Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review of the year - non-fiction

For the last four years I have read almost exclusively just non-fiction, partly because I was studying, but also because of a passion for history. Then in February I completed an Open University creative writing course and that led to the rest of 2006 being devoted to catching up on some of the great books that I missed.

But there were still some good non-fiction reads to summarise. Until I shifted to fiction there were two themes - The First World War and the Tsar’s death and theories around it.

On the First World War the standout reads were 1918 To the Last Man Standing by Lyn Macdonald, who let’s the soldiers do the talking through their letters and diaries. The Great War by Marc Ferro provided a French perspective on things and as a result you understood the psychological importance of Verdun and the fact the Somme was a way of the British taking the pressure off that battle front. In terms of historical biography The last Kaiser by Giles Macdonald provided a chance to learn about a man who was a victim of his own posturing and in the end lost almost everything.

In terms of the Tsar I have always had a fascination about the demise of the Russian imperial family because it not only seems so brutal but has that slight question mark hanging over it about whether or not it happened the way the communists alleged it did.

Shay McNeal with The Plots to Rescue the Tsar blew the doors off the idea that they died and went quite far in ascertaining that they escaped and got away from Russia completely. For a taste of the feeling at the time of the Tsar’s death (disappearance?) The Sokolov Investigation by John. F. O’Connor provided numerous passages from Shololov’s original investigation plus there are some interesting photographs of the house the imperial family were murdered in. Both books have the ability to leave questions unanswered and as a result the case on the Tsar cannot be closed quite yet.

bookmark of the week

In between Christmas and New Year it was almost impossible getting the boys out of the house away from the toys Father Christmas had managed to squeeze down the chimmney but we got as far as London Bridge and the HMS Belfast, which was better than I expected because you are allowed to roam free over most of the battle ship.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

East of Eden - post II

Despite the easily accessible nature of the story I am struggling to get through this book quickly. It is not helped of course by sitting around drinking with family and no doubt it will be impossible to do anything on New Year’s Eve but at least I’m trying. Things will improve when I go back to work on Tuesday.

Bullet points between pages 44 – 76

* Most of these pages are devoted to following the development of the two brothers Charles and Adam with the jealously between them being put on hold as Adam joins the army leaving Charles at home after his father goes to Washington and his mother dies

* Despite not really enjoying army life Adam re-enlists after his five years are up because he would rather do that than go home and in the meantime Charles has become a whoring untidy loner

* Then there is a short chapter about the Hamiltons and the children with two sons being outgoing like their father – Joe and Tom - plus a couple who are conservative and successful -George and Will

* Then the focus shifts back to the brothers who have become rich after their father’s death but Adam has become a hobo and wires Charles to ask for some money so he can finally make his way home after thirteen years of absence

Maybe more tomorrow…

book of books - The Old Man and the Sea

As a result of reading shortish books over lunch breaks I am becoming a great fan of those books, like this one by Ernest Hemingway, that can pack a great deal of deep thought into something just shy of 100 pages long. It takes a real talent to squeeze in some big issues into something of that length and one of the best example I have come across so far is The Old Man and the Sea.

Plot summary
The story revolves around an old fisherman who has gone 85 days without a catch who used to be accompanied by a boy who has since been moved to another boat by his parents who want him to fish with someone luckier. He loves and supports the old man and helps him prepare for what turns out to be a gruelling fight between a large fish, the sea and them the sharks. The old man returns home exhausted, defeated and damaged and the boy, who was missed by his friend and no doubt feels partly responsible cries as he sees the old man who has probably fished for the last time.

Is it well written?
There is much more going on here beyond just a story of an old man fishing and there are references to baseball and the great players in a search to define heroic masculinity as well as lots of thoughts on the generation gap. The old man is seen as unlucky despite all he can teach the boy and is too proud to share his true poverty and loneliness. The story grips you because for the first half of the tale you are wondering if he can catch a fish and then for the final third hoping and praying having done so will not destroy him.

Should it be reead?
As a tale of persistance and bravery it is gripping and a tale of loss and loneliness it is hard to find anything else that can move you as much. It is powerful and deserves to be read by those both at the age spectrum of the boy, inbetween and at the old man's age where no doubt there is an even deeper understanding of the risks to the individual of pushing it to the limit.

Friday, December 29, 2006

East of Eden - post I

Having sketched out the history and the geography of the Salinas Valley in Northern California Steinbeck starts to put some characters in that context.

Bullet points from pages 1 - 40 (sorry but its still Christmas time)

* The valley has some of the same challenges that other locations familiar in Steinbeck’s novels have with poor soil and poverty always lurking in the shadows as potential threats and he initially introduces the Hamiltons, Irish immigrants who own land that could produce both of those outcomes

* The Hamiltons work hard and come up with many inventions that could make them rich but they prefer to live on the slopes of the valley where the land is poor and the crops are always a struggle

* Next the focus shifts to the Trask family with Cyrus the father coming back from the civil war minus a leg but with an interest in military history that finally lands him a job in the military as an advisor

* Trask’s wife commits suicide so he marries another girl to raise his child who grows up with his half brother to be trained in military fashion but the eldest boy Adam takes a fancy to the second wife who is dying of consumption and starts leaving her little gifts

* The father takes Adam out for a walk and admits that he loves him more and then Charles the other brother goes out for a walk and almost kills Adam in a jealous rage and the step mother tells the wounded Adam that really Charles is a good man because he has been leaving her gifts in secret – the wrong person of course

This is set to be quite an epic and I’m glad I am now underway. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime post: The Old Man and the Sea - post III

You so want the old man to succeed but even when he seems to have made it the shark’s circle and the struggle to catch the fish proves to be too much for him to handle on his own

Highlights from the final third and a bit of the book

* The old man and the Marlin compete with each other for three days until the fish tires circles the boat and is finally killed with the harpoon but the struggle has left the old man with a sore back and shoulder and hands cut to ribbons

* The Marlin is too big to put in the boat so he lashes it to the side and then is attacked repeatedly by sharks. He manages to kill four but the first dies with his harpoon stuck in his flesh and the fourth breaks off the knife he had tied to the end of the oar

* When two more sharks come all the old man can do is try to fight them off with a club and they sail away but by now half the fish has been eaten and then at midnight a pack comes and finishes the fish off

* He struggles a shore and manages to get to bed and the boy finds him there in the morning and cries over the damage to his hands while the rest of the fisherman amaze at the skeleton of the fish still strapped to the boat

* The boy promises to come back on board with him but after leaving the old man to go and get medical supplies he is crying because he knows that this fish will be the last that the old man catches

Full review will come tomorrow

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Well East of Eden

I have to post a slight apology because I was intending to have got well into East of Eden by now but those plans have failed and so it will be tomorrow before anything comes on this book.

Lunchtime read: The Old Man and the Sea - post II

This tale gets better and better and quickly expands beyond a simple battle between man and fish to a battle for the old man against the world.

Highlights from just shy of the second third of the book
* The old man catches a tuna but is still on the look out for a big catch and then his line gets pulled by what can only be a large Marlin who having got hooked drags the boat out to sea and keeps swimming through the night

* The old man is suffering from cramp, back pain and a bleeding hand and misses the boy who could have helped not just wrestle with the fish but help fight the loneliness but he is determined to catch him

* Having pulled the boat along the Marlin finally jumps through the water and is longer than the boat but gets the admiration of the old man who cannot help but admire his adversary

The real question is will he catch him or die in the attempt? The final chunk tomorrow...

Turning the heat up in the literacy debate

Earlier this summer some disturbing figures came out about teenage literacy and now the Institute for Public Policy Research has called for tests for 11 and 14 year olds to be scrapped and more random tests introduced that will help develop broader reading skills. The feeling the think tank has is that teachers drill kids for tests and there is not so much emphasis on learning the essential skills for reading and writing. With one in five boys having the reading age of a seven-year old then something needs to be done and the signs are encouraging that 2007 might be a better year for literacy, even if the tests are not scrapped then at least this shows people are concerned about the issue.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Tory twelve - where are the writers?

There was an interesting story covered by all the maajor papers yesterday about the Conservative Party and its claim that children do not know enough about history. In response it has suggested its 12 greatest Britons that includes Kings and politicians, that would cover some of the gaps in the teaching of history. Plenty of big names there but no Shakespeare or Chaucer to name just two writers that have had a massive impact on the cultural history of the nation. It seems a shame that the people listed in The Times deliver some major parts of history but not the complete jigsaw still leaving children with gaps.

