Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lunchtime read: Saturday

The book ends on a philosophical note with musings on the war on terror, parental love and the difference between punishment and forgiveness. At the end there is a page of acknowledgements to the doctors that helped McEwan with the medical terminology and it is so well researched that when ever the hospital scenes are mentioned there is a shift into a clinical world of assured description.

The suspense is stoked up by the question of whether or not Henry will carry out some sort of revenge when he goes into operate on Baxter who has a fractured skull. He goes in and the suspense is maintained right to the end, even when he returns home you half expect him to admit to killing the intruder.

The reality is that he has searched his soul and decided that he is going to try and get his family to forgive Baxter so he can spend his last few years alive rather than in prison. He then returns home to the comfort of his wife and they celebrate the love they have for each other. They talk about the shock, the terror and the family and the future disruption their daughter’s pregnancy will cause.

Henry then wakes and hears the planes overhead and stands looking out of the window in the same way he had done when the day started. But now there is a more philosophical attitude to the possibility of terror and ageing and he settles back into bed and finally goes to sleep.

A review probably at the weekend…

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Crossing - post III

The blurb on the back of the book talks about Billy making three crossings over the US and Mexican border and this seems to be the main business done on the first of them with the young man showing remarkable loyalty and courage to honour his obligations to the wolf.

A couple of things are consistent with the first book in this trilogy with a young sixteen year-old being wise beyond his years. There is a scene where the wolf has been captured and is being baited by dogs and rather than watch him being ripped to shreds Billy walks through a crowded room and raises the rifle and shoots the animal. He then mounts his horse taking the corpse and rides out into the mountains.

The other thing happening is again the numerous moments when there could be real danger for the lead character. He walks through encounters with a confidence that is assured. Contrast that to the 40 something lead character Henry Perowne in Saturday who admits to feeling like urinating as he faces a knife wielding intruder and maybe there is cause here for implausibility. Sure there is something to be said for the boldness of youth but would a young man far away from home really be as confident in the face of unknown strangers?

The challenge after he leaves with the wolf corpse is not just to survive against potential human conflict but also against nature. It is going to be particularly hard now he has traded his rifle for the wolf.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Saturday

The only other McEwan book I’ve read is Amsterdam and there was a shift in pace with that book as it reached the end and the same ability to quicken the pulse is in evidence here as part four closes in spectacular fashion.

At the back of your mind the confrontation with Baxter has overshadowed the book and was ready for some sort of conclusion. Why be worried about potential terrorist attacks and imaginary demons when you can settle for real fear instead.

Ironically Baxter manages to reconcile the family and bring them closer together much more successfully than Henry could have done. Up to that point he has argued with his daughter struggled to see eye to eye with his father-in-law and heading for a tense supper with the only refugee being his wife. But when she appears it is not alone and a knife wielding Baxter walks in for his revenge.

He breaks the father-in-law’s nose, forces his daughter to strip naked and read poetry and holds a knife to Rosalind’s neck. The tension is only broken up by a quick thinking Theo who along with Henry wrestles Baxter to the floor and calls the Police. The rest of the evening is spent with them comparing notes on the incident and sharing their feelings. No one discusses the other revelation, which was the result of Daisy being forced to undress, that Henry’s daughter is pregnant.

But before they get the chance Henry is called away to work on Baxter who has been brought into his hospital for emergency treatment. How will Henry treat the patient who so recently broke into his home at knife point?

More tomorrow…

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lunchtime read: Saturday

When the question was being raised in the run up to the Iraq war of which side you took it was always a chance to get involved in a unnecessary argument that quickly became heated. When Henry’s daughter Daisy turns up she ends up in a similar one with her father.

His view of the war, which borders on a sort of tired indifference, is quite common and you could argue that it was as a result of so many people taking that line Blair and Bush did not have as much opposition. But the arguments laid out are easy to identify with and still rumble on with it the question of whether or not it was better to get rid of a tyrant and replace him with some sort of quasi-democracy or to hedge him in and try to control him through the international community.

The argument between Henry and Daisy in the first chunk of part four is eerily reminiscent of conversations that ruined friendships a few years ago.

More tomorrow…

The most precious commodity

One of the most difficult quantities in the world to try and capture and make the best use of is time. After one of the most frustrating weeks blogging and reading I have known -where there was no time to not only read but get comfortable in a book – it made me realise that there are real challenges getting time with a book.

Not only is reading seen as a selfish and solitary experience but according to some people it is also a waste of time. The same sadly gets applied to blogging. Any argument that it produces personal pleasure is again used against you to justify the selfish argument. Maybe some of that is true but it is a real shame that the time for reading and writing about it gets squeezed to the periphery.

You end up getting up early or going to bed late armed with a torch to try and get through some more of the book you are enjoying. Last week, where it was barely possible to get more than 20 pages a day in, really struck home how difficult it is to read with a young family. I am not saying that you have to read a set amount each day but if you enjoy reading it does seem to be the first activity that gets jettisoned when time is short.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

bookmark of the week

This is one of the many bookmarks that get handed out at US libraries. They are often more colourful than this one but it resembles the majority in that it contains an encouraging motto. It was heartbreaking to hear on the radio the other day an eleven year-old boy talk about his love of bedtime stories then admit that as a result he gets bullied over it at school. Those who see reading as somehow a losers activity should maybe take heed from the words on this bookmark.

