Monday, April 30, 2007

The Reprieve - Post I

Over lunch today the question came up about favourite books and films and I said that a recent DVD of a French film called Hidden (La Cache) had really left you wondering what the moral was. There are books that make the reader work as well and as the wine went round it was hard to come up with an example. However on boarding the train afterwards to head home it became obvious that based on the first chunk of reading that Jean-Paul Sartre’s second in the Roads to Freedom trilogy, The Reprieve, is going to be one of those books.

Where other writers might insert an asterisk or page break Sartre moves from one scenario to another with such fluidity you almost fail to realise the location has changed until someone you have never heard of starts talking. The blurb on the dust jacket describes the style in these terms: “Cutting incisively from one scene to another…” It leaves you desperate for a friendly face from the first book but even then there has been a gap and things have moved on with almost no explanation. This has been hard work today.

Bullet points from pages 1 – 50

* Things start with two things being established – that everyone is waiting to see what Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain manages to get out of Hitler at Munich and that France is expected to play a role helping the Czechs if the outcome is bad

* Characters in presumably German occupied border areas wait tensely to see what will happen with Milan Hlinka protecting his family behind closed doors and the diplomats receiving news that Hitler is postponing Chamberlain’s audience

* Quickly a host of characters are introduced with a man and a nurse involved in an affair in a hospital that faces being moved because in the event of a war it would be on the front line, a man who has come to Marseille to seek a better life and communists in Paris readying for the conflict

* There is a glimpse of familiar ground with Mathieu on holiday with his brother’s wife Odette at her villa and they talk about the war as he makes sand pies and thinks about Ivich who he has been writing to

* Then there is more confusion with the subject of everyone the prospect of war before another familiar couple – Daniel and Marcelle – appear and you discover they are married but she has not yet had Mathieu’s child

* Everyone is looking for signs of war and finding them in different things with Mathieu experiencing it in the heat of the desert, the diplomats starting to realise it is in the way Hitler treats Chamberlain and for those already in the firing line by stones being hurled and intimidation

More tomorrow…

book of books - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The reason for choosing to read what is often seen as a children’s book by Lewis Carroll was firstly to read the text free of the film version confusion and secondly to remind myself of the book I have not read since being a child.

On the first point there are differences between the book and the film versions, I’m thinking of the Disney version here mainly, with the book being much more episodic and short and based in far fewer locations than you might imagine.

On the second it made me realise that although when I read it as a child we were being told to keep a look out for mathematical and historical references (the mad hatter being mad because of lead poisoning as an example) it is possible to read it and enjoy it as a story of the power of childhood imagination.

Plot summary
Alice falls into a dream after noticing a white rabbit hopping by and in her dream state she follows the rabbit down a hole that falls for a long time. At the bottom there are doors, mostly locked except one small door looking onto a garden, and a table with a bottle marked ‘drink me’. This drink shrinks Alice who then spends sometime regretting that she did not remember the key. Once she finally manages to get to the right size she encounters several characters including a hookah smoking caterpillar, a mock turtle and a Cheshire Cat. But what continues to be a theme is the white rabbit who finally reappears with the queen and the king in their kingdom of playing cards. A game of croquet with hedgehogs and flamingos is broken up by threats of mass executions. A final court scene is broken up by Alice growing back to her normal size and then as the playing cards attack her she wakes to tell her sister all about it.

Is it well written?
From a style point of view what you have to admire is the ability to keep a dream state going without constantly reminding the reader that Alice is dreaming. This is done primarily through the confusing use of language and the constant disorientation Alice experiences in both size and her interaction with the animals she encounters. If you put to onside the search for some deeper hidden meaning and appreciate the power of imagination then this is a work of inspiration as well as enjoyment. The slight problem for an adult reader is the stigma attached by reading a ‘child’s book’ but then as Harry Potter and Curious Incident of the Dog… have proved it is quite acceptable to read a title aimed in principle at a younger reader.

Should it be read?
It is the sort of book that gets read at school then forgotten and lost underneath the interpretations of the films, both cartoon and acted, that add to the excesses of the story. This is part of the Penguin Red series, which are short but important works the publisher has decided to brand for an adult readership. It deserves to be read by anyone who can look back and remember the dreams they had as children and appreciate the power of imagination that although strong in children sadly rarely flickers into life again this strongly except in the pages of the fiction written by Carroll and J.M Barrie.

Alice falls into a dream populated by white rabbits, mad hatters and an execution hungry Queen but wakes with a memory that will live with her forever

Version read – Penguin paperback Red Edition

Sunday, April 29, 2007

bookmark of the week

This is from the Natural History Museum in London and is of a Lemur tale. I had a reasonably enoyable day there until mu youngest decided to try and destroy exhibits that had been safe from harm for centuries.

book of books - The Age of Reason

This book covers two days in the life of Mathieu Delarue a professor in philosophy at the Sorbonne. But in those two days Jean-Paul Sartre manages to pack in a huge amount around the main story of the pregnancy of Mathieu’s mistress. On top of the individual concerns of the characters there is a shadow cast by the changing situation in Europe with one mention of the possibility of war.

This book really feels like the first part in a trilogy because there are plenty of places for the characters to go at the end and of course war is looming, which will change everything.

Plot summary
Mathieu discovers that his mistress Marcelle is pregnant so they agree on an abortion but it involves him finding 4,000 francs and in his chase for the funds he asks a rich friend Daniel, who refuses him, as well as his brother Jacques who asks him to recognise he needs to grow up and accept that he is old enough to have the age of reason. Part of the reason Mathieu does not want the child is because he has spent most of his 34 years searching for freedom and it would compromise that. Also he is harbouring some sort of fantasy love with Ivich a sister of one of his pupils Bruno. She is an odd girl who fails her exams and faces the prospect of having to go back home. In the meantime Marcelle, encouraged by Daniel who has been seeing her secretly for a long time, admits she would like to keep the baby. Daniel hopes to trap Mathieu and end his friend’s freedom. But Mathieu goes as a far as stealing from Boris’s older girlfriend Lola the money and that brings it to a head and as Marcelle refuses her long standing lover Daniel steps into the breach and agrees to marry her. Denied of love or family Mathieu seems to suddenly realise that the freedom he believed was at risk was something unattainable and as a result of this realisation accepts he must be at the age of reason.

Is it well written?
It is much easier to read than Nausea because there is much more of a story here and the chase for the abortion money gives it a momentum. The introspective philosophical moments are kept much more as a constant background theme that surface now and again. What makes it enjoyable is that there are characters that like Daniel and Lola who despise Mathieu providing the reader with a couple of outlets for letting off steam with the professor. Throughout the book the theme is age with Mathieu at 34 and Lola a bit older both feeling like they are on death’s door. The age of reason is not just about recognising personal development but you suspect there is a link to the fate of France, which was still indulging in the play politics Mathieu displays when asked if he will become a communist.

Should it be read?
To provide a glimpse into how little people cared about the world and the developments on the political stage it is worth comparing with Goodbye to Berlin where the Germans experienced an equally slow dawn. Despite the strong story, rounded characterisation and pace there are still going to be plenty of people put off by the name Sartre but this is an easier read than Nausea and even through it is a trilogy there is not a compunction on the reader to carry onto The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul. For those that enjoy history there is the added attraction here of getting an insight into the almost ignorant bliss that still existed in Paris as late as 1938.