2006 - the year of the blog

Before I post a review of the year in the next couple of days from a reading perspective it seemed like a good moment to look back on the experience of blogging, which started back in July, and has been something that has really been a big part of the second half of 2006 for me.

Why blog?
I started blogging because quite simply the technology available made it simple and I had a rough idea of what I wanted to write about. In terms of generating posts, that was an initial challenge I didn’t think too much about, and came across that particular hurdle afterwards which continues to keep the grey cells working. But the main reason for starting Inside Books is that what really appeals to me is the transparency of the web and the blog gives me a chance to show that I do read and write a fair bit about classic literature. Before then it was a conversation starter but it always finished quite quickly when someone asked you if you had read their favourite book and when you answered in the negative they switched off. Now however I can bore them to the edge of reason by talking about the blog and have something that very happily fills my daily one and a half hour commute.

The returns?
The great thing about blogging is that as a reader it provides discipline because it makes sure that you keep going even when the books are difficult or not too enjoyable, plus when you find a gem it provides a platform to shout about it. There are also the comments and feedback you get from other lit bloggers and visitors, which have a tremendous impact, a bit like someone patting you on the back. Finally it makes you a player, albeit a very minor one, in the web 2.0 world and that is a good thing because let’s face it this is the future and it shows that you can move with the times.

The future?
More posting, more intelligent content hopefully and more of a structured direction. When I read history books in the past for both pleasure and studying there was the expectation you would ‘read around a subject’ sticking with a theme and I hope to do that with fiction more in 2007 including a return to my favourite - Russian literature. Please keep reading and commenting because the future of all of this also depends on that to some extent because it would be terribly lonely posting away into a void. Thanks for reading.

Lunchtime read: The Old Man and the Sea

Just because a story is short it doesn't mean it lacks power and there is a certain skill to working with just one or two characters and Hemingway shows how well it can be done in the first few pages of this book.

Highlights from the first third of the book
* The story starts with an old man who has been at sea for 84 days with catching anything coming in from another bad day at sea and meeting a boy who he started taking fishing when he was five but who has moved to another boat because his father believes the old man in unlucky

* The relationship between the boy and the old man is very close but both have a great deal of pride so the old man pretends he has food and comfort and the young boy plays along but goes out to get him food

* Plagued by bad luck the man sets off for a fishing trip at the crack of dawn throws out his lines and waits hoping that today he will catch a big fish

Will he? More tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sales all around but not a (decent) book to buy

Popped into a bookshop very briefly, they were closing and I had to sneak past the person blocking the door, to check out the sale and came away wondering why they can't reduce the prices of good books, rather than just the humourous stocking fillers and celebrity biographies that no one wanted to buy before Christmas and certianly won't be buying now.

book of books: The Shadow-Line

This is only the second Joseph Conrad book I have read, the other being The Heart of Darkness, but they both have several things in common, most notably boats and a sense that what happens on the water cannot always be explained naturally.

Plot summary
The story starts with a seaman giving up his position on a steamer because he is bored and wants to go home but he then gets offered the chance of his own captaincy and jumps at the chance. But the boat seems to be under the curse of the previous captain who went mad and tried to send the crew on a suicidal journey until the first mater Burns stood up and questioned the captain who died shortly afterwards. Stranded in calm seas with the crew becoming ill Burns is convinced that the old captain is against them until he comes on deck from his own sick bed and laughs in the face of the storm he believes has been sent to destroy them. The winds pick up and the boat limps into Singapore and then with a fresh crew the narrator and captain heads out to sea again.

Is it well written?
This short story is prefaced by a long introduction and an author’s note that tries hard to make it clear to the reader that it is not a supernatural tale. What it does seem to be about is the First World War and the bravery and camaraderie of men facing perhaps certain death and although it is not that clear if you have read the introduction that message does come across.

Should it be read?
As a metaphor for the First World War and the bravery of the men then it provides quite a good idea of how those facing death can behave. But to my mind the old captain plays a role here and his curse and the idea of his body being buried being a point at which the boat cannot get across could easily represent the difficulties the troops had in the First World War had getting past just a few yards in trench warfare and who is the mad old captain – any number of war time leaders fit the frame but presumably the Kaiser is the intended target? Not sure but the fact you go away thinking about not just the war but the sea and its strange ways means this short volume is worth reading.

Leads to
More Conrad including the Heart of Darkness if you haven’t read that and on my shelf waiting to be gone through is The Secret Agent by him as well. It also reminds me a bit of Moby Dick so the classic by Herman Melville might be a good next stop.

Version read – Penguin Twentieth century classic paperback

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas one and all, and I hope you have a great day and Father Christmas brings you what you wished for.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

East of Eden preamble

A while ago I named five books to read by the end of January in the Stacks Winter Challenge and as part of that the next book on that list is East of Eden by John Steinbeck and although it might not seem like it i have started - only just and wanted to comment that he sets the book up with the history of the Salinas valley in Northern Califorinia looking first at the physical geography and then at the history with the Indians, Spanish and then Americans all having their influence on the landscape and place names. Might not do too much reading tomorrow but will start in earnest on Tuesday.

bookmark of the week

Tried to find something festive and failed so popped this one in. It was a bookmark of Nelson by Ralph Steadman to accompany the exhibition about him at the National Maritime Museum in London a couple of years ago. made of plastic and hard to work out what is going on but you get the gist of it.

Lunchtime read: The Shadow-Line post V

this short but odd tale of the sea ends and leaves you wondering if everything that Conrad writes has this edge of the supernatural to it. It also reminds you a liuttle bit of the Rhyme of the Ancient mariner and Moby Dick in terms of the battle a sailor has not only with the elements but with their own mind

Highlights from chapters five and six

* The boat still sits in the ocean without a breeze and with the medicine gone the men resign themselves to illness and the captain is moved by their dedication and attitude - the only tangible moment when you think of the troops in the trenches

* Burn's is still convinced that the fate of the ship is being determined by the old caprain and black clouds surround the ship with the lifeless men doing what they can to prepare the sails and deck for a storm

* As the darkness descends Burns comes up on deck and laughs at the curse and tells the captain it has to be dealt with head-on and it seems to do the trick and thre winds pick up and they manage to get into Singapore

* The whole crew except for the captain, Burns and Ransome, who has been the only other member of crew not to fall prey to the sickness, are taken off the ship into hospitals and then the captain gets ready with a shipwrecked crew to carry on

it does make you think of the First World War not just because of the bravery the men show against almost impossible odds but also as Giles says to the captain in port there is never any rest they just have to keep going (fighting) on.

Review will probably come shortly after Christmas Day...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Lunchtime read: The Shadow-Line post IV

The story starts to get interesting as the ship and the crew pit their mental strength against an unforseen enemy - the weather and the curse of the former captain.

Highlights from chapter Four
* The boat is hardly moving at all and the men are getting exhausted trying to get the boat to move faster and one by one they go down ill but the captain is relieved because he has six bottles of quinine to fight the fever

* Burns, the first mate continues to improve but is obsessed with the idea that it is the old captain that is holding up the ship and his theories start to get to the captain when freak winds push the sjip back, the spare bottles of quinine turn to dust and the crew starts to go down with illness

Can they escape from the calm sea? More tomorrow...

A yuletide dose of Holmes

Most of the weekend papers have resorted to filling the books sections with short stories but the one which stood out was a Sherlock Holmes story in The Times. We have had thick fog in London over the past few days and it really reminds you of the Victorian and Holmes period. Dipping into a bit of Holmes has been a great way to start the Christmas weekend.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lunchtime read: The Shadow-Line post III

Lunchtime came and went and the afternoon was spent with my sons watching Flushed Away, which was a great film, so here is the delayed thoughts on what was meant to be a short story choice for this week.

The minute that Conrad used his own author’s notes to challenge the idea that the book was a supernatural story you knew that you were in for some content that would cause some people to think that way and the evidence for it starts coming in chapter three.

Highlights from chapter three
* Now installed as captain the first task is to get briefed on the boat and find out what happened about the former captain from the first mate a man called Burns who seems to have taken an instant dislike to the new captain

* Burn tells the story of how the captain, a 65 year old violin player, went slowly mad and was in the process of taking the ship and crew on an impossible voyage to Hong Kong before Burns confronted him and made him see sense although the captain cursed him and the ship

* As they wait in port one by one the crew start to fall ill until Burn’s himself is taken off the ship and taken to a hospital where he begs for the boat not to sail without him and he is returned aboard and the boat limps out to sea waiting for a breeze to come

More tomorrow...

