Friday, August 31, 2007

Holiday read - The Imposture post IV

Well the wheels have finally come off and it has not been possible to read more than a chapter and a bit today because it is our last full day of holiday as we get ready to head back on a drive that will be split with an overnight stop in France somewhere yet to be decided. All that could be managed before we headed back for one last look down on the Grindelwald valley is chapter ten.

Highlights of chapter ten and the first bit of eleven

* Polidori starts to write his travel journal putting Byron at the centre but there is a problem because although he is clearly in awe of the poet his awe has turned to jealously and he gets easily annoyed and slighted by Byron and the Shelley's who they meet up with

* On a rainy week in Switzerland they set themselves the task of writing ghost stories - the famous episode that gave birth to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - and Polidori is blank for ideas until Byron hands him a story to start with about a Vampire

* But throughout the period Polidori cannot help to be both angry then desperate for affirmation from the poet and at one point is even considering suicide until Byron comes into his room and apologies to him

Maybe more tomorrow but it might be difficult...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A novel idea for book seekers

Now and again you come across a great idea for the way books are sold or made easy to get hold of. Even in the German-Swiss speaking village of Lauterbrunnen, where I am currently holidaying with my family, there is a bookshop that allows you to take a book away for free as long as you leave two behind. Leave one and you just have to pay half price or the full asking price, which bearing in mind is not too much. It is a great way of getting people who have finished with their 3 for 2 choices to leave them behind for others to enjoy.

I am struggling to wade through the books I did bring but like many presumably who don't get the chance to pack any this is a great idea and a real find in an area of Switzerland that is German speaking.

Holiday read - Imposture - post III

Encouraged by the publisher to write a travel memoir that is actually about someone that everyone will want to know about - Lord Byron - Polidori manages to rustle up some reflections that start to give an idea of the personality that seems to have over shadowed his own.

Bullet points between chapters seven to nine

* Eliza decides to tell her sister about her date at the theatre as she gets dressed but in her own determined way refuses to give details and ends up going in a dress that does little to flatter her but sets off in a flutter hoping she will see the man she has determined to love

* Meanwhile Polidori has been told by the publisher that is he goes off an writes a memoir about Byron's travels then he will be paid handsomely for his efforts but in the meantime there is the theatre to get through and after being pushed through protesters moaning about ticket prices Polidori, ever emotional sits in the box

* He sees Eliza and there seems to be a connection across the theatre but when the publisher mentions going over and introducing him he resists because of course his cover will be blown and then in the second act watching a powerful acting performance he faints and misses the end of the play so avoids Eliza all together

* Following the performance Eliza manages to get the courage the day after to visit Polidori, who she still thinks is Byron, in his rooms and profess undying love asking the poet to do with her what he will and she leaves happier than ever before with Polidori himself starting to understand the power that Byron has enjoyed over women

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Holiday read - Imposture - post II

The story is developing on two converging lines with both Polidori and Eliza pretending to be people they aren't and fooling each other. The shadow that hangs over the developing story is Byron and it is a shame that six chapters in and all you get is a glimpse of him.

Bullet points from chapters four to six

* Eliza dreams of meeting Byron (Polidori again) and her life as a governess in a rich household is sketched out with her life by all accounts a pretty mundane and miserable one except for the moments she can escape into herself and her thoughts inspired by literature

* Meanwhile Polidori meets the publisher of The Vampyre and makes his claim for authorship and is paid off with a meal, some champagne and then £30 of which he loses half on his weakness of gambling cards - it helps pay off some debts but fails to set him up in the legal career he now desires after turning his back on medicine

* Part of the reason for turning away from medicine is that all the patients he has ever had died and even Byron pointed out how with his track record he was unsuitable for the medical profession so he sits in his rooms and believes that the only option is now to turn to writing

* He sends his memoirs of travelling with Byron to the publisher of The Vampyre and awaits his reply but after a week cannot contain himself and decides to go and visit him but on his way notices a letter from Eliza mentioning that she is going to be at the theatre that evening

* She is going because her sister is ill and believes this is her chance to take the next step with Polidori who is still a novice with women after recounting his experience with a maid who mistook him for Byron and was in the middle of foreplay before the Italian, who has a sister/brother sexual fantasy, managed to end the fun prematurely

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Holiday read - Imposture - post I

You always wonder how someone is going to start a book and Markovits uses a prologue as a springboard to establish that the story that follows has been written by a mysterious English teacher that he once worked with. The teacher was an impostor using a name based on several literary characters but he was also a Byron fan and dies leaving the papers that go to make up the story that follows.

Bullet points from chapters one to three

* Things start with the publication of an anonymous story - The Vampyre - that was believed to have been written by Byron and published in a London magazine. The copies sell fast and the offices are crowded with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the great poet

* But the character that does turn up to pound on the door when the shop has closed, and is mistaken for Byron, is a doctor who travelled on the continent with the literary star and you are led to believe, from what he mutters to himself in the rain, the real author of the story

* Polidori (known as Polly because of his position in a house full of sisters) starts his story going over the original offer he had to travel with Byron and the resistance that came to the idea from his father, who thought it would only lead to trouble and disappointment

* But the young man, who seems to have no other prospects, is determined to take the position as Byron's travelling physican and so goes against his father's wishes and agrees to go and in the end he is alongside Byron as he bids farewell to his sister and sets off for Europe

* As he stands outside the publication house a young woman, Eliza, comes up and introduces herself mistaking the doctor for Byron and says that she met him at a ball and gets out of Pilodori the details of where he is staying in London before leaving him

* Eliza is then fleshed out in more detail with the truth being that she didn't go to the ball her sister did but she is full of romantic stories written in books by the likes of Byron and longs to exchange her fictional knowledge of men and love for the real thing

More tomorrow...

Monday, August 27, 2007

book of books - Koba the Dread

This is an angry book by a very well read Martin Amis who uses his knowledge to challenge communist supporters both living and dead. It starts by questioning why his own father has communist sympathies wen there was easily enough information around to reveal the true monstrous nature of Stalin's regime. As a result it keeps a memoir type feel but there is also a history lesson being given here by a teacher that is positive he is right and that intends drilling the facts into you until you nod in agreement.

Plot summary
Given the popularity of Stalin's regime amongst the liberal left in the 1930s, when the Gulag was well into its terrible stride and the show trials and red army purges had been publicised in the West Amis has to ask how anyone could sympathise with the Russian regime. He recalls how his father had a communist soft spot for around 12 years and how he used to have interesting conversations with anti communists including friends who were historians. Martin Amis was to mimic those debates with his own generation, particularly Christopher Hitchens. But the real story here is the constant drumming in of the facts about the show trials, horrors of the Gulag and the scant regard for human life not just felt by Stalin but also by Lenin, who some of the liberals also held up as a great role model. It ends with the argument having been proved by the details that have come out since the death of Stalin and the breaking down of communism but there still continues to be a lingering determination by some to use the phrase comrade and glorify the past.

Is it well written?
Most history books are dry, fail to get off the fence until the conclusion and rarely if ever make it personal. This book does all three and shows that it can be done. At the time of its publication I recall seeing Amis interviewed by people quite happy to take a pop at the way this book had been written along with the content. But you have to doff your cap to him he has done his research, throws quotes galore at you and is quite capable of defending his corner. It is a horrifying read because of the facts and figures but the possibility of ending by recalling his own sisters death and talking about his daughter shows just how well the memoir and the historical have been combined.

Should it be read?
As an example of how wider history can weave into family histories this is a great example that deserves to be consumed. As a book showing just how history can rouse anger this is one of the most enjoyable I have ever come across. But the problem is that is comes with the name Amis on the cover and like all major brands people either like him or loathe him. If you can remain indifferent, if that is possible, and put to one side the occasional arrogance and name dropping, then this is a solid attack on Russian sympathisers for a regime that consigned millions to their deaths.

