for the most part, the Doctor was turning over in his mind something that was quite different. It was a phrase, which, at the height of Steerpike’s delirium, had broken loose from the chaos of his ravings – ‘And the Twins will make it five.’ The young man had shouted – ‘and the Twins will make it five.’"

* Titus celebrates his 10th birthday and in the moments when he should be enjoying himself he declares his desire to be free of the constraints if his office being Earl and escape from the castle forever

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Catcher in the Rye

Apologies for the delay there have been Internet problems at work today.

Stepping into the world of Holden Caulfield is a little bit like stepping back in time to that moment when you were in trouble at school but never too it so far you ended up being expelled. It’s a bit like telling a film lover you have never watched Pulp Fiction admitting that Catcher in the Rye has slipped under your reading radar, but it has so it seems a good time to put that right.

Highlights from the first couple of chapters

* You are introduced to world of a teenager who has just flunked out of his third school and appears not to care less about it sneering at his classmates who ‘play the game’ and do what they are told will make them successful

* Before he leaves he goes to visit his history teacher who warns him that bad things lie ahead for him unless he snaps out of his attitude and starts to get involved with the system more – words that have no impact on Holden who walks out on his way back to New York

You can instantly see why this is seen as such an inspirational book by teenagers happy to have found someone who seems to think in the same way they do describing people as ‘phonies’ and not seeming to care about the consequences of his actions. Quite what the results of that policy will be will come clear in the next few days reading…

Sunday, March 25, 2007

book of books - Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best

Apart from the television series of a few years ago starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie playing Jeeves and Wooster respectively there has not been an opportunity to read any P. G. Wodehouse.

There are certain stereotypes about his work and most do ring true: the stories are funny, about aristocrats and tend to be built around a formula of constantly getting in and out of scrapes. This collection of short stories is based around one central character, Lord Emsworth, who is the owner of Blandings Castle. Surrounded by sisters, a brother and various nieces and nephews he is also plagued by a son, Freddie, who he can’t wait to get off his hands.

Plot summary
All Lord Emsworth wants is a quiet life but that is constantly threatened by his son Freddie, staff threatening to resign and his sisters asking him to get involved with his nieces love lives. Throughout the brainless Emsworth manages to get a conclusion he desires usually through a combination of luck and chance, rather than by some great design of his own making. But he proves himself to be a man with a heart as well as a man driven by a selfish wish for solitude.

Is it well written?
In parts it reminds you of those farces that have people coming in one door just as someone goes out of another but what makes it rise above that is the way Wodehouse changes the formula just as it starts to get predictable. You have to see these stories for what they are – light hearted fun – there is not something conspiratorial going on here to expose the landed gentry. Taken on that basis this works well. The only thing about a short story collection is that the characters here never get the depth another writer would have given them so Freddie remains the dog biscuit selling son and Lord Emsworth is a peace hunting brainless fool right through from start to end.

Should it be read?
If you are looking for either a light read or a window onto a lost world of British manners and behaviour then this is perfect. Most people will head straight for the Jeeves and Wooster books but this collection has the advantage of feeling that it is one piece, with the stories interlinking and following on from each other. For someone who has not read the Jeeves and Wooster books this presumably gives a taster and that seems like a logical destination next.

In his search for peace and quiet Lord Emsworth scrapes through and manages to fend off problems in the form of his family, pig men and pumpkin growers

Version read – Penguin Classics paperback

bookmark of the week

The best bookmarks are those that are made for you. This is a boomerang made for me by my eldest son and it also has a rainbow feel to it. A bright boy (even if I do say so myself)!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Gormenghast - post III

The vast majority of the day’s reading is spent sharing the build-up and then the reality of the party that the doctor and his sister hold in an attempt to find her a husband out of the professors.

Bullet points between pages 127 – 167

* Apart from the party there is a moment when Steerpike and Fuchsia end up arm in arm and kiss but she is horrified that this person, who by the by keeps stealing poison, is near her and she pushes him away and runs off

* The rest of the focus is on the professors who all react publicly with a mixture of indifference and amusement to the party but underneath are quite excited about it none so more than Bellgrove the headmaster who believes the rumours the staff tell him about Irma’s love for him

* They troop into the doctors house and one by one try to put themselves forward as suitable candidates, without of course indicating to their rivals that the care, but last to enter the room is the headmaster

* Bellgrove has quite an impact on Irma, who is using a cold hot water bottle as padding to convince suitors she had breasts to, but she can barely see him with out her glasses on so she has a vision of white and runs from the room struck by the love thunderbolt

Is it true love for Irma and Bellgrove? Or for Steerpike and Fuchsia for that matter? More on Monday…

Weekend paper round-up

One of the consistent theories about the Pakistani cricket coach Bob Woolmer’s murder is that it was because of something he had written in his forthcoming book about match fixing. The Independent has a report that confirms he was going to discuss South African match fixing in his book but also hand out a fair amount of criticism to team members in the side he so recently coached.

Elsewhere there is an interesting piece in The Guardian by Stephen Moss who wonders whether the rise in satellite navigation is going to kill off maps. Not if they keep advising motorists to drive down dead ends and into ditches. The paper also has an exclusive story by Ian McEwan in its Review section.

Then finally, putting her own embarrassing manuscript loss in perspective, Jeanette Winterson in her Times column reminds us that both Ernest Hemingway and T.E. Lawrence were both victims of lost manuscripts. Luckily for Winterson her’s turned up at a train stop in Balham.

Lunchtime read: Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best

This volume of short stories comes to and end and until I win the lottery this is the closest it is to come to knowing how it feels to be a landed aristocrat. Throughout the book it gives you a warm feeling and there are moments that are laugh out loud funny but most off the time this is a gentle humour.

The Crime Wave at Blandings
Centring on an airgun various members of the family use it to shoot each other and repeatedly at a former secretary to Lord Emsworth a man by the name of Baxter. The balance shifts several times with Emsworth under attack from his sister and then Baxter until in the end he ends up in a position where he can get his own way and rise above the criticism from his sister and restore peace at Blandings Castle.

Birth of a Salesman
With the location shifted to America Lord Emsworth is finding himself overshadowed by his son Freddie, who is doing well selling dog biscuits. So when the chance comes to help out a pregnant encyclopaedia sales woman he leaps at it. His target believes him to be a private investigator sent by his wife and so agrees to buy $500 worth to get Emsworth off his back.

Sticky Wicket at Blandings
With beach the butler under threat and Freddie facing a divorce for giving his wife’s dog away all is resolved by the butler who comes out as the saviour of the family reputation making it quite impossible for him to be sacked. Emsworth as usual cannot follow simple instructions and almost gets in trouble for being a prowler and is locked in a neighbours coal cellar. That is until Beach comes and drugs his fellow butler with a sedative and releases his master.

