Monday, June 30, 2008

Unconditional Surrender - post II

Poor old Guy. He is all set to get the chance to parachute into Italy and fight for freedom but cracks his knee and then gets pushed to one side because of his age and dodgy track record.

Waiting as a consolation prize as he struggles to get better is he ex-wife Virginia who is pregnant, without any money or a willing abortionist and keen to sponge off her old lover. Guy has no idea of the hidden agenda but it doesn’t seem to be doing him any harm so far.

The final stages of the war begin with the Germans on the run in Russia and the Brits able to record successes in the desert.

Mind you even now, with just 100 odd pages left in the trilogy this still feels like a book that has passed me by. Do you ever get that feeling that you have somehow missed the point of it all and just seen the surface? For some reason it feels like that with unconditional surrender and it is not a pleasant sensation.

More tomorrow…

The Soldiers's Art - post I

This book picks up straight from where The Valley of Bones left off. There is a slight joke at the start with Jenkins being mistaken for an actor who is about to go off and appear in a play entitled War but after that it settles down into the rhythm dictated by Widmerpool and the petty jealousies of command.

Jenkins does not appreciate being under Widmerpool’s command and is conscious that as his old school friend goes up the greasy pole he will be left behind to rot in a desk job in the no man’s land that is the transit centre.

The last book and the opening of this are some of the most pessimistic in tone because although still a rather detached observer things are not going well for Jenkins. It must have been difficult for those that wanted so desperately to prove themselves in the war to get over the age barrier into the army only to face the prospect of getting nowhere other than playing at solders in military camps.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Valley of Bones - post IV

Things start to go quickly in mainland continental Europe with Hitler marching the Brits out of France.

Jenkins hears that his brother-in-law has been killed but as far as he is concerned he is no closer to the action. If anything his time with the Welsh regiment looks like stumbling as the officer he was closely associated with, Gwatklin, fails after forgetting the passwords.

Age is used against him but Jenkins is sent for at headquarters and as he walks in to talk to the back of the commanding officer the chair spins round and there is the familiar face of Widmerpool. After all these years where Jenkins has watched from the sidelines as the but of the jokes at school rises up he is finally in a position where he feels the full force of the reversal with his fortune now wrapped up firmly with his old school friend’s.

A review will follow soon…

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sign of a good bookshop

What are the signs of a good bookshop? Location I guess comes into it but it’s all about what is inside. Ambience, feeling an aura of mutual literary respect are great but the finishing must is the selection of books.

Having trawled round various bookshops in search of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which I have been told is bloody but good. It was only in Heffers on my day trip to Cambridge that I came across such a comprehensive collection of McCarthy that I was able to get my hands on the book.

A sign of a good bookshop has to be the range of choice, and not just mainstream titles, with that in mind Heffers came up trumps today.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Unconditional Surrender - post I

Just as Powell sets his war years rolling the conclusion of the Sword of Honour trilogy see Guy Crouchback in much the same circumstances as he spends time in training waiting for a chance to get back to the action. His age is used against him and it looks like as he celebrates his 40th birthday he has been left behind. But his Italian saves him and he looks set to be sent into Italy to help in the final push to liberate that country.

Meanwhile his ex-wife is broke and pregnant by the hairdresser come hero Trimmer and looking for money for an abortion. Guy’s father dies after expressing fears about the morale of his son.

But back in London life in pockets seems to go on as normal and for those with connections the war can be played out on their own terms. For poor old Guy, and this is also the same to a degree for Nick Jenkins, age and lack of military contacts leaves them gathering dust in officers rather than on battlefields being covered in glory.

More tomorrow…

Valley of Bones - post III

There is a moment when Jenkins gets leave and he steps back into the world that has become familiar in the past six volumes.

The link is the family he has married into with the Tolland clan and their hangers on but the weekend is short and Jenkins has to return to Aldershot before heading off to Northern Ireland for more training.

The book mainly concentrates on the relationship between Nick and the other officers, in particular the one that becomes the defacto head of the training camp, Gwatkin. This man aspires to be some sort of Kipling inspired hero but rubs people up and falls in love with the bar maid at the local village pub.

Nick seems to breeze about much as he did in his pre-war life but as the Germans advance across Europe the question of whether or not he will actively become involved in the war does become slightly more consuming.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Valley of Bones - post II

The training drags on but as you would expect with Powell sooner or later the figures from the past reappear and instead of anyone from the centre this book is used to deepen Jenkin’s relationship with some fringe characters.

One of the problems with the widening of the circle is that it might provide extra small pieces of the jigsaw but it makes you feel even further away from where the real action is. Mind you Jenkins himself has started to feel cut off from everything with the training having taken him away from his family and London.

This is a bit of an overload with people being introduced at a rate of knots that makes it hard to keep up and compared to the other books difficult to find the rhythm.

Still see if it changes tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Valley of Bones - post I

Despite the mauling Dance to the Music of Time received in the Sunday Times at the weekend I am determined to press on and finish the series.