Whether it's twenty million or more there can be no doubt that Stalin was a monster.

Holiday read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

And so we come to the end and you can sense the upset that original readers must have felt when they realised Holmes had gone forever. The end is left to Watson to deduce and describe with the footprints and scuffle in the mud on the edge of the waterfall all that remains to indicate what happened between Holmes and Moriarty. But before then there are a couple of stories to enjoy.

Highlights from The Greek Interpreter
A Greek specialising in helping the courts and businesses translate Greek is taken by cab to translate for a man whose face is covered in plasters. By asking some additional questions the translator discovers that the man is being held against his will and is being starved until he signs some papers agreeing to handing over his sister's estate to a man who has had a whirlwind romance with her. He refuses to sign and the translator makes the mistake of telling the police and Holmes, who is introduced to the case by his brother Mycroft, and the criminals take him hostage. Holmes tracks them down and manages to find him in a room with the man with a plaster covered face but it is too late for him and the interpreter only just manages to survive. Months later in the paper there is a report of two Englishmen killed while in the Balkans and Holmes surmises that the woman finally got her revenge.

Highlights from The Naval Treaty
A Home Office official given the responsibility of copying a very contentious document finds it stolen as he leaves his room to get some coffee and falls into a brain fever for ten weeks. Holmes is his final resource to try and clear his name but as he waits for the great detective seems to make the waters murkier. The diplomat is attacked at his fiance's house and Holmes gets him away to London while he waits for the attacker to make his next move. It turns out to be the diplomatist's future brother-in-law who has some debts who has taken the treaty and hidden it in the floorboards of his room, which was used for all the weeks by the sick man who needed a place to recover.

Highlights from The Final Problem
Watson starts the story by explaining that following some letters published by Moriarty's brother he wants to set the record straight. He tells the story of how Holmes had realised that most criminal activity in London was being masterminded by Professor Moriarty, a former maths teacher, who he had now tracked down and got into a position where he could smash the ring. The only problem was that he needed more time and so was being chased by his arch enemy, who intended to kill him. He goes away with Watson to the continent and while he is away the news comes through the Moriarty's criminal ring has been smashed but the leader has escaped and is pursuing Holmes.

The end comes in Meiringen (which I managed to visit a couple of days ago) by the Reichenbach falls. Watson is called back to the hotel on some medical emergency but no sooner has he got there than he discovers it is a ruse and rushes back up the mountain to find footprints leading to the edge of the abyss and a note from Holmes explaining that his career will end on a high by removing Moriarty. No sign of the bodies are ever found and Watson ends by declaring that he has written his account to clear the name of the man "I shall regard as the best and the wisest man I have ever known".

Fantastic stuff and a review will follow probably early next week when my holiday is over...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

book review - Around the World in Eighty Days

This is a great book and comes from a writer with a solid canon of pacey adventure stories. But what you miss in the film and cartoon versions is the sheer scale of the effort of Jules Verne’s vision. He must have sat there with maps, guide books and numerous steamer and train timetables to be able not only to map the journey round the world but also factor in the numerous diversions that Phileas Fogg and company have to take.

Add to that the descriptions of the places they visit, which all sound as if Verne has had personal experience of them and you are left admiring not just the story but the ambition of it.

Plot summary
On paper the story sounds so simple with Phileas Fogg, a rich gentleman that lives by a very strict regime suddenly decides that following the suggestion in he paper that it is now possible to go around the world in 80 days he will do it. He makes the decision in front of four club members at The Reform Club in London and then almost immediately departs for the continent. He takes with him his newly appointed servant Passepartout and on his journey picks up an Indian princess and is dogged by Fix the detective who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber on the run. By throwing money around and riding his luck Fogg manages to do it before failing at the final hurdle. But thanks to Passepartout going out to find a priest to help Fogg marry his princess they realise they have made the trip in 79 days and have time to make the bet. The conclusion is that it was worth going round the world not for the money, although that helps, but for love.

Is it well written?
The level of research is staggering and it is totally believable not only in terms of the locations but also the timing because Fogg shares it with the reader all the way through. It is one of those books that most people claim to have read because they can bluff the story based on knowing the ending from the various film versions. But you miss the pace, the sense of determination, coldness and detached behaviour of Fogg, who almost defines an Empire generation, which presumably Verne was trying to do. You are never bored reading it, never fully confident that you can predict the outcome and right until the end the central character remains an enigma to everyone around him including the reader,

Should it be read?
There is no excuse for not going out and picking this up for a couple of pounds or second hand. I might seem to be a bit school syllabus type stuff but it is a classic adventure story that has stood the test of time.Verne uses great locations and has the pace of the time as his aid but what makes this a memorable read is that you are unlikely to read a book with such an odd array of main characters than this one.

Around the world in 79 days to find love

Version read -Penguin popular classics

Holiday read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

There are not that many stories left in the collection before the Final Problem but these stories put down on paper by Watson recalling the genius of his friend who is able to observe and deduce almost anything are full of mystery and murder.

Highlights from The Crooked Man
Holmes is called into help with the case of a death of a corporal who was arguing with his wife in a room locked on the inside. The natural suspect is the wife but she loses it after the death and is incoherent. Holmes manages to use his roving eye to establish that someone else entered the room, along with some sort of animal. After questioning a friend of the wife Holmes discovers she met a haggard old crooked man before heading home. Holmes and Watson meet the man and discover that he was cheated out of the woman's hand by the corporal and that he ran to help when voices were raised and the corporal seeing his betrayed ex rival had a heart attack, hit his head and died.

Highlights from The Resident Patient
A doctor comes to visit Holmes asking for his help on behalf of his benefactor who is frightened about being robbed. Holmes hears that the doctor was set up by this patient who lives above the surgery and has made him a rich man with his successful practice but of late he has become obsessed with security. Keeping all of his money ion his bedroom he is convinced that someone is after it and seems vindicated when footprints are discovered on his carpet. The footprints belong to a mysterious Russian who comes to visit the doctor on a couple of occasions. Holmes is called and they discover the patient hanging in his room and his real identity as a bank robber who confessed to save himself is revealed with the other members of the gang imposing summary justice on him.

More tomorrow...

bookmark of the week

Sadly this is one case that Sherlock Holmes never got to solve and it continues to spur debate to this day.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The final fall

The plan had been to visit the site of Sherlock Holmes's demise later in the week in parallel with reading The Final Problem but with the weather fine we decided to go to Meiringen and get on board the little funicular and go up to the Reichenbach waterfall. The site where Holmes and Moriarty fought and fell is eerily marked with a star and the thundering water is an ominous choice of location for the end of the great detective. The locals of course make as much of it as they can and they do it well, with a museum in the crypt of a church in the centre of town recreating Holme's lounge from Baker Street - on odd thing to find in the middle of Switzerland but such is the power of literature and the lasting appeal of the great detective.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Holiday read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Another case from the past with Holmes being sent by Watson to a friend in the country to relax because of the stress one case has put him under. But no sooner has Holmes arrived in the country than he is straight into a case that taxes all his energy.

Highlights from The Reigate Squires

Just as Holmes is settling in to enjoy some relaxation in the country with one of Watson's friends a burglary is committed nearby and then at another home in the neighbourhood a servant is shot trying to defend his master's property. The police link the crimes but have nothing to go on other than the description of a fleeing man given by the father and son who employed the dead servant. Holmes discovers that the servant had a corner of a letter in his hand, which must have ripped out of his clutches by the killer, and sets off to work out what happened.

He visits the scene of the murder and starts to act funny and asks to see where the son had seen the intruder and enters his bedroom. Shouts of distress are heard and Watson and the police find the father and son trying to murder Holmes, who has found the rest of the note in the son's dressing gown. The two are taken away leaving Holmes to explain that they committed the first burglary trying to find some papers to conclude a legal dispute with a neighbour, had been discovered and were being blackmailed by the servant and had together decided to remove him as a threat. But they had not bargained on Sherlock Holmes being in the area.
More tomorrow...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Holiday Read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Watson starts to delve into the history of Holmes's first cases when he was just starting to unleash his masterly powers of deducation on the world. These stories are some of the first things he gets involved with after Universrity.

