Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Dead Man's Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) post I -

IF you ever get pushed on one of those questions about who is your favourite writer then the usual response is to fudge it and say that it depends on your mood or when you read them.

But I am becoming more and more convinced that my answer to that question now would still involve the usual get-out clauses but would also mention that Mikhail Bulgakov has to be close.

The reasons for that is a combination of good writing and great characterisation but also a writer with a mission. This is someone who literally risked everything to write and prized it above all else that he risked time and time again the wrath of the Stalinist state.

Sadly there aren’t that many works and in the hunt for more of his work I have picked up this book.

It feels autobiographical in the sense it is about a writer who has his book turned down by the state because it fails to pass the censors. He is dragged into the literary establishment and almost destroyed by it. But he is saved by the entrance of a publisher who wants to publish his book and then a theatre owner who is prepared to put on his play.

The story feels like something from Kafka with the publishers office changing every time he visits until finally it is gone forever. Strange but very interesting.

More tomorrow...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday's top ten - symptoms of illness

Bearing in mind that my son is ill and I am not feeling too great it seemed to be a good idea to do a list of his literal symptoms that any good author should include when writing about illness. These should include of course the crucial and enigmatic “wobbly”.

Sore throat
Running nose
Aching joints
Scratchy tongue
Sore ears
Loathing of bright lights

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Friend of Madame Maigret - post II

You are rooting for Maigret as he gets attacked and undermined by the press and in some cases his own police department but he seems to be more than two steps ahead of anyone else.

Finally he starts to flex his muscles and the net draws around the guilty with various loose ends getting sewn up and the reader being taken on a fair journey of having to guess if the bookbinder is guilty or not.

Without giving the ending away its safe to summarise by pointing out that the superintendent gets his man but also puts justice back on an even keel.

This is a book that drags you into a world of rain soaked Parisian streets and into the politics of small traders. It also tackles the influence of the press and the impact on an investigation when the waters become so muddied by the impact of gossip and speculation.

A very enjoyable read that might not have the ending you expect or particularly wanted but one that leaves Maigret standing tall as usual as a policeman in a field of his own.

A review will follow soon…

Lines of Fate - post III

I am sort of getting to grips with this book. Chapters that start with some of the thoughts that the old author wrote down on the candy wrappers then are either put into a historical context or have an influence on the researcher reading them.

In an attempt to locate more details about the author Anton heads to Moscow and discovers that an old friend who is allergic to the system and hypocrisy has disappeared and that he is now being seen by other academics as a success because of his studies.

Back in the world of the candy wrappers the painful moments when fortunes shifted in the civil war are being charted with the great landowner losing his life and then his collection of pieces from the local museum being pilfered.

But what is starting to emerge is a voice from the past that no only describes and foresees the disruption of a society that starts to lose its foundations and is driven by fear and violence.

Having lost the woman that it becomes clear now not only loved him but bore a son he seems to develop even greater tragedy.

What you start to suspect is that Anton might be that lost son and the end of the author’s life was one of those numerous clashes between individual intelligence and the state.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Friend of Madame Maigret - post I

If you are struggling with a book, and Lines of Fate is just that, then the perfect alternative is a great thriller.

This is one of the 75 books written by Georges Simenon and it develops the character of Maigret's wife. Not hugely but more than in the other books I have read and she plays a pivotal role in helping sole the crime.

There is a book binder waiting in prison to find out if he is going to be charged on the basis of an anonymous tip-off that he burnt a body in his incinerator. But there is something else going on with Maigret being hounded in the press by the book binder's lawyer.

But the unshakable detective not only gets a grip on the case but starts to take the initiative. But you still feel the bookbinder is innocent and the real story lies elsewhere.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cab at the Door - post V

This has been a much more enjoyable book than I expected. I’m not a great fan of memoirs but this covers an era where plenty was happening and a way of life that is no longer around.

The descriptions of London are now museum pieces and there is an enjoyment that comes from reading this just for those descriptions of fog filled streets. In the end the education that Victor has craved all of his youth seems to come back as a possibility and her heads off to Paris to continue his education through travelling.

He knows that he is leaving his family behind but he has outgrown his father and his Christian Science beliefs and the relationships with his siblings never seems to be that strong.