The Crossing - post II

Billy manages to track and catch the wolf and then decides to take it back to Mexico. It’s not clear if this is because of some sort of admiration for the animal, feeling of doing what’s right to a pregnant animal or if it has something to do with the feelings he has for his father – who would have liked to have no doubt shared the credit for the kill across the family.

Before he crosses into Mexico Billy is stopped and questioned on his intentions by a farmer who wonders if he not only knows what he is doing but whether or not it os a wise idea taking a wolf back into Mexico and not just killing it. Billy stands his ground and heads across the border with the wolf in tow and the threat from McCarthy that having left home that morning that was the last time he ever saw his father alive. Hopefully there will be more than just 20 or so pages consumed when I get back in the work routine on Monday.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lunchtime read: Saturday

There is always that tendency by people to say that the lucky ones are those who don’t have to live through the conflict. It is usually applied to major conflicts like the major world wars but McEwan makes you wonder about that with the war on terror. Henry goes to visit his mother and the rest of chapter III is taken up with him driving out to see her and then having to sit through her not knowing who he is and where she is.

With the TV in the lounge of the old people’s home broadcasting pictures without sounds of the anti-war march maybe it is better not to know what is going on. Maybe it is preferable to be in a state of childhood where all that matters is getting home in time for tea with your mother?

It is an interesting idea and there is also the spin that here is a brain surgeon dealing with some one with advanced dementia who not only knows what processes have happened in her brain to get her to that state but also knows that it could well happen to him as well at some point in the future. Again the question would be - would it not be better not to have a clue about what might happen to your brain?

Lets see what other questions come next. More tomorrow…

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lunchtime read: Saturday

One of the interesting parts of having been involved in a short act of violence is that it plays through your mind for days and weeks afterwards. The same is true of Henry who has to go from his encounter with the muggers straight into a squash game. His mind is elsewhere and it takes him time not just to settle but get rid of the aggression that flows through his system.

Where McEwan gets it right is in the way he manages to get a 40 something character with more money and medical knowledge than certainly ninety off per cent of the readers and yet make his feelings something that can easily be identified. That must be the gamble of setting it so definitely in a known context. Just as he describes the various unknown reactions to the Iraq war no doubt there was a hidden reference there to the inevitability that some readers will by this point have sided firmly with Henry or as the third chapter begins will have decided they can’t stand him. I still like him but we’ll see if that continues.

More tomorrow….

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lunchtime read: Saturday

Not much reading again because of a constant headache. But did manage a lunchtime read and a good 30 pages where Henry almost gets a beating after having a prang and smashing off a wing mirror. The irony is that the men want £75 cash rather than going down the legal route of exchanging insurance details.

My mother in law backed into someone recently and roughly the same amount was asked for. It must be the sum that people who don’t bother with insurance plumb for.

Anyway Henry refuses and is on the brink of getting a beating when he speaks to the ringleader, who is can clearly diagnose with Huntington’s disease. While he talks to him about possibilities for treatments the moment when he could have taken a beating passes and two of the gang that was on the brink of swinging punches heads off to Tottenham Court Road to watch the anti-war marchers.

having introduced the idea of fear of terrorism and a suspicion that voilence is all around McEwan steps it up to become something that is much more personal. Having painted the little pocket of London around Euston/Warren Street as being quite swanky suddenly the reality of London kicks in with the voilence around every corner. That is not something new from 9/11 but ever since I have lived in the capital has been there.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Crossing - post I

It has taken a couple of days to pick this up and although there is the same issue about quote marks and trying to work out as a result sometimes who is talking the story is set in much more of a fixed frame than All the Pretty Horses. The two brothers Boyd and Billy Parham are also teenagers but they live on a farm with their mother and father and there is a sense that the growing up will be more gradual.

The first fifty pages or so introduce the brothers, the father and the land. The last of these is the most important feature of the narrative. The boys are keen toe explore and test the boundaries and things start with them meeting an Indian who demands food from them and then menaces them to try to get money. They leave him but you sense he will reappear – Blevins style – and upset things later on.

But the main focus is the effort that Billy makes in particular, along with his father and brother, to track and catch a she wolf that is slaying cattle in the hills near the farm. Billy does a great deal of tracking and trap setting on his own after having been shown by his father how to set one. The quest for the wolf becomes almost spiritual – a test of manhood –and even he admits to his brother that if he were to find the wolf he would not know what to do.

Again with McCarthy the landscape is all important and the book dust jacket blurb places this pre second world war so the horses and the farming life play an important role. Mind you it was interesting to see that when the TV footage showed the evacuees leaving behind the blazing hillsides in Southern California many took their horses with them. The spirit that McCarthy and John Steinbeck wrote about is still alive.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Saturday

I am not feeling very well today so the reading has suffered. As I feared all I managed to do on the lunchtime reading front were again 20 pages. The more you sit on the shoulder of Henry Perowne the more you like him because the success of a career and the trappings of wealth sit very casually with him.

He wanders around his home on the Saturday morning getting ready to go off and play his squash game and goes past the library, accepting that he never thought he would live in a home with a library. He feels grateful for the relationship he has with his daughter and the literary arguments they enjoy together.

As he wanders out into London the crowds are gathering for an anti-Iraq war march and the papers are full of headlines about the UN trying to get the US and UK to show restraint and wait but of course it seems unlikely that will happen.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

book review - All the Pretty Horses

This is the first book in the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and introduces you to what seems like a very simple story with two friends deciding to ride down from Texas into Mexico. But it is not quite that simple and is a novel that covers some of the big subjects including coping with loss - not just of family and property but also of the way things used to be.