Christmas Books - A Child's Story

There is no way I am going to be able to finish all of the stories in Christmas Books by Charles Dickens in time for Christmas so the best approach after having read the most famous one - Christmas Carol - is to pick off some of the other short stories in the book.

Dickens is great because although you pick up on the style and can work out where he is coming from and what comes next his writing is so good that you stick with it until the end.

Highlights from a Child's Story
* You follow a traveller as he goes through the woods and comes across a child that just wants to play, one that then wants to learn, a young man who wants to love, a family man that wants to raise a family and then an old man who looks back on it all and has the ability to remember each stage

* It is a short concise but very clever way of encapsulating the ageing process without it being all about leathery skin, failing sight and incontinence but more about the power of memory and the joy of looking back over a long life

More of the same sort of thing tomorrow...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lunchtime read: The Shadow-Line post II

This can hardly be called a lunchtime post but anyway until I get back to posting at the right time here here are the highlights from chapter two

Chapter two

* Having been given a command of the boat the narrator heads back to the seaman's hostel and discovers that the steward had been trying to shoehorn his troublesome guest Hamilton into the job to get rid of him

* Captain Giles, who seems to know all about the intrigue, is pleased for him in a subdued way and walks with him to the boat carrying him to the port to meet up with his boat and because he is three hours late the captain of the steamer is hostile towards him for the entire trip

* He trembles when he first sees the boat he will command and boards her with a mixture of pride and trepidation and starts to look arund her and hears a humming from below which stops as soon as he starts to descend the stairs

More hopefully close to a recognisable lunchtime tomorrow...

A modern library

The ability of iTunes to always know the album name and tracks has always fascinated me and now thanks to a post on the Penguin blog I have found out that there is something that does something a little bit similar on a Mac for books. I am going to install the Delicious Library later on after I have worked out how to get my web cam to work, which scans barcodes and finds out the information about the books, but the screen shot looks great.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Christmas Carol in Prose

This story is so famous that most people, me included, go through life without spending the time to read the 60 odd pages that include the story by Charles Dickens but it is well worth it. The book is split into the chapters containing the episodes with the various ghosts and the results as a conclusion.

Highlights from the story

Marley's ghost
Scrooge is sketched out as a miserable miser who refuses to show kindness to anyone, especially if it is going to cost him money. His business partner Marley has been dead for seven years leaving him to run the business on his own

As he gets home from work the door knocker appears as Marley’s face and then the ghost of his old colleague appears wrapped in chains pulling cash boxes and ledgers and warns Scrooge that a miserable after life awaits unless he changes his ways

Scrooge seems to doubt Marley’s existence but is left exhausted and disturbed after his friend wails and leaves via the window to join a mass of other chained tormented souls that include other business associates Scrooge knows

Christmas past
The ghost of Christmas past appears and takes Scrooge back to his youth, which was miserable and lonely until his sister came to rescue him and then he is seen growing up and enjoying the festive season until one year, gripped by greed, his girlfriend leaves him

He is taken back to his room again exhausted but after pleading with the ghost to take him away from the scenes of family joy that he has deliberately excluded himself from

Christmas present
The next ghost is of Christmas present and Scrooge is shown two families - Bob Cratchitt his clerk and his nephew Fred - and understands how he is thought of as a miserable person who inflicts pain on his employees and indifference on his family

Tiny Tim, Bob's crippled child is the focus of the family and Scrooge who realises that without money to provide medical help he will die

Christmas future
Scrooge has died and the servants have stolen his things and his business friends couldn't seem to care less and no one really misses him

Tiny Tim has died and Scrooge is finally taken to his own grave where he is desperate to change things and promises to learn the error of his ways


He wakes dicovers the spirits have visited him all in one night and then spends Christmas day making up for his mistakes and sends a turkey to Bob and then turns up unexpectedly for Christmas lunch with his nephew Fred

He becomes the happiest man around and gives Bob a pay rise and from that day on enjoys and shares in the spirit of Christmas

Maybe it's the beer I enjoyed after my business meeting but I had a tear in my eye on the way home at the description of Scrooge changing and becoming like a father to Tiny Tim, who he saves from death. Perfect for getting you full of the Christmas spirit.

Lunchtime read: The Shadow-Line

Life is hard at the moment and I have to go and have a business meeting in town so have cut my lunch short so this is only chapter one.

Highlights from most of chapter one
* The story starts with a man who has decided to resign his position as mate on a steamer that is berthed in a Turkish harbour despite the fact that he likes the boat and the captain

* He goes to stay until he heads home in a seaman's hotel and meets a strange navigator who makes him discover that there is a vacancy for a master's job and urges him to go to the harbour office to apply for it before a rival, Hamilton, at the boarding house also applies for it

* He goes to the Harbour master and is criticised for not coming sooner and is told about the position and accepts it and signs a contract to that effect and is told to get ready to head off that evening to go and meet the boat

More tomorrow...

Schott's stuff on books

With all the Christmas preparations forgot to mention that in Monday's Guardian in the G2 section (it is not online as far as I can tell) Ben Schott produced a special almanac for 2006.

Male reads
The Books and Arts section contained some real gems including a mention for some research that Professor Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London produced that asked 500 men which novels changed their lives. The most life changing books included The Outsider by Albert Camus, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Happy endings
Another piece of research that gets mentioned is the quest to find the favourite happy ending, which was carried out on World Book Day. The top five happy endings were: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
The unhappy endings included Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Schott's books have passed me by but I will be dipping into the next one to see what the chapter on books has to say in more depth next time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A comment on Scrooge

I have started reading Christmas Books by Charles Dickens, a thick volume of various long and very short stories all collected because of a Christmas theme. Naturally you start at A Christmas Carol in Prose - the classic story of Scrooge and I thought before I post about the content it would be wise to clarify Scrooge.

All of my assumptions about Scrooge are based on vague recollections of being told the story as a child and the various film adaptations. In the traditional films Ebeneezer Scrooge is either played in a quasi-comic manner that culminates in him becoming the friendliest person in London (Alistair Sim version) or gets the Shakespearian treatment and goes from cold hearted villain to warm hero (Patrick Stewart version). I know that makes it sound like Hamlet the point is there are different ways of playing the role.

What is interesting is that by the end of chapter one in the book Dickens has painted a picture of a man who is neither comic nor particularly tragic but someone who simply doesn’t care. “Humbug” is not just something he would say to Christmas but to helping the poor, his family and his clerk. He is a grumpy person who has become so miserly he prefers the dark because it is cheap.

I will get stuck into the story and post thoughts about that tomorrow but felt that for tonight at least some sort of view on Scrooge made sense.

More about the classic story tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Shadow-Line

Most of the first half of this book by Joseph Conrad is taken up by an introduction, bilbiopgraphy and then the author's own note before the text starts. Rather than devle straight into the story (and I should have done this yesterday) here are the highlights of all of the above to put the book in context

The book was written in 1916 and the author's son was at war and he came to with a mixture of pride for his offspring's efforts and envy because he was unable to fight himself so he put his energy into this book and finished in in three months

The book includes biographical touches, concurs with Conrad's view of war, which was based on a basic acceptance of human beligerance and was something that he fought hard to keep out of a short stories volume and have printed on its own

Author's note
He dismisses that the book is about the supernatural as some critics must have suggested and instead talks about his owen experiences at sea and the pleasure and importance of commanding a group of men that would die for their comrades

book of books - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

After Ulysses the book seemed to be written by James Joyce in a more conventional way but there are things going on here at various different levels and sadly I’m sure I completely missed a few of them and as a result I made understanding the story that little bit more difficult.

Plot summary
The book is centrered around Stephen Deadalus, who is introduced at the start of the book as a teenager who is at University at the end of the book. His family are continually moving for a combination of political and financial reasons. Stephen is at a Jesuit school and goes through a period he believes is incredibly sinful and as a result starts to turn his back on the church but then goes the other way and is so devout the priests believe he can join their ranks. But then he chooses to go his own way and then becomes a student that is both intelligent and slightly worshipped by his peers. In the end he chooses to remain away from the church even if it upsets his mother and remain true to his own beliefs.