Facing an unwanted pregnancy a professor runs around Paris trying to raise the money for an abortion but once he has it he loses his mistress and realises he was never free anyway

Version read – Penguin paperback

Saturday, April 28, 2007


I'm afraid there will not be any posts of any significance today as I am feeling unwell. I am bent double with stomach ache and am about to crawl off to bed. Hopefully will be better and able to post some reviews tomorrow...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Goodbye to Berlin - post II (part two)

“The trams are going up and down the Kleistrasse, just as usual, They, and the people on the pavement, and the tea-cosy dome of the Nollendorfplatz station have an air of curious familiarity, or striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past – like a very good photograph.
No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened…”

Bullet points between pages 139 – 204

Again it is simpler to break the highlights down into the respective chapters

The Landauers
* Following a comment Christopher hears about the owners of the Landauer department store that is anti-Jewish he is determined to make their acquaintance and starts to visit their home and makes friends with the 18-year-old daughter

* But an odd relationship develops with the nephew of the owners of the store Bernhard who seems to sum up the vulnerability of the Jews that are being targeted by the Nazis and at one point he shows Christopher a death threat he has received

* In the end the Landauer daughter and mother seek refugee in Paris and are finally followed by the father after Bernhard, a solitary man unable to relate to the political events around him, has been murdered by the authorities

* Throughout the story there is a mixture of sympathy, unbelief at the lack of interest and anger shown by Bernhard and finally great regret that they were targets of the black and brown shirted Nazi thugs

A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)
* This is written very much as a diary and records the slide into Hitler’s takeover with the increasing violence of his henchmen and the unquestioned violence directed at the Jews

* One particular passage about a boxing match that is rigged is a particularly powerful observation of just how easily the Germans could be dragged along by Hitler:

“The audience took the fights dead seriously, shouting encouragement to the fighters, and even quarrelling and betting amongst themselves on the results. Yet nearly all of them had been in the tent as long as I had, and stayed on after I had left. The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything.”

* The reports of intimidation and violence are coupled with the depressing way people that Christopher has known like his former landlady start to eulogise about Hitler and start to revise everything that have believed in

* The final contacts Christopher makes in the city are involved with the communist movement, which is more fun and games than real political protest, but as the tension rises these same actors are used by the Nazi’s for their own purposes

“I am thinking of Rudi in hiss absurd Russian blouse. Rudi’s make believe, story-book game has become earnest; the Nazis will play it with him. The Nazis won’t laugh at him; they’ll take him on trust for what he pretended to be. Perhaps at this very moment Rudi is being tortured to death.”

Historians have always wondered how and why a madman could drag a civilised nation into the mire. What Isherwood shows is that it’s possible to laugh off the threat until it is too late and the moral has to be that if you want to stop history repeating itself then you have to get out there and shout down tyranny before it gets its hands on power.

A full review will follow shortly…

Goodbye to Berlin - post II (part one)

When you start reading this book you half start wondering where it is all leading to and it’s possible to view it as a little bit of a self indulgent semi-autobiographical collection of snippets over a three year stay in Berlin. But it is at the very end you realise that everything he has seen and enjoyed has started to disappear and is being wiped away by the Nazi’s. It is only in the last few pages you get a sense of the distress and anger and that ironically would have not been anywhere as powerful if the preceding chapters had not been so normal.

Bullet points between pages 79 – 138

Again it is simpler to break the highlights down into the respective chapters

On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)
* Christopher decides to spend some time in the Baltic and is based with a fellow Englishman Peter who is a nervous wreck, who is really trying to struggle with his homosexuality, and has set up with a German man named Otto

* Otto exploits Peter’s dependency on him and is clearly only interested for the money and flirts with both Peter and women he meets in the local dancehall and as a result of the tension life is made difficult for Christopher

* Ultimately Otto disappears back to Berlin having stolen clothes and money from Peter while Christopher and the Englishman were out in a boat and that also leads to Peter cutting his stay short and heading back to England

The Nowaks
* Back in Berlin and down on his luck Christopher goes to visit Otto and his family and ends up renting a room from them in a very poor and run down part of the City which introduces him to a different set of characters

* Otto’s mother is ill and his father a drunkard but it is his brother Lothar who is the first introduction to the Nazi’s with the quiet and determined young man visiting the party most nights

* As her illness gets worse Otto’s mother has to go to a sanatorium and despite the fact that Otto shows no interest in anything other than sponging off the men and women he has relationships with he finally betrays a genuine human side when he has to wave goodbye to his mother at the hospital

Lunchtime read: Alice's Aventures in Wonderland

The book ends with a jolt as the dream ends and Alice finds herself back with her sister and the white rabbit running into the bushes. The final sentiments seem to be around the joy of childhood and the comforts that a Wonderland can offer.

“…how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland…”

Highlights from chapters nine, ten and eleven

* Having met up with the queen again Alice is told to accompany the Griffin and go and hear the history of the Mock Turtle, a sort of half pig and half turtle creature, that reminisces about the past

* One of the main features of his story is when he details a dance – the lobster quadrille – and explains a little bit about the underwater world to Alice, including telling her that whiting is used to colour and polish shoes

* But the memories are broken by a shout that the trial has started and Alice runs off to see the king and the queen in session trying a knave for stealing tarts in a case that seems to be based on a nursery rhyme

* Alice starts to grow and as she is finally called as a witness manages to upset the queen enough to be threatened with execution to which she replies that all they are is a pack of cards and they start to jump on her

* At that moment she wakes up next to her sister fighting off the leaves that have dropped on her from the tree above and tells her all about her dream and the characters in it

A review will be posted shortly…

Thursday, April 26, 2007

book of books - The High Window

Certain books come with preconceptions that can help as well as hinder a reader’s appetite and most of the time Hollywood is the cause of establishing the image for a book. That is certainly the case with Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe who before you even get to the end of the first page is hard not to see as Humphrey Bogart.

But focusing on the trilby, Macintosh with the lapels pulled up and pistol toting image of a private detective is relatively one dimensional and one of the biggest surprises in The High Window is the various moods and attitudes that Marlowe takes making it a more rounded personality and the way the plot develops is complex and inventive.

Plot summary
Hired by a rich and grumpy widow to find out if her daughter-in-law stole a famous coin from her deceased husband’s collection Marlowe heads off to find the girl and the coin. But very quickly the scale of his enquiries expand as he discovers that not only is the coin being used as a model for a fraudulent scam but his employer has a few secrets that she has not shared. With the coin dealer, a fellow detective hired to find out about the coin and the man behind the scam all dead Marlowe is left with the police against him and his employer failing to share the information he needs to close the case. What seals it is the evidence that Marlowe finds in a blackmailers room that links his employer with the death of her husband and the persecution of her secretary, who Marlowe finally helps escape into the more peaceful world of Kansas.

That might well sound confused and rambling and the reason for that is that firstly the plot is so crucial to a crime novel it seems a shame to spell it all out; and secondly the plot develops organically and in numerous directions making it difficult to wrap up in a single paragraph.

Is it well written?
It is of its time with the language and cars being of a set period in the late forties and early 1950s. But put that to one side and the human emotions are as valid as today and the tension is gripping in places. What carries the book through is the strong character of Marlowe who is fascinating and sometimes borders on the unliveable with his wisecracks and persistent willingness to rub people up the wrong way. The final addition to strong character is the plot that develops in ways that you cannot predict but it subtle enough to get the reader in on Marlowe’s world.

Should it be read?
The only reason not to is if you can’t stand the crime novel genre. Otherwise if you have mot read any Chandler before then it is a great introduction to a world of liars, rich gangsters and dames looking for fame. The book has a pace that helps it skip along and as has already mentioned the plot is far from predictable making it more enjoyable. There are also some great lines in the book that will make you laugh and want to store away to mimic later on.

Tough talking private detective cracks the case he was never hired for and saves a woman from a life of misery

Version read – Penguin paperback

Lunchtime read: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

My wife commented last night that Alice as standard reading in her convent school days and she expressed surprise I had chosen to read it. Having explained that I wanted a non Disney version she understood.

Already there are several differences with the first main one being that the book is incredibly episodic with one meeting with a character or set or characters being completed before another is started. There is only one character present almost throughout - the white rabbit – and apart from mistaking Alice for a maid he hasn’t spoken to her. There seems to be a habit of most of the characters of not really being able to engage with Alice in conversation or show any interest about where she has come from.

Highlights from chapters seven and eight

* In one of the most famous scenes from the book Alice heads to the mad hare’s home and stumbles across a tea party in full swing with the mad hatter, hare and dormouse all sitting round a table

* The mad hatter explains that because he annoyed time it is permanently six o’clock and tea time and to relieve the boredom they move places and tell each other stories - something they try to get the dormouse to do

* Alice keeps arguing with the dormouse over the story and then the hare and the hatter are rude to her and she leaves in disgust and comes across three playing cards painting roses from white to red to appease the queen

* At that moment the queen arrives and drags Alice into a came of croquet using hedgehogs for balls and flamingos for mallets and the monarch seems to have an obsession with issuing executions

* Her next intended victim is the Cheshire cat but without a body there is an issue about exactly how he could be executed and Alice lets it slip that the duchess might know – who is currently awaiting execution – so she is sent for

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Goodbye to Berlin - post I

The reason for deciding to read Goodbye to Berlin is that although it is set in 1930/31 and Sartre’s Age of Reason is set in 1938 they both have the same feeling of impending doom caused by the second world war.