A full review will follow tomorrow…

Friday, March 23, 2007


Due to family commitments and work there has not been an update to Gormenghast reading today or a lunchtime read. Sorry both will be posted tomorrow.

book of books - Titus Groan

The reason for picking up a thick trilogy volume that had laid on the bookshelf ever since it was purchased in 2000 was because of such a passionate review of the book by Stephen Lang on his blog. This book was a tie-in with a televison show that cost millions and had a reasonably impressive cast but failed to inspire and in some cases, mine included, actually put you off wanting to read the books. But making the effort is well worth it.

It is impossible to talk about Titus Groan without dwelling on the characters that can be broadly split into two camps – the groan family and the servants. Plus of course the castle and the surrounding geography.
In the Groan family the book starts with Titus being born, an heir to the earldom of the world of Gormenghast. His father the Earl and mother the Countess already have a daughter Fuchsia, a dreamer and incredibly immature. The father is a depressed book lover and the mother is obsessed with the odd combination of white cats and birds. There are also two twin sisters of the Earl but they are isolated and jealous of the Countess and their lack of power.
In terms of servants the most important are the keeper of traditions Sourdust, Flay the Earl’s servant and the doctor and his sister. Nannie Slagg is in charge of Titus’s upbringing and introduces Keda as a wet nurse into the castle. There is also Swelter the head cook and with him comes an escapee from the kitchen Steerpike who is hungry for power and is the catalyst for the changes that start to plague the Groan family.
On top of that there is the incredible world of the castle of Gormenghast, a massive castle that has numerous rooms and places that are also accompanied by the surrounding landscape containing woods and the land occupied by the bright carvers who seem to be some sort of tribal people carving wooden statutes in the shadow of the castle.

Plot summary
Titus is born and the castle is thrown into disarray, which is heightened by Steerpike’s craven lust for power that takes him from working for the doctor to becoming master of the twin sisters. He convinces the sisters that the best way for them to get power is to burn down the library. During the fire Sourdust dies, the books are burnt and as a result the Earl of Groan loses his mind. Against this background Flay and Swelter fight out a deadly duel that leaves the fat cook dead but Flay banished from the castle. Throughout the book the characters are explored and what is established is that in various different ways they are all prisoners of tradition and the castle itself. The book ends with Titus being made Earl after his father’s disappearance, to go and live with the owls, and Steerpike positioned to gain more influence.

Is it well written?
This is a piece of imaginative wordsmithing on a level with the likes of Lord of the Rings and Narnia for being able to construct a complete world. It might not have the ambition of those two books but as a location the castle is constantly unfolding there is a depth of vision that is impressive. It is easy to access and there are moments of both humour, usually based around the doctor, action with the fight between Flay and Swelter and occurrences of evil scheming involving Steerpike. The challenge for a writer of a book in this style is not just getting the reader to engage with the characters, which is hard enough, but also getting them to believe in a completely different world.

Should it be read?
It deserves to be because it is something that has real beauty to it. There are moments when you are almost breathless with the way he paints a picture of the environment of Gormenghast. Although it is fantasy the characters do transcend the situation and anyone who has worked in an office will recognise their own Steerpike, depressed leader figure and the comedy character that is the doctor. The only problem that some readers might find is that because this is a trilogy it is not the sort of book you set out to read in isolation and you have to make a commitment to reading the next couple of books because obviously there will not be answers provided at the end of this volume.

Ambition and cruelty against a backdrop of the fantastic and strange with murder, love and plenty of doses of oddness.

Version read – Vintage paperback

Gormenghast - post II

If you work in an office then no doubt there are Steerpike’s trying to climb the greasy pole at any cost, Fuchsia’s and Titus types that dream of escaping it all and the old boys Barquentine style that are part of the institution and hold fast to the rules and traditions. So far the theme of authority has focused on the House of Groan but with the introduction of the teaching staff it is possible to watch another power struggle as the professors compete with each other and the headmaster.

I have always believed that it is possible to get the best out of people by being positive and supportive rather than go in for a Stalinist approach of creating a world of fear. It would have been great to have had my headmaster come and play marbles with me rather than keep putting me in those detentions but that’s the problem with the two authority models.

Bullet points between pages 67 – 127

* Titus escapes into the countryside and his disappearance causes a panic and all of the professors are asked to go through their classrooms looking for him and turning the remaining boys into a search party

* The boys in one classroom are playing a game that involves lifting a couple of floorboards and in the rush to replace them one is put back upside down and the headmaster slips on it and lands on his dead stone dead and in response his assistant the Fly jumps out of the window

* The professors are then left searching for a new head but the oldest Bellgrove steps forward and takes on the role and starts to try to act out the part which is made slightly more complicated by the excitement caused by the invitations to the doctor’s house

* Meanwhile Titus has met up with Flay and made a connection that could be important in the future but after being sent back to the castle he is locked up with only his loving sister to pass him food through a crack in his prison wall

* Bellgrove comes to play marbles with him and then after his release the castle gears up for the next ceremony in the calendar with Titus again expected to take centre stage as the poet makes his bi-annual reading

More tomorrow (tonight)…

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lunchtime read: Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best

The Wodehouse style grows on you and before you know it you are quite happy in a world where all that matters are if the flowers have been picked, if pigs eat their food and pumpkins win first prize.

But there is also something clever going on here in that having established a pattern where you expect the story to develop in a certain way he changes it. So in this story you expect the final confrontation between head-gardener and Lord Emsworth to conclude with the latter giving in over the gravel path the gardener wants. If he did that it would follow the pattern set of establishing twin problems that are solved at the same time. That fact he doesn’t follow that path means you are left wondering where Wodehouse will go next.

Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend
With the annual August bank holiday fete about to take place Blandings Castle is about to be invaded by villagers and some children from London. On his way to the village to judge the best garden competition Lord Emsworth comes across a young girl who has upset his gardener by stealing flowers and then her brother upsets Emsworth’s sister by biting her on the ankle. Finding that the girl has been told off at the fete for taking food for her brother Lord Emsworth takes her into the castle feeds her up and then lets her pick some flowers. The gardener runs out to be confronted by a self assured Emsworth, with the girl behind him, who put his foot down and reasserts his position as lord and master.

More tomorrow…

The web benefits

There is an interesting argument made in the Guardian today by Victor Keegan about the technological impact on books. The point seems to be that it is all for the good that volumes that are out of copyright, rarely read and very difficult to obtain are now going to be made available. Keegan argues that far from being a threat this could all be good for the world of books: “Far from being killed off by the web, books have been reinvented on a bigger scale.”

There is still a slight question though over delivery. In an earlier column Keegan enthused about the Sony Reader but it is far too early to predict what will become the favourite medium for reading these downloaded books. You sense that with electronic paper being played around with that there is still the chance for something completely different to come out of the woodwork and revolutionise reading.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gormenghast - post I

Gormenghast starts setting o0ut the story five years on from the events of Titus Groan with the character of Titus becoming much more developed. As a result of his age there is an opportunity to introduce some fresh characters with the professors being the first major example and some fresh locations that Titus discovers on his travels.