Is it well written?
There are moments when it is very easy to understand what is going on and other moments when you get lost and start slipping out of touch with the narrative. Ultimately it takes a couple of says for the story to sink in and you understand that it is about Stephen’s individuality and development of his intellect that matters. He has to overcome politics, religion and towards the end poverty to assert himself and that comes through the text, even if not as clearly as that at first reading.

Should it be read?
To get an idea of how literature can help someone develop their own views and how it can provide an escape to some extent from reality it is worth reading. As an introduction to Joyce I’m not sure because without reading his other major works it’s hard to judge when you should start out on this one. I actually liked coming to it after Ulysses because I was able to understand what happens to Stephen next so it made you feel an attachment to him already.

Leads to
Ulysses and at some point The Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake. In terms of personal development of a character there are other books based in colleges and universities but they would probable be more literal than this story.

Version read – Penguin essential classics

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – post IV

Just as you expect with Joyce things become that little bit harder to follow as the book moves to its conclusion. You can either read this word by word, line by line, which I did last night with a reading light in bed, or like a normal novel. The problem is that you feel you loose something in both approaches. Anyway here is the general gist of the last pages of the book.

Bullet points between pages 228 – 276

* Stephen is seen very much as one of the intellectual forces by his peers and he seems to spend his waking hours thinking about things in terms of poetry and he dreams about a girl that he sent some love poetry to

* He is on the fringes of not just his friends but also his family and the evidence of the latter comes when he confides in a friend that he has refused to attend the Easter services with his mother despite it hurting her

* He seems to have his eye on a girl who also visits the library but seems to share that desire with a friend Cranly, who also tries to catch her eye as she leaves and he stresses when he goes days without seeing her

* Eventually he bumps into her and they have a cryptic exchange of words that leaves him liking her even more as he heads off

* In the end he seems to have escaped/dwells in a world half dominated by literature and reality with the former inspiring his actions and behaviour in the latter

Bearing in mind that when we next meet Stephen he has lost his mother, although there are some Joycism's already with him telling a friend she had ten children and in Ulysses it is described as fifteen, it provides the groundwork for why he would be full of a longing for her because of the way he regreted hurting her over religious differences when she was alive.

Full review to come by mid-week...

Cutting out the excess

Surprise, surprise according the a piece in The Observer yesterday the start of 2007 will see a pile of diet books coming out. After we all put on the pounds, make those new year resolutions to lose weight and start the year with the January Blues looking for something to make us feel better these books are meant to offer the answer. Maybe they will be more successful than the piles of celebrity books that have failed to shift in large numbers pre Christmas and the advice for some publishers should be that if you want to save pounds and keep away from collecting extra piles (of books) then avoid commissioning so many Caleb biographies.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

bookmark of the week

This is a Wallace and Gromit bookmark of the rocket from A Grand Day Out. Always been a big fan of the duo and the associated films and am planning to go and see Flushed Away soon with my eldest boy as a Christmas treat.

book of books - The 39 Steps

The reason for choosing this book by John Buchan as a lunchtime read is because it is a slim volume that can be consumed easily in sections over lunch. The unforeseen problem is that it is so addictive that it is almost impossible to put it down and turn back to the screen to get on with your work.

Plot summary
The story focuses on Richard Hannay a mining engineer who has returned to London after an absence of some years and is on the brink of heading to South Africa to avoid the boredom when he comes across a strange man called Scudder. The stranger outlines a plan to destabilise Europe and bring on war by murdering the Greek leader and just as it seems like he might live to solve the mystery he is killed and Hannay, armed with Scudder’s black notebook, is left to solve the crime and stop the Germans from getting away with the secrets - something he manages to do.

Is it well written?
It is self consciously the style of a dime thriller and the pace of the book is amazing and there is not much detailed description around the central issue of Hannay surviving and being around to foil the Black Stone secret organisation. Even if you don’t like thrillers the feature to admire here is the pace, which never flags over the course of the book. There also has to be a mention of the plot because it is not always clear what will happen next and that is also a good reason for sticking with it.

Should it be read?
It is not only a real page turner before Dan Brown even discovered he wanted to write one, but also paints a picture of pre-war innocence in 1913 London that is almost tangible as the old boys network and the Empire are still in full swing. Read it for pleasure but don’t expect to be reading it for too long because this will keep you going until the very end.

Version read – Penguin Classics paperback

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Things you can only get away with in Joyce’s world

As I get near to the end of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there are several things about James Joyce’s world that make a real contrast with living in 2006 and so these are just a few I could think of

Walking around a capital city late at night dreaming up philosophical thoughts
Try doing that in London and you are likely to get your thoughts drowned out by the sirens, your eyes blinded by the neon or if you walk down by the river something a lot more sinister interrupt your night dreaming

Have an argument that becomes a shouting match with an Irishman about religion
A friend once thought it might be the right place and right topic of discussion to buttonhole a staunch catholic in an Irish pub and tell him that he thought there were aspects of his religion that were flawed. He was then floored in the more basic sense

Masturbating on a beach
It goes without saying this one, enjoyed by Bloom in Ulysses, is either going to go unnoticed or land you in hot water with the police or local vigilantes – take your pick

Go through a life that mirrors a work by Homer, Ovid or Saint Thomas Aquinas
With work, family etc you hardly have time to know that someone throwing a tin you in a pub is meant to be the Cyclops or that men singing in the corner by the piano doing bad karoke represent the sirens

Friday, December 15, 2006

Portrait of the Artist as Young Man - post III

Joyce is able to catch you in a web of religious debate, Irish politics and the profoundity of the shift from adolesence to adulthood and leave you wondering just where you are. It is rather like falling down a water shute without anything to grip onto but occasional glimpses of the pool below to reassure you that at least you are headed in the right direction.

Bullet points between pages 158 - 228

* Having had his sinful moment and then gone to his confessor Stephen turns into the most devout church goer so much so that he is called into to get advice that he should go into the priesthood

* Initially the idea attracts him because he is seduced by the position and the power but then he has a moment when he sees his friends swimming and sees a girl (vision of a girl) who he identifies as an angel or youth and decides that the way he should live his life is by making mistakes and being real

* The family keep moving and the next scene of family activity is in a different house and Joyce manages to convey the squalor with Stephen having to wash in a bowl in the sink before heading out to University

* At university Stephen seems to have carved out a reputation as a free thinker and his comments are eagerly soaked up by students hanging off his every word and you are introduced to a couple of his friends who urge whim to sign a petition for an independent Ireland and after his refusal to sign question his loyalty to the country

* Having gone through the religious phase, the indifference and now the intellectual critic of it all he is able to spar in conversation with the dean of studies and anyone else who wants to question him on his views

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: The 39 Steps post V

The brisk pace and chapter cliff-hangers continue to come thick and fast and this is building into a real climax but there’s only so much you can do in one lunchtime sadly..

Highlights from chapters seven, eight, nine and ten

* Hannay makes his way back to the road mender’s house to get his clothes and Scudder’s notebook but because he has been out all night in the damp he develops a fever and stays there being nursed back to health for ten days

* The liberal candidate he spent time with has contacted his uncle in the foreign office and Hannay comes clean about all he knows and in return is told that he is no longer a suspect for the murder

* Together they go through the notebook but the Foreign Office expert dismisses the thought that anyone would want to kill the Greek leader but then he is interrupted for a phone call…

“He returned in five minutes with a whitish face. ‘I apologise to the shade of Scudder,’ he said. “Karolides was shot dead this evening at a few minutes after seven’.”

* Hannay is taken into the confidence of Sir Walter the Foreign Office official and told that an agent is coming from France and that the enemies of the state will do anything to get at him

* Back in London Scotland Yard clear his name and he heads to the Savoy to lie low for the night but he gets this yearning to be involved in the action and heads back to Sir Walter’s House

* A conference is in progress and the First Sea Lord comes in and then leaves except that Hannay seems to understand that it was an impostor and breaks into the conference and tells the remaining men

* After discovering their meeting was infiltrated the assembled company are horrified and expect the spy to head stray back to his masters with all the secrets but Hannay remembers the clue to the 39 steps and the tide

* They set off to the Admirality to check tide times and then drag in an old coastguard and they narrow down the location to the Kent coast and head off to try and stop the spies from leaving the country

* They converge on the location and work out that one villa has 39 steps to the sea but the house contains an old stockbroker and so Hannay is doubtful that he has the right place even after a boat moors out to sea containing a German trying to pretend to be English

* Hannay decides that the only course of action is to act as if he is totally confident of his plan and face the music if he is wrong because the stakes are too high to risk doing otherwise and he remembers a friend telling him that the beest form of disguise is 'atmosphere' which the men in the villa seem to have created perfectly

* He walks into the house and faces the three men who act so well they make him feel it has all been a mistake but then he recognises them and confronts them but as he blows his whistle one of the men escapes and the old man boasts that he has got away but then Hannay finishes the scene off with a great line:

"'I hope Franz will bear his triumph well, I ought to tell you that the Ariadne [their escape boat] for the last hour has been in our hands.'"