This book is written almost like a diary, it starts that way and continues to be written like that although Isherwood makes the point in the introduction that although the character is called Christopher it could have been anyone experiencing the events.

Bullet points from pages 1 – 78

These pages cover two chapters so it’s best to look at it like that.

A Berlin Diary
It sets up the context of the book with the main character Christopher working as an English teacher and living in a house full of lodgers owned by a woman who has fallen on hard times. Those earning money seem to be employed as prostitutes or have hereditary wealth but everyone else is strapped.

Against this background some are turning to the Nazi party as an answer but it is all done in a superficial way. Meanwhile there is no impression that there is a dislike of the English it is the French who seem to be in for criticism.

The section ends with Christopher’s friend Fritz introducing him to another English in Berlin and this marks the transition to the second part of an aspiring actress Sally Bowles.

Sally Bowles
A real friendship grows between Sally and Christopher and it is to him she turns when she becomes pregnant and requires an abortion. They share the same accommodation and share the same friendships but there is no love there and in the end after an absence the relationship has not grown stronger and things fall apart and she leaves Berlin and heads to Rome via Paris.

What Sally shows is that although men desire good looking women very few have money, it is the Americans who seem to be rich in Berlin and in terms of entertainment and fun there is not a great deal to be had.

By the end of these two chapters you get a feeling of a city on the edge of something that is being fuelled by unhappiness caused by financial problems. Isherwood paints a picture of a capital that is waiting almost for the rise of Hitler not because he is the solution but at least he might do something to end the malaise. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Now Alice has managed to get away from the confines of the corridor she fell into there are more weird characters and perceptions of reality are challenged. Throughout it all Alice remains stoical and tries to be polite and clear despite her continually changing size.

Highlights from chapters five and six

* The next encounter is with a caterpillar smoking a hookah who asks Alice who she is and where she has come from – both questions that she struggles to answer but when the caterpillar hears that she wants to grow in size he disappears telling her over his shoulder that the mushroom can make her shrink or grow

* After some trial and error Alice manages to get to the right size to be able to approach a four foot high house that has a fish footman outside who is meant to be informing the duchess who lives inside that she has been invited to play croquet with the queen

* Alice barges inside to find the duchess sitting in the kitchen with the cook throwing saucepans and all manner of things at her while the duchess cradles a howling baby which she eventually hands over to Alice

* Alice cradles the baby that finally turns into a pig and she is left with the Cheshire Cat, who keeps disappearing, and tells her she has a choice of visiting the hare or the hatter, both of which are mad

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

book of books - A Sentimental Education

It is a clever technique to set the characters of a story into a historical situation that can impact on them when required to stir some action and reflect their characteristics. Tolstoy does it brilliantly in War and Peace and there are scenes in Gustave Flaubert’s book that remind you of how it is easy to get caught up in the crowd.

Central to A Sentimental Education is Frederic, an ambitious country lad who wants to succeed, who from the very outset falls in love with a married woman and his chase for her shapes his destiny. Flaubert also introduces a best friend from school who is slightly more successful in his studies and career but in his chase for fame and fortune opts for politics and in the end the two friends compare their failure in both approaches.

Plot summary
Frederic is studying in Paris when he comes across Madame Arnoux who he falls in love with and in order to come into her orbit starts to hand around with her husband who runs an art gallery and magazine. As Frederic extends into the artistic circle around Arnoux he tries to increase his links with Madame Arnoux but he is set back firstly by his own financial problems and then by hers as her husband’s business ventures fail and they eventually have to leave Paris to escape their debts. Meanwhile the revolutionists are threatening to overthrow the monarchy and as he jostles for power Frederic gets involved with Arnoux’s mistress, taking her as his own, and then sets out to seduce a bankers wife because of the feeling of success such a conquest would give him. But in the end he only really loves Madame Arnoux and although they meet again and discuss their love it never amounts to anything and she leaves to age in Brittany. Meanwhile Frederic’s friends have had mixed fortunes with some doing well out of the revolution and others, including his best friend, failing to make the most of the changing conditions.

Is it well written?
The revolution, rise of friends and the chase to become successful are all seen through the eyes of Frederic the provincial and although you never quite feel an over whelming sympathy for him you do want him to find love. The fact that he never manages to secure it is perhaps because he was too sentimental but also a result of position in French society and the disadvantages of a provincial upbringing. The story develops and the ending is never certain and this deserves to be read by anyone who enjoyed Madame Bovary. The character he is also looking for something that they fail to find but it is a more rounded study not just of the search for love but also of the difficulty breaking out of a class strata into another position in French society.

Should it be read?
It is not as well known as Madame Bovary and presumably that is partly because it is not as much of a scandal for men to bed hop but this is as powerful. In the end it is not just Madame Arnoux that is beyond Frederic but the riches of the elite. The class debate runs through the book with the revolutionary background and so on that level it belongs to that strain of literature that uses political unrest as a background. But it also is worth reading as a study of personal growth and the risks of independence and the personal costs of making the wrong decisions. We have all grown up with regrets and as a result we can all identify with Frederic.

A provincial law student is smitten after seeing Madame Arnoux and spends the rest of his youth chasing a dream of her only to be left with nothing but maybes and dreams

Version read – Oxford University Press World’s Classics paperback

The Age of Reason - post V

There is something quite disturbing about the character of Daniel who wants to destroy Mathieu’s freedom so much that he will sacrifice his own happiness in order to do so. It reminds me of a couple of people I know that fall into the category of ‘control freaks’ but you would hope no one would be prepared to concentrate their hatred on you like Daniel does on Mathieu.

The first part of the trilogy ends with things nicely set up for part two with you wondering just what will become of the leading characters. Things are left with Mathieu, Marcelle, Boris, Ivich, Lola and Daniel all in midstream.

Bullet points between pages 250 - 300

* Having taken Ivich back to his flat to try and console her after she failed her exams he is interrupted in trying to convince her to stay in Paris by Sarah who gives him an update on the abortionist

* Mathieu spills the beans to Ivich and then they part on bad terms because she is angry and refers to him as already thinking as a married man after he confesses he will have to marry Marcelle

* Things cut back to Daniel who is leaving the apartment after a homosexual encounter and in his rage with himself plans to go home and cut off his penis with a shaving blade but fails to do it and instead realises as he sips whisky in a bar that Mathieu will be meeting Marcelle

* On the way to see his mistress Mathieu steals 4,000 francs from Lola and then shows them to Marcelle who suddenly realises he is so keen to get rid of the baby he would steal to make that happen

* They argue and force each other to say that they don’t love each other anymore and then Mathieu leaves and finds Ivich in his flat and this is a critical second encounter where he angers her and ruins any chances of the relationship developing

* Lola bursts in and asks where Boris is accusing her boyfriend of the theft of 4,000 francs and she doesn’t believe it when Mathieu admits stealing the money and it is only resolved when Daniel walks in and hands the money back

* Daniel then tells Mathieu that he is going to marry Marcelle and they are going to have the baby but then follows that bombshell up with an admission that he is a homosexual – both bits of news are designed to anger Mathieu and they succeed in doing so

* But as Daniel leaves and Mathieu is left to his freedom he realises that he is nowhere near freedom and the last words are a confirmation that he has reached the age of reason

A review will follow shortly…

Lunchtime read: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The first difference between most of the film or cartoon versions I’ve seen and the book is that the action down the hole is taking a lot longer than I imagined. You expect Alice to go straight into the mad hatter’s tea party and bump into the queen but already a third of the book has passed and she is still not much further than where she started.

The other difference is that it is clear that there is a continued dream state because despite growing smaller and larger and facing other animals Alice never once seems to be that concerned other than to cry a bit for the world she is leaving behind.