Steerpike, the evil presence of the first book, seems to have settled down working with Barquentine but could be in trouble if the Countess catches him

Bullet points between pages 1 – 67

* Things start with the castle being described with a boy Titus and apart from the leap forward in time not a great deal seems to have happened and Steerpike is up to his old tricks spying on everyone to try to get useful information

* But it is not until the Countess visits the doctor that you realise that along with all the other foul deeds he committed in Titus Groan Steerpike has also hidden the twins away and convinced everyone else they committed suicide because of the grief they felt for their brother

* Steerpike has convinced the twins that the castle has been struck by weasel plague and they are locked in for their own protection but as he orders them under the carpet the first signs of rebellion stir with them contemplating killing him

* The Countess asks the doctor to watch for evil and she vows to stamp it out if it is discovered not just for the sake of the integrity of the castle but also to protect Titus who is a boy discovering parts of the castle and being forced to attend school

* The professors are painted out as a weird bunch all more interested in doing no teaching than actually getting involved with the boys but they are told to treat Titus like any other pupil and as you get introduced to the strange world of the teaching staff

* What is even more bizarre is that from amongst the number of toothache sufferers and smoke piping mortarboard wearers the doctor’s sister hopes to find a husband and announces her plans to throw a party to find a mate

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best

The funny going-on's that centre on Lord Emsworth continue with the Earl concentrating all of his limited mental facilities on subjects such as pigs and peace and quiet rather than the tasks his sisters ask him to deal with,. Floating throughout all of it is Freddie who is both a catalyst for problems and a source of most of them.

Facing the agriculture show and a pig-man who is out of action following an altercation with the police and a pig that will not eat Lord Emsworth is beside himself. Meanwhile his sister asks him to try and put and end to her daughters relationship with someone she hopes she won’t get engaged to. But the young man in question turns out to know a great deal of pigs and after helping to get the pig eating again is rewarded with the hand of the one he loves

Company for Gertrude
A similar issue with a vicar being seen as not suitable for the other sister’s daughter Gertrude. Freddie convinces his friend that he should get down the Blandings Castle and ingratiate himself with his farther who could give him a nice living in one of the churches he has responsibility for as Earl. The young man goes so far and become such a nuisance that when Freddie comes clean and tells him the real story Lord Emsworth is only too happy to shunt him off to a church that touches on his neighbours estate, someone who he can’t stand either.

The Go-Getter
Having focused his efforts on getting his dog loving Aunt to start ordering the dog biscuits his father-in-law makes Freddie is discouraged to find his aunt preoccupied with other matters. Those matters namely being the fact that after accepting the engagement with the vicar her daughter now seems to be about to go off with a singer. Freddie oddly comes to the rescue by trying to show that a dog fed on his dog biscuits is a strong healthy dog and in the ensuing dog fight the vicar shows up and demonstrates his manliness to Gertrude while the opera singer hides on a bookshelf. As a reward the Aunt order two tons of the biscuits.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Titus Groan - post VII

The first book in the trilogy ends with an echo of how it started with Rottcodd realising that he has missed the Earling ceremony and that so much has happened since Flay introduced him and the readers to the arrival of Titus. The boy becomes Earl, replacing his father who has still never been found, and in the meantime Steerpike sets his sights on more power and Fuchsia.

Bullet points between pages 342 – 367

* The preparations for the Earling ceremony are watched by the doctor, his sister, Fuchsia, Titus, Nannie Slagg and importantly the two twins who are sent to their room by a stripped off Steerpike who swims across the lake and orders them home

* He then uses Sourdust’s skull, a sheet and some phosphorus to scare the sisters stupid by warning them that he is death and he will kill them if they breathe a word about the fire or Steerpike

* The Countess starts to feel that there is some evil at work in the castle and vows to crush it before it damages anyone else – particularly Titus – but she has no suspicion directly aimed at Steerpike yet

* At the ceremony Titus does everything wrong and at one point screams out loud and in response the daughter of Keda, who was last seen on the brink of committing suicide by Flay in the rocks, responses with a similar sound

* The procession ends with Steerpike leading the way back from the lake into the castle and RottCodd watches from the window and wonders when the Earl died, what happened to Flay and realises so many changes have happened since Titus was born

A full review will come in a couple of days but in the meantime it’s straight into the second book Gormenghast

File this post under b for book

Saw this is Waterstones and thought about it for a week, because it cost £10, but in the end couldn't resist because it looks like such a great way to keep a little catalogue that makes a great deal of difference if you read a lot of books that you get from the library and don't actually have them physically around. It resembles a n A-Z address book but instead of name and address it has space for author, title, date and comments.

Lunchtime read: Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best

Although it is a struggle to get to emotionally involved with what is happening with Lord Emsworth and his son Freddie what you start to appreciate is how Wodehouse constructs a story that comes from different starting points and converges in an amusing climax.

The humour is gentle and capable of bringing a wry smile to your face rather than leaving you in stitches on the floor.

Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best
The story starts with the butler threatening to resign unless his Lordship shaves off his beard because of the ridicule it is courting. Meanwhile Freddie turns up and explains to his father that he wants him to plead on his behalf to his daughter-in-law to take his son back. There is an inevitable moment of confusion in the hotel when Emsworth turns up and is attacked by a dog and then a rude friend of the woman he is seeking to talk to. Then all of a sudden Freddie turns up dressed to look like his father. The shock of seeing himself caricatured with a beard makes him wander downstairs to the hotel barber and get it shaved off. As a result the butler doesn’t resign and equilibrium is restored.

More tomorrow…

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lunchtime read: Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best

This is more of a bedtime read but it seems a shame to start something with these lunchtime reads getting through short story collections and then let it slip so despite the time here is the first of these amusing stories.

The Custody of the Pumpkin
In a nutshell Lord Emsworth wants to win the pumpkin competition but when he discovers his useless son is engaged to the head-gardeners cousin he tells the man to get rid of the girl and as a result he hands in his notice. The pumpkin that Emsworth so wanted to win in the agriculture show droops after the head-gardener leaves so the Lord heads to London to get him back and there discovers that his son had got married. In a scene that you could guess was coming the father-in-law turns up and is a multi-millionaire and so everything is forgiven and then to top it all the pumpkin wins first prize.

There are some bits that bring a smile to your face but to really laugh out loud it is going to take some willingness to put to one side the lack of interest and sympathy for the aristocracy. Maybe that will come over the course of the week...

Titus Groan - post VI

There was a real temptation to try to finish this book today and had the train journey lasted about another half an hour it might just have been possible. But still it will accompany me on my way to work tomorrow morning.

After slowly building things up to the library burning things start to move quite quickly and not all of them are directly caused by Steerpike, although the suspicion of him is growing.