Highlights from The Gloria Scott
Invited to spend sometime with a friend after college Holmes visits him and manages to spook his relative who is thrown when Holmes identifies a tatoo that he has tried to get rid of at some point in the past. Then a man named Hudson turns up who claims to have been an old sailor who knows that man of the house but terrifies everyone and finally sends a message that causes the old man to have a heart attack. Holmes, who has left before Hudson waves his magic, is called in to find out what on earth happened and manages to work out that the relative was an ex convict who escaped on the way to Australia and the man Hudson was blackmailing him and no doubt is still trying to do the same to anhyone else he can.

A great bit of description is when Holmes manages in one brilliant scene to identify nearly everything that he is asked like a party trick but then goes beyond that to starle the person who dared to doubt him.

Highlights from The Musgrave Ritual
Again Holmes is called in by a friend who has discovered that his butler has gone missing along with a servant girl who had been infatuated with the missing butler. Before the butler went missing he had been caught by the master of the house, Holmes's friend, rifling through some papers to do with 'The Musgrave Ritual' and it is around this that Holmes concentrates his energy. He manages to use the old family ritual, which his friend treats as a family bit of nonsense, like a map and trace back what happened with the Butler and discovers him dead trapped in a family tomb. The spurned lover, who the butler had tried to exploit as an accomplice killed him and then left. The treasure turns out to be the crown worn by Charles I and left to the Musgrave family, who were staunch royalists.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Alpine tales to keep you awake at night

One of the books I picked up ages ago either second hand or on eBay was a collection of Swiss Alpine Folk Tales by Fritz Muller-Guggenbuhl. The idea was to read a story each night to the boys but after the first attempt - The Alp that Disappeared - we are opting for something less nightmare inducing instead.

In the story a rich farmer who inherits one of the most lush and fruitful mountain pastures in the Bernese Oberland abuses the wealth of nature feeding cream to his dog while his mother starves. When she comes up from the village to beg food he serves her milk mixed with liquid dung (the boys liked that bit) but as she goes away she calls on the heavens to destroy his land and shortly afterwards the farmer and his lady friend are encased in rock and ice as the mountain collapses and swallows the pasture.

The tale ends, and this is where it started nightmares, warning that on a cold and stormy night (which we have already have had a couple) you can hear the moans of a man and the screams of a woman coming out from one of the Bernese mountains.

Holiday read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

This story is cleverly written because you try to second guess where it is going and then the twist takes you by surprise and of course only Holmes is the one who sees it coming.

Highlights fromThe Stockbroker’s Clerk
A man is made redundant from a clerk’s position at a stock broking firm and then after almost running out of money gets a lucky break and gets employed at a reputable company in the City. Just before he is about to start his job someone comes round and tells him not to take the job because he comes highly recommended and they want to offer him more than double the salary. A £100 note is handed over and the young man can not quite believe it so accepts the position helping run a hardware importing company in Birmingham.

But after several days of just going through the Paris phone book looking for suppliers he becomes suspicious and calls on Sherlock Holmes who travels up to Birmingham to visit his odd employer. As Holmes and Watson wait in a room the employer tries to hang himself and then directs them to read the paper. It reveals that his brother taking the identity of the clerk had started at the City form and used his position to kill the watchman and rob the safe but he had been caught. All becomes clear and the police are sent for to arrest the other brother.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A large house and a undetected crime

Went to the swiss equivalent of a stately home today on the banks of the Thunersee - Schloss Hunegg - and it really made you think about the Sherlock Holmes period. Set over three floors you realise that it would be very easy to commit a murder in the cellar or the billiards room without many people hearing you if it had been the servants night off. A great house with loads of art nouveau, which is my wife's favourite artistic style.

Possible more holiday ramblings later on but hopefully the weather will improve and I can get out from behind the laptop...

Holiday read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The second story moves back to London to an area that although I know is unrecognisable with its trees and green spaces in this description. The story again has that brilliant sense of place with Holmes a restless man in search of a case strolling around his rooms in Baker Street.

Highlights from The Yellow Face

Holmes needs a case to give his brain something to engage with and a young man turns up who sipplies it nervously telling the story about his wife and a broken promise. he reveals that they have been married for several years and have no secrets between them until he comes across a yellow face peering out of a cottage that borders their garden.

He tells Holmes that his wife had a former husband in America who died of yellow fever along with her child and the detective immediately suspects the husband has returned. The relationship between the pai is strained after the husband finds his wife is visiting the cottage and breaks her promise to do so even after the husband confronts her about it.

Holmes asks him to cable him if the cottage is still inhabited and comes down when told and despite the wife's pleadings they storm the cottage and discover not the husband but a child wearing a yellow face mask. The child is black and that is why the wife is ashamed but the husband asks her to consider him a better man that she obviously thinks and they go off together. Holmes tells Watson that if he is ever too quick to jump to a conclusion of a case he should be gently reminded of this one.

More tomorrow...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Holiday read: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

This weeks reading is from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes because the book ends with The Final problem which is set in, you guessed it, Switzerland in the Bernese Oberland area I am staying in. But before we get to that things start with the case of a missing race horse.

Highlights from Silver Blaze

Sherlock Holmes is reading the papers avidly consuming as many facts as he can about the disappearance of a race horse and the murder of its trainer in Dartmoor. He decides to travel down to be on hand to solve the case and asks Watson to go with him explaining that he thought the case might have been solved by the local police and that’s why he had not rushed down

On the way down in the train the facts of the case are outlined with a mysterious character, who is now prime suspect, turning up one night and asking to see the stable boy who was then drugged with opiate in his food. The trainer wakes in the middle of the night and disappears to be found on the moor with his head caved in holding the cravat of the mysterious man and a blooded knife.

Holmes arrives and asks for new clues, on of which is the close proximity of a band of gypsies near the murder scene. But he starts asking strange questions about lame sheep, the bills in the dead man's pockets and is interested in the cataract knife the trainer took with him on the moor. His first task is to find the horse which he tracks to a neighbouring stables and then tells the trainer there that he has rumbled his game.

Then Holmes needs to solve the crime. He reveals after the Silver Blaze has turned up and won that the person who killed the trainer was the horse which he tried to maime in a bid to fix the race and pay off debts run up by his mistress, which were catalogued in the reciepts found in his pockets. The three lame sheep had been experiemnets where he had tried to cut the tendon and he chose curry to drug the stable lad because it was the only flavour that would cover the drug.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

bookmark of the week

This bookmark cost a fortune partly because I think the price tag was wrong but also because faced with the prospect of a scene at a busy till I succumbed and just paid what I was told vowing of course never to shop in that shop again. However this is handmade by natives from somewhere like Peru and is sold with the Fair Trade badge emblazoned on it. That made it feel okay to pay over the odds and it is a particularly attractive bookmark (still not prepared to call it a book towel as the branding dictates).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

book of books - The Madhouse

Most of the great works of Russian literature are either in the 19th century or from a select band of writers that have made a reputation in the West from the 20th century. But if you go looking there are some real gems to be found from writers that used their talent to highlight the madness of the Soviet system and Alexander Zinoviev is among those.

It is not too difficult to find works that are written during the years of the Stalin purges but this is set against the era of Brezhnev when things were in the odd state of being mocked but still having teeth.

The title refers to the nickname for the institution where the main character works but it is of course a play on the entire country and the communist system.