But what keeps you going is the character of Victor and knowing that by holding this book in your hand he clearly fulfilled his final ambitions to be a writer.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lines of Fate - post II

This is tough going. Half the time, and there's no point trying to pretend otherwise, it is hard to know exactly what is going on. That is not just because the two different stories of the author and the student researching him are being blurred but also because of the style of writing.

this is written almost like snatched conversations with you as a reader being expected to fill in the blanks and engage with the story enough to keep on top of where things are going.

I have to confess that my skills as a tired reader picking this up on the way home from work are not up to the task.

As a result there seems to be some sort of obsession by Anton the student with the love of the author he is researching. There is also a moment when the student also discovers the taste of falling foul of the law as those desperate to get his aunt's living space intrigue against him.

But most of the time it is often just words on a page dancing before your eyes and you are desperately hoping that things will click and you will get more of a handle on it.

Maybe that will happen tomorrow...

Cab at The Door - post IV

I am rather enjoying this memoir as it weaves a story of a youth blighted not just by poverty but also by the war and by the pressure on the average to go straight into the workplace.

For Victor the knife is turned by his grandfather who tells his father that he should go into the workplace at the age of 15. That ends his dreams of becoming a writer and going onto study at school and college.

But aside from that there is an interesting insight into living in the London suburbs during the war because there was bombing and zeppelins coming over. but there is also a great deal of information about the Christian Scientists because that is what Victor's father turns out to be and clearly for several years Victor himself was involved in that world partly to please his father and partly to gain access to an outlet for his writing in their magazine.

This is gentle but not totally unable to provoke a reaction.

More tomorrow...

Monday, November 24, 2008

All in the Mind - post V

The ending of this book is a severe test of Campbell’s ambitions to try and describe what must be almost indescribable – the depths of depression. He talks of shards of glass grumbling as the world implodes and the sufferer is left without anywhere to turn.

Ironically although my job verges on the mind numbing sometimes and I often feel that things are black I understood that I have not got the anything to really complain about. But for those that do the choice between living and dying seems to be blurred about no so much taking your own life but just taking a route out of the bottomless pain.

The final scenes are powerful and moving and this book is clearly written not just to share the experience of depression but also to say thank you to those that helped the author come to terms with his problems.

We often focus on the sufferer and the question of whether or not they have improved but rarely does the same attention get given to those treating them. If this book has a lasting legacy it will be to generate more understanding of depression and more sympathy for those that are trying not only to live with it, but also help those that are to conquer it.

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All in the Mind - post IV

The climax of the story is coming and as expected the impact of the psychiatrist’s sessions with his patients on the Friday that opens the book is positive. The problem is they let him know that by emails, which he doesn’t open. He is falling apart with his marriage on the brink and the alcoholic ex Minister of health slumming it in his home.

As he goes back to work on the Monday he can barely face getting out of bed and despite all the pieces of the jigsaw that are falling into place around him he is unaware and on the brink of a mental collapse.

The lessons here seem to be that the healer is often as sick as the patient and just as desperate to find a cure.

More soon…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Cab at the Door - post III

Juggling several books at once gives the opportunity to forget one. Sao it was after a couple of says break that I turned back to this childhood memoir.

The tragedy is that you sense that even as things become settled and his father gets a business that seems to last the impact of the First World War is probably going to be disastrous and destroy the stability that is just starting to emerge.

The family settles in Dulwich, South east London, after being carted to Yorkshire, Ipswich and other parts of London. Once there it becomes clear to young Victor that he wants to be a writer and he starts consuming books as quickly as he can lay his hands on them and trying to get his parents to appreciate his interests.

But he fails to get a scholarship into a private school and that brings him down to earth with a bumpy and he is facing a mediocre future as the war breaks out.

More soon…

Friday, November 21, 2008

All in the Mind - post III

The joke that might be running through this is that despite his apparent sense of failure the psychiatrist has actually managed to get through to his patients and change their lives for the better.

In terms of the burns victim she ventures outside for the first time; the depression sufferer starts to come to terms with humility and the rape victim starts to see the doctor rather than just the rapist in her dreams.

Even the politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, is in a better position because from rock bottom he has the option to acknowledge his problems and try to rebuild his life.