The main character John Grady Cole decides to mount his horse and ride off after his life unravels. His parents have been living separate lives for a while and the ranch his lives on is finally sold. There is nothing much to stay for so along with his friend Lacey Rawlins they decide to head off and ride into Mexico. They find that it is an adventure in itself getting a stretch of open country and they get a fair few turned heads.

The journey is not just an escape from the emptiness left by the ranch sale but also it is an escape into the past when cowboys rode horses and horses were the main way to get around. The slight problem here is that John Grady, the main character, is sixteen and it does stretch the credibility sometimes that not only is he mature enough for the trip but has the life experience to be able to draw on the skills he needs to survive.

But if you can park that concern then this is not only a requiem for the American past but for John Grady becomes a tale of love, friendship and honour. He loves the daughter of the ranch owner him and Rawlins eventually end up working for. But she cannot go with him because of her loyalty towards her family. He does everything to project not just his friend Rawlins but also a stranger Jimmy Blevins who they pick up on the way and he struggles with his code of morals after he lets Blevins get killed without a word of objection and then kills a man to save himself in prison.

Linking all the situations in the book are horses. Grady has a gift taming them, a need to be around them and it is the link to the world of the past. He is prepared to die trying to be reunited with his horse and it is the mode of transport that enables his escape from Mexico and the continuation of his journey.

What McCarthy manages to do is use a relatively simple story of awakening to danger and betrayal - after all the ranch owner is instrumental in putting Grady and Rawlins in jail to get them away from his daughter - and turn it into something more powerful about the betrayal of a way of life. When Grady gets back across the border inthe the US and ends up telling his tale to a judge it is only because of the senior age of the legal representative that the man is able to connect so well with Grady. The message of the tale is that there is a moral code, that although seeming to be out of date, is still something that can be followed and connects to the old American West where men were men, horses were fundamental and honour counted for a great.

Version read - Picador Paperback

1,000 not out

If this was a magazine or a TV show this would be an ideal chance to do some razzmatazz about it being the 1,000th post. Sadly this post is as good as it is going to get. Thanks for reading and hopefully some of the 1,000 mutterings and meanderings have been enjoyable. Thanks for the continued hits, comments and support.

Lunchtime read: Saturday

Sadly at the rate of just 20 odd pages a day this is not going to get read as quickly as I hoped. It might be about one day in the life but it might well take more than a week in the consuming.

The more you find out about Henry, the central figure, the more you can’t help but like him. The second part of chapter one details how he met his wife Rosalind. As a 19 year -old law graduate suffering from a brain tumour he met her in the ward and wooed her and after finally shuffling into replaced the relationship she had with her dead mother he recognises that he will have to marry her.

He waits for his daughter to come later that Saturday evening. He seems to like as well as want to be a fatherly protector of his daughter who is trying her hand at trying to become a poet.

The sounds of nearby Euston road start to mount and even on a Saturday morning London starts to get into full swing and while McEwan makes the comment that sun rises are for rural landscapes the sound of traffic is the capital’s equivalent.

More, hopefully a bit more, tomorrow…

Monday, October 22, 2007

Lost for words - lost for consistency

Having only caught the end of the Dispatches special on Channel 4 covering the challenges getting people to read there were a couple of observations that came to mind. The first is the inconsistency in the support for phonics with some saying it is not the right approach and others putting all their belief in the system. My son is going through it and so it all feels very emotive listening to any views about it.

But the second thing was the activity of the Scottish community that had turned around its reading problems. What was interesting and can surely be mimicked by others was the approach that the library had taken. Facing up to the possibility that in a generation its aisles would be empty it got the entertainers in, devised activities to draw in the children and seemed to have really understood the need to put the library back in the heart of the community – a very successful move it appeared to be as well.

Lunchtime read: Saturday

It is quite unusual to read a book that is so firmly fixed not just in a distinct location but also a clearly signposted time. On the one hand it runs the risk of dating the material but on the other it has the benefit of making you feel you can identify with the events because you remember also watching most of them on the news. Hut after the first 40 odd pages there is enough here to make you plan to stick with it.

One relative sat me down and told me once that it was almost impossible to convey the fear that people lived under during the Cuban missile crisis. People really thought that they were going to die as victims of a nuclear war. You sense there is some attempt being made here to convey the sense of fear that pervaded, and still does, society following the launching of the war of terror post 9/11.

But there is something else here that draws you in and that is an equal sense of identification. Although the main character is a 40 something brain surgeon who clearly lives in one of the more exclusive parts of London his thoughts are those of our own and it made me picture not just what was described in the book but also trigger some of my own memories.

Things start with Henry the brain surgeon waking in the middle of the night, opening his window and seeing an aeroplane streaking across the London skyline with an engine on fire. After thinking about his day and how successful he is at his job the thought that the terror that is a backdrop to everyday life has struck again and his is a witness disturbs him enough to make him wander downstairs and put on the news and watch it with his blues musician 18 year old son.