Plot summary
The story evolves around a junior research fellow (JRF) in an academic institute who half heartedly plans becoming a party member and moving up to the next step on the ladder. One of JRF’s jobs is to liaise with the mentally ill who keep trying to send in treatises to the academy and as a result he meets someone he refers to as ‘the terrorist’ and along with a collection of people in his head – Marx, Lenin, Stalin and the KGB leaders Iron Felix and Beria – he spends most of his time living in a fantasy world. When he is not participating or watching those mock the system, spending time with women or arguing with the voices in his head he has to live in a small apartment with neighbours only too happy to denounce him. The result of that is that the KGB pick up on his trial and are determined to nail him for planning political assassinations. His friends and colleagues are interviewed and the case against him deepens. He is sent to a rest home and when he returns at a critical stage in his career the men in the trench coats come for him and take him away.

Is it well written?
It is sometimes difficult to work out just what is happening because you sense there is an assumption that you will be familiar with the machinations of the soviet state. But what does become clear through the use of the historical voices in JRF’s head is that the system was built on madness, thrived on it and even when it is falling apart continues to function like a drunk lunatic. The sense of unreality that must have always existed but was something to be feared in Stalin’s time is there but with a leader everyone jokes about and a West everyone is jealous of it seems acceptable to attack the system. But as JRF shows you can still be hurt and lose your career and your lodgings if you get on the wrong side of the few nutters left running the country.

Should it be read?
It is not one of those books that jumps out at you and comes with glowing reviews all over the dust jacket but it does deserve a read if you are interested in Russian literature. Along with other accounts of the communist years this is one of the few so far that I have read that is set against the background of the Brezhnev era and it is different from other novels as a result. There is no civil war, no Stalin and no second world war. But there is a weary awareness about the lies and the terror that has gone before and the awful acceptance that to get on you still have to kowtow to that system.

Junior researcher with beard and a free mind – full of historical communist figures – gets caught up in his own fantasy and is crushed by the state leaving you to wonder just who is mad

Version read – Paladin paperback

Koba the Dread - post V

The end of this book is very personal with Amis mourning his sister and writing to his dead father and although not directly related he expresses the feelings that so many felt in Russia of loss and hopelessness. But he still manages to have a final pop at his friend who has communist sympathies which he believes cannot be supported by a right-minded informed individual.

Bullet points between ages 230 - 277

* Stalin was someone that wanted to humiliate his enemies as well as kill them and in the end the way he himself died was riddled with some sort of justice with his own doctor in chains and his stroke depriving him of the chance to use his power

* Then having gathered all his evidence Amis writs to Christopher Hitchens the communist sympathiser he described working with at the New Statesman at the start of the book and hammers home his point that there was no point at which it was a glorious revolution and it was always a murderous regime

* He then tells the moving story of his sister’s funeral and how he misses her and then ties that back in with the feelings of those who missed loved ones that died in the terror and how although Stalin said one death was a tragedy and one million a statistic all of them were tragedies

* He finishes by writing to his father telling him that although he saw the light eventually he was wrong to support Stalin for around 12 years and in so doing challenges a liberal generation that was suckered into turning a blind eye to the brutality of the regime in the USSR

A review will follow soon…

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

Everything seems lost but a mix up saves the day and Fogg finds that apart from the money it was well worth travelling round the world.

Highlights from chapters XXXV to XXXVII
Although the wager seems lost Fogg admits after she asks to marry him that he is in love with the woman he rescued back in India from the jungle and they send Passepartout out to get the priest to marry them on the day after, Monday. But the French servant runs back after discovering that they have got their days wrong and it is still Saturday and he has ten minutes to get to the Reform Club. He manages to get there in time and wins the bet and then heads back home. He marries and on reflection is glad that he went round the world to find the woman he loved – someone to melt his ice cool heart.

A review will come soon…

This is the plan...

In about ten minutes the family and myself at the whell head off for a two week break in Switzerland crossing over on the ferry and then driving across France. The reading for the next couple of weeks might well be erratic but each of the books will have a Swiss theme and where possible something that links in with the Berner Oberland where we will spend some time.

Week one will include Sherlock Homes Memoirs building up to the moment Holmes meets his nemesis at a waterfall not too far from where we intend staying.

Week two will include Imposture by Benjamin Markovits, which was suggested as the book to read by the Financial Times, when it did its books of the world feature earlier this summer.

There might also be something from Swiss Family Robinson but possibly not - this is meant to be a holiday and most of my reading time will be guidebooks and camp site shop opening hour notices

Hope you are all having a good summer...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Koba the Dread - part IV

There are questions being thrown at you all the time as Amis works through the war years and the final chapter of Stalin’s life. Was he a madman? Deluded failing to accept reality? Was he a coward or a fighter? Did he really understand that some of those old communists around him understood it was all a lie?

Most of the answers are given by Amis who uses numerous sources to back up his assertions but of course this is history and there are always different interpretations.

Bullet points between pages 170 – 230

* Stalin purged through the army at such a high profile rate that it was clear to everyone in Europe that Russia would potentially not be in a position to defend itself if it was attacked

* But when the war does start Stalin is paralysed and the question of his strength of character is called into question and despite him being described by Churchill as a great leader there were millions of lives wasted as Stalin worked out how to win

* He went back on certain policies realising that people would not lay down their lives for socialism so religion and ranks in the army along with all of the awards and military honours reappeared but the purges and prison sentences continued

* Amis then widens it to look at the impact Stalin had on writers with Gorky being compromised and then destroyed by the system along with other poets and writers that were killed for having talent

* Another terror was coming just before Stalin died with the enemy of Hitler ironically picking up where he had left off and starting an anti-Jewish campaign that was honing in on doctors just around the time Stalin died

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

Things seem to have all gone wrong and in the end it is not because of a lack of trying but because of the obsession that Fix has with arresting Phileas Fogg. You hope that there has been some terrible mistake with the clocks and there is still time for him to win the wager but you sense that all is lost.

Highlights between chapters XXXI - XXXIV

After rescuing Passepartout the group take a sledge with sails and fly through the snow and ice to catch up with the main line and then take a train to Chicago. Then they switch to take a train to New York but when they arrive they have missed the steamer to Liverpool by three quarters of an hour. Fogg tries to get a boat but the captain on the only one that will go fast grudgingly accepts his passage to Bordeaux so Fogg takes over the boat and only releases the captain when they have run out of coal;. He buys the boat and burns the deck and pulls into port to catch a train to Liverpool.

Once on British soil Fix turn round and arrests him and puts him in a cell. The train to London leaves and Fogg is still in the cell. Fix bursts into tell him the real robber has been found and receives a punch in the face from Fogg for his efforts and then heads off but time has run out and he heads home rather than going to the Reform Club to collect his winnings.

Final chunk tomorrow…

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Koba the Dread - post III

The content starts to focus on the life and upbringing of Stalin and covers his relationship with Lenin but all through this there are constant references to the horrible excesses of the regime and a haranguing voice that is shouting out: ‘how could you be so stupid and support these monsters?”

Bullet points between pages 100 – 170

* Stalin creeps up on the Lenin regime disturbing the leadership with his brutal behaviour handling Georgia and heading for a final split with Lenin but he is put in charge of Lenin’s medical care and makes sure that he is not isolated

* Trotsky makes a few mistakes and Stalin rises with a determination and a willingness to destroy his rivals at quite a pace and the purges begin and the volume of people fed into the camps is phenomenal with whole families going into captivity

* There are references to some of the most famous Gulag memoirs with the experience and the language of those incarcerated is limited to reducing them to idiots with doctors losing their ability to talk and think

* Those who voted against Stalin, expressed an opinion against him were destroyed and he almost willingly destroyed the lives of his two sons and even made the life of his daughter difficult although she survived him unlike Stalin’s two wives

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

Just as it seemed to be going so well for Phileas Fogg his servant jeopardizes the chance to make it back to London in time. You wonder if Fogg would have not been better leaving his servant Passepartout earlier when he had the chance. But still he might have his uses, and does save the trainload of passengers.