The only person who is suffering is the psychiatrist who realises that his marriage is effectively defunct and his career has been ultimately quite a selfish activity.

What you pick up loud and clear from this is the mental illness is quite a selfish thing from the point of view that it is very difficult for family members to reach the sufferer and the patient spends a great deal of time concentrating on how they feel.

There are clear benefits from navel gazing if you can look up and make positive changes. But it becomes dangerous when you never look up.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 20, 2008

book review - Hearing Secret Harmonies

In the end you are left with an old man standing in his garden in the Somerset countryside next to a bonfire. He is surrounded not just by the smell of the fire but by the sounds and smells or autumn. He knows that time is running out and the autumn of his days is soon to be replaced by winter.

The twelfth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series Anthony Powell winds up some of the characters threads but leaves you at the end with Jenkins wondering and pondering on what life is all about.

For many of the characters, no more so than Widmerpool, life seems to be about a conquest for power. Getting wealth is a by product of the real Holy Grail to be a person of influence and someone with the ability to decide the destinies of others. Jenkins always wonders if Widmerpool is haunted by his role in sending Stringham to his death but never finds any remorse.

Equally motivated by power are those in the publishing world that find as they get older they become part of the establishment to be lampooned and undermined. No more cruelly than J C Quiggin’s twins who infused with the spirit of the 1960s embarrass him on numerous occasions. People seem to become the role models that they initially fought so hard to replace.

But the central character of Jenkins, who has by now had a long and happy marriage and a consistent career in the literary world is not only still able to stand to one side of the action but turn out by surviving and valuing happiness to personify the alternative path that many could have trod.

One character who manages to surprise till the end is Widmerpool who moves seamlessly from University Chancellor to head of a hippy commune renouncing his former motivation but at the same time striving to carve out an alternative source of influence.

He manages to come into conflict with a younger much more driven man who has come from a world far removed from the Etonian privilege enjoyed by Widmerpool. Murtlock manages to take over Widmerpool’s sect and in the end the struggle between them for leadership is the cause of the older man’s death as he tries to prove he can still keep up.

But one of the main themes here is about reflections with Jenkins able to accept more than most that he is now at the end of a generation and everything is about looking back not forward. He is occasionally dragged back through what his old friend Moreland called sentimentality jogging memories by pictures or places but as he watches acquaintances self-destruct or lose a life’s work he manages to steer a course to his safe home in the countryside.

For the first time really you feel that this where there are real moments of truth with Powell’s home life in Frome being described in the passages about the countryside. There is also a feeling that out where the worst thing to fear are devils in old stone circles age has also taken Jenkins away from London.

The bright lights and parties that first attracted him to the capital and then the work that kept him there have gone. Released from the centre of power he is also released from the fever that grips those looking for power.

There have been numerous moments in the 12 book series when the reader wants to urge Jenkins forward but in the end his approach, with its wisdom and detachment, succeeds.

Lines of Fate - post I

There is something about literature when it is not easy. It challenges the way you read demanding more concentration and in some cases more imagination to make the jumps that the author is demanding of you. There are also tests of memory that you will only pass if you have been really concentrating.

In some respects this book reminds me of Georges Perec with a bold idea being laid down from the start and time shifting backwards and forwards enough to confuse from the first paragraph.

In Lines of Fate the story that starts to emerge is of a student who is writing a dissertation on an overlooked author who spent most of his life in both exile and enforced exile. Having found most of his works and sketched a biography of his life the student Anton Lizavin has almost completed his studies on Simeon Milashevich.

But he then discovers that the author used to write scraps of thoughts on the back of sweet wrappers because he did not have access to paper. These bits of paper are half thoughts and in some cases appear to be directly addressed to Anton making his quest for the real Milashevich far from finished.

There are red herrings with double identities and different names being used to describe the same person and place and you feel that Kharitonov is having fun with the reader mostly at your own expense as you struggle to navigate through to a point where you feel you have some handle on the story.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All in the Mind - post II

A trip to a brothel after a day of failure ends the day for the psychiatrist but ironically for his patients it seems that he did not do as badly as he thought leaving them with plenty to ponder. But the looming funeral of his aunt starts Sturrock on a downer and he is starting to lose any grip he had with his wife doing her best to push him over the edge with her incessant nagging and trivial tasks.