Book 7, The Valley of Bones, starts with a refreshing difference because it includes none of the established characters. Jenkins is in barracks with a mixed bag of territorial army officers waiting to see what part they will play in the war.

Despite war being declared so far a great deal of the action has been of a clerical nature and Jenkins is stuck training up his platoon rather than actually anywhere dodging bullets.

Until an older officer arrives Jenkins is one of the oldest and is made to feel slightly isolated because of his university education and profession as an author and literary critic.

His desire along with everyone else is to do their bit fighting Hitler but the start of the book sees him no nearer to a battleground than the drill square.

There are so many echoes of the wartime world painted by Evelyn Waugh in Officers and Gentlemen and it is hard not to read this book without making comparisons that so far are even between the two.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

This is an interesting story for a couple of reasons. The first is that unlike most of the Tolstoy that I have come across the main character is a woman and a young one. The second notable feature of the tale is the way Tolstoy manages to draw out some very complex emotions.

He takes a young girl who is overwhelmed by love then seeks the glitter and attractions of the big city but then crushed by the jealously of her husband yearns for the relationships she has lost.

But then in a confrontation that could end with the husband and wife parting he manages to take her to the next level, which is to understand that a new love is blossoming that is a more mature and shared experience between her husband and her children.

A review of this story collection will appear soonish (bit of a queue to work through first)…

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Outer Dark - post III

There is a scene towards the end of the book that turns out to be the climax of the hunt for the missing child. The three mysterious men who have been travelling the road that Holme and his sister have been wandering along are discovered in a glade having found the tinker and the infant.

The tinker is not in the land of the living anymore and the child has been rolled too close to the fire at some point and has half of his face burnt and is missing an eye.

Holme attempts to act with indifference but when he is told to hand over the child he does so without too much resistance and then watches as its throat is cut and one of the men then plunges his mouth into the fatal wound.

The sister arrives but too late to find anything other than charred bones and a scene of desolation. The tinker has become the fodder for the birds and the journey comes to an end.

But the book doesn’t come to an end until there is a literal metaphor about the end of the road and the dangers of being blind to the dangers of the road. In a sense it reminds you of The Road with the echoes of cannibalism and the road leading nowhere but to death.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

Just as the lovers come out and admit their love for each other and Masha manages to get her man to marry her the problems start.

They move in with the mother-in-law but it is the boredom and the way she is treated like a girl that drives Masha crazy and makes her demand a trip to the capital. But once in St Petersburg the boredom moves to her husband along with jealousy.

A relationship that was meant to be one of extreme happiness is on a knife edge and quite possibly on the brink of falling apart.

Last bit tomorrow...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

This volume contains not just The Cossacks but two other stories. I have read the Death of Ivan Ilyich before but not Happy Ever After.

There is something that bugs me about putting away a book unfinished so the lunchtime read for today and at least tomorrow is the first of the three stories Happy Ever After. Bearing in mind this is a Russian story the title presumably is going to be a wish rather than a reality.

Three sisters orphaned by the death of their mother are thrown into the hands of th4e executor of the will and the 36 year-old takes a shine to the 17 year old middle daughter Masha. He hides his feelings and tries to convince her that he sees nothing in her but she starts to become more aware of her feelings for him and love blossoms, at least in her heart if not in the open.

She prepares her self for her birthday and a proposal but is he thinking along the same lines? She thinks so but is tragedy lurking?

More tomorrow…

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What spurs the red mist?

If you come up with a coherent argument, and that’s an if, then it is always going to get attention attacking great authors. So it is no doubt with getting a large reader response in mind that the Sunday Times runs a piece about authors that provoke the red mist.

Rod Liddle writes that Dance to the Music of Time irritates him but then admits that he didn’t get much further than half way through the first book. Bearing in mind it’s a 12 book series you could easily argue it’s not much a point to leave and base a judgement on.

Then a host of people add their two-penneth’s worth with Crime and Punishment coming in for some abuse along with Dickens and a few other classic writers.

For what it’s worth personally I like to hold that view that everyone has something worth saying and if reading is about learning not just stories but style then a badly written book can teach as much as a good one.

But in the spirit of the thing I would put in The Presidential Papers by Norman mailer which is no totally irrelevant and was no doubt at the time and am happy to chuck in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks a romantic tale against the backdrop of the plague that just wasn’t for me.

bookmark of the week

One of the things you can do in cathedrals and churches is light candles. Walking round the crypt last weekend in Canterbury cathedral I noticed that as well as the candles and box for 20ps there was also this little slip, which adequately acts as a bookmark, with a graphic on one side (shown) and some words on the reverse explaining the significance of lighting a candle.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Outer Dark - post II

The brother is hunting the sister and she is hunting their child. Chapters alternate with their progress with both begging for food and work as they struggle along the road that they hope will carry them to a conclusion.