Of course war breaks out but Hannay stopped some secrets from being used. What a great read. I'll post a review in the next couple of days.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Portrait of the Artist as Young Man - post II

I have never visited Ireland but Joyce does give you a yearning to go there, although no doubt the Dublin he writes about has changed out of all recognition. But there is a love for his country that comes through his writing and makes you want to go and sit in a bar in Dublin and soak it all in. Maybe that’s an ambition for 2007?

Bullet points between pages 90 - 158

* Stephen and his father head back to Cork, the family home of the Dedalus clan, to sell up some of his father’s property and Stephen is dragged round the city and his father’s old college

* He is embarrassed by the reminiscing but part of his trip includes a trip to the bank to get some money out that he won for an essay prize

* That money soon changes hands with a prostitute as he experiences his first taste of sex and it changes him because it is a major sin and there is no retribution it starts to turn him away from the church

* There is then a lengthy sermon preached by the priest on the theme of hell and the Dante like vision of intense never stopping fires make Stephen feel that the message is for him and he has to repent of his sins

* He has a nightmare about the corner of hell that is being reserved for him and goes to confession and the chapter ends with him feeling saved and his soul is intact after he has admitted all of his sins - all this at the age of 16

More tomorrow (altough it is the work Christmas lunch so the post might not make any sense)...

Lunchtime read: The 39 Steps post IV

It’s hard just to read this during my lunch break because it is a real page turner and the temptation is the carry on but work beckons.

Highlights from chapters five and six

* After having taken the liberal candidate into his confidence Hannay sets off on a bike to set out for the farmlands where he intends to lie low being undetected but before he has got very far he is spotted by a plane and then men start beating the glen to discover him

* A stroke of good luck comes in the guise of a roadworker who willingly lets him spend the day doing his jobs and then three men do stop and interrogate him but leave satisfied

* Just as he is wondering how he will escape an acquaintance from London appears and Hannay gets him to hand over his car and he drives down through the valley and through the cordon of watchers

* He sleeps rough but the acquaintance from London has told the police and they have started to comb the hill looking for him so he has to keep dodging them and finally runs into an old house that respects a museum

* The man in the museum seems to know him and it turns out Hannay has walked into a trap but tries to act his way out of it but fails and is put into the storeroom while the leader goes out to get the men who interrogated him as a road mender

* In the storeroom he is kept in he discovers a locked cupboard and inside is some explosives which he recognises from his time as a mining engineer and he uses this the blow the wall down and makes good his escape after discovering a hidden aerodrome

book of books - Love in The Time of Cholera

ne of the main things that makes you enjoy a book is the characterisation and for me I just couldn’t grow to like Florentino the man who holds a torch for his teenage love for fifty years. Maybe it was the Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes him in creepy dress and because of his numerous liaisons with women of varying ages but he never inspired sympathy or excitement.

This book is a bit of a slow burner and because it is about waiting and love you feel that you spend a lot of time waiting for the story to develop. There is a clever device at the start because you know that the waiting does end but it takes a long time to get back to that moment of decision.

Plot summary
A young ill at ease boy Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza someone who is above his position in society and through stalking, writing letters all the time and serenading her he breaks down her resistance and she agrees to marry him. The father takes her away and on her return she cannot understand what she ever saw in him and then is courted by Dr Urbino who comes from a wealthy family and eventually wins her hand in marriage. Florentino decides to wait for the doctor to die and rises up in the River Company to gain the status that would be fitting of Fermina. The doctor does die and he does manage to win her heart but it is a fraught process that ends with them trying to hide from the world on a boat flying the flag of cholera to keep other people away.

Is it well written?
The structure is interesting because you follow the story of the doctor discovering a dead friend and then having a fatal accident himself and so by page 50 the man you expected to be the centre of the narrative has died. Then it shifts back to the past and slowly builds up the story of the relationships between the main characters until that point of death and then takes the story to a conclusion. As with the Garcia Marquez books it is beautifully described and set firmly in its location but the characters, which are introverted and not that loveable, and of course at the end are elderly are not that easy to identify with.

Should it be read?
When I picked this book up in a second hand bookstore in Bath the owner said approvingly when he handed it over that it was his best one. I still have 100 Years of Solitude to read but my feeling is that it is a book that resonates with readers in different ways. It should be read because it is the only way of taking a side in the argument and working out if you identify and sympathise with the characters.

Leads to
More Garcia Marquez is the next obvious step but the idea of waiting for a long lost love is also something that crops up in Thomas Hardy’s work particularly Two on a Tower.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - post I

Stephen Dedalus is one of the two main characters in Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man focuses on that character but at a much younger age. Bearing in mind he is 22 in Ulysses he is a school boy when he is introduced in this story.

Unlike Ulysses James Joyce seems to be sticking to a more easily readable style here with it much easier to create a picture in your mind of what is going on.

Bullet points between pages 1 - 90

* The story starts at a Jesuit school in Ireland and Stephen is homesick, bullied and struggling to enjoy his school time and after being pushed into a ditch becomes ill and ends up in the infirmary

* The sense of homesickness, loneliness and desperation to fit in and understand how to blend in and succeed in the school is tangible and well described by Joyce, who presumably must have experienced the same things

* He then goes home for Christmas and the meal is disturbed by a row between his father Simon and Dante some sort of family friend over politics, specifically the right or wrongs of priests using the pulpit as a place to recommend certain political parties

* The row between the protestant Dante, Stephens father, his great uncle and a friend Mr Casey, who has spent time in prison for his political views, breaks down as they row about a story told by Casey who recounts the time he spat in the eye of a lady heckling him after a speech.

* Casey then breaks down after saying that there should be no God in Ireland with tears in his eyes and cries for Parnell a politician who fought hard for autonomy and Home Rule

* The story then moves back to school and in a vivid passage Stephen is beaten for making up the story that his glasses broke accidentally despite the truth in his tale. The beating scars him mentally and he goes to the Rector to complain and as a result of that bravery is heralded as a hero by his classmates

* Things at home change and they move house and Stephen dislikes Dublin but there is a suggestion that political activities by his father have forced the change as much as financial cut backs

* He is told to stay in the Jesuit school and because of his friendship with a girl he comes in for another dose of bullying and seems to always be acting in the wrong way provoking more animosity

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: The 39 Steps post III

This thriller is already gripping just a couple of chapters in and the story continues to develop at a rapid pace

Highlights from chapters three and four

* Hannay gets up to Scotland and as he leaves the small station and heads over the glen his spirits soar but they come back down with a bump when he heads back to go in a circle and reads about the murder in the paper and then sees the Police interviewing the stationmaster and his son t the small station

* As the train slows down he decides to jump out but the barking of a dog, the bleating of the herd and the belief that he has committed suicide means that it is a very public escape

* He finds an aspiring author who is running a very empty inn and offers him a secret hiding place away from the police but two strangers find him and although Hannay, who has broken the code of Scudder's notebook. gives them a decoy note he knows they will return

* He gets the inn keeper to organise the police to come at the same time as the sinister men return and as they go up to the inn to be arrested Hannay jumps out of the window and steals their car

* He makes a mistake by taking the car because he is easily identifiable and as he pulls into a town the policeman tries to stop him and he has to speed away over the glens

* The next problem is that a plane is scrambled and as he searches for trees to hide in he drives up a private road and has to swerve to avoid an oncoming car and his car slips down into a brook and is destroyed

* The owner of the other car takes him home and is full of apologies and turns out to be a liberal candidate having to deliver a speech that night and asks Hannay if he is a free trader and could speak with him about the dangers of protectionism and because he is in a fix Hannay agrees

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera - post VII

The book comes to an end and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. If someone was holding a torch for my wife just waiting for me to pop my clogs then I am sure I would be far from happy about it. But on the other side of the coin no doubt there is a certain romance about it.