Having established all the main characters and their relationships towards each other the writing starts to feel slightly more relaxed with it clearly building towards some sort of crescendo.

Have to confess that despite some depressing (pardon the pun) storylines this is a fairly enjoyable read and Campbell is clearly leaning heavily on personal experience to make it feel as totally believable as it does.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

book review - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The way things usually work is that you read the book then go to see the film and spend the rest of the evening grumbling about how the printed word was so much superior. But with this book it was the film that drove me to pick up the novella.

The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s last few months after he slipped into a state that left him unable to use anything to communicate other than his left eyelid is not only inspirational but a testament to the power of the imagination.

The film is faithful to the book and both have the ability to move you as a person who could have folded in on themselves completely allows his mind to live beyond the confines of his body and the hospital.

The reason why this was an international nest seller is partly because the story inspires such interest but also because once you are listening to the voice it reminds you of how much gets taken for granted and how little we all live, despite being able bodied and free of movement.

Having locked-in syndrome following a massive stroke leaves him feeling as if he is in a diving bell when his mind still has the ability to soar and fly like a butterfly.

His imagination allows him not only to give nicknames to everyone around him and humanise a very difficult situation but also conjure up ghosts of the past with his imagination bringing the Empress who established the hospital back to life.

What makes this even more poignant is the life he had before the stroke. As editor in chief of Elle he travelled the world, enjoyed the luxuries of moving in social circles that included film stars and musicians and he was about to get his hands on the car of his dreams.

Although a short book it leaves you thinking and makes you question the way you live your life, why we all waste so much time chasing nonsense and just how brave we would be in a similar situation.

When you realise the book was dictated through the blinking of an eye it also makes you realise just how precious and powerful words on a page can be.

All in the Mind - post I

Campbell starts to weave the story together with alternate chapters introducing the patients heading in for consultations. There is a burns victim who hates how her injuries have undermined her life and confidence, a depressive, a rape victim and a sex addict.

But the real patient is the psychiatrist Sturrock who is starting to fall apart and when ever the story concentrates on him it becomes more interesting. He seems to be stuck with an obsessive wife, suffers from depression and is lusting after one of his patients.

The one problem though with a book that is about psychatiry is that it can be fairly depressing reading. There is a black humour lurking behind the story but there are also individual scenarios that can be uncomfortable reading. Mind you they are handled with sensitivity.

What you really want to know is whether or not just like his depressed patient Sturrock will lose it and become a danger to others.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 17, 2008

First chapter, first impression - All in the Mind

This might be unfashionable but I have to admit a liking for Alistair Campbell. He always reminded me of one of those preachers who stood up and spouted graphic warnings about hell. In a world where it was about what was left unsaid he had a great ability to steam in and simply say it.

So it is with interest that I pick up his first novel. Following in the wake of the Blair years this is Campbell turning his hand to fiction and the subject seems to be something close to his heart.

The book starts with an introduction to Professor Martin Sturrock who is about to start his Friday before he is detained from heading into work as a psychiatrist but having a row with his wife and a phone call from his cousin informing him that his aunt has died.

The scene is set with a psychiatrist who is himself suffering from depression. He struggles outside of his environment in his clinic and once there he takes comfort from meeting people more depressed than himself.

A few pages in and you want to see where it is going. More tomorrow…

The Gutenberg Elegies

Since the original book came out a lot has happened and no more than to Birkerts himself as he reveals in this afterword to the 2006 edition.

He has got two children that are playing on consoles and surfing the web and he has been forced to admit that he himself is using the technology and rather likes the speed. But he looks at it in the wider context and points out that society has changed, not just his household.

“We are quickly acquiescing ourselves into a reality unlike anything we’ve known before. We are replacing the so-called real with the virtual, substituting the image for the thing, moving about ever more in the zone of simulations.” Page 236

Reading has been assaulted and no longer happens in the intense solitary way. Non-fiction has threatened fiction and the support for literary journalism has been eroded by the decline in the support of that type of writing.

Things seem to be shallow but it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone and avoiding the big questions is now normal.