Bullet points between 272 – 342

* With the doctor having restored the Earl at least to some sort or normality there is an altercation between Steerpike and Flay and after the young upstart has tried to open the old retainer’s eyes Flay throws a cat at him but is seen by the Countess and barred from the castle

* But Flay will not leave until after the breakfast for Titus, celebrating his first birthday, and hidden under the table Steerpike wastes his time discovering very little of use but the reader is given an insight into the growing suspicion of him emanating from the Countess and the Doctor:

“…Steerpike remains who is an enigma to me and of whom I have doubts very definitely and in whose presence I find less and less amusement and more and more a sense of evil…”pg286

* Flay senses at the breakfast that Swelter is going to try to kill him within the week and although he has been barred from the castle he goes each night to watch for him armed with a sword with the intention of killing him

* The night comes and as they fight it out in the room of spiders the fat chef finally is beaten not so much by Flay but by the elements as he falls into the water collected on the roof and is stabbed and left to die

* But the Earl, who sleep walked past them at the start of the confrontation, appears and asks Flay to take the body to the Tower of Flints as an offering and that is the last that is seen of both the Earl and the chef and Flay heads into exile in the hills

The day’s reading ends with the twin sisters letting it slip that they had burnt their brother and the preparations starting for Titus’s Earldom. Will Steerpike slip up? Will Flay return and what next for the depleted family of Groan? More tomorrow…

book of books - The Best Short Stories

A friend of mine pointed out that if you want to read some really good short stories then those by Rudyard Kipling are worth further investigation. Unfortunately because of the timing of his writing it has become deeply unfashionable because it is associated with the empire and has slight connotations of something bordering on the embarrassing and even slightly racist.

It is of its time but there is little in these stories that glamorises the past and most of the Empire tales are charactised by sun, sand and madness rather than a jolly good time.

As well as enjoying some cracking stories this collection inspires creative writers because of a real sense of adventure with different styles and for those contemplating some of their own writing there are some real lessons to learn here:

Lesson one – the narrative voice
In most stories it is not only human beings that talk but the quote marks only get handed out to the major characters. There is a great deal of inventiveness here with polo horses discussing tactics for a cup game in The Maltese Cat and the rivet, steam and various parts of the engine moaning about an Atlantic crossing in The Ship that Found Herself.

Lesson two – the twist
Getting a twist across in a story that might only be twenty pages long is quite an achievement but it is on display here with the slow twist of the children being ghosts in ‘They’ and the short sharp ending that the narrator has also suffered a loss of a child. Then there is the magical moment in ‘Wireless’ when it is not the messages coming across the Marconi machine that matter but the inspired words of poetry that come to a consumptive chemist in a trance.

Lesson three – paint it black
There are some brutal stories here that show life in all its darkness and as a result have a tension and sadness. The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot tells the story of a charitable worker who is kicked to death by her husband for not sharing the church monies. The Limitations of Pambe Serang recounts a tale of revenge that leads to both men dying – one from a stab wound and the other from the hangman’s noose. But At the End of the Passage shows that it is possible to mix the misery of loneliness and heat exhaustion with the supernatural to produce quite a disturbing result.

Kipling might have dated but his writing is fluid, inventive and deserves to be read. Just because a writer is unfashionable does not detract from the lessons they can give readers and there is enough in this volume to keep you thinking for quite a while.

Version read – Wordsworth Classics paperback

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

The final story in this collection ends again showing just how clever Kipling is at laying down a twist, which catches you out at the end. The thing is with this tale you think that you know what is coming but then there is a kink in the final couple of pages that leaves you with a different ending from what you might have predicted.


A man driving his motorcar drives into the grounds of a large house and sees children waving from the house and playing in the grounds but when he gets close no one is there except for a blind woman. She explains that the children are allowed to roam in her house and she loves them. The man comes a couple more times until a final encounter when he understands that the children are dead and because he has lost a child he cannot come back to visit again. The blind woman, realising that he understands, asks him if she thinks he is selfish, something he says she is not but he seems bitterly disappointed that he can never come back again.

You start to realise that the children are ghosts quite early on and it seems amazing that no one in the village tells the motorist or he doesn’t get it himself. But you never know that what is coming is that he has himself lost a child and that is why he has loved and lost and because his child might also walk among the others he has to leave.

This entire collection might be dated not just in terms of the Empire but also in the innocence of an earlier time. But there are several great ideas that a creative writer could take from the collection and throughout each story there is high quality writing from start to finish.

Full review to come shortly…

bookmark of the week

This bookmark was given to me by my mother-in-law after my wife's uncle died. No one seems to know what the design means, if anything, but it is an interesting addition to the collection and much appreciated.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The premier snob test

Not much in the papers today of a literary nature but there was one story that caught the eye in the Independent that could be a great benchmark to work out how much of a literary snob you are.

When a bunch of premiership football players were asked to list their favourite books an outstanding number opted for something that in a bookshop would be sold in the children’s section. This fact could be used to create a simple snob test:

a. The titles chosen confirm footballer’s have a mental age of around 12
b. Thank goodness they are reading something
c. With all the effort it takes to score a goal well done for managing a comic novel

If you answer a then you are a literary snob, b on the fence or c probably someone who had a trial for a football team but never made it

Being serious though at least these role models are becoming reading champions and hopefully their readers will start where they are but quickly outpace them and move onto something a bit more demanding…

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

Again the voices you hear are those of a collection of inanimate objects and animals. This is a clever story not just about mans fight with nature but the price of progress as a traditional mill is forced to embrace modern technology.

Below the Mill Dam
The water is gushing down and putting strain on the old Mill wheels and the cat and the rat watch the Mill struggle to cope with the pressure. At the same time the Mill owner is rigging up electricity using the power of the water. After initially pouring scorn on the whole idea of turbines and electricity the Mill changes its tunes and accepts that it will have to change and embrace the technology. The cat turns to talk to her old friend the rat about how things have changed but the rat has been stuffed by the engineer who labelled it as a Black Rat.

The fate of the rat brings a rye smile because of cause keeping the past stuffed and kept in jars is exactly one sort of fate that would have been left for the Mill had it not embraced change.

Last story to come tomorrow…

Friday, March 16, 2007

Titus Groan - post V

headache gone now from earlier partly by turning this question over in the mind: Imagine if all of your books were burned – and they were beautiful leather bound volumes that were old and precious. How would you react? I know I would never have the money to replace them all and would either wallow for years in some sort of rose tinted misery or try to get over it and start all over again scouring second hand bookshops for replacements.

As a reader and lover of books it is possible to sympathise a great deal more with the Earl of Groan as his library is burned to the ground. What up to now has been a growing fascination with Steerpike and how far he will go to get power tips now into something darker and as his actions result in the death of a man you start to wonder just how far and cold he will go and is.