Bullet points between pages 292 - 348

* Florentino has to wait for the letters to be replied and then plucks up the courage to visit Fermina and then it becomes a regular thing each month although she never concedes that he has a chance of developing the relationship beyond friendship

* He is 76 and she is 72 and there is an increasing emphasis on age and despite all the care he has taken to be in shape when they are finally free to marry she says she is old and he starts to accept that things are not the same

* She starts to correspond with him on a daily basis after he falls down the stairs in his office and is bed bound but then two stories are written in the local paper that undermine her - one being about an affair her husband is meant to have had and the other about the shady business dealings of her father

* When Florentino finally gets out of bed with a walking stick and goes to visit her they both seem decrepit and old, beyond love almost, but he still holds out hope and his persistence does seem to wear her down plus he writes an article under the name 'Jupiter' that tries to redress the lies printed in the paper

* Fermina’s daughter hears about the growing friendship between her mother and Florentino and tries to stop it but is told by her mother never to enter the family home again and leaves after only just healing the rift

* Meanwhile the young lover of Florentino discovers the hidden cache of love letters from Fermina and following her failure of her exams kills herself

* The news comes to Florentino when he is aboard a river cruise with Fermina, a trip that sees them finally move from letters and conversations to something physical and love blossoms

* But as the trip starts to end they panic about the possibility of going back to real life and so they hoist the yellow flag meaning that there is cholera aboard and come down the river without interruptions

* But when they reach port the health authorities want to know what is going on and the captain panics to which he is told by Florentino to go back up river and repeat the trip again - when asked how long he can keep doing that the old man who has waited so long for love tells him he can keep doing it forever

Review follows in the next couple of days

Lunchtime read: The 39 Steps post II

Highlights from chapter two

* Hannay discovers Scudder is dead and that his flat has been ransacked, presumably as the murderers were searching for his bloack pocket book where Scudder had made notes

* After thinking about it Hannay comes up with a plan to carry on Scudder’s mission and picks on Galloway as a remote part of Scotland where he can hide for the twenty days until the Greek leader comes to London

* Dressing and filling his pipe he touches the black mnotebook in the bottom of his tobbacco jar and fools the lookouts borrowing the milkman’s chat and apron and then runs and gets on the train from Euston going up to Scotland

Is he safe? More tomorrow...

A select audience

With the launch of a book about Manchester United FC that is priced at £3,000 yesterday The Independent asks just who is making these books and what you get for your money. One further question I would ask based on the limited but important invitations I have had to other people’s homes is: just who has a coffee table these days, let alone one that would be covered with books costing thousands of pounds?

Find the people with the coffee tables and that’s where your market is for these ‘add a couple of zero’s to the price tag’ books.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera -post VI

It has been hard to read much of this book today because of other demands on my time but I have squeezed in a few more pages to keep the highlights moving on and will aim to finish it tomorrow

Bullet points between pages 260 - 292

* The story catches up with the first chapter when Dr Urbino died and it describes how Floretino rose to the top of the River Company and how he looked after himself always readying himself for the day when he could be there for Fermina Daza

* As he makes love to the 14 year old that has become his legal custodian, something a bit unpleasant here, the bells ring out for the death of the doctor and he rushes round to the house

* Although he knows it is wrong he blurts out his declaration of love and then spends the next two weeks ill with regret and worry until he comes home one night to find a letter waiting for him in a puddle outside his door

* She sends him a letter full or rage because she is genuinely grieving and the timing could not have been worse but she cannot stop thinking about him but when he gets the letter it hits him and he realises that it was the response he should have expected

The end comes tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The 39 Steps post I

There is a little dedication at the start, where John Buchan tells a friend that he had read through all of his dime novels so decided to write one himself and the tension in this thriller is introduced very quickly.

Highlights from chapter one

* Richard Hannay has returned to England after years of absence and is bored with London and as he walks back to his flat in central London he vows that unless something happens then he will leave and get on a boat for South Africa

* As he enters his flat a man from upstairs asks him to shelter him and explains that he has unconvered a conspiracy to set Germany against Russia and the only problem is that the Greek leader Karolides is honest and stopping the scheme so he will be assasinated when he comes to London on a visit in a month's time

* He leaves the man in his flat and when he returns the visitor Scudder tells him about the plan to kill Karolides in more detail and seems to be very nervous - sure enough the next evening as Hannay comes in the lights are off and his guest has been knifed through the heart

More lunchtime tomorrow...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez link

The beauty of the Internet is that it provides virtual libraries of information about a book or an author. If the links are good it can really add value to the reading experience. In a brief scan of what is out there on Gabriel Garcia Marquez The Modern Word site stands out and is not only a good place to find out all about the author but also a chance to read the latest news, which includes a mention of the Guardian story from the summer on the possibility that Love in the Time of Cholera is going to be made into a film.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera - post V

The parallel lives of Fermina and Floretino carry on with both growing older. He notches the times with being present at her public appearances and she seems to grow old without much of a thought for him but more of a general mental trawl back through her past

Bullet points between pages 210 – 260

* There is a short but savage passage where a love affair with a married woman and Florentino ends abruptly after he pains a message on her body and her husband reads it and then slashes her throat

* In the meantime the appearances of Fermina and Dr Urbino seem to be happy but behind the public smiles they are drifting apart and she is given plenty of chances to dwell on her marriage and her past

* Things come to a head and they separate for two years after she discovers he has had an affair with a female patient, a black woman living with a preacher, who manages to possess his good senses and make him almost risk losing everything for lust/love

* She finds that heading back to where she was born and staying with her cousin is deeply depressing as so much has changed and even her cousin has become a fat old woman so she is overjoyed when her husband finally comes for her to take her home

* Florentino goes to the cinema and Fermina is behind him and as the lights come on he notices that she needs help from her husband walking down the steps and it dawns on him that he might die before she does

More tomorrow…

bookmark of the week

I popped into my local library yesterday and they were giving away bookmarks to promote a campaign to promote books that are all linked to the theme of food and cooking. most of the time the bookmarks in the library promote local council services and are a world away from the sorts of things that are on offer in American libraries that are designed to encourage reading. This one came from a library in Wheaton, in the suburbs of Chicago.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera - post IV

It's been a busy today putting the decorations on the Christmas Tree and rushing round trying to get the heating fixed so reading was very much pushed back on the list of things that had to be done. As a result very few pages were consumed but I thought it worth while just posting some brief highlights

Bullet points between pages 180 - 210

* The two men - doctor urbino and Florentino Ariza finally meet and despite his years of wishing him dead Florentino actually feels sympathy for him and understands that they are both attached to the same yoke with their love for Fermina Daza

* Florentino continues to go through relationships, which are based on a sexual basis because his heart belongs to Fermina, that end unsatisfactoraily and lack the power that real love would bring to the coupling

* For the first time since she spurned Florentino you get an insight into the mind of Fermina and she feels guilt over the decision and although publicly seems very happy with her husband is unhappy and often sits in the bathroom smoking in secret in tears

Hopefully more tomorrow on what might be a less packed day...

Recommended by Richard and Judy

There is a Richard and Judy Christmas books special on TV tonight and an article in The Times book section discusses the power the celebrity couple have over influencing the titles people choose when they go into a shop. The piece reports that according to The Bookseller one in every 50 books sold in Britain is recommended by Richard and Judy and while they have chosen some good reads there is always the hint of a suggestion that what they are doing is not quite right because it puts so much influence into the hands of just a couple of people.
On the one hand if it gets people reading then great. But on the flip side, the more cynical side, judging by the assembled celebrities lining-up tonight (Rupert Everett, Michael palin and Billie Piper) to get you to buy their autobiographies, maybe the old cliché about power without responsibility comes into play here, and there has to be some sort of questioning about the role publishers are playing in this promotion game, the general quality of the recommendations and how books are chosen to get on the shortlist of what is promoted by R and J.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera - post III

The challenge for the reader, for me at least anyway, with Lobe in the Time… is working out which side you are going to take in the love triangle that revolves around Fermina Daza.

The skill of the writing is that just as you think you are going to back one of the men your feelings change and you are left keeping an open mind seeing how things develop.