Highlights between chapters XXVI to XXX

On board the train to New York the only hiccup is that the man Fogg was determined to have duel with is also onboard so his company try to keep them apart but in the end fail. A duel is called for and the two parties go into a large carriage at the rear of the train and are left alone but shooting breaks out at the front and the train is being attacked by red Indians who hope to take over the train. There are casualties on both sides and the acrobatic Passepartout is the hero when he crawls along the chains to the front of the train and releases the engine from the carriages.

But when the train stops near a fort and the Indians are chased off it is clear three passengers including Passepartout have been taken prisoner. Fogg takes give soldiers and goes looking for him but as a result misses the train and is 20 hours behind and almost certain to miss the connection with the steamer to Liverpool.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Koba the Dread - post II

This book is about a tragic subject but is written with real anger. Admittedly it is an informed anger but it is constant and it is refreshing. There are so many dry history books that cover the gulag system or the excesses of Stalinism but none have the determination to highlight it like this one. You are either informed, aware of the horror and against it or some sort of blind obsessive who is determined to support the regime run by monsters.

Bullet points between pages 42 – 100

* The first part of the book comes to a point where it has made it clear that Lenin was quite capable of not only ordering mass murder but seemed to have it in for the intellectual class in Russia and set out to destroy them

* This means that even from the start those who were infatuated with the Russian experiment were mistaken and were backing a monstrous regime that was quite happy killing its own

* But at the heart of this attack on different types of people – intellectual, politically aware as well as criminal – were the camps and a system of torture that meant its victims often had just a matter of months to live

* Then there are the inevitable comparisons that can be made with Hitler and Stalin and the determination they both had to wipe out entire races of people with the difference being that Stalin had a wider number of targets and the violence was random

* Although both dictators had a great deal in common in terms of their background the key advantage that Stalin had was time and he was able to destroy more lives because he was able to sit there until 1953 and keep the killing machine going

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

With 52 of the 80 days gone and the worst of the journey apparently over it looks like Fogg will make it with a few hours to spare as he travels from San Francisco to New York by train, New York to Liverpool by boat and then onto London by train. But you sense it will not be as easy as that.

Chapters XXIII to XXV

Passepartout has left the steamer and is trying to get money to get out of Japan and onto America and in the meantime Fogg has arrived in Japan and set off to find his servant. They meet and join the steamer and head off to the US but Passepartout decides not to reveal what happened with the detective Fix.

Then he meets Fix on board the steamer and after hitting him several times the detective explains that although he now has an arrest warrant he can only get his hands on Fogg when he is back in London so he is going to work with them to make sure he gets there. So they land in San Francisco and get involved with a scuffle over electing a Justice of the Peace and Fogg fights with a man he vows to come back and settle accounts with.

More tomorrow…

Monday, August 13, 2007

Koba the Dread - post I

Having read The Madhouse where Stalin and Lenin come in for some re-examination and are revealed to be the brutal architects of a systems that is capable of destroying people it seemed apt to stay in that mode. A quick tour of the charity shops in Blackheath on Sunday threw up the £3 gem of Koba the Dread by Martin Amis.

When this book came out it caused quite a fuss with Amis being seen as swiping at a liberal generation that supported Russia and communism when it was running into trouble. The question is whether or not those supporters of Stalin’s regime, among them Kinglsey Amis, Martin’s father for a while, knew the truth about the monsters they cheered on from the safety of the UK. The case against ignorance starts from the very first line.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 42

* Amis starts this historical memoir by quoting from a Robert Conquest book about the great famine that claimed 20 million lives and was deliberately allowed to continue by Stalin pointing out that this was not the actions of a society that was led by a benevolent leader

* Then it enters memoir territory with Amis recalling the conversations between his father and Conquest and the flirtation his father had with communism despite all the things that were happening ranging from the show trials to the gulags

* But the duping of an intellectual class was not isolated to just a few and there were other from the Bloomsbury set that went over and met Stalin and were convinced that communism was fantastic

* Conquest stood largely alone, along with émigré writers who knew what life was really like, and stood against the pro-soviet tide but then things started to change and the reality hit home and most turned against Stalin

* But even before Stalin there was a case to be made that Lenin was an inhumane obsessive who was happy for plenty of blood to be split along with Trotsky who also liked executions

* Those writers that painted fuzzy warm heroic pictures of Lenin came in for criticism by their contemporaries and in blunt fashion from Amis here in the text reminding you there are both sides to the story and the opinions still continue to divide

More tomorrow…

Finding a good holiday link

Watching Rick Stein cook his way round the Mediterranean the other night one of the little touches he kept throughout the programme in each country was to find a literary hero who had written about the place he was visiting. Most of the writers he chose were British writing about foreign lands from the perspective of a traveller. His approach is a great one because it adds a different dimension to the trip. As a result I am trying to dig out books that have a Swiss connection. Have a few so far but it remains to be seen if the link is just a fleeting glance through a railway carriage window or with the action actually based in my chosen holiday destination.

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

Luck twists and turns not just for Phileas Fogg but also his servant as the half waypoint of the 80 day journey is reached and the truth about just why detective Fix is trying to detain Fogg becomes shared knowledge with Passepartout.

Highlights between chapters XIX to XXII

Having discovered that the steamer they were hoping to catch has been delayed everyone seems relaxed but as he goes to book the cabins Passepartout discovers that the boat is sailing that evening with the problem fixed slightly earlier than expected. But rather than let him tell his master Fix takes him to an opium den, tells him who he really is and not an agent of the wagers. He plies the servant with drink until he falls unconscious and sure enough Fogg misses the boat. But he charters another and pays the crew to get him in a position to catch up with the steamer.

Terrible storms ravage the boat but Fogg is totally focused on his goal and the boat draws near to port he sees the steamer leaving and calls on the captain to hail it with a distress call. Meanwhile things are filled in on the side of Passepartout and he is onboard the steamer after having been taken aboard after shouting out the name of the boat as he came round in the opium den. He realises that his master is not on board and starts to panic about what he will do when the boat reaches port.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

bookmark of the week

A few days ago we visited Herne Bay, which is a different seaside location for the family because we usually go to Whitstable where there is a great bookshop among other things. But Herne bay was okay and we managed to enjoy a pebbly beach, sunshine and some great fish and chips before I made the obligatory stop for a bookmark to add to the collection

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A good idea for City book lovers

There was an interesting piece in The Independent about some of the things that other cities do that could be possibly copied in London and one of them was an idea to do with books.

This is the description of what happens in Madrid with its Bibliometro scheme:
“Bibliometro libraries can be found in a handful of the busiest Madrid metro tube stations. A membership scheme gives readers access to a selection of literature recommended by librarians. Books can be returned via drop-boxes, convenient for the rushed commuter, or exchanged for another book.”
Add to that the book vending machines they have in Paris and you start to get a theme here about books being made more widely available and that would be a great thing not just for London but for many cities.

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

Phileas Fogg is almost half way through his trip with 35 days elapsed and he is twenty four hours behind shedule but there is a chance that could be made up on the boat journey to America. He has picked up another member of his party and continues to be dogged by Fix the detective convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.

Highlights from chapters XII to XVIII
On the back of an elephant the party start to go through the jungle and are making good time and certainly look like reconnecting with the line in time to catch the steamer to Hong Kong. But in the jungle near the end of the journey they witness a religious procession with a young woman who is going to be killed as a sacrifice. Fogg displays rare emotion and suggests she is rescued and they pull it off with Passepartout the hero after he pretends to be a corpse also being burnt on the funeral pyre and jumps up and carries off the girl.

The celebrations though are short lived as they are taken straight into police custody before they can board the steamer. Fix, still without an arrest warrant from London thinks he can delay Fogg until it arrives as they are sentenced to a week in prison for the temple sacrilege Passepartout was responsible for in Bombay. But Fogg asks for bail and hands over £2,000 to get it and they get it and head on their way.

