Monday, March 11, 2013

review: The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

When you start a book that is the first of a trilogy there is a part of you that starts to prepare for a long literary journey. You expect to read a book that is set at a pace where you finish with plenty of questions left unanswered.

It is quite rare to come across the first part of a trilogy that can be read as a volume in its own right. Perhaps the flipside of that is once you have finished there is not the urgency to continue with the next volume. As a result thThe Fifth Business is as far as I got in the Deptford Trilogy and it might be as far as I ever get as the desire to read on further is not particularly strong.

That's not to say this wasn't enjoyable. It was a dense memoir of the life of Dunstan Ramsey, who is writing a memoir as he comes to the end of his time as a teacher at a college addressing it to the headmaster.

The story starts with a tale of two friends and slight rivals who have a snowball fight and bring on the premature birth of the vicar's son as a snowball intended for Ramsey hits the pregnant woman instead of the intended victim. The tale then jumps to the current setting - 1969 - which is when the memoir is being penned. It is a memoir written with a fair amount of anger with Ramsey hitting back at those who have attacked his life's work of hagiography as a bit of nonsense that is far away from being an academic subject.

As he trawls through his life he shares some of the stories that happened to him and came out of that childhood in Deptford in Canada. and a couple of main characters emerge - Boy Stanton who threw the snowball and the child that was born as a result Paul Dempster.

Over several sections the story of Ramsey's life interlinks with these two other characters until a final moment when they meet each other and a sense of destiny emerges with dreadful results for Ramsey who realises that although he was often relegated to watching the action from the side of the stage he was in fact a catalyst for many things that happened.

In a way it doesn't matter how far Ramsey travels looking to satisfy his interests in saints he is always grounded in that small town of Deptford with his past holding him back as well as shaping his future.

Would I want to go on and read the Manticore - the second part? Not sure but as a book in its own right the Fifth Business is a decent read.

review: Departures by Tony Parsons

The Heathrow writer in residence is something that has happened over the last few years with some well known names spending a week at the airport collecting ideas and stories that can inspire some further work.

Tony Parsons book was something I picked up while going through an airport and thought it looked like an apt choice. The chapters are almost like a guided tour through the different departments he visited in his week with plenty of time spent with the people who have to look after animals that are flown around the work and have to go through quarantine. But perhaps the effort of trying to link the experiences of those in-front and behind the scenes with some passenger stories is too much and it feels like most of the thinking was spent on trying to work out how to make those links work.

It's one of the books that manages perhaps to make you think a little bit about the numerous stories that are unfolding in an airport at any one time but there is also the slight doubt in my mind that you would really want to know about half of them.

Airports are temporary places for most people and although we walk past and benefit from the work done by the staff in their high-vis tabards the interest in their stories is not something that is at the forefront of the mind.

In some respects Parsons makes you stop and think about all that goes on in a busy hub like Heathrow and the book itself proves that it can be an inspiring place for a writer but it also feels like an exercise in literary creativity that could equally have been played out in a hospital or hotel.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

review: The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

there are times when a book transcends across the best seller lists and into the must read category because it provides pleasure to so many readers and the Hare With Amber Eyes is one of those books.

Small Japanese wood and ivory carvings, often of animals, are a thing of beauty and when Edmund de Waal wonders about the netsuke he has inherited it sparks off a journey through his family history that is a story that covers most of the crucial moments of the 20th century.

Having recently strolled through the Japanese rooms at the British Museum and looked at the case of netsuke on the walls you can appreciate just why these small but beautifully carved objects can inspire such devotion.

His family story takes in Russia, Paris and the brutality of the second world war towards jews before it heads to Japan and a world where post-war there were Westeners starting to enjoy a country that still had a great deal of mystery surrounding it.

What keeps you reading through a personal memoir and family tree is the story itself. The history is all the more powerful because it is personal and there are moments of cruelty to some of those relatives living in Vienna that remind you of the ugliest side of the last century.

But the main takeway for me is the way the story is told. There is a certain style that comes through and makes you feel a great warmth towards someone elses tale. We all come from different backgrounds but perhaps if we dug a little deeper we too might find that at crucial points in the world's history our relatives were out there facing their own tough decisions.

review: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

With the Leveson inquiry fresh in the mind the idea of someone having their life destroyed by the press perhaps isn't too surprising. But rarely do you get such an insight into what exagerrated half-truths can do to someone.

This story follows the sad case of Katharina Blum who makes the mistake of falling for a young man that is wanted by the police. She doesn't spend that much time with him but when the press get to hear about it she becomes the villain of the piece.