“Turning our back on full sensory business of living, we have installed another – proxy – world between ourselves and that original place. And each new flashing circuit we mint makes the division between worlds more complete, rubbing away what raw declarations we have left.” Page 249

Reading could be the route to salvation and we must all decide as individuals how we want to balance between the new and old to work out what level we say no more and refuse it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

As the end draws near this personal book becomes even more so with him urging readers to take a stand against the digital future.

Chapter 15
Birkerts makes it very personal talking about a battle inside himself.

“What is it that I envision? Not a revolution – this is not a revolutionary scenario. I see instead a steady displacement of old by new, a generational pressure that escalates, its momentum gathering as the members of the old dispensation age and die off.” Page 214

He talks of depth and duration and the difference with an online experience. But this is quite emotional stuff with references to the online world being the devil.

“We have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities. We learn to do five things at once or pay the price. We have plunged ourselves into an environment of invisible signals and operations; we live in a world where it is unthinkable to walk five miles to visit a friend as it was once unthinkable to speak across that distance through a wire.” Page 219

He says the changes over the last 25 years have been quick in terms of the technological advances and have had a massive impact but no one questions if they have been positive. There seems to be a blind acceptance of the benefits of technology.

Birkerts also talks about technology making you lose something but then it seems to become some sort of Luddite's dream with the telephone, fax, answer phone and email all getting cursed.

Tomorrow I will post a summary of the afterword to the 2006 edition…

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saturday's top ten - literary reads

This is a bit of a subjective one but these are the top ten places I go to to find information about books and to immerse myself in the literary world that can be found on the high street. Obviously there are numerous blogs that are also enjoyable but I think I will save a top ten of those for another weekend.

Literary Review
Times Literary Supplement
London Review of Books
Slightly Foxed
The Guardian Saturday Review section
The Times Saturday books section
The Independent Friday arts supplement
The Telegraph (can’t remember which day)
The Financial Times magazine on a Saturday
The Bookseller – as a window onto the world of publishing

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cab at The Door - post II

Despite the constant movement of the family and the cracks in the parental marriage there is a loyalty shown in the young Vic not so much towards his family but towards London.

So when they move into the centre of the City he revels in the poverty and starts indulging in habits that even his parents disapprove of. They carry on when he has another spell back in Yorkshire at his grandparents.

There is a real sense of a childhood at the turn of the century with older boys threatening him with rumours of the reappearance of Jack the Ripper and references to the death of the King.

This evokes not just the past but the emergence of what became the future with his father representing the care-free modern man and his father the preacher holding all of the values of the Victorian era.

It is an easy read and one that shows underlines the old maxim about writers writing about what they know.

More soon…

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

Having had a stab at the world of hypertext the last few chapters appear to be discussions based on a handful of works by other authors.

Chapter 13
Using the book Death of Literature as a reference point he points out that the value and respect that used to be given to literature has disappeared.

Literature has suffered over the years in direct competition with the sciences and he asks where are the thinkers in society let alone the authors?

Arguments about Marxism undermined literature then along came TV and gave it a real kick in the teeth. Books and literature have lost their authority and position in the knowledge tree.

Kerman is merely interested in literature in academia and not the general population.

There are also problems with the pressure of time.

“Who among us can generate regularly the stillness and concentration and will to read Henry James, or Joseph Conrad, or James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf as they were meant to be read?” page 191

One slight problem is that it refers a lot to the American reader and as someone from the UK you do tend to start feeling a bit isolated.

“My nightmare scenario is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference. I fear a world become sanitised and superficial, in which people have forgotten the primal terms of existence - the terrors and agons – and in which the existential unknown is banished outside the pulsing circulation system of data.” Page 194

We are approaching a crisis of meaning.

Chapter 14

The book has lost its prestige and threatened by video games and MTV etc but society is bless about isolated individuals as we all rush to get online and live inside a network consciousness.

“Fifty years ago the human environment was still more or less the natural environment. We had central heating and labour-saving devices and high-speed travel, but these were still only partial modifications of the natural given. It is the natural given that is now gone. Now, for better or worse, we move almost entirely within a regulated and mediated environment. Our primary relation to the world has been altered.” Page 205

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cab at the Door - post I

Now and again when I get the chance I pick up a copy of the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. The magazine is always a real joy to read with various articles all espousing the pleasure of reading with various personal reactions to books and texts related. But earlier this year the magazine started publishing its own books. I picked up the first and third ones, not sure why I omitted the second one, and started to dip into the third one.