Bullet points between pages 212 – 272

* As Steerpike has planned tha family meet up in the library for the special gathering to discuss the future for Titus and his place in the Groan family but no sooner has the old retainer Sourdust started the initial part of the ceremony than smoke is smelt

* Quickly they realise they are locked in and the smoke becomes heavier and Sourdust dies, Nannie Slagg becomes ill and the Earl seems to lose himself to panic a couple of times biting his wrist as the smoke rises

* Fuchsia climbs towards a window and just as she gets to a position where she can smash the glass she sees Steerpike on the other side and he smashes it and comes in as planned and saves them

* He is disappointed when Sourdust’s son steps forward to replace his dead father and he seems to expect the Earl to go mad almost instantly – a process that starts but takes a year to ferment

* Meanwhile Keda has gone back to the bright carvers and the two men fighting for her hand kill each other in combat leaving her alone and ill and she goes to recover before heading back to face the music

* A year after the fire it is the time of the Great Breakfast and as Swelter gets ready he is summoned to the Earl’s room along with Flay and once there they see that the Earl has become as much as he can an owl and asks for twigs and a mouse to eat

* Fuchsia runs to get the doctor and although it is an obvious mistake Steerpike is also sent for and panic starts to spread among those who serve the Earl that he is going mad but the doctor arrives and injects him with something that calms him down and Steerpike is clearly over the moon about the illness

One slight threat comes as the Countess asks Slagg where Steerpike came from – if she persists in this line there might at last be some one prepared to mount an attack against him. More to come…

Excuses, excuses...

There are several reasons why it might not be possible to post a blog. The most severe, and not to be taken in jest is death. The more probable is a holiday or sickness. Adding to that list can be a business lunch that goes on for hours, involves a fair amount of wine, and leaves you slightly disorientated. As a result there will be no lunchtime read post today but I will try to get through a bit of Kipling tomorrow.

Right now all there is to contend with is the hint of a minor wine induced headache coming on…

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Titus Groan - post IV

There is always a point in a book after the first 100 pages or so where you start to work out where your sympathies lie and try to establish you emotions around the main characters. So far because most of the main figures in the book are so weird it is hard to feel anything for them other than acute interest to see what they will do next. Peake has by now established several stories running parallel and apart from Steerpike there are several characters you are encouraged to spend some time with including Keda and her love life beyond the castle walls, Titus and the twin sisters deprived of their power. Steerpike is the link between most of them because he either interacts directly or spies on their activities. You sense he is going to be at the apex when all of the strands of the story come together.

Bullet points between pages 162 – 212

* Nannie Slagg the woman responsible for bringing up Titus until he is six is summoned by Flay to the library to speak to the Earl of Groan and as they set off they are followed by Steerpike who quietly follows them into the library

* Once inside the Earl announces plans for a family gathering to discuss the future for Titus and then Steerpike starts to scheme with quite ruthless cunning to egg the twins on to burning the library down on the night of the gathering

* Intercepting their invitation he tells them they have not been invited and then eggs them on to striking back at their brother by destroying his precious books and he gets things ready with oiled rags hidden to spread the flames

* His plan is to save the family at the right moment and therefore be eternally in their debt but in between getting ready he meets Fuchsia again and you sense that if there is anything that might prick his conscience it might be the first stirring of love

But he does seem determined to wreak havoc and make some sort of move that might bring some of the equality he talks about but in reality means power for himself. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

This collection of stories is almost completed and again there is a tale that has a hint of the dark night of the soul about it as an obsession leads to death

Mrs Bathurst
Some old sailors and a railway man are talking over drinks about different places they have travelled when one of them starts to talk about a woman, Mrs Bathurst, who ran a bar and was a remarkable woman who was never forgotten by anyone who met her. One of the party recalls how he was dragged by another sailor to the films night after night because there was some footage of Mrs Bathurst coming out of a train in Paddington and he says that she was looking for him. He then deserts and disappears.

But at this point the man from the railway talks about a recent trip he had to make to help with a derailed train and how two tramps had been seen near the line. It appears to be the man and Mrs Bathurst both dead and resembling charcoal.

Another tale that leaves you with a haunting twist. Last story tomorrow…

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Titus Groan - post III

Steerpike starts to worm his way into a secure position and there is a hint of potential trouble to come because of his interest in poisons as well as his ability to manipulate people after finding out what it is they want to hear.

The world of Gormemghast reminds you a bit of Harry Potter, in terms of the castle and its numerous rooms and staircases and in some respects a thriller with Swelter planning to kill archrival Flay.

Bullet points between pages 112 – 162

* Having been discovered in the attic Steerpike convinces Fuchsia that she wants to help him find employment and he tags along as the nannie and Fuchsia visit the doctor who he sweet talks into delaying booting him out

* Steerpike stays and ingratiates himself not just with the doctor but also with his sister who finds stirrings of feelings she hasn’t had for years as the young man treats her like a woman

* Things then switch back to Flay who discovers by watching Swelter through his window that the chef is planning to kill him with a double-edged cleaver by sneaking up on him in his sleep

* Steerpike sees a chance to further is social climbing as the Earl of Groan’s sisters the twins arrive to visit the doctor and the young man feeds on their fear of losing all power and position to the countess

More, hopefully in terms of pages as well as story, tomorrow…

Don't read this just bluff it

The other day the papers were full of articles about how people admitted to failing to finish various works of literature but there is an answer if you can live with faking it. At the weekend in the New York Times supplement that comes with The Observer there was an article about a french professor, Pierre Bayard, who has produced a guide: How to Talk about Books You haven’t Read?

“Students, he noted from experience, are skilled at opining about books they have not read, building on elements he may have provided in a lecture. This approach can also work in the more exposed arena of social gatherings: the book’s cover, reviews and other public reaction to it, gossip about the author and even the current conversation can all provide food for sounding informed.”

You have to wonder how many people will read this article and then claim to have read his book…

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

There is a clever shift in focus here away from what you expect to be the centre of attention. It is an interesting idea to take the theme of one event and overplay it on another with the question of transmitting electricity and thoughts not just being confined to the Marconi wireless machine.

The location is a chemist’s shop in a south coast seaside town and there are three characters waiting for a call from a transmitter in Poole. Mr Shaynor is dying of consumption and spends his time manning the shop, except for a brief outing with his girlfriend, while the narrator and Mr Cashell wait for the message. Mr Cashell is explaining to the narrator about how electricity works and messages comes through the ether and then the narrator goes back into the shop and sees Shaynor in a consumptive slump/trance quote some Keat’s poetry and write some magical verses down. He is called to the back room but tells Cashell that something is coming through in the shop. What heightens the tension is the knowledge that Cashell shares with the narrator while Shaynor is out that is man, capable of loving poetry, is going to be dead within the year.

So far, reading these stories over a week and a half, there have been different styles, ambitious use of voice and twists that are an unexpected surprise in a short story. There is a lot for writers and literary lovers to learn by reading and enjoying these stories. More tomorrow…

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Titus Groan - post II

You have to concentrate with the narrative because it switches back in time based on certain characters with the central event being the birth of Titus. So at one stage you get as far as the christening, which happens twelve days after his birth, only then to get dragged back to catch up on Steerpike who disappeared from the story only hours after the birth.