Around the brother in particular negative things start to happen. Having stolen the squire’s boots he has to roam wifely to escape justice but is tracked by men who seem intent on killing him.

For now they have gone and the focus is on the sister but the threat of them has not gone away and they might remerge. In this turn of the century world hospitality is forthcoming to both siblings but without a family or a wedding ring they spark suspicion in the God fearing folk who wonder what their motivation is to be wandering so far from home.

More tomorrow…

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

Two worlds collide with the Moscow aristocrat and the Cossack girl and no matter what how earnest the declarations of love the divide cannot be breached.

After he tells Marianka that he will ask for her hand in marriage formally, although she is betrothed to Luka, fate intervenes and his Cossack rival is seriously injured on a raid. The sense of isolation that Olenin has felt all along suddenly consumes him after she angrily tells him that he can do nothing for her and he decides to quit the village.

At the end he departs without even a glance from Marianka and the world he hoped he could enter and learn from closes as he horse pulls away from his lodging.

Tempted to read the other story in this volume so might hold off on the review…

Outer Dark - post I

Welcome back to the world of Cormac McCarthy with the italicised [passages and pages of dialogue devoid of speech marks. But also welcome back to a world on the edge where nature can be both familiar and unnatural in a split second.

The setting seems to be in a world where horses pull wagons, people live in shacks and money is tight but available to those prepared to work hard.

A brother and a sister live in a shack and she is pregnant with his child. A tinker comes calling and is brusquely shown the road by the brother who returns to a cold home with a sister going into labour.

He refuses to seek outside help and delivers his own son. While mother and child sleep he takes the baby into the woods and abandons him and then in a storm loses his way and sees the child again before stumbling home. The tinker picks up the child and although the brother tells the sister he has buried the baby after it died she digs at the earth and exposes his lie.

Her mission is to find the tinker and the child who she manages to link together. But with her brother gone, taking all the money with him, the question is not whether she will find her son but if her brother will allow her.

But for now they have both gone their separate ways.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Devil May Care - Post III

Didn’t get the chance to blog on the ending last night because I went to West Dulwich and picked up the latest copy of Slightly Foxed. Wish I had stayed longer and chatted with the editors and other readers but it was quite a trek home and so had to cut it short.

The ending has more of an echo of Fleming than almost anything else because just as with his other books he leaves it until literally there are just a few pages left to wind it up and put the villain to death.

There are twists galore in this story and it does what it says on the tin. Where you sense the hesitation is with the sex, the sense of confidence and the speed of thought. There are scenes that seem to be played out in slow motion as Bond tries to work out his options that could have been speeded up to inject a bit of pace.

But in the end Bond gets the girl, stops world war three and manages to get rid of his adversary in a way that seems poetic.

A full review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

There is going to be a turning point soon and the irony is that it is going to come from the influence not of the Cossacks but from the world of Moscow that Olenin thought he had left behind.

After being taught how to hunt the young aristocrat wanders the woods by day and is exhausted by night but seems to have some sort of road to Damascus moment understanding as he lies down in a stag’s hideaway that life is about giving back not taking.

He starts by giving a horse to the brave Cossack Luka who wants to marry the daughter of Olenin’s landlord.

But with the arrival of more officers from Moscow the atmosphere changes and rather than seeing his duty as helping Luka get together with his sweetheart Olenin starts to wonder whether or not he can love her for himself.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

Having enjoyed Jonathan Dimbleby’s journey across Russia, including his encounter with the Cossacks, it seemed like a good idea to get down the old copy of The Cossacks that has been sitting on the shelf.

The great thing about Tolstoy and the 19th century approach is the way everything is laid out with family backgrounds being accompanied by location and contextual history providing you with all the information about the Cossacks and their likes and dislikes.

But this starts with a young cadet Dmitri Olenin leaving his high society life to head off to serve in the Caucasus. He arrives in a village and is billeted with a young girl and her family and after telling himself that nothing matters like love he starts to be struck by her natural beauty.

But he has a rival in the form of the local youthful hero of the Cossacks. Added to his record of saving a child from drowning, hence his nickname ‘snatcher’, Luka is also in love with the girl setting up a classic love story.

Will the girl choose the love of a aristocrat or something more humble and familiar in the shape of Luka? Those who struggle with the 19 century style cannot be won over by this storyline.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Devil May Care - Post II

This starts to remind you of some of those old Bond novels as the show down between the arch criminal and the secret service agent draws closer. There are no gadgets just fists, knifes and guns and a heavy mixture of violence and cruelty.

Where there was politics of the Empire and the Second World War fallout in some of the original novels this is being played out against the background of Vietnam and a coup-ridden middle east. The action moves from Paris to Tehran and the moment of destiny draws nearer as Bond nears the centre of the Heroin operation that is being used to turn British youth into drugged out losers and turn the country into a third world power of wasters.