Highlights from chapters three and four

* Alice and the animals swim out of her pool of tears and then play a game to dry each other out but how ever hard she tries Alice cannot get the mouse to share his family history and she frightens everyone off mentioning her cat and its liking for eating birds

* Then the white rabbit reappears running down the corridor and mistakes her for a maid and sends her back to his house to get another fan and a pair of gloves

* But once inside Alice notices a bottle saying ‘Drink Me’ and after drinking it she grows so large that her foot is up the chimney and her hand is out of the window where she uses it to try and grab the white rabbit and his gardener as they try to pull her out

* They then send a lizard, named Bill, down the chimney but Alice kicks him out and the poor animal is being helped by friends by the time Alice eats some cakes and shrinks back down to size

* She evades capture by the angry group of rabbit and his friends but now needs to find something else to eat to make her return to the same size as she was in the real world and she spies a mushroom with a caterpillar on top sucking on a hookah

More tomorrow…

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Age of Reason - post IV

There is a pace change with the book as things start to move towards a conclusion in some of the plot areas. There is a great moment when watching Boris and Ivich together Mathieu realises that it is not so great being young and perhaps the age of reason is not only negative but something positive if it distances you from immaturity.

Bullet points between pages 176 - 250

* The group of Boris, Ivich, Lola and Mathieu are at the night club and there is a row between Lola and Boris inspired by the young man's quest to get some money for his professor and it ends with them seperating with no one having enjoyed themselves too much

* The next morning the brother and sister meet Mathieu and Botis is convinced that Lola has overdosed on cocaine and sends Mathieu back to her flat to get hos love letters but as Mathieu is moving around the apartment Lola wakes and asks him to tell Boris to come back but the young man says that she is dead for him and has been disturbed by the idea of death and age an idea that disturbs Mathieu

* As a result of a telegram Mathieu meets up with Daniel and his friend reveals that he has been meeting Marcelle and leaves the question of whether or not she wants an abortion in the air but his mixing backfires slightly because far from being angry Mathieu is bemused and surprised and leaves him questioning what the nature of his relationship is

* But before he can go and meet with Marcelle he gets a telegram from Ivich telling him that she has failed her exams and will be pushed out of Paris by her parents so worried that she might do something dangerous

* Mathieu sets off to find her and finds her in a bar and takes her home but mixed in with lust there is a great deal of feeling about her immaturity

Final pages will be read tomorrow...

lunchtime read: Alice in Wonderland

The book starts in just the way you remember it but what you get from reading the first couple of chapters is a very clever suggestion that this is a sleep state, a dream and all of the rules of normal life are suspended. On a film they would probably make the edges of the screen wobble or make it go cloudy but Carroll manages to do exactly the same effect with words.

Highlights from the first two chapters

* Alice is bored and tired on a hot afternoon and her mind starts to wander and then she sees a white rabbit running a,ong checking his wrist watch and so she decides to follow him and falls down a hole

* She falls for a long time in suspended motion and lands softly to catch sight of the rabbit again running off down a long corridor and heads after him but all of the doors along the corridor are locked

* She notices a curtain with a small door but she is too big to go through it but then she notices a small key that opens it and there is a garden beyond and a bottle on a glass table with a label ‘drink me’

* She shrinks but has left the key on the table so then notices a cake with a label ‘eat me’ and grows up to nine feet but then cries because she cannot go through the door and at that point the rabbit returns mentions being late for the duchess and speeds off

* Using thy rabbit’s fan Alice waves her self back to just inches high but then almost drowns in the pool of her own tears and is helped out by a mouse

More tomorrow…

Sunday, April 22, 2007

coming next week...

On the review front there will be reviews posted of The High Window by Raymond Chandler and A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.

In terms of the reading for the week. The aim will be to finish off the Age of Reason and also start a fresh lunchtime read.

On a trip to the library yesterday I picked up some more J.D Salinger and on the shelf the spine of Trouble is my Business by Raymond Chandler is looking appealing. But I'm going to go for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The motivation is that like a lot of books that have been turned into films I haven't read the orignial and wanted to read the book. There are quite a few books that fall into that category including the likes of Moby Dick and a couple of the Jane Austen's - it might make quite a good reading challenge to read filmed books - but I'll just stick to Alice for now.

Anyway that's next week in theory...

Lunchtime read: The High Window

“’All right,’ he said wearily. ‘Get on with it. I have a feeling you are going to be very brilliant. Remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot. Just like a detective in a book.’”

The lunchtime read of last week comes to an end with a great scene where Marlowe reveals the entire series of events to not quite the person you expected and then not only solves the crime he was hired for but a fair few others on the way. As an introduction to Chandler it has been great, not just because of the style, but also because this is not The Big Sleep or Trouble is my Business, which conjure up images of old black and white Hollywood classics.

Highlights between chapters twenty-six to thirty-six

* Hoping to track down the missing dentist Marlowe discovers he has done a runner and after some research guesses it’s because he has used his dentist technician skills to formulate false coins

* Then things take a different turn with Marlowe being phoned at his office to be told by his building manager that there is a woman there to see him, Merle Mrs Murdock’s secretary, and she appears to be in quite a state

* He rushes over to be confronted with a woman who claims she has killed Vannier and then faints so Marlowe calls a doctor and heads over to find the blackmailer dead but not by her handiwork and discovers he had been blackmailing Mrs Murdock for eights years because he knows she pushed her husband out of a high window to his death

* Marlowe heads back to his home and then goes off to see Mrs Murdock to explain what has happened to Merle and explain she isn’t coming back to work for her again and as he leaves the old woman without an argument after he confronts her with a few home truths he has a showdown with the son

* In response to a line about whether or not this is the bit he shows off his detective deducing Marlowe sets out the entire story – who killed who and why – and decimates not just the son’s defences but those of the Murdock family

* He then heads off to take Merle back to her parents in Kansas but before she goes he tells her it was Mrs Murdock who pushed her husband out of the window and not her, despite the years of manipulation making it seem that way

* On his return from helping Merle he calls on the police who seem to have reached most of the right conclusions in the case, except for the Murdock’s who remain untouched, but as they were his clients Marlowe owes them indifference if nothing else

A full review will follow shortly…

bookmark of the week

A couple of years ago on holiday in France the nearest large town – Dinard – had an exhibition all about Napoleon. It seemed like a good idea to go round it and see what they had to say about their greatest general. The sad thing is that my French doesn’t extend beyond asking for a baguette, Orangina and a beer and all of the descriptions with the exhibits were in French. Mind you the man who died in British imposed exile no doubt would have liked the idea that a bunch of English tourists (we were not alone) could not understand an exhibition all about him.

This bookmark is a silhouette of Napoleon and his officers and the grand army

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Defining an era

The main thing worth commenting about in the papers today is the supplement in the Guardian about the books that defined certain decades. There are fifty books listed that have the potential to be seen as the titles that inspired their decade. The public gets the chance to vote for their choices and if lucky enough get a prize.

What is interesting looking at the choices is that some decades seem to have generated more than others with the 1920s being a particularly strong year with six choices. Again, just like the recent Waterstones list in The Telegraph this is all subjective but it does at least have the benefit of putting books and as a result hopefully reading on the agenda this weekend.

The full list:
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Interpreting Dreams, Sigmund Freud
Kim, Rudyard Kipling

Howards End, EM Forster
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, ed Jon Silkin
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence
Relativity, Albert Einstein
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
The Waste Land, TS Eliot
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Brighton Rock, Graham Greene
Right Ho, Jeeves, PG Wodehouse
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

1984, George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl, Ann Frank
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
The Outsider, Albert Camus

From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
Look Back in Anger, John Osborne
The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Ariel, Sylvia Plath
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

Carrie, Stephen King
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Persig

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
Money, Martin Amis
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes
Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
No Logo, Naomi Klein
The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi

Age of Reason - post III

Things didn’t quite go according to plan yesterday and a business lunch that started at 1pm ended at somewhere around the 9.30pm mark. Good company and very pleasant red wine meant that not only did I fail to be in a position to read anything on the train home but after I managed to convince my wife making me sleep in the garage was a bad idea I had to crawl upstairs and leave the blog alone.

Of course I could have mentioned Sartre and my sense of a search for freedom but I sense Sartre might not have had a wife like mine.