Fix again boards the boat and meets Passepartout but the servant thinks he has rumbled him as an agent for the Reform Club wagers and his hints leave the detective wondering what is going on. But Fix hopes to detain them in Hong Kong, where he has asked the arrest warrant to be sent. Even with a horrendous storm luck is on their side because the steamer out of Hong Kong is also delayed for 24 hours with boiler trouble. Without any sign of friendly relatives the woman rescued in the jungle is invited to stay with Fogg's party.

More tomorrow....

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Madhouse - post IX

This is all going to be the wrong way round today because I am hoping to read some of Around the World… later tonight but in the meantime my lunchtime read is the final part of The Madhouse. Finally it seems to make sense and although you sense that some of the cuts here did impact the novel’s cohesion the general point – freedom of thought is not going to be tolerated - does come across in the end.

Bullet points between pages 452 – 501

* The time at the rest home comes to an end and JRF heads back to Moscow not really having made any friends but certainly having found more evidence if it was needed of a deep cynicism about the system

* Before he leave he has an encounter with the former head of the academy who calls for his papers that JRF had been working on and then burns them and shortly afterwards dies but starts to appear in dreams to JRF telling him that he had denounced plenty of other people to save his own skin

* Back in Moscow and JRF senses something is wrong because no one is happy to see him and things start to get bleaker with the May Day parades coming up and the KGB vowing to get any potential troublemakers off the streets

* After visiting his parents JRF realises that he is not wanted and starts to feel vulnerable and heads back and sure enough is called to the directors office and escorted off the premises by two men

* The irony is that he had just begun to contemplate conforming to the system and was ultimately punished for the imaginary world of his dreams and his thoughts

A full review will follow shortly…

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Madhouse - post VIII

An ex boss of mine once made the comment when we were particularly under worked that we would find the work we had would fill the time. The same principle works with The Madhouse with it almost being at the end but enough reading has been left to fill the commute for tomorrow.

As a result the treacle pace continues but it cannot do for much longer because the pages are running out. The reason it’s so slow going is not so much because of the book, which is slightly repetitive in labouring the point, but it’s more to do with tiredness and failing to keep the eyes open on the way home from work.

Bullet points between pages 408 - 452

* There are two stories running in parallel with Stalin killing Lenin and taking the reigns of power in such a away all of those who felt they were close to Lenin and part of the leadership are isolated and weak compared to Stalin

* The way the story is told it is clear that n* ot only did Lenin not rate Stalin but he could hardly remember who he was and putting the structure of the party in his hands was more of a way of getting rid of him rather than building him up

* But Stalin is ruthless and believes that the way revolutions are won is not through speeches and slogans but through action, most of which is brutal

* Back at the rest home JRF and the rest are told to be on their best behaviour as a VIP arrives who spends most of his trip drunk and unable to speak or stand but the result of him appearing is that the food improves

* The VIP manages to get through the weekend unscathed meanwhile the party supporters start to write denunciations of colleagues they don’t approve of and the jokes about communism and Brezhnev continue

Final chunk tomorrow…

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Madhouse - post VII

Reading this is a bit like treacle at the moment and although the end is in sight it is getting harder to read a decent chunk each day and the result is that you feel the book will never finish which is a bit like the characters feel about communism.

The location does not seem to matter for the sickness at the heart of communism to be displayed so the same complaints are made at JRF’s rest home. As usual JRF seems to go through the entire experience without seeming to get much attention.

Bullet points between pages 368 – 408

* In the rest home JRF is put in with five other patients and he manages to quickly find a girlfriend and get set in a group of about ten that seems harmless enough but contains the usual characters that both put up with and hate the system

* Everyone gets excited and distracted by the idea that they find a lecture discussing the idea that there might be aliens around that come down in their spaceships and take party members away

* Throughout the JRF segments there is a story being told of the rise of Stalin with him being a double agent for the Tsarist police and building up a violent network of revolutionaries that are prepared to do his bidding

* Stalin is made out to be a driven individual who understands more than Lenin that it takes actions not speeches to win a revolution and he of all the possible pretenders is prepared to do it

More tomorrow…

A visual aid

Just discovered the image bank on Commons Wikimedia and after tapping in Around the World in Eighty Days a very useful map popped up that shows the route that Fogg took. So far 11 chapters in and he has got half way through India to Calcutta.

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

This book is one of those that falls into the ripping yarns category which means you get sucked into the tale and before you know it the minutes have passed and your lunch break is over. The short chapters are one of the reasons why it feels like the book is flying by but it is mainly because the plot is based around this race around the world and that pace infects the reader.

Highlights from chapters VI to XI
With a detective on his tail Fogg manages to land at Suez and set off for India. The detective pumps Passepartout for information and concludes that because of the mysterious journey and the amount of money Fogg is carrying he is the bank robber but he has to continue to dog his progress because no arrest warrant has arrived.

The detective gets a breakthrough when Passepartout goes into a temple with shoes on and breaks the law about respecting Indian religious customs and decides to use that as a way of arresting the party, which meanwhile is on a train to Bombay to catch a boat. They are going along without a care in the world when suddenly the track runs out and the two days Fogg has made up because the boat was quick look like being lost but they pay for an elephant to take them through the jungle to where the line starts again.

More tomorrow…

The Madhouse - post VI

The battle for the harvest ends in waste and disappointment and is used by the STA as a metaphor for the failure of communism. The different types of personality and reaction to communism is also shown by those who work and those who shirk. The entire experience seems to sum up the misery of living under a system that no longer has any ability to inspire fear or respect from its people.

Bullet points between pages 322 – 368

* There is an argument between JRF and one of the hard working members of the team who says that he cannot relate to the young man but in the end the argument is diffused after someone points out they are both striving to be individualists and are very much alike

* The rains come and things start to get hairy for the workers who have not been issued with proper waterproof clothing and now face pressure to get everything picked before the crops get ruined

* But with the transport system being halted by mud the workers are told to put the food they dig up into storage pits in the ground where everyone knows they will be left to go rotten and then when the building supplies come in to build proper storage theft is rife

* The period in the countryside ends with bitter feelings over the theft of the building supplies with most having to be put back after an inquiry is launched and the commissar is exposed for having a relationship out of wedlock and it all gets a bit messy

So ends parts three of the book and the final part should revert back to JRF and pick up the story of the KGB investigation. More tomorrow...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lunchtime read: Around the World in Eighty Days

With my holiday looming it seemed like a good idea to choose a lunchtime read that is all about travel. It is also an excuse to pick up one of the £2 lime green Penguin Popular Classics. This range has largely passed me by but is a great idea because for slightly more than the cost of a newspaper you can get a classic book.

My knowledge of Around the World in 80 Days is based on cartoons and films so it should be interesting picking up the original book.

Highlights from the first V chapters
Phileas Fogg is a rich man who sticks to a rigid routine based around his home and the Reform Club. He dismisses his servant for bringing him his shaving water at two degrees out from what he expects and hires Frenchman Jean Passepartout. The new servant, who has a useful background in the circus world, is attracted to Fogg because he is looking for a quiet life but all of that will be changed when Fogg returns from the Reform Club earlier than normal and announces they are going round the world in 80 days.