This is a Bond that is neither Connery, Moore or Brosnan. He is someone without a face waiting for you to put yourself into him. That is unexpected because you half expect to find nothing new to think with such a well-trodden character.

Ultimately you have to see this for what it is – entertainment. Sure it isn’t Tolstoy but it’s fun and not going to take much of your time to get through. This should be wrapped up in a third sitting tomorrow.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Venusberg

The story ends with Lushington returning home through the choppy waters and cold winds of the Baltic seas leaving behind him tragedy.

Not only does his friend the Russian count die but the constant threats to assassinate the police chief result in a gun battle in the streets after the most important social event of the calendar. Lushington had argued with his possessive mistress Frau Marvin and left her to be taken home by Da Costa.

Ironically Mr Marvin believes that Da Costa is having an affair with his wife and in an odd twist on the love triangle with Lucy in England the one who doesn’t love is fingered as the lover.

In the end the fate of Da Costa and Frau Marvin are sealed by the misaimed assassins bullets meant for the police chief. Lushington misses the story and heads home to pick up in the literary section of the newspaper.

He meets Lucy who in a half-hearted way offers herself to him. But this is a man who has seen himself reflected in another and seen the costs that can result and is now not in such a rush to return to his old self or return so easily to a one-way relationship with Lucy.

This book plods to its conclusion and if the main point of the story is about the twists and turns of love then it seems ironical that it ends with things just slowly going out of focus in a Thames-side pub in the dark and cold.

Interesting to see how Powell developed from this to the Dance series. What is evident on almost every page of his other work and is lacking here is some sense of rhythm.

A review will follow shortly…

Monday, June 16, 2008

Devil May Care - Post I

It is with a real sense of trepidation that you open this book and dive into the Faulksian world of Bond. Having read a few of the series of originals there is the same familiar realistic violence and some clever weaving in of characters that appear in one setting before being tied into the main story.

This is a Bond operating in a world here everything has changed into a drug fuelled sixties and he is questioning his own ability as well as the world around him. M is busy doing yoga and the gangsters are not trying to defeat their enemies with guns and economic force but by corrupting the young with drugs.

Leading that charge is the monkey pawed villain Dr Gorner who plans to destroy Britain by getting its kids hooked on drugs. Bond is sent to meet him and getting a psychological assessment, nothing more because he is still not fit enough for active service.

The pace of the book is a quick as a Fleming with the chapters racing by, until a tennis scene runs on and on and is almost ball-by-ball and slows things down. No harm in running a long scene but tennis is not quite the same as a car chase or high-tension face-off.

Still this is easy on the eye and is heading for the sort of showdown that made Bond such a hero in the first place. The fact it is not written by Fleming doesn’t matter at all in terms of the enjoyment.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Venusberg

This is quite slow but the crux of the story appears to be about the possessiveness of love with Lushington finding that after obsessing about Lucy back in England he in then becomes the source of jealousy in the Baltics.

Aside from that the other theme seems to be around the idea of intrigue with the general state of rumour and secrecy that exists in a state that is not within too far a distance from Russia and its revolution.

Pope, the rather comic manservant, borrows clothes, reads Lushington’s papers and borrows money he never intends to pay back. He is just one of a handful of extreme characters that seem to have a rather two-dimensional character that leaves they playing a role in the story, acting as contrasts with Lushington’s Englishness and the other characters.

There is one bizarre scene where Lushington visits a Russian count and enters an apartment that is crammed full of people all doing their own thing and ignoring each other. The Russian émigré talks about the joy of living with family but it hardly seems to be backed up be events.

Still maybe things will pan out tomorrow a bit more…

Sunday, June 15, 2008

bookmark of the week

Went to Canterbury today for a day out to mark Father's Day and inevitably popped into the cathedral. Some of the bookmarks were the same from when I last went a few years ago but there was an addition in the form of a bookmark showing a slice of a medieval missal from the cathedral library.

The town also had an Oxfam bookshop and for a change I could exploit the father's day timing and demand to be left alone inside for a decent time to get my hands on some books.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post VIII

By the time the last couple of words float past your eyes you have become completely immersed in a world where truth and reality are far removed.

The colonel, or his ghost, haunts those who knew him with the old fighter somehow becoming something much more powerful for Storm, Hao and Skip as the years go by.

Did he die? In the end even Storm, who chases him until 1983 has to admit that it looks like he has. Just over the Thai border he catches up with Anders Pitchfork and is shown the colonel’s grave.

Did the colonel protect his own? Skip reappears waiting to die in a Kuala Lumpur jail for gun running and is still fighting his demons and his own war against himself.

Was any of it worth it? As James and Bill Houston slip in and out of jail unable to ever comes to terms with what they saw, in the case of the older brother a single cruel blooded murder, and in James’s case hell, the costs are all too clear.

But as Kathy reminds us as she digests some of Skip’s last words and thoughts, it is possible for everyone to be saved.