The plane lands safely and the two crew of the Russian cargo plane are unhurt but there has been enough done here in the opening chapter to make you wonder what will happen next

More tomorrow…

Sunday, October 21, 2007

bookmark of the week

I live reasonably near to the dome in Greenwich and next month there is a big exhibition starting of Egyptian antiquities that is expected to be very popular. This bookmark is from the British Museum, which has its own Egyptian exhibits including some mummies. This shows the gilded mummy case of Henutmehit.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Something from the papers

Skimming through the papers today there was an unusual story in The Times about the death of Edgar Allan Poe which now might be as a result of a brain tumour. For years people suspected that he went mad or committed suicide and in some sort of way became like a character in his own story Murder on the Rue Morgue. But it seems that there might be a straightforward explanation after all.

The other story that caught the eye was actually in the Guardian yesterday which pointed out that although some authors win the Booker Prize and get some decent money from their work most don't According to the article by Blake Morrison some writers are barely scraping £10,000 a year which is the sort of statistic that will put plenty of people off choosing it as some sort of career ambition

Friday, October 19, 2007

All the Pretty Horses - post IV

By the end of this book John Grady Cole, the main character, seems to have become a living embodiment of the old West. With his horse and his old fashioned morals he seems to be the last physical representation of an age that has gone completely in Texas.

After a while you give up trying to believe he is merely seventeen and enjoy the story for what it is – a tale of unrequited love. Not just for a woman but also for a country and a time. Left to his own in Mexico John tries to meet up with the ranch owner’s daughter but the price of his release from prison, which surely saved his life, is that the girl never sees him again.

They meet just once more but that is the end and John then decides to head back home but not without getting his horse and that involves taking the captain who had first arrested him and Rawlins hostage and getting him to take him to the horses. When he gets there John is shot and then after escaping with not just his own but also Rawlins and Blevin’s horses he straggles on with the captain who has dislocated his shoulder. They roam around until some men catch them up but it is the captain they want and not John.

He straggles back to Texas and feels that his father has died and sure enough when he finally gets the chance to give back Rawlins his horse it is confirmed for him. Rawlins asks him what he is going to do and John reveals that he feels he has no country and intends riding through the landscape until he finds happiness and after a stop for the funeral of the old maid at the ranch he does just that and disappears into the sunset.

A review will follow soonish…

A short burst of self promotion

Indulge me for a moment while I share the link to my review of Edgar Allan Poe’s Selected Tales that has now appeared on the Blog a Classic Penguin site. It is of course always rewarding to see your work posted either online or in print and although the criteria of what made it onto the site here it is still enjoyable seeing it up there.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

All the Pretty Horses - post III

There are moments when you don’t want the train to stop so you can carry on reading about the exploits of John Grady Cole. By now you have to take the view – not that I’m in a position to know – that either Texan teenagers are some of the widest around or that perhaps it’s best to put the age of the main character to the back of your mind.

The reason is that not only does he show a maturity in his ability to converse with wealthy ranch owners, horse hands and his older fellow traveller Lacey Rawlins but he also shows a calmness in a prison situation that most of us would lose out minds trying to deal with.

In No Country for Old Men by the stage you get to just past the middle of the book you think you have a rough idea of how it might end. McCarthy has this knack, which is repeated here slightly later in the narrative, of taking the reader down a false trail. One moment you think that Rawlins and Grady are okay and then the next they are facing a tough prison where because they refuse to pay for their escape they are beaten.

When they get the chance to come to an agreement with the prisoner who runs the place Grady stands firm and the result is that Rawlins is cut with a knife and almost killed and taken off the site to a hospital. Grady is left to fend for himself but again this calm and resourceful teenager pays for a knife and then kills his would be assassin.

He then gets paid out of jail by the rich ranch owners relative and then bids farewell to Rawlins who heads home and hitches and walks back to the ranch. All of this is done by this superman of a teenager who is driven on not just by love of the ranch owners daughter but some sense of justice. Although it might be hard to believe it is nonetheless a cracking read.

More tomorrow,,,

book review - A Clockwork Orange

Whenever you read a book that has become infamous not only because of a film version but because of its violent content then you are going to struggle to come to it with an open mind. The other problem is that the message from Anthony Burgess’s book gets lost a little bit in a film that is remembered more for its costumes, fight scenes and having eyes pinned back by those trying to brainwash criminality out of the lead character Alex.

I am sure that I read somewhere that Burgess did not like the film and it is possible to see why because the endings are different. It is not until the end of the book that there is any real sign of hope for Alex.

As a reader you go from fearing the main character to hating him and then having not only sympathy but at the end even a hint of admiration for the stage he has reached on his journey of discovery.

But a constant challenge for the reader is the language and because Alex and his friends speak in a teenage slang of their own it acts not only to divide them from the adults but also make it clear that this is not someone the average reader can easily identify with. The combination of a classical music loving fifteen year old who is also capable of robbery and rape is something that is meant to be disturbing. To some extent it feels as if the examples of the violence are being laid on too deep with Alex and company moving from terrorising a library visitor, a store owner and then the rape and beating of an author. But the reasons for the various set pieces of violence becomes clear after Alex is released from prison.

But Burgess is not just making a comment here about the violence and alienation of youth but is also damming the prison system that seems to be unable to cope with offenders and has no real answer for straightening them out and sending them back into society.

Alex goes from one extreme to the other after he is brainwashed into being meek rather than violent and the cure seems to be at the expense of the ability to choose how to act in certain situations.

Understandably because he is the first to go through the treatment Alex becomes a political football but the end result is that no one has the answer and he can only be made into ultra violent or ultra meek. In the end he cures himself of his extremes by maturing out of his violence.