The story around her takes on its own ever expanding proportions with her labelled as a communist, whore and her relationship with the man taken into the realms of fantasy as the newspaper writers write what they want about her.

Her life starts to crumble and the previous hard working and respectable existence that she had worked so hard to develop is pulled apart by damaging headlines and tabloid lies. Ultimately she resorts to something rather desperate and as a reader you are left knowing why she did it and even going as far as to sympathise with her actions.

The tragedy is of course that if you want to get back at the press you play into their hands by becoming the sort of person that they have been portraying you as. Losing control gives them even more material.

This story is a sobering one because it shows how dangerous lies can become when they were presented as fact. when you are caught in the middle of the nightmare as Katharina is then it must be a nightmare. A nightmare quite brilliantly pulled together by Boll.

review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

True life can often be much more gripping than fiction and it proves it again here as the case of a murdered child unravels with the reader being pulled into all of the grisly details of an 1860 murder case.

At the heart of the story, along with the details of the death of Francis Kent, is the role played by one of the most celebrated detectives of the time Jack Whicher.

He arrives to find that after having disappeared the three year old has been murdered in a fairly sadistic way. The full picture of how the family live in their home in the village of Rode in Wiltshire is gone into in enough detail to make the reader feel like they are mastering a Cluedo game with the layout of the house and suspects.

This section of the book grabs you and takes you into a world of intrigue and has touches of the Conan Doyle about it. But legal proceedings and then the struggle to determine who was guilty takes over.

The initial focus falls on the nursemaid but she is released and the detective believes that she was not the killer and someone else in the family was the murderer. The victim's sister Constance is a strong contender but there were plenty of other factors going on that would muddy the waters, with the father having an affair just being one of them.

Once the case has cooled and the family move to Wrexham the story becomes slightly less compelling and in the end this becomes a tale of confessions, perhaps false to protect others, and a sense of a crime that was largely unresolved. Whicher comes through the case fairly badly given that his suspicions are often not shared by many others and you sense the greatest injustice is perhaps not for Francis bit for him.

review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

The premise of this book is a great one in the sense that going back in time can be treated like a trip to a specific destination. Pack for your hols and usually one of the pieces of hand luggage will be a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guide to the place you are going.

These travel guides provide the reader with a guide to where to stay, eat and what sort of sites to take in. But they also cover off cultural differences that can save you from making mistakes or getting into dangerous situations.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is no different with chapters covering what to wear, what to eat and drink and a guide to the people and places of the fourteenth century.

In some ways it is a history book in disguise with the reader enjoying hearing about the differences in where you might stay depending on your background, without even realising its a fairly good guide to the fuedal class system.

The lessons you learn traveling back in time are surprisingly relevant for today's travellers with the dangers of crime and bad hygiene and food still at the top of most people's concerns all these centuries later.

In places the pace of the book inevitably slows but what keeps you going is the writing style and the power of description. the past does come alive thanks to Mortimer and as an idea its a great way of visiting the past without having to wander through dusty tomes full of dates.

review: The Carpenter's pencil by Manuel Rivas

The idea that when you are captive the one thing that you have left is your mind and your memories is the main theme of this book. Along with jealously and hatred the story plays out against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war.

In a nutshell a young left-wing political activist Dr Daniel Da Barca is an eloquent speaker and supporter of the left-wing cause and along with his girlfriend Marisa they seem to be the perfect couple. But jealousy burns in the heart of Herbal who is an agent for the other side and he gets his chance to split the couple when civil war breaks out.

The Dr is taken to a harsh prison and there is punished not so much for his political views but because of who he is. He conjures up images of beauty that lift him and some of his other prisoners out of misery. There is a scene that is unforgettable where he describes a feast of food that manages to comfort his fellow undernourished inmates.

All the time though there is a hostility from Herbal and if anyone hoped that Marisa would give up her love they are mistaken and she goes as far as to attempt suicide. She dreams that she will be reunited with her lover but even her own father is determined to destroy her happiness.

The title comes from the moment when Herbal picks up a carpenters pencil that is dropped by a prisoner on his way to be tortured and murdered, and it lingers in his possession becoming something he uses to draw with. That pencil comes to symbolise the independence of thought that cannot be crushed no matter how ugly the torture.

Told as a story of the past with da Barca returning to a post-Franco Spain this love story is hauntingly memorable. The ugliness that war, particularly civil war, can create allows those suffering from jealously caused by unrequited love, intellectual inferiority and base hatred to flourish. You hold onto the idea that ultimately if you are strong enough the mind can be a refugee. The imagination can be a very powerful thing. As Stalin once said: "we would not give our enemies guns so why should we let them have ideas".