In terms of describing just how it must have felt to have been one day in the killing fields and the next at home struggling top adapt then this book seems to nail that transition and it seems that the biggest failure of the US was understanding just what type of war this was and what it did to its own soldiers.

A review will follow soon…

Friday, June 13, 2008

book review - Shakespeare

On one level this book about Shakespeare fails because it has very little to say with any sense of about him because so few concrete facts are accepted. But in terms of providing a travel guide to the 16th century and an example of how it is possible to be critical in historical debate without being unintelligible then Bill Bryson has produced a very enjoyable book.

Through the handful of agreed facts and historical glimpses of the great playwright Bryson takes you back to the London of The Globe and the world of Elizabethan England. This is an enjoyable journey with pleasant brushstrokes illustrating the past with a guide that is always happy to point out the hilarious and absurd as well as the important.

But alongside the search for Shakespeare and his world there is also a commentary on those that have gone into the intellectual wilderness on their way to proving wither that Shakespeare didn’t exist or that he was some kind of fraud.

Theories ranging from homosexuality to a man who hated his wife have been put forward by various historians. Those are some of the more mild propositions with a host of wacky ones that drove wither their champions mad or left them virtually discredited.

Bryson takes a swipe at most of these academics individually then in an almost exasperated tone wonders why it cannot be accepted that there was a genius named William Shakespeare who left the world such an amazing collection of plays.

One of the real stories that emerges from this book is just how miraculous it was that any of Shakespeare’s work survived. The First Folio put together a few years after his death by two friends John Heminges and Henry Condell was the major move in sealing the playwright’s legacy.

Very few plays from Shakespeare’s time survive and so the fact so many of his have is something to be wondered at. There are mentions of old copies of the Folio that are yet to be discovered and missing plays that provide not just the stuff that would fuel a literary Indiana Jones but also gets you dreaming of discoveries in an old junk shop or relative’s attic.

At the end of this book you might not be closer to trying to find that defining historical moment that answers all the questions on Shakespeare. But you are more familiar with his world, understanding of his achievements and gently reminded of the excesses that some academics will go to just to prove a mad theory.

Version read - Harper Perennial paperback

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post VII

One of the big questions apart from the one about the existence of God is the challenge about the truth.

What is real and who is on your side? Those two things focus the mind of all the main characters as the war starts to fall apart around them.

James Houston follows his brother back home after losing perspective so dramatically he kills a woman and tried to blow up some green berets. He is sent home, something that is almost like a prison sentence for someone addicted to the killing and lawlessness of fighting in Vietnam.

For Skip the news of his mother’s death is quickly followed by that of his uncle the Colonel. With the death of his protector the anti Tree of Smoke forces in the Agency start to dismantle the project with Hao the Colonel’s driver and friend happy to turn against him.

The double agent waits to find out his fortune and is saved from the German assassin's bullet by Storm, the Colonel’s sidekick, who happily turns another Agency plan into a mess. That failure is going to be pinned on Skip, but he manages to escape and head off into Vietnam and into the dream state of a country collapsing into chaos.

But is the colonel really dead? That questions floats around, as does the idea that some of the Godless killing for kicks might face a moment when they have to face their conscience.

This is sometimes rambling and sometimes annoyingly wide in its story telling ambition shifting focus just when a character comes alive. But it is also gripping and with the colonel becoming a physical embodiment of the Tree of Smoke, confusing his own side more than the enemy, predicting where this story will go is difficult – that’s the fun.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Venusberg

Unlike other books about foreign correspondents in a strange land the difference is that Lushington is paid to be there and is doing a standard job.

He tours the circuits of balls and salons and files his stories about potential communist coups and the local political scene. Even the sense of rivalry with Da Costa, his girlfriends chosen beau, is subdued as Lushington continues his affair with the Austrian woman he met on the boat from England.

The humour when it comes is more of a diplomatic nature with the US embassy delegate showing embarrassment as his boss slowly disgraces himself in a nightclub and a solider finding he is no longer the main attraction when his general arrives in the room.

This is gentle and so far a bit slow, maybe too slow, but let’s see if the pace picks up tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post VI

Tree of Smoke is a really lesson in reading. The first 200 pages seemed to be going nowhere fast and then with a bang this book grabs your round the throat and you are hooked.

As the action calms down from the James Houston storyline of combat in Tet in 1968 it moves to concentrate on the Tree of Smoke plan being carried out by Skip Sands uncle. The colonel plans to use a double agent to plant disinformation. The only problem is that the rest of the CIA don’t seem to be prepared to go along with it and the colonel is falling apart and falling off the pace as the war changes tack and becomes something embarrassing to the authorities.

It’s 1969 and the idea that the war can be won is evaporating and now the true sense of despair is setting in. For those that have been taken through the hell of fighting and lost their morals and minds to the war the idea of going back to civilisation and back home is completely alien.

“I’m here because I won’t go back to my homeland. Go back to what? A bewildering place full of left-leaning feminine weirdos. What if I do go back? What then? Retire to North Carolina and die and get a forty-foot bridge over a creek named after me.”