Bullet points between pages 130 -180

* After ignoring the doctor’s advances for so long suddenly Fermina decides to allow him to court her and the next thing is that they are getting married and as a result Florentino Ariza spirals into depression and is sent away by his mother in an attempt to forget her

* However the trip is a failure and he returns home and seems content, starting an affair with a widow and forgetting his love by focusing on physical passion, but things spiral out of his hands when he sees her with her husband six months pregnant

* The married couple have returned back from a two-year stay in Europe, where they went for honeymoon, and they have grown to love each other after starting out on the relationship with not too much of that emotion in evidence

* In response to the sight of them both together Florentino dedicates himself to becoming successful enough to win her back and despite the marriage and pregnancy he seems convinced that there will come a point at which Doctor Urbino will die and he will get his chance

We know that of course he does have to wait for fifty years but will he get his chance or not? Even more of a question is if you want him to? On that I am far from sure.

Chances for more voices to be heard

One of the benefits of the Internet for musicians and to some extent film makers is the platform it provides for them to get global attention. The costs are minimum and fan power can prove that a record company should sign a band or a film has an audience. it got me wondering if the same was true of writers and I received an email the other day that gave an indication that digital books, which are obviously cheaper to produce than the printed alternative, is a way for unpublished authors and poets to get their work out to a larger audience. I haven’t looked into it yet in great detail but the DigitalPulp Publishing Company do seem to have quite a wide mix of selections online at its cyber bookstore. I’m going to try and find out more about this because it might also be a way of getting older translations back into circulation, which would be a great.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera - post II

Today has been a real challenge on the reading front. It is cold and wet and my boiler has broken so I’m trying to read and compete with my wife for space by the electric heater and inevitably I lost.

Still what makes the few pages you do get through so rewarding is that the story continues to surprise you and keep you with it.

Bullet points between pages 72 – 130

* The story goes back to relate the love story between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza and after he asks for her hand in marriage things start to develop at a slow pace until she is discovered writing love letters to him and expelled from school

* To try and get her to forget her father takes her away for a year and half but because he had telegrammed all the relatives they were going to stay with Florentino is able to send messages via telegram offices on her route

* Her love for him remains intact and she returns home and they meet as he follows her around the market and as she sees him she is full of horror and cannot understand why she fell for some one like him and calls the marriage and the relationship off

* The narrative then shifts focus to concentrate on Doctor Juvenal Urbino and explains that he is so keen to stop cholera because the disease keeps breaking out in the Caribbean and ravaging the local community and his father was a victim of the last major outbreak

* After being sent to check on Fermina, who is suspected of having cholera, he falls in love with her and because the father approves of the match he is given the sort of access and parental support that was never on offer to Florentino who the father once threatened to shoot

* She resists the growing pressure to start a formal courtship with the doctor and her cousin comes who feels that it is tragic she broke off with Florentino and reopens a dialogue with him at the Telegraph office

Tomorrow should brings more twists and turns…

book of books - Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a novel that is working on various different levels but regardless of that it is a book you will never forget and lingers on as you unravel the story in your mind trying to work out what it all means.

Bearing in mind the book was written against a background of Stalin’s Russia, where people would disappear in the middle of the night, friends would denounce each other and the Gulag system was at its height this conveys the sense of reality being distorted. Things that shouldn’t happen are happening in real life so the idea that people would wear clothes that then leave the naked after they vanish is no more stupid than the thought that people would change their ideas just to survive the purges.

Plot summary
The book starts with two atheists sitting in a park in Moscow talking about how Jesus didn’t exist when the Devil, a character under different names but mainly described as Woland, walks up and says he knows Jesus lived because he was there. There then unfolds the story of Pontius Pilate putting to death a man he knows is innocent told through a book that is being written by the character called the Master; a story of the Devil (Woland) running rampant through 1930s Moscow performing all sorts of acts in the guise of a magician with his henchmen; plus the love story of the Master and Margarita who leaves her life of bored luxury to follow the writer to the end.

Is it well written?
Some of the scenes will never be forgotten but and it is a challenge to get through what is clearly not a normal story. But it transmits the feeling of fear, oppression and topsy turvy decisions that must have been the norm in Stalin’s time. The Christ story is told in a way that is more narratively engaging than the traditional biblical story and the actions of Woland leave you sometimes bemused and at other points horrified. But as a satire on Modern Russia the only comparison that I have read, I’m sure there are plenty of others, is Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Should it be read?
The book is so well known that it would be odd if it was not consumed at some point by a reader and it deserves to be because rather than hide in the past and produce pastoral stories that implied the peasants needed a revolution, like some modern Russian authors, this is set clearly in modern Moscow. The other benefit of reading this is that it gives you a chilling insight into the power of the regime, as portrayed by Woland to literally erase or move people from their lives.

Leads to
More Bulgakov, although as already posted The White Guard is very different in style, Animal Farm by Orwell or some of the non-fiction titles about life in Stalin’s Russia, In the Court of the Red Tsar is particularly good example by Simon Sebag-Montefiore.

Version read – Penguin modern classics paperback

Struggling to read more than one at a time

Whenever I talk to people about reading they always list off the books they are reading with about three or four on the go. On friend told me that he couldn’t read just one book at a time and needed different styles and authors to mix it up and make life more interesting. But however hard I try it is not natural for me to have more than one book on the go at a time. Last night after finishing a good number of pages of Love in the Time of Cholera I picked up the Ukrainian history book Borderlands but found it hard to concentrate and so ended up putting it to one side.

Maybe you are just born a one book at a time reader or can handle three or four at a time? Maybe you can teach yourself to hold numerous plot lines and characters? But for me it is proving too difficult to do after years of just a single book at a time, which is a shame because I’m sure mixing it up more would be entertaining and could even be complimentary to the books – like mixing a good wine.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera - post I

There is something about the way that Garcia Marquez takes apart the normal structure of a novel and rebuilds it in a way that makes you think about the development of a story in a different way.

You put all your concentration into an 81 year old doctor who is sketched out in quite a lot of detail and there are 50 pages spent building this character and his world up before the rug is pulled from your feet ands you find that the real story could be coming from a different direction.

Bullet points between pages 3 – 72

* The focus of the opening few pages is the discovery of a suicide and the calling to the scene of a aged doctor, Dr Urbino, who happens to have been a friend of the victim and makes sure that the suicide is kept secret and the burial takes place quickly

* The friend, Jerimiah de Saint-Amour has left him a note that really disturbs the doctor because it contains not only the revelation he has had a mistress but that he was an escaped convict who in his time had resorted to cannibalism

* Dr Urbino then goes home and his wife Fermina Daza, who it is revealed he has had a strained relationship with as they grow old, and you discover that he has become weaker and more infirm as the years have gone by but he still dominates the town

* He has a talking parrot that is quite a local attraction and it escapes and in a moment when it loiters in the trees Urbino climbs up to get it but slips and crashes down to the earth and after telling his wife he loved her more than she knew he dies

* Then the story shifts dramatically as a man steps forward to the widow – Florentino Ariza and declares his undying love for Fermina – and the story goes back to a summer when the two young people were in love and he had asked and had his proposal of marriage accepted

Quite where it will go from here is not clear but that is the beauty of Garcia Marquez…

book of books - The White Guard

For most people the name Mikhail Bulgakov is linked with the Master and Margarita, a book that is very different in style from The White Guard (I will post a review of the Master… later) so it is good to come to this with an open mind.

This book is on a par with other war time novels including All Quiet on the Western Front in describing what people feel under fire. The difference is that the setting is not trenches or woodland but on the streets of Kiev.

But not only is it a book about war but is also about revolution and impact of fluid and brutal politics on normal people trying to work out where their loyalties should lie.

Plot summary
The central focus of the story is the Turbin family – Alexei, Elena and Nikolka – and the City of Kiev. The year is 1918 and the Tsar’s regime has collapsed and the Germans are still in the Ukraine and those who fought for Russia or were cadets on their way to becoming officers sit and ponder what happens next. Events start to develop with the Germans, now a defeated nation , pulling out from the City and as the Cossack army advances each individual has to decide whether to fight or to melt into the background. Alexei is wounded and almost dies, Nikolka fights then runs but in so doing become a man and Elena loses a husband into exile but sees her brothers safe.

Is it well written?
It captures the fear and the inner turmoil of people facing the decision to fight or run and also the tension in the city. You want the main characters to survive and come out intact and Bulgakov makes sure that you are left worrying about them until the end and even then with the hint of more trouble to come you are left wondering just what becomes of them. This story is timeless because it is fundamentally about human nature and in terms of showing a host of emotions ranging from cowardice to bravery and grief and joy then the White Guard has real depth.