There is also another theme running through the book with Burgess tackling the thorny issue of parental obligation and the consequences of a breakdown of the relationship between parent and child and the consequential absence of love. The idea that Alex might be a victim all along is hinted at and becomes clear after his parents abandon his memory after he goes to prison.

This book is a challenge to read because of the language but well worth persevering with because it speaks about the alienation of teenagers, the inability of both parents and the state to cope with that and how most official responses are inappropriate. In an age when anti social behaviour orders are being handed out left right and centre this book has a message that is incredibly relevant for the here and now.

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review - No Country for Old Men

A good friend of mine enthuses about Cormac McCarthy and tells everyone that he meets to start reading his books. But his recommendation comes with a caveat that the first 100 pages might be difficult going and you have to stick with it. The fact is that the book dies take a while to get going is not because of the reasons you might initially thing but is connected to the style.

The absence of quote marks, some problems working out as a result who is speaking as well as the descriptive technique means it is not until about page 100 that you feel settled and able to navigate through the rest of the novel.

By then the bodies have already started piling up and the three main characters are becoming clear – the sheriff Bell, the psycho Chigurh and the opportunist Moss – and you are starting to get drawn in to a story that has several directions it could head in.

Each chapter is prefaced with an italic dialogue that are the thoughts of Sheriff Bell who is clearly a very wise man but struggling to keep up with the cross-border trade in drugs and death. As the bodies stack up he starts to despair not just about this case but about the way things are heading in general.

Moss is one of the characters you most empathise with because the Vietnam veteran stumbles across a scene of carnage in the desert and finds a briefcase with $2.4m, which he takes. But as he is leaving one of the dying men asks for water. Moss makes the mistake of going back that night to take him some and from that moment until his death is being tracked by Chigurh and the Mexican drug dealers.

Chigurh is a strange character that has no problem killing someone on the flip of a coin not only because he enjoys it but also because it appeals to his moral code. He is ruthless, effective and determined not only to track down the money but also dish out his own flavour of revenge on the way.

When a hit man is sent to track him down you sense Moss and his wife might end up with the money but Chigurh is too good for them both and ends up getting the money and a couple more corpses.

In the end bell decides to retire but wonders if he is letting himself and the town down by making that decision and has flashbacks to when he let himself down in the second world war.

A freak accident with some Mexicans smoking drugs in a car sees the end of Chigurh’s killing spree and Moss, his wife and numerous other innocent bystanders end up getting shot down.

But this is not really a story about a single case but more a vivid example meant to illustrate how much the drugs business has distorted what is acceptable and how expendable a life is when it stand in the way of making millions out of crime.

The violence is meant to be extreme to not only show the futility of trying to fight it with traditional sheriff departments but how another more cynical generation is needed to comprehend the motivation of those that are breaking the law.

It is not only a requiem for Bell and the generations of lawmakers that had gone before him but also to that part of America. Impressive landscape and quiet towns are now being used as the backdrop of a war that cares nothing for the innocent. That is the real message you take away from this story that on occasions seems to be venturing on occasions into some sort of Quentin Tarentino inspired film script.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

All the Pretty Horses - post II

If there is one thing that makes you not only want to stick with this book but keep reading avidly. It has to be because of the main character John Grady Cole who is wise well beyond his sixteen years, and able to understand horses, women and men.

As the second hundred pages starts to unravel just as you might have expected Blevins, the stranger who caused them so much trouble before they settled down on the ranch working for a living, manages to reappear and destroy their happiness.

Until Blevins is reintroduced to them in a prison cell they are getting on well proving their worth to the rich Mexican ranch owner with John Grady’s ability to break horses. He goes through all of the wild horses that have been kept on the ranch and then goes off into the mountains to get some more with his friend Lacey Rawlins.

But love bites and John falls for the ranch owner’s daughter and they start an illicit relationship against the wishes of her aunt and presumably her father. So when the Mexican police come to take Rawlins and Grady away the ranch owner does not speak out for them and in fact seems to have welcomed the chance to get the American away from his daughter, who he has resorted to sending to France.

After being dragged to prison they meet Blevins who is in there for shooting three men in revenge for taking his horse and his gun. Grady and Rawlins are dragged off and accused of being accomplices in the crime but Grady takes none of it too seriously. But he returns to the cell knowing, just as he is able to read horses, that the police will kill Blevins.

It turns out to be a right prediction and on the way to prison proper the truck stops in a remote area and Blevins is taken away and pistol shots are heard and he does not return. The two friends are alone again and head off to take numerous beatings at the prison before being offered a chance to escape but for a cost.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lunchtime read: A Clockwork Orange

Work has been manic today and looks like being that way until we go to press late on Thursday night. All I have been able to do is squeeze the last few pages of Clock Work Orange past my eyes and it was worth it.

The language might be difficult but after a while you actually start to enjoy it and I particularly liked his reference to cigarettes as ‘cancer’s cutting straight to the truth. In the end Alex finds his speech is both the trigger that jogs the memory of one of his victims as well as something that is there to be ridiculed by those who have left that sort of life behind.

In the end you start wondering where Alex is going to go with the potential for him to become cured and get back into his old ways. Things take the inevitable turn as Alex starts to relax in the home of his protector who realises that the young man was responsible for the rape and death of his wife. Before he can take any revenge his friends take Alex away and pipe in music with the effect of driving him to the point where suicide seems to be the only way out.

Alex does land on the pavement and it looks as if he has helped smash the government by trying to kill himself. But politics being what it is he is deprogrammed and the government says that it will help him get back on his feet and he gets a job in the state music archive.