If Johnson managed to convey the sense of fear and confusion of war then he follows that up with a very believable picture of the sense of reality drift felt by those in Vietnam who have lost touch with everything that they left behind at home.

Films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket also get that sense across but here it is much more tangible and as a the spy versus spy story emerges that grips you almost as much as the battlegrounds in the jungles of Tet.

With his mother dead, the colonel murdered and the war closing him out – something Skip Sands so much wanted to be part of - where next? That’s what keeps you reading.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Venusberg

It is hard not to think of Scoop with this story about a journalist becoming a foreign correspondent. Although this is described on the back as being wildly funny in places and you can only guess that either that is to come or the level of what it took to make you laugh in the 1930s was quite different.

As the main character Lushington packs his bags and heads for the Baltics he leaves behind a girlfriend who has fallen in love with an old school friend of the foreign correspondents. Where the chance for humour comes from is the fact that the country he is heading for is also the place his love rivals has settled in.

Boarding the boat the adventures start with an exiled Russian aristocrat and a couple of Austrians, one of which Lushington gets the chance to take to his cabin.

Waiting for it to really get going. Maybe tomorrow…

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post V

The book finally takes off and it is the novel that you hoped it would be when you opened the first page.

The year is 1968 and the Vietcong are making their Tet offensive and all of the main characters are dragged into the fighting with the main focus being on the young infantryman James Houston.

Skip has faded into the background and the colonel is breaking up much in the same way his political class is back in the US. He cannot understand anymore anything other than the search for a breakthrough and the killing.

Likewise Houston has gone past a barrier by killing a man and entering into the world of kill and move where living is by instinct rather than by any real design. He seems to have become remote from the world of his mother and signs up for a second tour and is immersed in the fighting.

Johnson manages to convey in just a few pages just why those that fought in Vietnam were unable to come home and just forget about it. The horror of a situation where mass confusion is accompanied by death and destruction makes the life of working in a normal job something so remote it could be happening on another planet.

With the characters coming alive and the action moving up several gears this book has taken 300 pages to reach it but at last some of the blurb on the dust jacket seems to be justified. You finally realise what the Tree of Smoke is as it refers to a plan to use a double agent to plant disinformation back into North Vietnam.

More tomorrow…

Monday, June 09, 2008

book review - A Void

It would be foolhardy to pretend that this entire book makes immediate sense. But that does not make it any less enjoyable and as every page turns and the plot deepens you are not only engrossed but continually amazed that Georges Perec put this novel together without using a single ‘e’.

In a postscript the author admits that he was partly put up to the challenge as a bet by a friend but then as he started he discovered that it challenged his approach to writing and he became almost obsessional about the task.

The book starts following the thoughts of Anton Vowl who starts to note down thoughts in his diary about a void. He feels he is being sucked into the void and then sure enough he disappears. His small collection of friends meets and agrees that they will do their best to help solve the mystery.

They are connected initially by their mutual friendship with Vowl but as it unfolds they discover more intimate bloodlines flow between them and importantly with the missing man and that is why they all face the prospect of death.

One by one they either disappear or are killed. As the net tightens ironically the plot widens and events of the past are connected with the deaths and disappearances and a family feud is uncovered. Although there is a killer on the loose the void that the characters are falling into is the absence of e.

At the close of the book the character walking out of Proust, detective Swann, is happy killing the final victims, and even with the mystery solved there is a dark humour running through the book until the end. There are some hidden moments for those that have a knowledge of French literature with a nod to Poe and the Murder on the Rue Morgue as well as Proust. No doubt there are others but those were the two that I managed to recognise.

Most of the stuff about mathematics and philosophy did pass me by but in the end it is not as crucial to understanding the story and is part of Vowl’s world and setting up the idea that he is somehow trying to pinpoint the sense of the void. This only really starts to get going once Vowl has gone and the different characters meet at the country estate of one of Vowl’s acquaintances and discuss the case. Then one by one the different characters face up to their destiny and meet an odd and untimely death.

Ultimately though you either sign up for this experience or you don’t. Personally it was sometimes hard going and the pace that was caused by different and sometimes static language made it difficult to follow. But there is a story there and it emerges strongly at the climax. What is the point of language if it is not there to experiment with and play around with? Perec pushes it here all the way but does so with a smile and a great deal of intelligence.

This was more of a journey than most books but in the end the complex murder mystery and the void causes by the absence of e leave you deep in thought with the same smile Perec probably had on his face when he finished writing this.

Version read – Vintage paperback

bookmark of the week

My brother, who recently had a holiday in the South East, picked this one up for me to add to the collection. It is a classic leather bookmark that can be found at any major castle or country house. These might be on the way out with magnetic alternatives becoming more common but the leather embossed with images of the attraction remains a firm favourite.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

book review - The Kindly Ones

A good storyteller will start with a theme and then echo it throughout the work and then finish by reminding the reader of the opening strains of the book in the final pages. Anthony Powell does that here referring to a lesson from his tutor about Greek mythology and the furies, mythical figures that circled in times of war.