Should it be read?
What might prevent more people from reading this is not interest but availability and the problem with being able to see beyond the Master and Margarita. This is an engaging read that drags you in and despite its difficult subject is absorbing page turner that really gets you to care for the people inside number 13 St Andrew’s Hill and for the City itself as the guns are aimed at its heart from the armoured train waiting to crawl into Kiev and start the killing all over again.

Leads to
In a way although it might lead to more Bulgakov the sort of books that are in a similar vein are All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.

Version read – Fontana modern classics paperback

Poet bloggers

Poetry is not my strong point but it seemed like a good idea to go out and find out what the act of blogging is doing to poets and poetry for an article I ended up submitting to Poet's Letter.

The responses were interesting...

Numerous poets have embraced the chance to blog on an almost daily basis, a welcome change from working away in isolation appearing for occasional readings, signings and new book releases.

Becoming a blogging poet posting poems and thoughts about writing and literature provides their readers with a chance not just to see the thought process in action but also to interact in a completely different way.

The benefits for the reader are clear, with access that would have been restricted to a mere handful of people now open to everyone, and it is having a positive impact on the poets as well.

“The blog has embedded me in daily practice. Poets often say, ‘Write every day, no matter how little.’ But I was never able to do it. Since 2003, I more or less have. Also, I keep a small notebook close to me at all times. I've always used notebooks, but writing for the blog has reinforced that practice,” says Mairead Byrne.

“ It has become a very really daily force in my life. I am indebted to the poetry editors and publishers of my world but I am an advocate of self-publication too, and the Internet allows that, not just for poetry, but for every sort of information,” she adds.

For others the chance to promote their own work has been a welcome alternative to the traditional routes to get published. For Martin Locock that was the main motivation of becoming a blogger.

“The main reason was my discouragement at the process of trying to get the poems into print. I had been circulating small collections among my friends, but these were by their nature limited by duplication costs and whether people had expressed an interest in receiving them. I thought that if I put them on the Web then maybe more people would find them,” he says.

For Reyes Cardenas it was the speed of the web that offered the main attraction: “I started my blog as an alternative to publishing on paper which of course involves time. And as a lot of my poetry is time sensitive a blog is the ideal vehicle.”

Another advantage that blogging can provide is a platform for poems to reach the world with feedback from readers that can offer poets vital encouragement.

“I don't post for critique as much as for pleasure. But one ‘Good poem!’ comment goes a long way. The trick is to not read silence to mean ‘You suck.’,” says Alice Hudson.

The comments might not be the sort of critical analysis that reviewers and peers might provide but as Bob Hazleton has found it be valuable nonetheless: “It's mostly general encouragement, which of course helps greatly.”

Being online has also led to new friendships and most poets have experienced interaction with readers well beyond the boundaries of their local community.

“The Internet certainly opened up my connection back to Ireland. I emigrated [to the US] in 1994 and, after five years or so, re-connected with Irish poetry at a level that was more suited to me, through American and British poetry listservs,” says Byrne.

“ I know people from different parts of the world read my blog. Some of them are old friends. Maybe some of them will be new friends too. But we're not talking about large numbers. Poetry is a one-by-one sort of art,” she adds.

Understandingly blogging, where the expectation is that there will be regular posts online, has also had an impact on the way poets write.

“I write more, I try to write a little everyday. For some weird reason though, posting my poems online sometimes makes me feel a little cheap, easy, desperate. Like the screen isn't as legitimate as paper. And sometimes I think I rush a poem to get it posted that day, when maybe if I wasn't blogging I would have taken more time to develop the thought,” says Hudson.

Lacock also feels the pressure but has a relaxed approach to developing poetry online: “The immediacy of writing online has led to my writing very short poems: a lot of haiku, for example. In an informal context, a poem doesn't have to be big or clever to be worth writing, so I write more often.”

The openness of the web can cause some challenges with poets being able to see each others work, gauge the popularity of certain styles and as a result possibly be influenced to change their own style.

“Sometimes I read other poems that get a lot of comments and I say to myself ‘I wish I could write like that,’ but then I always realise I can only be me. But it does inspire me to be more experimental on occasion,” says Hazelton.

The web is offering a much larger audience for poets, the chance to develop new relationships and adapt writing styles. With an increasing number of poets embracing online tools to share and publise their work it is to the web that the health of the poetry nation will have to measured in the future, not on the bookshelves.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

White Guard an epilogue

At the end of the Fontana paperback version of the White Guard I am reading there is an epilogue in the form of an article by Victor Nekrasov, written for a Moscow literary journal in 1967, who sets out to find the locations described in the book and eventually finds the house of the Turbins at 13 St Andrews Hill and manages to visit the people living there. In a piece, which is saved from just being simple hero worship because of its interest, he discovers that the Bulgakov family lived in the house and most of the content of the book is autobiographical.

The most interesting things he discovers are that as a consequence of describing the owner of the flat downstairs as a money hoarder the authorities thought there might be some truth in it and made his life difficult. That he did have a brother Nikolai and he died in exile in Paris. But the interesting thing that this topographer cannot explain is the most important two streets in the book – where the Turbins live and where the woman who saves Alexei lives - have their names changed while everything else stays the same.

The final thing that you have to remember is that the book followed a play The Days of the Turbins, which Stalin liked so much he saw 15 times and when Bulgakov found the censorship and life in Russia so hard he pleaded to be allowed to go into exile it was Stalin who telephoned him and made him stay - not someone you could really argue with.

“When you come to Kiev I invite you to walk down the steep slope of St Andrews’s Hill to No. 13, to glance into the backyard (be sure to notice the steps on the left, under the verandah, for it was just there that a shiver ran down poor Vasilisa’s belly when he caught sight of Yavdokha, the beautiful milkmaid), and then to go uphill, cross the ‘mediaeval’ courtyard of Richard the Lionheart’s Castle, and to go up on to the hilltop, sit down on the edge of it, light a cigarette if you like, and admire the City which, even though he never came back to it, Bulgakov loved so much.”

The White Guard - post IV

If you read the post earlier you will know that this book is being consumed with a smile on the face and eyes keenly scanning each word and it is a real shame that it has come to an end.

Anyway enough of the premature review and the gushing comments about Bulagov’s writing and onto the highlights of today’s reading.

Bullet points between pages 180 – 270

* The blanks are filled in with the story of what happened to Alexei after the story left him ripping off his epaulettes and when he stumbled through the front door injured and it involves him being chased by the Reds and then saved by a woman who takes pity on him

* Back in the Turbin’s home the old faces start to reassemble and there are arguments about being betrayed by the leadership but a truce of sorts is called because fears turn to thoughts of being raided

* Thieves raid the neighbour downstairs and as a result they agree a system of alarm bells to warn each other of trouble but discover that the thieves took the guns that Nikolka had hidden so carefully in the gap between buildings

* The population of the City has no idea what is going on but turns out at the cathedral to greet Petlyura, without any idea of what he looks like or even what he stands for, and cheer on an independent Ukraine

* Things then come to a climax with Alexei’s illness and it seems as if he is going to die from Typhus and there is a moment when the doctor tells Elena, his sister that there is no hope and she starts to pray

* You can feel the rhythmic intensity of her kneeling and kissing the floor in front of the icon as she pleads for her brother to be spared and makes a deal (slightly similar to the End of the Affair deal in Greene’s novel) that she will lose her husband to save her brother

* In a moving passage she is called from her room and her brother has pulled through and not too long afterwards she gets news that her husband has gone into exile in France and is divorcing her so the deal made in the prayers is balanced out

* Carrying out a promise Nikolka made to the colonel who was killed fighting with him he goes to his family and tells them of his death and then helps find the corpse and give him a proper burial

* Alexei returns to practicing medicine and as things become slightly more normal the independent Ukrainian forces disappear and the next stage of the Civil War is ushered in with no one knowing quite what it means for the City or the people who live in it

A full review will appear tomorrow…

In praise of the White Guard

Usually I wait until the end of a book to make comments about it but The White Guard is one of the most enjoyable books I have read for a long time. Enjoyable not in the sense of it being a rip-roaring yarn but because it is so well described, detailed and conveyed making you really sense the war going on around you. As a description of the way that being in the middle of a war feels like trying to stand up on a piece of floating ice then this book, which is criminally undervalued compared to say All Quiet on the Western Front, is in a class of its own. If the idea of a story being based around a City and a few selected individuals and one family being torn apart by war sounds appealing then track down The White Guard. The way it is working out so far, and unless things go off the boil in the last 100 pages this is shaping up to be one of my favourite reads of the year.