This is a memoir that I am going to read alongside maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, because in many respects they promise to be similar.

The Cab at the Door in the title refers to the constant moving of the family as they moved to escape the debts run up by the father. A poor childhood is very much dominated by the father’s constant movement but ironically he never seems to suffer with the brunt of the misery being taken on by the mother.

Past around various locations the narrator Vic is shuffled off to his grandparents who live in a Manse in Yorkshire but things are strained with the preacher and things never seem to settle down for Vic and his family.

More tomorrow…

The Fatal Eggs - post II

At points it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming this is some sort of farce focusing on the role the media and the politicians and the secret service can play. But as things take a more frightening turn the story becomes more horror science fiction and the power of the description makes this really work.

A cock up that must have been a constant feature of a centralised state causes a chain reaction that leads to mayhem. What is added to the mix is an over zealous party member who believes he can use the ray of light to further his own career.

In the end it costs him his wife and his sanity as giant snakes and crocodiles rip through the countryside. In the end with Moscow threatened the end comes for the besieged professor who has seen his dreams of isolated experimenting shattered forever.

This might be a very short book, at just shy of 100 pages, but it is a well weaved story and it really captures your imagination and because of the combination of humour, satire and wicked science fiction this is going to come close to being one of my favourite reads of the year.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fatal Eggs - post I

With his background in science and medicine Bulgakov confidently weaves a story that in many respects is similar to A Dog's Heart.

Just as with that story there is a professor Persikov beavering away in his lab in Moscow trying to make a breakthrough in his field, which concerns frogs. He discovers, almost by accident a ray of life that makes everything in its path grow at an incredibly fast rate. Before long the news of his discovery has spread across moscow and he is besieged by journalists.

Where A Dog's Heart was concerned with the politics of shared housing and a dumbed down intellectualism that threatened to hand the stupid the chance to lead this is also about journalism.

The professor at the heart of the story, Persikov, is a victim of tabloid journalism that makes his brief utterances long passages that land him in even more hot water. There is one great exchange when the professor asks the secret police if they can not rid him of the problem:

"And is it not possible for you to shoot the reporters?' asked Persikov, looking over the top of his glasses.
This question amused the guests greatly. Not only the gloomy small one, but even the tinted one in the entrance hall smiled. The angel, sparkling and beaming, explained that for the moment, hm... of course, it would be a good thing... but, you see, the press, after all... although, actually, a plan like that is already taking shape in the Council of Labour and Defence..."

The rest of this short book will be concluded tomorrow with the professor no doubt being drafted in with his ray of life to help repopulate the Russian chicken world following a plague that has wiped out poultry. No doubt the experiments will lead to something horrendous. Just like they did in real life when old Uncle Joe was steering the good ship USSR.

More tomorrow...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Free Fishers - post III

There are moments here when Buchan is juggling four different strands of the same story as the various groups come together for the climax. He moves backwards and forwards but never loses the gathering pace of the story and as a result by the time the final confrontation comes you are wound up enough to appreciate it.

But this is not just a straight forward adventure story of a dastardly plot to assassinate the prime minister being foiled and is much more with the subtle differences between Scots and English, learned and unlearned men getting a going over as well.

By the end you realise that you are in the hands of a brilliant story teller who has weaved a story from relatively innocent beginnings. The slow start and the mixed messages that are sent out about the likely plot development make the final third of the novel an even greater and more enjoyable surprise.

You might know how things will end up but you don’t know how and that makes this so gripping.

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, November 09, 2008

book review - Temporary Kings

Having mentioned in a review of the previous volume Books do Furnish a Room those connections are in the open here as Anthony Powell moves the location of the action to Venice.

Jenkins is on an academic publishing conference organised by Mark Members and along with some faces from the previous book, Ada now a successful novelist among them, there are some new comers. Among those are two figures that stand out. Russell Gwinnet, a academic from the US announces he plans to produce a biography of Trapnel who has died since the last volume. Then there is Dr Brightman who has the ability to combine an academic ignorance of the real world with an interest in gossip and intrigue.