Bullet points between pages 134 – 176

* After discovering the Daniel is involved with boys and seems to be a man that walks on a thin line between trying to control and suppress his desires and actually carrying them out the focus falls back on Marcelle

* Daniel visits her and explains that he know she is pregnant and then because of a hatred and jealously of his outlook on life and freedom Daniel manages to pull out of Marcelle the desire to keep the baby

* Daniel’s plan is to force Mathieu into a marriage he does not want and that seems to be going very well as she allows him to become a go between with Mathieu and herself and you sense that Mathieu does have some idea of this sort of impending decision because he keeps muttering to himself about marriage and the age of reason

Will he be forced into fatherhood and marriage? Reading starts again on Monday…

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lunchtime read: The High Window

The beauty of Chandler’s style is that the plot evolves a bit like a beating heart with the central case being added to with almost every breath providing Marlowe with leads to chase and a trail for the reader to follow that feels organic in its development. The other great thing about Marlowe is he says what most people would only think and uses his bluntness as a weapon to open people up.

Highlights from chapters eighteen to twenty five

* Marlowe manages to get some time with the woman he is chasing and she is candid about marrying for money but appears to know nothing about the missing coin and then gets bored with the private detective and asks him to leave

* Under pressure from the police Marlowe heads back to see Mrs Murdock and tells her he is going to have to reveal the details of the case and she reveals that the coin was stolen by her son who needed money to pay off a criminal he had borrowed from

* Marlowe doesn’t believe him and then has a row with Mrs Murdock and implies that she is implicated in the murders and that she is not telling him but before he storms out into the night he works out that the deceased husband was involved in an abusive relationship with his secretary

* His next assignation is with the dentist that the night club owner asked him to look into but the man has fled his office so Marlowe heads out to track him down at home

More tomorrow…

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Age of Reason - post II

Sartre uses each chapter as a platform to introduce characters and then take the story on so Mathieu remains on his hunt for money to pay for the abortion but you are introduced to his rich friend, brother and sister-in-law and an old friend who has become a communist party recruiter exploiting the Spanish Civil War and the fears about Nazi Germany.

Bullet points between pages 70 – 134

* Having sent Sarah off on her mission to find out the cost of getting her Jewish surgeon contact to perform the abortion Mathieu meets up with Ivich in a café and awaits the call, which informs him that the cost will be, 4,000 francs

* There are only a couple of people who could provide that sort of money and so Mathieu makes a mental note to visit them after taking Ivich to see some Gauguin pictures but on the way he kisses her in the taxi and fears that he has spoilt the friendship for ever

* Before he gets there to ask for the money Daniel is described as a good looking confident man who is on his way to drown his three cats but when he gets to the river he has second thoughts and takes them back home

* Although he planned to keep the reason why he wanted the money secret Mathieu blurts out that Marcelle is pregnant not just to Daniel, who turns down his request for money, but also to his brother Jacques who also refuses to help him out with a loan

* His brother challenges Mathieu’s philosophy on life and accuses him of murder but also not following the freedom to surprise everyone and marry Marcelle and he outlines is belief to his brother that now is the age of reason

“You have attained the age of reason, Mathieu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so”

* From those bad meetings Mathieu heads home to be met by Boris who invites him to a night club and then his old friend Brunet who tries to get him to join the communist party and then gives up on him when Mathieu refuses

* Meanwhile Daniel is off for his secret meeting with Marcelle but stops in a fair that seems to be a notorious hang out for men looking for rent boys and there meets one of his old conquests (not totally clear) who badgers him for money

More tomorrow…

book of books - Selected Stories

As promised here is the review of the Anton Chekhov short story collection. Most of these stories were short in terms of word count but deep in terms of content and issues raised and it is because he can leave you pondering over a tale for days that he rightly is held up as a master of the short story art form.

The introduction to this collection makes the point that most of the time Chekhov was only aiming to portray characters and wanted the reader to make up their own mind about their morals and motivation. As a result you get a style that is non judgemental and more challenging because you are called onto think a great deal more as a reader – the decisions haven’t been made for you.

There are some great example of that approach at work:

In the Ravine
A merchant, who screws his customers has two sons, on deaf and one who lives away. The wife of the deaf son works with her father-in-law running the business and has started to pick up his ruthlessness. Suddenly the eldest son reappears and hands out some money to his family and then under their advice gets married to a quiet girl. The money turns out to be fraudulent and the son is sent to Siberia for six years. The trial starts to unhinge the old man, a process that is completed after the dominant daughter-in-law starts to take over. On her way to becoming a ruthless business woman she kills the child of her timid sister-in-law and virtually turns her father-in-law out of the house. A final scene has the frail and beaten old man being handed food by his timid daughter-in-law reducing him to the ranks of the peasantry and reminding everyone of how the mighty can fall.

The Robbers
A doctor is caught in a snow storm and seeks refuge in a den of thieves and not only has his horse stolen but all of his medicines and he has a run in with the girl living in the inn for his trouble. A year and a half later he is out of work and starts to ponder the freedom of the thieves and ends up wondering why he didn’t become one himself and as he gets closer to desperation reveals he has stolen already and plans to do so again.

The Beggar
A man takes pity on a beggar and tells him that if he is prepared to work then he will give him a chance. After cutting wood for months the man is given the chance to get an office job, which he seizes. Months pass and he is spotted at the theatre but he says to his saviour that the cook is the real hero because she cut all the wood but it was watching her that made him reform his ways. A powerful little twist that makes you think about charity and what the motivation really is behind giving it.

Is the collection well written?
What Chekhov proves is that length is not the crucial factor it is the characterisation and in this case the involvement of the reader. It is almost as if he is telling you a story to see your reaction. Rather than waiting for you to agree with him there is a sense that you could take sides and they could be different depending on the time in your life when you are reading the stories and your moral stance.

Should the collection be read?
Well worth reading because on a practical level they are far from taxing but in terms of being rewarded there is a glow that last long after the light has burnt out with these stories. It also proves that a writer is capable of various different styles with humour, thriller and morality tale all being part of Chekhov’s armoury.

Version read – Wordsworth Classics

Lunchtime read: The High Window

Death seems to be one step ahead of Marlowe this time claiming the coin dealer before the private detective can question him further. Then the police start to pressure him to reveal the complete details of the case he is working on.

Highlights from chapters fourteen to seventeen

* There is an odd moment when Marlowe takes the coin into a pawn shop and trades it for $15 and then heads off to see the dealer only to discover that he is on the floor behind his desk with a fatal gunshot wound

* He then heads back to his office and is visited by the police who spell it out to him that although he is known by figures in the force and to a certain degree tolerated they feel his has to share the details of the case with him

* Marlowe pumps them for information and discovers that the private detective did not appear to be working on a case and instead was a failure and barely kept a job down

* In between making drinks for the police and getting grilled he gets a call to go and speak to one of the criminals that seems to have links to the woman who Marlowe is trying to track down

With two murders and the tension from the police mounting what will happen next for Marlowe? More tomorrow…

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Age of Reason - post I

Following on from Flaubert I scanned the bookshelf last night and settled on something else from a French author. So Jean-Paul Sartre seemed like a good idea and starting his Roads to Freedom trilogy the only option on the shelf.

As you would expect from the existentialist king there are characters here that don’t feel the need to express their feelings because after all why should they and different characters get asked to reveal their thoughts, which they are always loathed to do. But the big theme that seems to be emerging is an obsession with age. For those of us over 30 the bad news is that we are old and youth has passed us by. For those in their mid twenties the message seems to be grab it while you can because time is running out.

Bearing in mind the book is set in France in 1938 with the Spanish Civil War raging, and the lead character had wanted to go and fight there and the book starts with a beggar handing over a postcard from Madrid there is a sense of youthful innocence about to be crushed.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 70

* Mathieu Delarue is a philosophy teacher that is broke and on his way to visit Marcelle a woman he seems to have a slightly odd relationship with because she is both ill and also mainly housebound

* After undressing in her pink seashell resembling room she reveals that she is pregnant and in response Mathieu starts to plan for an abortion and heads off to check out an old woman that has been recommended to Marcelle

* He doesn’t like that option and plans to visit his friend Sarah and ask her advice and borrow money from his friend Daniel to pay for the operation but the only contact Sarah knows is going to cost 4,000 francs

* Meanwhile the brother and sister Boris and Ivich are revealed with the former obsessed about his life dripping away at the age of 25 and finding little consolation with his singer lover who is in her early 40s and desperate for confirmation of his love

* Ivich turns out to be an odd woman who doesn’t like to be touched, is a hypochondriac and has the ability to annoy Mathieu but is fearful that having failed her exams she will be packed off back to the country and her parents

* With the burden of the pregnancy over him Mathieu starts to crave the freedom he has always wanted to be kept intact from the age of sixteen when he first thought about what he wanted from life:

“He had said to himself: ‘I will be free.’ Or rather he hadn’t said anything at all, but that was what he wanted to say and it was in the nature of a bet: he had made with himself that his whole life should be cast in the semblance of that unique moment.”