In his evenings he is back out with a gang trying to get up to the old tricks but the joy has gone out if it. He leaves his droogs in the pub and goes for a walk and comes across a coffee bar and there meets the one member of his old gang who has not been mentioned since he went to prison. Peter is with his wife and the shock of seeing someone grown up and worrying about jobs and money hits Alex hard and he realises that he has grown out of the desire to destroy and instead wants to join the human race and become an adult, husband and father.

A review will follow towards the weekend…

Monday, October 15, 2007

All the Pretty Horses - post I

You always get a bit nervous starting out on a trilogy, particularly if you cannot see the size of the other books and the commitment that you are about to make. But equally if it is a well-written novel then the idea of getting three doses can be very attractive. So it was with a light heart that the pages were turned on All The Pretty Horses, the first part of the Border trilogy. Having just put down No Country for Old Men this was an instant return to a Texan landscape McCarthy describes so well.

In the first 100 pages the landscape as much as the main character and his family situation is outlined. Just like Old Country it takes a while to get to grips with the characters and the story but it settles down quickly after John Grady Cole sets off riding for Mexico with his friend.

Cole leaves everything behind because his family life is disintegrating with his father and mother going their separate ways. There is also a problem with the ranch with his mother owning it outright from the father but refusing to let her son run it. As a result it goes down hill and the life he dreams of leading – Texas ranch owner – becomes something out of his reach.

As a result he gets on his horse and along with his friend Lacey Rawlins starts the trek to Mexico. The two friends play not just at being adults but also at being cowboys chewing tobacco and hunting down their meals. But things start to change near the border when they pick up a shadow in the form of a boy that is riding a horse that John and Lacey assume is stolen.

They try to get rid of the stranger and in scenes reminiscent of Sam, Frodo and Gollum it is John that becomes the arbitrator between the two boys that dislike each other from the start. Lacey resents the intrusion and his opinion of the stranger seems to be right when he manages to lose his horse and his clothes in a thunderstorm. They ride into a Mexican village and discover the horse in a coral and the stranger takes it starting off chaos that spreads through the village and almost results in John and Lacey being caught by local villagers but the stranger splits away from them leaving them to wander back as a duo for now at least.

Great descriptions of the people and the landscape and you sense that just as Lacey warns John the stranger spells trouble.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Clockwork Orange

No doubt this could have been finished off in one sitting but having bought a new bike at the weekend I needed my lunch hour to work out how to fold it away and get it in the bag that came with it. On the face of it sounds simple but it didn’t work well on the way in so needs a bit of practice before heading home. As a result theses are the thoughts from the twenty or so pages after the start of part three around the page 100 mark.

Having been released from prison a series of rather unfortunate coincidences means that Alex and his programming not to revert to violence are tested to the limit.

Firstly he discovers that his parents have taken in a lodger, the police have taken and sold all of his property and his old home is eerily clean and looks taken care of.. The reason why the place is not smashed up by young hooligans becomes clear after Alex is rescued by the police after being beaten up in the library.

The incident in the library is sparked because Alex is recognised by the first victim in the story and the old man who had his books torn, clothes and money stolen is joined by his aged friends who deliver a gentle but disturbing kicking to young Alex.

But things take an even more surreal turn when the police turn up to help him with Dim and Billy there leader of the gang they were in mortal combat with having joined the police. They are only too happy to hand out a real kicking to Alex and leave him in the country miles from the city.

The only option is to crawl to a friendly home and he manages to stumble on the very place his gang went to before where they raped the wife and beat up the husband. The wife has gone, dying of the shame and injuries of that night and the husband cannot recognise Alex. He shows kindness and love to the young man who he believes backs up his theory that the government is trying to turn everyone into clockwork oranges.

Final thoughts tomorrow..

Sunday, October 14, 2007

bookmark of the week

Digging through some old books my wife has stored away a little book came to light that had a tassle sticking out. On opening it a little bookmark that has the date of 1946 on the back was inside and although I have no idea of the history of it or what the scene on the front is it does make you think of an England in the late 1930s when this sort of style was around.

The love of bookmarks

Most people collect something and if you are lucky enough it is a low cost, non-intrusive hobby that does not make too many demands in terms of money and space. For the past few years (not sure how long) I have collected bookmarks from places I have visited putting them all in a box and pulling them out now and again to keep my place in the book I am reading.

What has been staggering is that since posting a bookmark of the week every Sunday for the past year and a bit that it has been a way of linking in with other bookmark lovers. I had no idea how many people took it seriously and you can understand why when you see some of the collections online (I will post some links here soon).

Sometimes a bookmark can bring a smile, somethimes cause a pause for thought but it nearly always sparks off a memory and apart from a postcard or a photograph there is not many things that have the power to do that.

book review - The Red Pony

If there are two things that John Steinbeck does really well it’s being able to describe a time and landscape in American history and combine that with an incredibly strong observation of human emotions.

In this short book it is the later skill that is at the fore although you are reminded yet again of the hardship of those living off the land in the Californian valleys in the pre-war years. This is a time pre-television and motorised transport for the masses where life was lived in a much more confined environment. As a result the relationships between father and son, husband and wife and friend and friend are critical.

There are four chapters in this book and each one stands alone. There are connected by the four characters of Jody, Billy the ranch hand and Jody’s father and mother and the location of the family ranch but each chapter could be a short story on its own.