The reason why is because there is a bank robbery and as Fogg discusses the prospects of how fare the criminal will have got in his escape with his friends in the Reform Club he mentions an article in the paper that says it is possible to go round the world in 80 days. They dismiss his suggestion so he bets £20,000 that he can do it and sets off home to pack and leave for the train to catch a boat to France. But no sooner is he on the continent than a warrant for his arrest is issued with Fogg being identified as the bank robber with the trip seen by the police as a ruse to throw them off his scent that kills off the business of betting money on Fogg’s success

More tomorrow…

Zinoviev's communism definition

The Madhouse is written in the Brezhnev era when the fear of Stalin type actions was reducing and the obvious gap between the quality of life in the West and Russia was clear to anyone who wanted to open their eyes. The result is a cynicism about communism as a political approach that permeates all of The Madhouse with one stunning example of Zinoviev’s definition of communism:

He talks about defining a society buy the amount of good quality goods (in this case sandals and potatoes) they make and bad quality with the good quality going to the leadership and the bad going to the masses. On paper communism should supply nothing but good quality goods to its people. But you could not be more wrong…

“If your calculations had produced the following result: eleven pairs of good sandals (two pairs for the Gen Sec and a pair each for the chief members of the Politburo) and two hundred and fifty-four million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred and eighty-nine bad pairs, and similarly eleven tons of good potatoes (two tons for the Gen Sec and a ton each for the chief members of the Politburo) and two hundred and fifty-four million nine hundred and ninety-nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred and eighty-nine tons of bad ones, then you could say with complete assurance that you are dealing with a society under full communism.”

The Madhouse - post V

In part three of the book the point of view changes from that of the junior research fellow (JRF) to a senior technical assistant (STA) who is even more cynical than JRF about the state of communism. He has reached the heights of being JRF but was demoted back down to a STA because he made up his research, stole ideas and was incredibly lazy. Now he manages to live in his sleep and shut out the parts of the daily grind that annoy him.

Bullet points from pages 264 - 322

* The STA has seen a bit of life and is highly cynical about the state if not just Russia but also the world at large having an incredibly cynical attitude about those in positions of leadership

* He manages to lose his chances of promotion by stealing research from the provinces and trying to pass it off as his own and then because he becomes a model parasite that lives off the system without contributing much

* Partly in reaction to something that is compulsory anyway but because if you volunteer you don’t have to go the next year STA signs up to work on the collective farm that is connected to the academy

* On the farm he is put in a group with JRF who seems to have no opinions on anything but still manages to provoke an interest but it is the woman running the place that brings most people together because of her ridiculous views on the West

* Crops are stolen and sold and the system of targets and numerical trading between collective farms exposes the hollowness of the entire system and adds more fuel to the anti-communist fire that STA is happy stirring up

More tomorrow...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reading about each other

It’s that time of year again when Waterstone’s asks politicians what they are planning to read over their summer holidays. The Independent has given some co verage to the findings. Last year the theme was low brow with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code topping the table. This year it seems politicians like either reading about their own colleagues or books by each other with Gordon Brown by Tom Bower, The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell and William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by Tory MP William Hague. On the last book, which came out top of the summer reading list, you would expect a Tory bias but Liberals also said they planned to read it.

No doubt that will help offset some of the earnings that Hague lost when he decided to leave the lucrative after dinner speaking circuit and re-enter the cut and thrust of the opposition front benches.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

bookmark of the week

A bookmark not only keeps your page in a book but also has the ability to be a record of a memory. Digging out some stuff in the garage today I’m came across this bookmark that was purchased years ago on a trip to Cleeve Abbey in Somerset, which is a very well preserved monastery run by English Heritage. For a moment the name Cleeve Abbey meant nothing but after Googling it the memories cam flooding back.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

book of books - Franny and Zooey

I'm not sure if there is much left now by J.D.Salinger that the library has or if there is any more to read. Most of his short story collections have now been covered and at the end you are left appreciating the power of his imagination. The creation of the fictional Glass family is so believable that you keep falling into the mistake of believing that Buddy is J.D himself and his brother must have committed suicide. Over the course of the collections Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and For Esme with Love and Squalor there are all the pieces of the jigsaw to put together not only what happened with Seymour but how his suicide impacted on the key members in the rest of the family.

Like the other two short story collections these stories run into each other both in terms of chronology and the issues being covered. The clever thing is that if you read them with reference to the other it would still work as a readable and provoking piece of fiction.

Plot Summary
Franny Glass turns up to meet her boyfriend Lane and rather than just sit their and look pretty and go along to the ball game and make him look good and agree with what he says she picks holes. She starts by undermining his college paper and then starts to reveal her loathing for those who teach at her college and starts talking about phonies. One of the most important revelations is that she has given up acting, something she is very good at, because she feels everyone else involved is a phoney. Lane struggles to cope with her mood and Franny goes to the restroom for air and starts crying and clinging onto a book. The book turns out to be about a Russian peasant who believes that with the aid of knowledge about the 'Jesus Prayer' can harmonise with God. She tells Lane all about this but he doesn't really understand and then as she announces that she is going to the restroom again she collapses and the weekend is effectively over.

Things start with Zooey in the bath reading a letter that is four years old from his brother Buddy advising him not to become an actor without first having completed his PhD. Then Bessie Glass (the mother) walks in and starts annoying him and trying to get his opinion on what is wrong with Franny who is prostrate on the couch and has been off her food and causing concern since being sent home from her weekend with Lane. Zooey takes an age to get ready, is obviously a man of great confidence and appears to be off for a lunch date with a director when he turns into the room where Franny is lying on the sofa. Zooey knows all about the Jesus Prayer and attempts to use a combination of psycho analysis and bullying to get her to snap out of it but fails. He leaves the room and again you assume he is leaving the apartment but he heads to Buddy and Seymour's room and using the private phone in their old bedroom phones pretending to be Buddy and asks to speak to Franny. he doesn't fool her for long and you sense he is about the blow it again when he wears his heart on his sleeve admits he feels the way that she does but adds that everyone might be a fool but you carry on because there might be someone with quality among the audience and she is born to act. The message seems to get through and she climbs into her mothers bed and both Franny and Zooey have come to a point where they realise that although their brother's Buddy and Seymour might have indoctrinated them they did so wisely.

Is it well written?
The stories work particularly well back to back and leave you with a sense of calm after the damage of years of superior thinking are corrected and pointed in the right direction in the younger of the Glass family children. But on their own the stories work with Franny showing the strain of trying to lap up the rubbish that everyone else pedals and falls for. Zooey is also facing that same struggle and reacts with bitterness to those he sees as idiotic. The result is that in their own way both are unhappy and blame their brothers for hard wiring them to think like that. But equally their brothers taught them to be the best you can be regardless of the intellectual depth of those around you and it is that lesson that saves both Franny and Zooey in the end. The fact that the larger issue can carry over until the final paragraph is because of the intelligence in the writing and a confidence with the material. You really believe these people exist at points.

Should it be read?
As I have said after reading some of the other short story collections it is important to see a writer in the round and the mistake of just going for Catcher in the Rye is that although a great book it shows only one side to Salinger. Here is characterisation, within a family, that is stretched over several books of which this is just one. There is an eye for detail and an understanding about the journey the reader is on that makes it a lot easier to read these books with you feeling that you are putting the jigsaw pieces of the Glass family together in a very satisfying way - like collecting a complete set of something. It also reminds you that great writing can take many forms and has the power to provoke and challenge even over 29 pages - the length of the Franny story.

Hold your head up high no matter how bitter and twisted you feel inside because if you have the talent you have to let it shine.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Madhouse - post IV

The campaign to try to entrap JRF steps up a gear with the introduction of a female agent who is meant to seduce him, gain his trust and then get him to reveal more incrimination secrets. But things at work change dramatically with the arrival of a young woman in the administration team who despite the poison of colleagues decides to start something with JRF.