* Meanwhile back at Marcelle’s house she is thinking about the illicit friendship she has with Daniel, how she might feel about being a mother and whether or not she would hate Mathieu for forcing her to have an abortion

The whole sense of youth/age birth and death runs through the first seventy pages but at the same time there is of course a story developing about characters that want in their own way to be loved and to be free. How that develops will become more apparent tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The High Window

The plot starts to thicken and the shady characters start to multiply as Marlowe tries to get nearer to the truth. The first murder occurs and after that the guns are out as the temperature rises.

Highlights from chapters seven to thirteen

* Having established links with a fellow private detective who wants to share information Marlowe heads off to see the coin dealer who admits that he was offered it at $800 but will sell at $1,000 making some profit on the transaction

* Afterwards he heads for his meeting with the fellow detective but discovers him dead in his bathroom and heads to the building manager and gets him involved with the discovery of the body

* The killer has swapped his gun with that of the neighbour in the apartment across the hall and as a result there is a fight and then the police take away the man who seems to be an innocent victim

* Marlowe leaves the police and heads back to his office where a package turns up containing the coin he is after so he phones the client who grumpily informs him that she had also had the coin returned and wants to terminate his services

Where have the two coins come from? Will Marlowe give up the case? More tomorrow…

London Book Fair

Popped into the London Book Fair on my way home from a meeting in town last night and wanted to record the impressions – and that’s all they are after just an hour there. It had a good atmosphere with the show split into sections based on content like children’s and design and art. As you would expect Penguin had a big stand and there was representation from Faber and Faber and Bloomsbury but apart from that it was mainly foreign publishers and a lot of foreign language books.

If you were coming away with a gut feeling you would say publishing as an industry is alive and well but there could have been more of a British presence. Also for those people looking for the impact of technology the presence of Google and Microsoft was all that I discovered so it seems there is a little bit of a reality and hype gap at work on that front.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Sentimenal Education - post VI

The book ends with everything being wrapped up and Frederic missing out on his dreams of finding true love but he ends with his childhood friend Deslauriers who has also missed out on what he wanted from life – power - and all of the loose ends are tied up.

At the risk of stealing some thunder from a full review there is a great quote that sort of sums up what the book has been about:

“They’d both been failures, the one who’d dreamed of Love and the one who’d dreamed of power. How had it come about?
‘Perhaps it was lack of perseverance?’ said Frederic.
‘For you maybe. For me, it was the other way round, I was too rigid, I didn’t take into account a hundred and one smaller things that are more crucial than all the rest. I was too logical and you were too sentimental.’”

Bullet points between pages 378 – 464

* Frederic is deeply involved with his mistress Rosanette and is taken aback when she announces that she is pregnant because he has since turned his attentions on wooing the banker’s wife Madame Dambreuse

* The political situation continues to change and Frederic again is given a brief chance of getting involved with politics but misses it because he does not move quickly enough and is criticised by friends who would have helped him

* Rosanette gets into financial difficulty and is on the brink of having her possessions sold but a friend steps into loan the money to pay her debts but the Arnoux family is not so lucky and they flee to Brittany to avoid creditors

* One of the creditors is Rosanette who breaks up any final chance that Frederic might have had of finding happiness with Madame Arnoux and then peruses her money which leads to the family fleeing

* Meanwhile Madame Dambreuse tumbles on Frederic’s love for Madame Arnoux and uses old debts to force a sale of her rival’s belongings and at the public auction Frederic decides to spurn the marriage that is on offer from her after her husband dies and settle for independence

* He has also cut ties with Rosanette after their son died and so heads back to the country to Louise but as he arrives in Nogent he watches her wedding to his old friend Deslauriers and heads back to Paris with nowhere to turn

* Then time passes and Frederic is described as leading a middle class life with a few lovers and Madame Arnoux appears for one final time but with white hair and the sings of age the talk of their love is in the past

* The final scene reunites the two old school friends and reveals that Arnoux has died and Rosanette has become fat and adopted a boy and some of the other characters have gone onto better things leaving the two friends to ponder where it was that they went wrong

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

Lunchtime read: The High Window

How about this for a great description of a woman Marlowe is about to go an interview, or at least attempt to:

"A long-limbed languorous type of showgirl blonde lay at her ease in one of the chairs, with her feet raised on a padded rest and a tall misted glass at her elbow, near a silver ice bucket and a Scotch bottle. She looked at us lazily as we came over the grass. From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.”

Fantastic stuff.

Highlights from chapters four, five and six

* The leads Marlowe has to chase are being actively pursued with him setting up a meeting with the coin expert who tried to buy the coin but before that he sets off to try and catch up with the old flatmate Lois Magic of the woman he is trying to track down

* She refuses to see him and then when he manages to get to her refuses to help him out instead lying to him before her boyfriend threatens to shoot Marlowe

* Throughout all of the time since he took the job for Mrs Murdock Marlow has been tailed and he finally gets the man in a hotel and talks to him and it turns out that his tail is also a private investigator but working for the wife Marlowe is searching for

* They agree to meet that evening and Marlowe leaves his tail behind for now but there is a sense there is a lot more going on than meets the eye

More tomorrow…

Listen to some short stories

All this week on Radio 4 there is a chance to hear, and via the website catch up on those you have missed, the short stories that are finalists in the Prospect magazine organised short story competition.

The winner is announced next Monday and along with a cheque for £15,000 the author has of course had the chance to reach a significant audience as a result of Radio 4's involvement.

Having said that of course it can backfire as it appears to have done with Haif Kureishi who had a story about beheadings in Iraq, which is deemed to be too senstive at the moment. According the The Guardian's report about it Kureishi is angrey at the decision and believes it is unhelpful censorship.

One of the short story writers that was name checked by last year's winning author on the radio last week was Chekhov and the plan is to post my review of his short story selection tomorrow...

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Sentimental Education - post V

Although A Sentimental Education uses the backdrop of the 1848 French Revolution throughout the book it is only in the last stages that it erupts with fighting on the streets of Paris, the monarchy swept from power and Frederic and his connections changed by the shift of control to the people.

Thanks to the joys of the Internet finding out about the revolution is no problem and Wikipedia has the details but in terms of the influence on the characters it shows how allegiances can change rapidly when the political situation is so uncertain. Against that background Frederic is continuing to come under pressure to resolve his love life.

Bullet points between pages 310 – 378

* With fighting on the streets breaking out Frederic is drawn away from the bed of his mistress and heads out to see what is happening in Paris and meets old friends who are either fighting (Arnoux) or commentating on it (Hussonnet)

* On the urging of some friends Frederic considers putting his name forward for election and he goes to a meeting to get support but his decision not to provide the money to help his old friend Deslauriers comes back to haunt him and he is not accepted

* He decides to take his mistress Rosanette away from Paris and they head into the country and he feels, for want of anything to rival it, that this is a great love affair, but when he reads that fighting is continuing and when he discovers that Dussardier, another long standing friend has been wounded he heads back to the capital

* Once there he immerses himself with the cares of his injured friend but then it emerges he is hiding from Louise who has come up from the country with her father

* But he cannot hide from her forever and he meets her at a function at the Dambreuse home and also bumps into Madame Arnoux there and so is surrounded with those who love him and those who he loves

Who will win his heart? What will become of those wrapped up in the revolution? More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The High Window

Having never read any Raymond Chandler it is hard to come to it without expecting a character with a trilby, cigarette dangled from a lip and a gun pointed at the direction of a blonde dame who has been caught conning their husband. While most of that image is true what it fails to appreciate is the style of writing, which is as assured as the main character Marlowe. Three chapters in and you can tell this is going to be a cracking read – no need for warming up here it grabs you from the start.