In just shy of 100 pages Steinbeck deals with the big concepts of trust, promises and maturity. The result is that you are asked some pretty interesting questions and wondering just who is the more mature out of a boy on the cusp of becoming a teenager or a father who should know a lot better.

Starting with the tale of the Red Pony the boy Jody is given his first real possession of value in the Pony, and rather than having to wait until his father decides he has earnt it, a surprise arrives and he seizes the chance to prove he is worthy of it. Looking after the pony, grooming it and making sure it is healthy becomes a joyful obsession. When it rains for a week he keeps the pony indoors and then he finally lets him out and asks Billy to take the pony in if it rains. He promises that not only will he take the pony in but also it will not rain. He fails on both promises and then has to watch as the pony dies slowly.

The morale of that story is all about promises and reminded me of something I was once told when I became an uncle, something that happened before becoming a father. I was told that if you say those words ‘I promise’ to a child then it is a bond that is almost magical in its commitment and if broken then it is a terrible thing. The problem is that it is easy to utter the words ‘I promise’.

After the disappointment of the pony there comes a chance to raise a colt but although wary of uttering another promise he cannot keep Billy ends up getting carried away with his own ability as a horseman. When the time comes for the mare to give birth things do go wrong and Billy has to kill the mare to save the colt. The promise is made good but at a cost that takes away any feeling of joy over the birth.

Then the other two chapters deal with the relationship between young and old and the question of limited horizons. Jody becomes interested in what lies over the mountainous horizon. But every time he asks his father about it he is pushed away from the subject. Finally a stranger comes from the mountains and informs the family he used to live in the land and has come to die in his home. Jody’s father makes it clear that the old man is not welcome. He is rude to the point of talking about putting him down along with the old mare in the field. But Jody shows an interest in him, a willingness to listen and learn. But it is too late and stealing the old mare – an equally decrepit and insulted animal – the man heads for the mountains to finish off his life on his own terms.

Finally Jody’s grandfather turns up and starts to tell stories he has clearly gone through a million times before. Jody is excited at him coming and listens but his father insults the old man and in a show of immaturity ends the charade that had been carried on for the last few visits providing the old man with the impression that his family were listening and cared. In the end the immature ranch owner exits with Billy and it is left to the young by Jody to show the compassion to help the injured grandfather by showing an interest and showing an empathy that is far beyond the rough ranch owner.

What the Red Pony proves is that when there is great writing there can be a great deal dais with few words. The depth of human emotions from grief, anger and petulance are all eternal and can echo through the ages making the ranch, the location and the period irrelevant. This book is about the basic human condition and as a result will last.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Doesn't loyalty deserve more?

America does many things better than here and they seem to have understood the idea of loyalty a bit more than retailers on this side of the pond. I signed up for the Waterstones loyalty card learning that every £1 equals a point. Quite what they add up to is not clear from the literature. Apart from invites to shopping nights and email alerts then only perceivable benefit seems to be to be able to get a copy of the Waterstone’s magazine without having to pay anything for it. But when I pointed this out to the shop assistant he demanded to be referred to the line in the magazine that mentioned the magazine. Why he bothered to fight it is beyond me because at the end of the day the magazine is only a clever attempt to mask a series of adverts presented as reviews and interviews. The Barnes & Noble membership card sounds much better even with an equivalent £12.50 charge and maybe Waterstones could learn about the idea of discount.

Friday, October 12, 2007

book review - Jailbird

Having enjoyed the story of the time travelling war veteran alien abducted character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 it was with some trepidation this book was picked up. Not because Slaughterhouse was bad, far from it, but because you just didn’t know what was coming.

This book has a similar feel with the main character Walter Starbuck reviewing his life and the mistakes that led him to be a widower in prison without friends or future prospects. The difference is that the flashbacks are done without the help of alien intervention and unlike the lead in Slaughterhouse Starbuck does not know what will become of him from the moment he is escorted out of the prison gates by president Jimmy Carter’s cousin.

After that moment there is an interweaving of different stories about Starbuck's youth, career in the Nixon administration, marriage and his status as a despised sneak who ruined the career of one of his friends by mentioning they had both been in the communist party when grilled by the authorities.

Throughout the narrative there are constant references to a multinational corporation RAMJAC that owns everything from Vogue to McDonalds. Vonnegut brings the connection to Starbuck via the mysterious owner of the corporation who turns out to be one of Starbuck’s first girlfriends who saves him from destitution by appointing him as a vice president of the corporation.

But the reason why this book sticks in the mind because of the clever way it approaches some of the big debates in US politics and society. Is capitalist greed right or is a more socialist alternative the answer? If you are influential enough will you ever be really punished by the state? Is Jesus the answer for those who have nothing?

Then there are other more personal questions that he raises. What makes you successful - is it by sucking up to the right people or actually doing a good job? What constitutes personal success and can you be happy with no possessions?

Starbuck is a mirror not only to those debates but also challenges them by being part of the guilty Nixon administration, serving time, but also looking in from a position almost on the outside. Just like Billy in Slaughterhouse Starbuck seems to have his own morale compass and drifts through life frustrating those around him who are seeking to make him conform.

At the end of the book Starbuck is heading back to prison but this time, because it is seen to be for reasons that benefited rather than injured his friends, he is given a send off. The biggest question of all is whether or not a corrupt country is able to punish anyone and if those trying to turn the tide and share the wealth will ever manage to make a difference. Those are weighty questions and the fact that Vonnegut gets them across without preaching is a testament to the ability of his style.