There is plenty of that provided by the Widmerpools. Pamela is linked too the death of a French public figure and he is embarrassed and embarrassing as they drag each other round Venice. They are guests of a film star that Pamela wants to turn her into a film star but they all meet as the academics do a tour of the film director’s palace.

On the ceiling in the film director’s palace is a painting depicting a King quite happy to allow another man to sleep with his Queen while he looks on. As the book develops it becomes clear that this is the sexual activity enjoyed by the Widmerpool couple.

But Pamela is never one to sit tight and she makes a beeline for Gwinnet and after hearing that the American has purchased at auction a copy of Trapnel’s writings that will help him construct the great lost novel that Pamela destroyed the two enjoy a heated relationship.

Jenkins watches on as these relationships develop and is confined to the margins, even when he visits his first boss who has moved from publishing to painting and now lives in Venice. Throughout it all the twin figures of Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool are the subject of gossip and scandal.

Once back in England Jenkins is reminded of the past once again as he sits by the bedside and watches his friend Moreland die but he is also keeping an eye on the future with Widmerpool embroiled in a spying scandal and Pamela missing out on her role as a film star.

The ghosts of the past are kept alive with Bagshaw meeting with Gwinnet to fill him in on the life of his autobiographical subject Trapnel. The American is an oddity who has problems conversing and is obsessed with death with his former girlfriend’s death being some cause of erotic stimulation for him.

The book is rather a watershed with not only the death of Moreland but also of Pamela. Maybe part of the problem for me with this volume is that never having particularly cared much for Pamela her rise and fall rather passes me by. Of course she has a role in influencing other characters and pushing life in a certain direction. But with it looking as if she has taken her own life to please her new lover Gwinnet it just feels like not only a waste but to some extent a relief that the remaining book will not be dominated by her personality.

Although it is becoming clear that Jenkins is getting older and his connections with the dance is becoming ever more limited as he fellow dancers dies off there is a real sense of the end coming and ironically it is Jenkins who starts to step into the spotlight. After years and years of describing other people and their achievements it starts to look as if his is not only surviving but also doing so with family, health and mind intact.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Saturday's top ten - Russian authors

For the Saturday top ten this week the selection, in no particular order, is Russian writers. I love Russian history and the writing from the country reflects the realities of living during the turbulent times of both Tsarism and communism. Here are just a few of the writers that would have to make any top ten list. There are of course plenty more that wait to be read…


Friday, November 07, 2008

The Gutenberg Elegies

This book has been dragging on and although the level; of argument is sustained it does feel like being battered by a pub ranter at times and you feel that there has to be a little bit more grey in his outlook and not so much black and white.

Chapter 11
He takes head on the difference between the printed word and the words that appear on screen.

“Extremists - I meet more and more of them - argue that the printed page has been but a temporary habitation for the word. The book, they say, is no longer the axis of our intellectual culture. There is a kind of aggressiveness in their proselytising. The stationary arrangement of language on a page is outmoded. The word, they say, has broken from the corral, is already galloping in its new element, jumping with the speed of electricity from screen to screen.” Page 152

“Disputants, many of them writers, say to me, “Words are still words – on a page, on a screen – what’s the difference?” There is much shrugging of the shoulders. But this will never do. The changes are profound and the differences are consequential. Nearly weightless though it id, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not – it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure.” Page 154

Computerised words do exist in some way but it is not the same sense of depth as a printed word.

He talks about an erosion of the “domination of the author”.

But he admits it will take a long time for someone like him who reads in a certain way and uses a typewriter to come round to a different reading experience.

Chapter 12
He laments the loss of the combination of literary and intellectual imagination. He challenges the view that just because more books are now written and sold that we are better off. There has been a dumbing down and embarrassment has undermined the literary elite.

Because of the decline in the interest in literature you face a split between the academic elite and the general mass of people that has widened over the past few decades and is being sped up with the emergence of technology.