Highlights from the first three chapters

* Private detective Marlowe is called to a house to be hired by a woman who has discovered that a coin from her deceased husband’s collection worth $10,000 has gone missing

* She suspects her daughter-in-law, a night club singer, who has vanished and tells Marlowe to find her and recover the coin and then she will arrange for a divorce for her son

* Marlowe charges high but manages to win over the cantankerous old bird with his display of tough resolve and he heads back to his office with a cheque for $250 in his pocket

* Back in his office he is visited by the son who wants to know what his mother wanted him for and admits he owes a criminal $12,000 and then when Marlowe makes a pop at his wife he pulls out a gun and then tries to punch the detective in the face

Where is the story going? You sense there is much more going on here than just a simple coin theft. More tomorrow…

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Weekend paper round up

This is not an attempt to make excuses, well sort of, but my wife has been ill this weekend and I have had to amuse two children under six and I feel exhausted and desperate to get back to work tomorrow.

The energy levels are far too low for any reading so I will confine myself to a weekend paper round up.

A lot of lit blogs commented on the death of Kurt Vonnegut and from a personal point of view having never read his work it has at least prodded me in his direction and I hope to read Slaughter - House - 5 soon. The Independent ran an interview from 1977 that was published in the Paris Review and among great answers to questions about literary inspiration Vonnegut is asked what he would do if he was in charge of publishing in the US: "There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers...I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare check."

Literary inspiration is the subject of a Guardian feature in the Saturday magazine about whet helps with writers creativity. Jonatahn Franzen said it was his squeaky chair and other authors made replies ranging from chocolate chips (Douglas Coupland) to a hot bath in Jane Smiley's case.

Quite what the authors who wrote such classics as Vanity Fair, Moby Dick and Anna Karenia would have made of the cut down editions that Orion Books is producing to read the book "in half the time". At the risk of getting pompous it might be a good idea to take the author's names off the covers and list the credits for whoever edited them because they are the greater influence on the reader. But quite a few people were happy to tell The Times that the editions were a good idea because it made unreadable books readable.

Those authors that fear their great idea will never get into print can always aim for the bizarre and hope to pick up the Booksellers oddest book of the year award. The Independent reports that the lucky winner this year is Julian Montague who spent six years roaming the streets of America looking out for the chance to write about and photograph shopping trolleys for his book The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Previous winners have included Bombproof your Horse, which won the prize in 2004.

It was quite easy to turn the page and miss the small story in The Guardian about how chemists are analysing the aromas that books in Cambridge University to discover if gases will indicate when a book is starting to decay. “The same emissions cause the musty smell beloved of habitual ‘book sniggers’,” a university spokeswoman told the paper.

bookmark of the week

The National Maritime Museum is making a concerted effort to promote the numerous paintings it holds under the banner 'Art for the Nation' and as part of the range in the shop this magnetic bookmark entitled The Parting Cheer is availble and was recently added to my collection. Not a great fan of magnetic bookmarks because as you turn the pages it either gets in the way or far too often falls out.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The literary census

This of course is an attempt to fine tune marketing campaigns and improve newspaper content but it might be worth getting involved.

To mark the 25th anniversary of Waterstone’s the book chain’s staff were asked to nominate the five books they thought were outstanding that were produced since 1982. The results, a top 100 no less was published in the Telegraph, were notable mainly because of their male bias. But to put the ball into the public’s court and exploit the tools of the interactive age the paper is asking people to take part in the literary census. It is worth having a go because some of the questions make you think about your reading habits and there is a great question about if you are a reading snob – I’ll keep my answers on that one to myself.

Final thoughts on Gormenghast

One of the things about putting thoughts down in a review is that you miss the chance to make some other observations. So, despite the weeks that have passed since reading the trilogy, I wanted to get some final thoughts down about Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.

The use of light and darkness
It would be too easy to say that characters are robed in black if they are evil – Steerpike being the most obvious example – but then you get characters that are more difficult to define like Flay who have the potential for murder but also for loyalty. Darkness is used to suggest potential problems and echoing the use with people it also cloaks parts of the castle with long dark passages both over and under ground being a feature of the disorientation.

The use of time
One of the hardest things to reconcile between the world’s described in Titus Groan and Gormenghast compared to Titus Alone is that they could co-exist with a world with aeroplanes, spying globes and telephones being in the same time as a castle run on completely medieval rules. Peake was ill by the time he wrote Titus Alone but it does make you question the security you felt in Gormenghast castle. It is as if reading the Fellowship and Two Towers all of a sudden as the final battle for the Ring is fought some tanks, medium range missiles and jet fighters turn up in The Return of the King.

The use of faces and eyes
One of the constant reference points in the books is the colour of eyes and the detailed descriptions of faces. So for instance you discover that Steerpike has red eyes that flash with anger or glint with malice and Titus has violet eyes that disturb his father. Throughout all three books it is usually the eyes, and Peake’s description of them that usually gives away a characters true intentions. Faces, particularly the descriptions of Swelter the cook’s

The use of animals
One link between the worlds of Gormenghast and the city in Titus Alone is the Muzzlehatch character that seems to love animals as much as Titus’s mother did. The relationship is one of master and servant but it is once his menagerie is lost that Muzzlehatch decides to blow up the factory. Likewise the Countess turns her anger on ‘The Thing’ because it is eating her birds and banishes faithful Flay from the castle when he dares to hurl one of her cats.

The use of the strange
The doctor’s hair, the Under-River world and even the scale of the flood that engulfs Gormenghast are all exaggerated to make an impact. The scale of the castle is a constant source of challenge to a reader and despite its gargantuan proportions there continue to be almost a handful of people living in it. None of the characters seem to be free of some sort of major character flaw with the Earl’s slide into madness an obvious one but even Titus is wrestling with his mind working out what to do with his future.

There are lots more things that could be said but writing this down has got the urge to comment off the brain for now…

Tying up some loose ends

There has been quite a bit of stuff I have wanted to write about over the last week but because of the pressure of work - it is one of the hardest weeks for a weekly magazine because of the bank holidays - there hasn't been a chance. But the next few posts should rectify the situation giving me a chance to write a bit more about Gormenghast, comment on the Google fear factor raised in the Guardian this time last week and put my two penneth in on the Telegraph's literature census.

Plus there will be a review of the Chekhov short story collection which reminds me to mention the Radio 4 short story prize which is being promoted all next week and got a mention on the Today programme yesterday with Monica Ali praising the short story medium.

That's all to come over the rest of the weekend, but first I'm off to spend the day in Cambridge with family...

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Sentimental Education - post IV

There is a Graham Greene, End of the Affair, type moment with Madame Arnoux trading the health of her son for the potentially sinful relationship with Frederic. There are also some powerful reminders that Frederic is immature, totally inexperienced in the ways of love and prone to making the wrong decisions based on gut instinct.

Bullet points between pages 200 – 310

* Money is at the centre of a break down not just in the Arnoux marriage but also at the heart of the relationships now between the debtor and Frederic who starts to feel used by the couple as a source of credit

* Hoping to exploit the problems to split Madame Arnoux apart from her husband Frederic continues to dog her like a shadow but receives little encouragement in fact gets quite the opposite as she shares her views on the sanctity of marriage

* Elsewhere Frederic is getting entangled with Arnoux’s mistress known as the Marshal and gets caught in her company at the races by Madame Arnoux and later that evening has to watch his friend Cisy take her away and leave him with an expensive restaurant bill

* The two men fight a duel – which turns out to be a bit of a damp squib - and as a result of Frederic turning down a request from a friend to invest in a newspaper he is lampooned in the press

* With pressure mounting for him to make a choice about his career he puts things off by heading home but there the expectation is that he will marry the young neighbour who fell under his spell Louise

* Enjoying being loved for once Frederic shows off to Louise but ends up wondering if he is doing the right thing and rushes back to Paris and unbeknown to him having been told about Frederic’s marriage plans Madame Arnoux has realised she loves him

* The relationship between them increases to the point where Frederic hires a room to use as a location to make love to her but her son falls dangerously ill and she prays to God that she thanks him for sparing her and she realises the potential costs of her adultery

* In a fit of temper Frederic turns to the Marshal and takes her out and she becomes the woman taken back to the room and while he cries for what might have been the streets of Paris erupt in demonstrations and revolution as the government is overthrown

Is there any way back for Madame Arnoux and what will Frederic do next with the pressure coming from Louise, his friends in Paris, his mother and potential employment? More to come…

Lunchtime read: Selected Stories

The final tale in the Chekhov short story collection proves that this really is a medium that has the ability to make you think. Seen as one of the greats among the short story writers this tale is exactly the reason why he deserves that accolade. Because this tale is slightly longer than all of the others in the collection he is able to extend the twist and show how brutal life is among the peasantry.