Bullet points between pages 202 – 264

* JRF is tipped off by Beria that if he goes to the cinema there is going to be a young woman waiting for him that will have been sent by the KGB and she will be compliant and friendly towards him

* Meanwhile at work things seem to be going well with his new boss liking him and starting to hand out the sort of privileges that come at a higher level – like library study days – which JRF spends down the pub

* Some of his friends continue to try and incriminate him by talking about the attraction of assassinations but JRF remains quiet worrying about the blood thirsty turn that some of his friends have taken

* Then he starts to see a new member of staff and the relationship sparks jealousy across the board with even his KGB staged lover showing a jealous streak that is unusual for someone with numerous lovers including many in the Academy

* With the KGB case getting nowhere fast they tell the academy to send him off on sick leave so that he is out of the way when they build a case against him but the announcement that JRF is being sent to the country sparks even more jealously

More maybe over the weekend…

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Madhouse - post III

Things become clear as JRF suddenly becomes the focus of a KGB investigation and the difference between those characters that are real and in his mind are laid bare. Although he has moved department the work he was involved in with the mentally ill has damaged him as the KGB take anyone mad or sane seriously and have the ability if required to rehabilitate someone clinically insane if they could be a good witness.

The funniest part is when the investigators come up against Marx, Beria, Stalin and Lenin – the characters that populate JRF’s mind and try to pin down who they are.

“’Right’ said the leader of the team of operatives. , ‘the connection between JRF and the “Workers’ Group” has been confirmed. Those members of the group that have been arrested have identified him. We now know who have been hiding behind the nicknames Terrorist, Poet and Herself. As yet we have been unable to identify Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Iron Felix, Beria and Himself.’”

Bullet points between pages 122 – 202

* Hanging out with people that talk, however madly, about the prospect of blowing up the head of the KGB was bound to land JRF in trouble and sure enough he is called in to discuss the terrorists plans

* But almost instantly the case is no longer about the Terrorist and the idea that he had also outlined of a workers’ group but is about JRF and the KGB sense there is a chance to pin something on the sane element of the investigation JRF himself

* In parallel to talking to JRF all of his friends and colleagues are also dragged in with some being encouraged to try to encourage him to discuss terrorist attacks and others being told to write down details of conversations that might incriminate him

* All the time the voices in his head – Beria and Iron Felix – with direct experience of the secret service try to give him advice that will help him counter the growing storm that threatens to undermine his good work in the academy

* Despite all of this he is still searching in vain for the woman who gave him the ottoman and she writes a letter that tells him that she never intends to see him again and that seems to be an end to the matter

More tomorrow…

book of books - Story of a Life

One of the most oft quoted pieces of advice to anyone who wants to be a writer is to focus on what you know. Sticking with that approach means that you end up with a genre of books that are semi-autobiographical but attempt to widen the story away from just one character describing the actions and thoughts of other people. Konstantin Paustovsky falls into that category along with the likes of Marcel Proust but what makes his work standout is its setting.

He has the benefit of using the Ukraine as a backdrop and is able to produce something that is not that far removed from Vladimir's Nabakov’s Speak, Memory with a family on the brink of great change as the World War and revolution arrives. Those who support change from the luxury of a cosy middle class existence seem, just like in Speak, Memory, to be particularly naïve about what the future holds.

Plot summary
Starting with his father’s death from cancer Konstantin then traces back his family history to the age of about six or seven and then takes it up to his early twenties. In that time his family is torn apart by his father’s political views and an affair that not only divides father and mother but throws the later into poverty. His mother and blind sister become the two tragic figures not only because of their poverty but because Konstantin can only see them as barriers on his route to independence. Konstantin’s answer is to escape to Kiev and study and teach to get by and most of the recollections are about his experiences at school and the different teachers he encounters. But this is also a story about a country at the crossroads and the defeat against Japan in 1905 is a cause of national shame and the indications made by the Tsar in that same year that some concessions will be made around his autocratic rule lead to demonstrations which are then put down with troops and gunfire. But throughout all these stages the countryside is a constant and at the end when Konstantin is fighting heart break it is by focusing on the landscape that he manages to regain his happiness.

Is it well written?
It takes a bit of time to get going because things start backwards in the way you are introduced to a dying estranged father who is then used as a point at which to look back and start the story properly. The feeling grows though that this is a magical world of childhood that is supported and heightened by the environment and there is something that weaves in and out of the writing as another character and that is the steppe and Kiev. By the time the book comes to a close you want to rush out and see how the story of his life continued and that is the best way of indicating this book manages to grab hold of you.

Should it be read?
For those Russian scholars looking for another point of view of life in Kiev pre-revolution it should be added to the list. For those who enjoyed the role that the countryside plays in their works of Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Sholokhov then this can be appreciated. But for anyone who has ever been tempted to look back on their childhood and recall their first kiss, the first time they caught a chill after being caught in a thunderstorm and the memories of friendship with extended family and friends this should provoke memories that might have been lost at the back of the mind.

Growing up is a painful battle between aiming for independence and understanding the role the family, money and politics plays on reaching it

Lunchtime read: Franny and Zooey

The book ends with both of the characters covered in this two story collection having a moment when the truth is spelt out in order to save them from falling apart struggling to be normal. Zooey plays an interesting role as psychoanalyst, damaged brother and bitter actor but pushes himself into places he would have otherwise avoided to try to help his sister Franny snap out of her despair.

Highlights from pages 106 – 131
After having failed to pull Franny out of her breakdown with his bitter logical arguments about the Jesus prayer and what sort of person Jesus was Zooey walks out of the lounge. You suspect he is leaving for the lunch appointment he has mentioned several times but instead he heads for Seymour and Buddy’s room and from them after an hour of getting into the role phones up pretending to be Buddy. Franny comes on the line and attacks Zooey for being bitter and lecturing and then she realises that it is Zooey and finally her brother gets through to her.

The turning point is when he tells her that without her knowledge Zooey and Buddy travelled up to see her act in a college play. He tells her she was brilliant but there is no point being superior to some segments of the audience because looking for a good audience is a search that will destroy her. She should enjoy the talent she has and accept that the world is not full of similarly minded people.

A review will follow this weekend…

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Madhouse - post II

There is a constant stream of debate happening in the mind of the hero of the book between Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Iron Felix (founder of the modern KGB) and Marx. They keep telling him that it doesn’t matter what he thinks the system is all about because it is flawed but that is irrelevant because to succeed you have to not only turn a blind eye to the failures but embrace them and become one of them.

Bullet points between pages 64 – 122

* JRF starts the process of becoming a party member not because he believes but because without that he cannot publish his thesis and move onto the next rung of the ladder

* But as he starts to consider becoming a party member the debate in his head about the relevance and the morality of the party starts to get louder with Stalin and Marx admitting that there works and approach were ‘shit’

* Meanwhile on the relationship front all of the running around to get his party accreditation means that he loses one girlfriend who he stands up and then almost loses another who is forced to stay locked in his room for hours

* But one girl remains faithful to him and he returns one night drunk and tired and finds that she has replaced his bed with an ottoman but when he wakes from a blissful sleep she has gone and he doesn't remember anything about her

* He starts to ingratiate himself with some of the movers and shakers in the academy and is asked to write the preface to a book that one of the directors is writing about scientists that have expressed negative thoughts about the regime

* All the time there is a debate raging in his mind with Stalin, Lenin and the voices from the KGB all discussing why the communist party is defunct and how he can climb the greasy pole by taking a few short-cuts

More tomorrow when hopefully I will have calmed down a little bit more about the bike being stolen. The attitude of the police was predictable with them showing little hope of getting it back or little interest in the whole case.

Lunchtime read: Franny and Zooey

These two stories in this book complement each other well because both characters are flawed as a result of their upbringing and experiences in the public eye on a radio show. Although Franny is seeking some sort of solace in religion her brother is not that far behind her in trying to seek some comfort from somewhere and has even considered going down the prayer route himself.

Highlights from pages 82 – 106
Zooey starts to provoke Franny into talking about her current state of mind and admits after she starts to explain that she thinks most people in her college are phonies that he thinks the same about people in films and television. But then he moves on to question her ‘hair shirt’ approach saying that although there is nothing wrong with having something against the system but she is making it too personal. He adds that her actions are also unfair because they are disturbing their parents.

Whether or not this lecture has any impact will become clear in the last twenty or so pages…