A great deal is made of the role the city plays in books like Petersburg by Andrei Bely and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser but one of the most intriguing and constantly developing things about Titus groan is the castle and its surrounds. Firstly it shows tremendous imagination but secondly it makes you wonder just what is left to be discovered.

Bullet points between pages 60 – 112

* Titus’s nanny heads out to pick a wet nurse from those living outside the castle walls and ends up coming back with a woman who has just lost her own child and offered herself rather than allowing the nanny to choose

* The main event is the christening and in the run up to it Flay and Swelter have a confrontation and Flay hits the cook round the face with a chain and the hatred starts to boil underneath the acres of skin that makes up the cook

* At the christening the sisters of the Countess arrive and the twins, who are living in isolation in the South Wing reveal that they hate her and envy her of her position and power and show no real interest in the proceedings

* Things start to go wrong firstly when the doctor laughs and breaks protocol and then when Titus is placed in the ancient book and is about to be lowered into the font he falls out of the book and rips a page

* The countess steps forward and insists he is christened outside on the lawn and so despite protocol being in tatters the service goes ahead and at the end Fuchsia makes up with her nanny and sympathises for her ugly brother

* Meanwhile the story of Steerpike, who was left locked in a room by Flay, is told with him escaping out of the window and staying up on the roof for 24 hours seeing the twin sisters and a lonely poet before finding a way back into the castle

* The way back in happens to be a window into Fuchsia’s beloved attic space and she discovers him lying as if fainted on the floor in front of the window and brings him round only to tell him to leave her room and that she hates him

Could passion spring from this encounter? What next for Titus? Plus what other weird characters has Peake got up his sleeve? More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

Although Kipling comes for some stick for writing a great deal about the old Empire days you could hardly accuse him of glamming it up with tales of heat, sun and delirium. There is also a slight tinge of Conan Doyle here at the end as the doctor tries to photograph his eyes to see what was reflected in them the moment his friend died.

At The End of the Passage
Four men get together each Sunday to play cards and keep each other sane. In the stifling heat of 101 degrees they meet up as usual and discuss one of their acquaintances who has ‘gone out’ after blowing his brains out. Then their worries start to mount over one of their own number and sure enough as the doctor stays with him that night he discovers that only morphine can help him sleep. He refuses to be sent home and the doctor leaves him and then gets bogged down dealing with a wave of illness sweeping through the plantation. When the friends meet up again for their game of cards they discover their friend dead with a look of terror on his face and when the doctor photographs his eyes it seems that something really did scare him to death.

Again a different style from Kipling that has a hint of the supernatural about it. It’s just a shame that the doctor was not able to share with us all a bit more about what was on the photograph.

More tomorrow…

Monday, March 12, 2007

Titus Groan - post I

Following a passionate review of the Gormenghast Trilogy by Stephen Lang on his blog it seemed like a good moment to put the disappointments of a television adaptation to one side and give the books by Mervyn Peake a chance. Luckily the memories of the TV version have all but faded except for John Sessions playing the doctor if I remember rightly.

There is always going to be a temptation to make a television adaptation of a book that is written by a writer who also appreciates the value of images. Peake was also an illustrator and there are occasional pictures of some of the characters that on top of his rich visual descriptions make it easy for a casting agent to go off and find the right face. On the flipside for the reader the imagination is supported to the point where you can feel comfortable with the castle and the weird characters in it and set out on your own journey in that environment.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 60

* A host of weird characters are introduced with Rottcodd the curator of the hall of bright carvings being quickly placed in conversation with Flay the servant to the Earl of Groan who reveals that the Earl has just become father to a son

* Flay then moves to the kitchens where he watches the obese structure of the drunken chef Swelter drink himself into a state of collapse before leaving being followed by the newest recruit to the kitchen boys Steerpike who is looking for a way of escaping

* Flay takes him through a room full of white cats that belong to the Countess and then shows him through a spy hole the private apartments of the Earl and Countess and Steerpike overhears the Earl asking the doctor if he thought his son was ugly

* Then the Countess is introduced, a woman surrounded one minute by birds and then the next by cats, who has no interest in her son Titus and sends him away not to return until he is six

* Meanwhile the clock has turned back slightly and a picture is painted of Fuchsia who spends most of her time in isolation in the attic and takes it very badly when she hears about the birth of a brother

Steerpike for the time being has disappeared from view but you sense (maybe it’s the picture of him on the cover of the version I am reading) that he will have a very important role to play. More tomorrow…

Honest but stupid

An interesting piece in The Guardian today covers the results of a survey by Teletext that collated the responses of 4,000 adults about their reading habits. As well as some honesty from people admitting they had not finished books including Ulysses and Crime and Punishment there was also a very revealing 55 per cent of folks who said they bought books solely for decoration and never had any intention of reading them.

The best quote in the article is attributed to Andrew Franklin a publisher from Profile who said that those people who couldn’t manage to finish the slim line Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss “must have the intelligence of plankton not to be able to get through 204 pages of a comic, readable book”.

They might not be very bright but judging by the responses they are at least honest.

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

The blurb on the back cover says that this story is Kipling’s most well known and in a way it reminds you in style of The Ship that Found Herself with the voices in the narrative belonging not to men but to polo ponies in the case of this tale and the ships component parts in the case of the other example.

The Maltese Cat
This starts with a discussion about a forthcoming cup polo match and you assume it’s the players talking to each other but it turns out to be the horses and the leader of the team the Maltese Cat masterminds a victory that involves an injury to both horse and master. There is a great pace about the story with the inevitable victory coming at quite a cost.

The decision to let the horses do most of the talking is a brave one that really works although you sense that animals might not always conform to behaviour patterns of male rugby players.

The Kipling will keep coming tomorrow…

Sunday, March 11, 2007

bookmark of the week

This seemed like such a good idea - being able to mark not just where you were but which line you last read but also marking quotes. The problem is that the little arrows keep dropping out of the book and out of a pack of about eight this is all I have left. The moral of the story is that what might seem like a good idea in the shop...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

book of books - Madame Bovary

It is easy to come to this book by Gustave Flaubert with preconceived ideas about both the story and the style. Because it is a great favourite of quite a few people I know who also have a liking for romance fiction the first mistake was thinking it might be a slushy love story. The second is thinking that the debate about the rights and wrongs of the central character’s – Emma Bovary – behaviour is a clear cut one. Instead it is much more complex and you find yourself sometime hating her and then at other moments understanding the power of the dream she is chasing.

If it had been clear cut then of course the writing would not have the same depth and ability to take the reader on a spiral of emotions that end with you understanding why it has happened but not excusing the stupidity. The irony is that her beauty and not her money attract the lovers she takes but it is because of the debts she runs up trying to play a part that she eventually loses everything.