In the Ravine
A merchant, who screws his customers has two sons, on deaf and one who lives away. The wife of the deaf son works with her father-in-law running the business and has started to pick up his ruthlessness. Suddenly the eldest son reappears and hands out some money to his family and then under their advice gets married to a quiet girl. The money turns out to be fraudulent and the son is sent to Siberia for six years. The trial starts to unhinge the old man, a process that is completed after the dominant daughter-in-law starts to take over. On her way to becoming a ruthless business woman she kills the child of her timid sister-in-law and virtually turns her father-in-law out of the house. A final scene has the frail and beaten old man being handed food by his timid daughter-in-law reducing him to the ranks of the peasantry and reminding everyone of how the mighty can fall.

A full review will follow over the weekend…

Wake up and smell the future

What is it about coffee and books? You can’t go into a bookshop these days without finding one corner of it is dedicated to sofas, chairs and a griding coffee machine. So it probably makes total sense for Starbucks to launch its book club in the UK. After all everyone else is doing it the other way round.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Sentimental Education - post III

Now Frederic has money his horizons are broader but he is still in love with Madame Arnoux and is getting ever closer to prising her apart from her adulterous husband who is running into severe financial problems. The problem for Frederic is that you sense that while others are making up their minds over which side they stand on in the revolutionary movement and in terms of their lives he is still like a child looking in the toy shop window not yet ready to choose.

Flaubert uses the growing tension between the industrialised masses and the aristocratic royalists as a background with some characters involved with it heavily and others like Frederic skating the surface. It is a useful device not only for grounding the novel in a period but also for giving some of the minor characters more substance as they discuss the issues of the day.

Bullet points between pages 120 - 200

* Frederic starts to move in more elevated circles and as a result comes across Arnoux’s mistress and the characters that frequent a small circle of lovers and spurned hangers on who all follow each other round the Paris social scene

* Meanwhile Madame Arnoux is starting to suspect not just that her husband is having another affair but that he is keeping money problems secret from her and she is increasingly unable to hide her concerns from the ever present Frederic and uses him as a confidant spying on her husband

* After an argument Frederic witnesses Arnoux tells his wife that the woman she suspects of being his mistress is in fact Frederic’s and then asks the young man to lie to protect him, something he in fact refuses to do and goes as far as to deny it all to Madame Arnoux

* Frederic has tried to impress his friends with a house warming party but he receives nothing but sneers and jealously and his childhood friend Deslauriers keeps trying to get money out of him to launch a political newspaper

* When Frederic finally gets the money Arnoux is in desperate straits but because his wife asks Frederic to help them he does although it starts to become clear he will never get his money back

More of the continuing drama tomorrow when Frederic might just be able to take his relationships with friends and women to the next level, getting rid of those holding him back and embracing those who can offer love…

book of books - The Return of Philip Lationowicz

Art is a difficult subject, particularly the debate about what constitutes good art, and so it is a challenged theme running through this book by Croatian author Miroslav Krelza. There are several things going on here in a confined area with a small collection of characters. If you stripped out the debates about art, the thoughts Philip has about painting and his own origins and just ran the final few chapters it has such a limited cast it comes into short story territory. But the larger themes make it more than just the tale of an individual.

Plot summary
Philip Lationowicz has returned home after an absence of eleven years and arrives at a station in a town where his mother and himself used to live but she is clearly no longer there and you half wonder if she is dead. But he then travels to a town where the bishop lives and his mother is there and he moves into an attic room in her house. Philip is a painter but has lost the creativity urge and inspiration and hopes to rediscover it, as well as solving his history discovering the real identity of his father. The first comes and goes and the second is finally revealed but you have to wait until near the end. On top of those twin tracks there is also a relationship with a cashier in a café who attracts Philip and in the end dies as a result of the jealousy he partly inflames in her long time lover. The conclusion of the book provides Philip with plenty of material for artistic ideas and leaves him with no excuses to stay with his mother and his past any longer.

Is it well written?
It’s an odd book in that it is a slow burner starting with a idyllic return to a childhood village and ending up with a gruesome murder. The action builds like a pressure cooker as Philip starts to fall out with his mother, becomes obsessed with Bobocka the cashier in the café and because of his weak nature allows his entire view of the world to come under attack by a Greek philosopher. Where it is well written is providing an insight into the mind of the artist in torment. Where it is easy to find fault is around the relationship between mother and son, which is sketched out when it could be described more fully.

Should it be read?
As part of an education into writers from other countries then Krelza deserves to be read. But I am not sure that had this book not been £1 in a second hand book store then I would have brought it. It doesn’t really say anything about Croatia and it is slightly depressing to find Philip reading the Daily Mail while he smokes a cigarette and sips his coffee. But as a tale of tightening tension and the price people will pay to avoid loneliness then it is well worth reading.

An artist looking for his muse discovers one in his childhood village but she is destroyed by her jealous lover in an evening that reveals more than Philip ever expected about the truth of his family

Version read - Quartet Encounters paperback

Lunchtime read: Selected Stories

Most Russian literature is typified by a tragic darkness but Chekhov is able to get a broad smile with his story Without a Title and prove that it can be dangerous sticking with stereotypes.

The Head Gardener’s Tale
Two men sit and wait while the plants they have brought are packaged up and talking about justice the head gardener overhears and tells them a Swedish tale about a doctor who was so beloved by a town that when he was found murdered no one could believe anyone capable of killing him so they acquitted the murderer.

A journalist who has to write to order comes home and demands peace and quiet and then stays up until four in the morning writing. All the time his wife tells the children to be quiet and the word “Hush!” is the order of the day

Without a Title
This story has such a good ending, a bit like a joke, that it ranks as one of the favourites in this collection. A monastery surrounded by desert is cut off from the town until a drunken hunter appears. In response the leading member of the monks visits the town to remind them about God but comes back a broken man reeling off all of the sinful activities of the city dwellers. The next day there isn’t a soul left as all the monks have headed for the town.

Last story tomorrow…

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Sentimental Education - post II

There are moments when you start to think this is going to resemble Madame Bovary in the sense that she seemed out of control and doomed to follow a destructive course of action. But just as it looks like Frederic will destroy himself for the dream of loving Madame Arnoux he steps back from the brink and that leaves you wondering where he will go next.

Bullet points between pages 44 – 120

* Frederic starts hanging out at the gallery and with the friends of Arnoux in an attempt to get access to his wife and after discovering where she lives he attempts to invite himself round to get to know her better

* Meanwhile as he ploughs all of his energy and finances into chasing her he fails his law exams and starts to run into financial problems, which leads to him borrowing from his flatmate who has been sponging off him

* He comes across Arnoux with one of his mistresses and later on a planned trip to the country she hands Frederic a note to give to her lover but he mistakenly uses this to wrap some roses he hands to his wife and although nothing is said the reader understands what has happened even if Frederic doesn’t

* Frederic suddenly becomes determined to be worthy of her love and buckles down and passes his law exam and is dreaming of a bright future when he sets off home for a break with his mother – where he befriends a young girl who is a neighbour who you sense will reappear in the story because she clearly falls in love with Frederic

* But once home he is told that their income has gone and he ends up being trapped in the country and the months go by before he is told that he has become heir to his uncle’s fortune, which provides him with the chance to return to Paris and seek out Madame Arnoux

* But he discovers that she has had a second child and their fortunes have changed and he sees her as a middle class housewife and that love obsession appears to have ended

Has it or will it reignite? What next for the richer Frederic now he is back in Paris? More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Selected Stories

Only one story today because it is quite long and maybe it is tiredness but it seems more difficult than usual to follow names and get a feel for the environment. Still there is enough going on with a discussion about what it is to be Russian, comments about the benefits and limitations of education and a man who has realised the nature of women and believes he can learn from them.

On The Way
A group of travellers meets in an in on a stormy night and one man decides to use it as a venue to open his soul to a female traveller and tell her how he has lost everything as a result of being a dreamer. The woman reacts with friendliness but is disturbed to find the traveller is heading for a job running a mine for her Uncle, who she says is a depot. He says he does not care but as she leaves she exchanges a glance with him that is meant to make him think again.

More tomorrow…