The hope is that the furies, the kindly ones will not be heralding war. They are first mentioned at the start when Powell is remembering his childhood living with his parents near Colchester in 1914. They then reappear as the Second World War goes beyond the hoped for peace of the Munich agreement and into something more serious.

In a way this book marks a change from some of the others because it is as if the band has stopped and a more somber music has started but some of the characters have not noticed.

So as a result Peter Templer is still carrying on with women and making his money in the City and Moreland is struggling to keep his marriage together, and appears to finally fail and lose his wife to Sir Magnus Donners who is also continuing to carry on much as normal.

Ironically the barometer that shows things have changed comes from Widmerpool who appears in uniform when it is unfashionable to make the point that he is ready for war.

The past still manages to come round and interrupt and divert Jenkins – with jean Templer’s husband taking him out for an evening -but at this half way stage in the 12 book opus this is more about closing certain doors before new ones are opened. The most dramatic illustration of this is the death of Uncle Giles, who has been popping up in most of the other books. He will pop up no more except in memory after dying at a boarding house run by the ex-cook who used to be employed in the house near Colchester. It is those sorts of coincidences that make Powell’s world do circular.

As Jenkins starts to realise that he is going to have to play some sort of role in the forthcoming war he starts to anxiously contact people who he thinks might be able to help him. One of those is Widmerpool but his old acquaintance cannot help but exploit his position and make Nick feel idiotic and helpless. A chance encounter might get him into the army but that question mark is hanging over until the next book.

Throughout the first six books there has been a theme about honour and the role of some of the men in the First World War. Peter Templer’s racing car driving brother-in-law never managed to live down his sense of failure for not having fought. Jenkins has that image in his head when he starts to try to get his role in the army firmed up from just a name on a reserve list.

There is a sense of growing up here not just in the character Jenkins but also in the country. The prospect of war is something that might be ignored by some, exploited by others or embraced by a few but it forces a change and a reaction.

The days sketched out so well in the first couple of books of debutante dances and a care-free social scene seem long behind and in terms of changing the pace and setting things up this book manages to do just that. It seemed to be going backwards with a long opening chapter about the past but the echoes of the war of 1914 become almost deafening by the time 1939 comes round.

Version read – Flamingo paperback

Friday, June 06, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post IV

Do you ever come across those books where you have to read them in big chunks to get the pace right? This is one of those because reading it in 50-60 page chunks has left me wondering just what was going on. But getting through 100 odd pages today things became a lot clearer.

This is ultimately about a series of characters that intertwine and exist without knowledge of each other. What they all have in common is a connection with the Vietnam War but that is in the background more than the foreground for most of the characters.

The focus is still on the CIA agent Skip Sands but things are expanding with his Uncle, the woman he had a brief affair with in the Philippines and the younger of the Houston brothers all coming into a Vietnamese orbit.

There is a humour here with a host of extreme characters but there is also sadness at the strength of the belief in a certain ideal, something beyond the Kennedyesque, that is going to be shattered not just by the failure in Vietnam but by the way the US forces and people change in a culture of excess.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

The problem with opening someone’s mind with literature sharing the emotions of love, fear and courage is that the mind is never quite the same again.

After being pumped full of books by Luo the Little Seamstress finally decides that the countryside is not enough for her and so she heads off to the city leaving her father and the two students behind her.

Things are made slightly easier by the fact that Luo has been absent for a month not long before her decision and he left her needing an abortion. It would be a shame to reveal the final line but it brings a real smile to the face.

Those who have the arrogance to believe that they can educate, improve and then control someone are very much mistaken – and rightly so.

A review will follow soon…

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

With their stack of foreign literature the two students become intoxicated reading of romance, chivalry and intrigue. The problem is that they start to take risks as a result of their new found intellectual freedom.

In the case of Luo it is physical risks crawling over a mountain precipice every day to take a book to read to the Little Seamstress but in the case of the narrator he gets carried away reading out loud the Dumas tale of the Count of Monte Cristo and is almost denounced by the village headman.

You sense that doom is coming because they are unable to contain their enjoymenty of the books but also crucially cannot stop sharing the contents with people.

Although this is primarily a book about the hardships endured by people as part of the cultural revolution it is also a story about the power of literature – the power to change lives and the way that words can transform the limits of someone’s horizons.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

book review - The Girls of Slender means

In the Ballad of Peckham Rye Muriel Spark uses an outlandish character to act as a provocative catalyst to bring out sides of people that are otherwise buried. In The Girls of Slender Means it is the act of a bomb going off that has the same impact on one character in particular.

The title refers to a group of girls that are living in a women’s club that is a hostel with the group of early twenty something’s living on the top floor. The scene is set in a war torn London with the club standing despite bomb damage around and the scars of the blitz and the war still in evidence all around.