Plot summary
A child of limited ability, Charles Bovary, becomes a doctor and falls for the daughter of one of his patients and marries Emma a teenager when he meets her. The wife soon starts to outgrow the rural practice and after attending a ball where she can enjoy the spectacle of the rich landed gentry she finds her own life to be sadly lacking in excitement and leans on her husband to move to a larger town. Once there she is attracted to a lawyer’s clerk who courts her but leaves before anything serious happens. But quite quickly she is seduced by Rodolphe a rich womaniser who fancies adding her as another notch to the bedpost. But Emma really falls for him and expects him to take her away from her life of misery, by now she hates Charles, but he abandons her. After a bout of illness after this betrayal Emma meets Leon in Rouen and this time there is a physical element to the relationship. But in the meantime she is running up debts and being played by the local moneylender and things come to a head and the bailiffs arrive and then a poster is put up in town advertising all of their worldly goods for sale. Despite what it might mean for her husband and their daughter Emma takes poison and dies leaving a heartbroken Charles who dies not long after finding her hidden love letters and confronting Rodolphe. The daughter is passed from family member until she is left with an aunt who sends her to work in a cotton mill because she cannot afford to feed her.

Is it well written?
There are some really clever echoes with Charles being the one who advises his wife to ride with Rodolphe, which gives them the opportunity to be alone, and then later on being the one to reintroduce her to Leon. Another echo is of the Vicomte, the man who throws the ball near the start of her married life. He reappears briefly at the end to compound her misery. What makes the story work is that without lengthy passages outlining the social class system in France you quickly understand that the invitation the ball was something unusual for a rural doctor and the spell it casts on Emma is as powerful as that on the poor man dreaming of winning the lottery. The other thing worth mentioning is that you never see the end coming, both the demise of Emma and that of Charles, and that is as a result of the way Flaubert pulls you headlong into the last 80 pages of narrative without giving you a chance to breathe until it is all over.

Is it worth reading?
This sat on the shelf for a while and even when the first few pages had been consumed there was a nagging doubt that this book would be enjoyable but by the final 100 pages it had a momentum and a power that makes you wish it had lasted for a couple more affairs and a few more hundred pages. In parts this is a love story, a tragedy, a thriller and a mystery and it is no surprise to hear people place this at the top, or very near it, of their personal reading lists. It is not so much a question of if it is worth reading but if it is worth missing out on? To do so would be a missed opportunity.

Dreaming of a better life leads to a spiralling debt and a double life, which eventually leads Emma Bovary with no other option of taking her own.

Version read – Oxford World Classics paperback

Friday, March 09, 2007

Madame Bovary - post V

For those still reading the book please be warned this covers the final stages of the story and the ending.

In the end the question is whether or not you feel sympathy for Emma Bovary or hatred because of what she does to her family and herself. But that is a question that each reader will answer differently. My take on it is that all she really wants is a better life, something she has seen at the very start when she goes to the ball. Emma is constantly chasing a dream that she is unable to get and in the end it eludes her so utterly and completely there is no option other than to end it.

Bullet points between pages 154 – 340

* The affair with Leon continues to develop as Emma convinces Charles that she is taking piano lessons in Rouen and then after a while she pushes the boat out and starts to stay over night

* Charles has no idea of either the affair or the debts that she is running up on top of those he has already committed to with the trader that is conning them by catching them both in a web of ever increasing debts

* But after a while even the relationship with Leon starts to get dull and boring and although her affection is not increased for her husband Emma realises that what she is looking for might not ever exist and just as she gets close to capturing the elusive success and happiness it crumbles to dust

* But then things start to spiral out of control and the debts are placed in the hands of a banker who starts to threaten court action, which for a while Emma completely ignores but the problems keep mounting until they spill out into the open

* She is woken by her servant girl to the news that there is a poster in the town square putting everything in her house up for sale – this is something that follows after a visit from the bailiffs

* Emma runs from credit source to potential lender and is rejected by everyone with the lawyer suggesting he will pay for sexual favours, Rudolphe refuses her request, Leon argues that he cannot help and even the tax collector will not help out

* In desperation Emma heads for the chemist’s store room and takes arsenic and then heads home and starts the slow and painful process of dying as a grief stricken Charles watches from the bedside

* Other doctors come and all agree there is nothing that can be done and then the priest comes to help with the last rites and eventually Emma dies leaving Charles beside himself and complete silence from her lovers

* The story then moves to a conclusion with the burial, Leon’s announcement of marriage and then the tragic moment when Charles discovers the love letters of Rudolphe and Leon and realises what his wife was doing

* He meets Rudolphe in a café and tells him that it was destiny that Emma fell in love with him and then heads home and is discovered in the garden dead leaning against the wall

* Things are wrapped up with the daughter being sent to the grandmother, who dies shortly afterwards, and then being put out to work because the aunt she is fobbed off with is too poor to look after her

A review will follow over the weekend…

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

If Kipling is not writing about soldiers then he seems to pick up on a nautical theme and so both of the next stories are based on or around ships. There continues to be an inventiveness about space and the senses are challenged with the uses of shapes and lights in the second of these stories. From that perspective there is plenty of stuff here for a creative writing student to pick up on.

The Limitations of Pambe Serang
In this story of revenge a man discovers that a stoker on board the ship he is also serving on has eaten his food and he vows to exact revenge and waits years but finally tracks him down and as he lies ill asks the enemy to come closer and stabs him through the ribs. The murderer is kept alive so the law can hang is to make sure justice is done.

A revenge story that shows that it is not only possible to find someone in you wait long enough but that in the end taking revenge creates two losers not just one.

The Disturber of Traffic
From violence to madness with an old sailor telling another of a story of an acquaintance who went mad manning a passage that got clogged up with sea faring traffic. The streaks of the waves start to torment him so as a result he builds and plants wreck buoys and blocks the channel and is finally caught and stopped but appears in the nude making odd comments. He recovers but is never quite able to get over the incidents in the passage.

A great example of how easy it is to pass the narrative over from one voice to another and allow someone not even present to talk via reminiscences.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Madame Bovary - post IV

Having enjoyed one affair Madame Bovary goes reasonably quickly into another one with her old flame Leon as she seeks to escape from the confines of a loveless and hateful marriage. But of course it is Charles the dutiful husband who is there throughout her illness after she is dropped by Rodolphe and Charles is also there to pick up her debts. How long she can get away with her deceit is not so clear but so far it is Charles himself who is the master of his own downfall with it being his suggestion to ride with Rodolphe that leads to the affair and then it is Charles who introduces Leon in the theatre to his wife.