While technology is seen as the demon that is driving us all into a social sheep-pen where we share exactly the same experiences. You have to suspect that actually he has stumbled on larger issues here that are being filtered through his fairly limited argument.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Away, so not posting with substance

Currently sitting in a hotel room in Lisbon having sat through a day of presentations from various executives from Cisco. As a result the normal reading I would have aimed to have done has not been and also there is an evening engagement so the chances of posting a review are slim. So apologies things should be back to normal late tomorrow night.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Free Fishers - post II

It has been a while since I read 39 Steps but you are reminded how capable Buchan is of weaving a plot with pace and mystery.

Having spent 80 odd pages laying the foundations the story goes up a gear and Lammas starts to come into his own as the true evil of the scheme to undermine the British government becomes clear. Lammas is the one who has the strange encounter with one of the main victims of the plot and he picks up the burden of chasing down the arch plotter Crammer and releasing Mrs Crammer from certain death.

Up to this point the story has been muddied with love interests of two sons of significant men but for now that is cast aside as the main plot takes over. Buchan splits up the characters and has the action coming to a conclusion from several different directions. He also uses coincidence with great effect as well as making his characters walk the tightrope between being believed and being seen as mad.
As things start to move towards some sort of conclusion the reader is gripped expecting the plot to go in a certain direction but gladly letting Buchan take you on that journey.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Free Fishers - post I

Having read about one Scottish minister get embroiled with mystery it seemed like an apt choice to pull John Buchan’s Free Fishers off the shelf.

This is written in the Scottish style with language sometimes making it difficult to quite get the gist. But the story starts to kick in and what turns into a mission for Nanty Lammas the university lecturer and minister of the Kirk to protect a love struck youg man from a duel widens out into something much more interesting.

On his way to save the young man Lammas bumps into a young man who is part of the Free Fishers group of fishermen but is also love struck. But Lammas is quickly brought into the mission that has been handed to the free fishers by the King.

The centre of the problem is a woman who apparently is a spy for the French and using her remote stately home as a base for spying, smuggling people into and out of the country. Now Lammas has the task of breaking the spy ring as well as saving the young lover from the pistol shot that threatens him in a duel.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Testament of Gideon Mack - post V

Hurrah. Finally the book ends and can be put on the pile. I don’t know why this didn’t click for me but it just didn’t work. The story had all been told in the start and all you were waiting for at the end was to see the reaction from those that had been named as some of the principle characters in Gideon Mack’s life.

But even there you felt frustrated because none of the characters contacted by the journalist working on behalf of the publisher had seen the transcript so were only adding a different angle to a story you had already read.

Ultimately there are questions being asked here about what happens to someone who spends their entire life compromising themselves. There are numerous references to a childhood of being unloved with that being suggested by some as a trigger for a breakdown.

When the breakdown comes it comes with style with Gideon deciding to tell his congregation about the meeting he had with the devil. That kills off his career as a minister and also forces the last few days to come that bit quicker.

But was he really mad? Can a society that is happy to contemplate the existence of God also accept the possibility of the devil? These are the sorts of questions you are left with.

Goodness knows what Richard & Judy made of it but for me this was not an enjoyable read but something of a slog.

A review will come soon..

Sunday, November 02, 2008

bookmark of the week

My niece and nephew spent their summer holiday touring America and kindly picked up a bookmark from Alcatraz for me on their travels. A bookmark makes a great gift because unlike anything else from a souvenir shop it is likely to be used for years to come and remind you not of the place, because I have not been there, but of the people who kindly gave it to you.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Saturday's top ten - bookshops

I remember once reading about a man who had been to every football ground in Britain. Not quite sure that sort of mission is a wise idea but there is something about visiting bookshops that is attractive. When you get the opportunity to pop into a well known one there is a temptation to go inside and get a feel for its take on the ancient art of book selling. My most recent experience was in Hatchard’s which had a great fiction section in a basement as well as a great selection with books that you don’t often see for sale in your common outlet.

In no particular order these are a top ten of the bookshops I like to frequent given the time and opportunity

Galloway & Porter Cambridge
Oxfam bookshop Bath
Toppings bookshop Bath
Hatchards London
Waterstone’s in the old Simpsons building London
Oxfam Blackheath
West Dulwich Bookshop
Foyles London
Blackwell’s London
Heffers Cambridge