The girls in the club are all living with next to nothing and making do – slender means – sharing dresses and borrowing things from each other to make the best of it. One thing they seem to try to have an influence over is the men who come into the club and Nicholas appears on the scene and sleeps with the most attractive but stirs passions in some of the others.

As a result of several flashbacks we know that Nicholas dies at the hands of some natives he was trying to convert as a missionary. How does he get there from the situation of a bored poet come anarchist celebrating the Attlee government success after the war?

The turning point it watching horrified through a window while the elocution teacher Joanna, who he has started to fixate on, chants clearly psalms before she meets her death in the collapsing house after a bomb, long thought to be in the garden by one of the owners of the club, finally detonates.

His death also sparks off memories for one of the girls in the group who had initially met Nicholas and tried to help him get published. She tracks down the truth of his demise and puts the last pieces in the jigsaw.

In some respects this could be taken as a religious message about the power of faith over death but there is also something else about the death signifying the end of innocence. The irony is that this book is set in 1945 when presumably any innocence has long since gone after the bitter years of war. But the girls of slender means seem to have drifted through the war and the fact their club is still standing is a sign that not much has altered.

One of the other telling moments is when on VJ day Nicholas witnesses in horror a man stabbing a woman in the crows and then slipping away without a care in the world. His café anarchism is challenged and found wanting and in the end inspired it seems by a vicar’s daughter he too sets out to find something that he is happy to die for.

A more dynamic result compared to Ballad of Peckham Rye comes as a result of the twist and the moment of horror with the fire and the death. Putting this alongside Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell it provides another interpretation on wartime London.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post III

The words on the back of the dust jacket are effusive about this book and 100 odd pages in you can’t disagree with them but so far there is not much to sway you in the direction of praise heaping.

The reason is that despite things becoming slightly clearer – the characters settling down helps – there is still a great deal of confusion. As 1965 draws to an end Skip seems to have been sent into the wilderness simply to witness the murder of a priest and discover that his belief in his country is going to be tested.

The narrative then moves to the Houston brothers, one in the navy and one about to join the infantry and as a result the action starts to move closer to Vietnam. The year is 1966 and Skip, the Houston brothers and thousands of others are being sent into the war zone to make sense of the madness.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

There is a vivid passage in the book when the two leading characters get their hands on a copy of Balzac. The book is banned and the emotions it talks about – love, passion and the freedom it paints – mesmerize the two students being re-educated in the countryside.

The impact of the French authors words spread beyond the two friends and reach the little seamstress who is stunned by the ideas of love and heads off into the woods and makes love to Luo.

The Balzac comes from four-eyes a bespectacled student living in another village serving his time. The book is given out as a thanks for helping him get local folklore songs that can land him a job on a magazine charting the success of the cultural revolution. But after handing out Balzac he clams up and refuses to share anymore forcing the friends to take the decision to steal the suitcase full of books the night of four-eyes departure from the village.

Literature might help them escape but they still have to have coal, plough the fields and suffer the prospect of doing so for three years.

More tomorrow…

Monday, June 02, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post II

There are several points of view with the narrative moving along with Skip Sands the CIA officer being sent on his Uncle’s business to check out what is happening in a village on from Manila.

Skip is told to meet a priest who knows the area and has been preaching there for years. Meanwhile things switch to follow the priest on his way to try and retrieve the body of a Seventh day Adventist who has been killed.

The action then switches back to Sands, but through the eyes of a woman, who it turns out is the widow of the missionary who has been found dead near a river in the jungle.

The book is not that easy to follow and part of the reason is that despite your initial expectations being of a Vietnam epic the action here is on the fringes and the point that is being made is different. Everyone is on some sort of secret mission and the shadow that falls across them all is Vietnam and the damage it is doing. Kennedy’s death is referred to on numerous occasions acting as a wider metaphor for the end of innocence and control.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

There has been a fantastic series running on BBC 2, Wild China, about China’s landscape and wildlife. That seemed like a very thin excuse to pop to the library and pick up something with a Chinese flavour.

This book is clearly written by someone who spent many years in exile and is remembering his life as a student being transplanted from his home in the city to the countryside as part of Mao’s cultural revolution.

He is sent off with his best friend and together they discover a world of initial mistrust and backwardness with ancient beliefs mixing in with back breaking manual labour. The escape the two friends manage to find comes from their relationship with each other and their ability to act as cinema interpreters for the village.

Their travels take them into the orbit of another village and there they come across the tailors daughter. The little seamstress is charming and they are both slightly smitten by her but it is the friend Luo who seems to gain her attention. She certainly springs into life to nurse him when he falls ill with malaria.

More tomorrow…

bookmark of the week

Took the kids to Godstone Farm today for some exhausting fun. Every other time we have been there the shop has never had bookmarks but a promotional one pitching their new website was there so hey presto this week's bookmark of the week.