Bullet points between pages 192 - 254

* After arranging to meet up with Rodolphe and run away together he writes a note, which he sends in a basket of apricots that explains that he cannot go away with her and tries to justify his actions deserting her

* She is devastated and suffers an attack of brain fever and is bed ridden for weeks and while she is ill the scale of her debts become clear and Charles of course picks up the pieces and arranges a loan to cover the costs

* To try and further her recovery it is suggested by the chemist that Charles takes her to the theatre in Rouen and it is in the interval that she is reintroduced to Leon who furthering his legal studies and doing rather well

* He advises Emma to stay on for a couple of days and in that period they make love in the back of a cab and any resolve she had to avoid getting involved with him fritters away as easily as the letter she wrote to that effect does after being thrown out of the window

* She returns to Charles but continues to see Leon and order luxuries without care of money as her interests are elsewhere and she even seems disinterested when she hears that her father-in-law has died

Quite where she will go with Leon, who is far more immature than Rodolphe and as a result likely to get trapped in a situation that is beyond his control. More tomorrow…

book of books - Aimez-vous Brahms...

At the heart of this story, just like Francoise Sagan’s other well known work Bonjour Tristesse, is a tale the evolves around the emotion of love. In Bonjour... it was about the love of a daughter for a father and of a life together. In Aimes-vous Brahms… it is about the love, which is almost abusive in its one sidedness between two old lovers that has no room for the love of a younger man.

Plot summary
Thirty nine year old Paule is a designer in Paris that has been stuck in a relationship with a haulage businessman Roger for six years. In that time he has had numerous affairs with other women while expecting her to remain loyal. They are both stuck in a rut that comes under pressure with the introduction of Simon a 25 year old lawyer who is the son of one of Paule’s clients. He becomes besotted with Paule and offers her all the things that Roger doesn’t and he breaks up their relationship but the irony is that Paule is unhappy with his love and ends up by dropping Simon and returning to Roger.

Is it well written?
It is written very subtly because a great deal of the big themes about love linger with you and become clear afterwards. On one level there is the straightforward story about the chase, the affair and the failure but on another there is something operating on another level about the nature of love. So you end up questioning what it is about the love that Simon offers that is so unattractive to Paule and why she returns to the almost abusive love that Roger offers? Is it a lack of confidence? Something to do with age – something that dominates the book? It is because of the ability to ask those questions this is such a good read.

Should it be read?
For anyone who just thinks romance is something that happens to teenagers this proves that it is not. But it also shows that love can be complicated in a way that probably most teenagers would never understand. It also shows that just because someone is abusive in terms of having an open relationship when you want something precious and closed that they can in fact offer more love.

Age matters in a Parisian love triangle that sees the younger man fall foul of the experienced elder lover

Version read – Penguin paperback

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

What you start to appreciate after reading a few of these stories is that Kipling is as capable as Kafka and Pushkin of using a few pages to create a quite disturbing story.

The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot
The record in question is a diary of how the money handed out by the Church to be spent for the poor is administered by Badalia. She is a woman who lives mong the poor and knows the abuses they suffer and endeavours to make sure that the right people get the support they need. She has been abandoned by her husband who treats women as puch bags and sources of money. He returns after two years and asks for the church money and when she refuses to hand it over kicks her into a state nearing death. She lies on her bed and gives instructions until the end but dies and as the funeral mtakes place those who hope to abuse the system come out of the cracks like slime.

This reminds you of a Russian story because of the tragedy that even after all of her hard work she is reduced to just a book and some memories. Kipling still insists onb trying to use local dialect and although it is obvious I'm not totally convinced it improves an already good story.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Madame Bovary - post III

Things are left on a knife-edge with Madame Bovary prepared to take the plunge with her latest flame Rodolphe who she is head over heels with. The problem is that he is not quite as prepared to leave everything behind and you sense there is going to be some heartbreak mingled in with a heavy dose of disgrace to come in the near future for Emma.

Bullet points between pages 134 – 192

* Having been targeted by rich Rodolphe who is determined to break down her barriers with fine speeches about love and following one’s heart the irony is that it is the husband Charles who provides them with a reason to get together

* After a bout of nervousness Rodolphe in front of Charles suggests riding and it is after that has been approved by the husband that Emma and Rodolphe meet in the woods after a ride and become lovers

* Having gone the extra step she never did with Leon Emma seems to go the full distance with Rodolphe and falls in love with him and starts writing to him, seeing him whenever she can and loathing her life and her husband even more

* She gives Charles one more half chance as he tries to become renowned for operating and correcting club feet but he does an experiment on one of the villagers and gangrene sets in and it ends with an amputation and Charles being loathed by Emma

* All the while Emma is coaxing Rodolphe to take her away to a better life an she plans for a trip abroad and packs in secret and the night before the departure she meets her lover and gets him to promise to meet her tomorrow but he leaves reminding himself not to be so foolish

What will happen when Emma discovers she has been abandoned? Will she have burnt her bridges with Charles? Some of the answers will come tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Best Short Stories

Away from soliders patroling remote areas of the Empire the stories take a different tone and in the case of the one consumed today become slightly more inventive. It is possible to appreciate what Kipling was doing when you read things that are genuinely different.

The Ship That Found Herself
The story starts conventionally ebnough with the skipper and the ship builder’s daughter discussing a new ship, which the skipper argues needs to find itself. Then Kipling makes the comment that if you ever listen to a boat made of steel and iron you can hear it talking and from that point the voices are those of the steam, rivets and other parts of the ship. The ship makes it to New York and then all of a sudden a new voice emerges and it is the voice of the ship, rather than of the component parts, and the ship has finally found itself.

It is hard not to appreciate the clever way the different parts of the ship make different sounds and the steam is acting as the most experienced voice of all. His use of language and sound is something special.

Tons of books

As part of the day job I have just been writing about the data problem that is soon to swamp us all and EMC kindly sent through an image to make their point, which because of the content I wanted to get up on the blog. The real question is how many people out there could read their way through the data they generate?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Madame Bovary - post II

Having a rough idea of what is coming - in terms of the adultery presumably that is not too far off the horizon – the question the reader faces is whether or not they feel that Madame Bovary would be justified.

She is certainly bored enough and dislikes her husband enough but something at this stage holds her back otherwise why not get involved with Leon the lawyers clerk? Mind you it is not too long before temptation returns in another guise.

Bullet points between 60 – 134

* Facing a life of rural boredom Madame Bovary gets her husband to move to take up a position in another larger village and there she is able to at least get a chance to change the scene and meet some new people

* There are a handful of characters that interact with the Bovary’s on a daily basis and one of these becomes Leon the lawyer’s clerk who falls in love with Emma and although she feels the same she buries her feelings

* Emma concentrates on busying herself in the house but the more work she does making the home perfect for Charles the more her distaste for him and her life increases and she starts to spoil herself with a few luxury items

* Meanwhile Charles is oblivious to it all and even fails to pick up on the tension when Emma hurts their daughter in a temper and he gets bogged down in dealing with patients, one of which takes a shine to his wife

* The bored aristocratic patient focuses his attention on Madame Bovary and decides that as the town celebrates hosting the agricultural fair he will make an attempt to make a conquest of her

More tomorrow…