Lunchtime read: A Clockwork Orange

The second part of the book ends with Alex looking as if he has been cured of his criminal ways. The treatment is slightly disturbing and the chaplain seems to be a lone voice against it. But with it appearing to work the government minister is all for it being used to clear the prisons of inmates.

A combination of injections, of something that is never quite described, along with a daily diet of films that are depicting ultra violence manage to implant into Alex a negative association with violence that results in him being sick every time he thinks of being aggressive.

The treatment takes two weeks then he is paraded in front of the governor, staff and government officials before being kicked out and sent home with it looking as if he has indeed been cured, if that is the right expression.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lunchtime read: A Clockwork Orange

The book reaches an interesting point because Alex is split from the others and it then becomes a question of how brave are you when you are alone and not part of a crowd. It seems that Alex is not that brave at all and although the police do their fair share to make him feel uncomfortable he sings like a canary when it comes to getting his confession.

The highlights from the pages between 40 odd and 60 includes the disintegration of Alex’s gang, who decide after he shows them no respect and even hits Dim, that they will not take it anymore.

They lead him into a trap, encouraging him to raid an old women’s home. But the burglary doesn’t go according to plan and Alex is caught in a struggle and ends up cracking the old dear on the skull. As he opens the door to stumble out and get the other members of the gang inside they hit him and the sirens are getting closer indicating that he is about to be caught.

Sure enough he is caught, beaten and then sent down. In a matter of paragraphs two years has passed and Alex is busy sucking up to the chaplain hoping for an early release if he is good and turns religious. He asks to be put forward for a radical programme that will ensure he never re-offends again. Although the prison governor and the chaplain are unsure about it Alex looks like pressing for it.

More tomorrow…

No Country for Old Men - post III

I intended posting this last night but what with one thing and another it got delayed – along with today’s lunchtime read. But better late than never.

Having never read any Cormac McCarthy before the thing that strikes you is the style and the authority of voice. The narrator for most of the book is an old sheriff who is also one of the victims of the drug war. He feels forced to retire rather than continue to face his impotence.

Once Wells and then Moss are killed the story heads in a direction that was not predictable at the outset and you end up understanding that this is more about the single incident of the $2.4m dollars being taken and is a wider comment on the state of society.

The final 100 odd pages of the book take you on a rollercoaster that throws your hopes and allegiances to the wind as the confident figure of Moss winds up being killed, his wife is shot for his stubborn refusal to hand over the money and there is even the suggestion that Chigurh himself might have suffered a fatal injury in a freak car crash.

All the time the sheriff Bell is always one if not more steps behind and watches with increasing depression the bodies stack up and the drugs keep crossing the border. In response he decides to quit and he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he has failed to keep away the criminals believing that were he a frightening enough prospect they would never have operated in his territory.

Things end with Bell retiring and seeking comfort in his wife after he has dutifully informed Moss’s father of his son’s death and tried to deal with the consequences of the killing spree.

Chigurh runs off with his head bleeding and his arm badly broken in two places leaving you wondering what becomes of the psychopath. But it is not really important if he lives or dies because there will be others to take his place. The power of the drugs business distorts the law, destroys society and is not the sort of crime that “old men” like sheriff Bell can deal with.

A review will come soonish…

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lost for words

Far be it for me to blow a bit of a toy trumpet but it seems that perhaps someone does read this blog after all. Back in September last year I made the following suggestion:

If anyone from Channel 4 is reading this blog then following on from Jamie Oliver’s fat kids and Ian Wrights Unfit Kids then maybe the next in the series could be something like Philip Pullman’s illiterate kids? It makes sense after this week’s disappointing Key Stage 3 performance in reading to get out there and highlight the problem teenagers are having with reading.
If nothing else there is surely the attraction of a spin-off – How to get your child to read – type book that will sell in droves and get parents interested in the issue

Lo and behold the series Lost for Words, an attempt to get children into reading, starts on Channel 4 on Monday 22 October. Let's hope it does the job.

Lunchtime read: A Clockwork Orange

Despite the violence inflicted by Alex and his three friends on almost anyone they meet you do feel slightly surprised along with the reader when his friends turn on him to try to take control of the little gang.

But before that happens you get a couple of chapters that put some more meat onto the bones of Alex’s life story. He is in a correctional school after problems with the police and is warned by his parole officer that if he slips up one more time then he will be going to prison.

But he can’t stop pushing his luck and even enjoys reading about the problems of modern youth in the newspaper. He then heads out to buy a copy of Beethoven’s 9th symphony - an odd mixture of ultra violence and a passion for classical music – and he sees two schoolgirls who have also bunked off school and he takes them back to his room, puts the music on the stereo, gets them drunk and then has his wicked way.

But that evening coming out to meet his friends he realises there has been a coup in his absence and so he fights to regain his supremacy but to prove that he is serious they decide to move into more serious crimes to get more financial reward.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

No Country for Old Men - post II

As the narrative starts to grip you the problems identifying characters in the second hundred pages seem to melt away and you are left with a trio of central people to follow – Moss the man who has found and taken the money, Chigurh who is killing everyone on his way to getting the money back and Bell the sheriff who is the old man who is the old man of the title.

But inside Bell, who still loves his wife and remembers his experiences of running for sheriff and serving in World War Two, is a wealth of knowledge about human nature that extends to working out even how to guess what a psychopath might be thinking.

He works out that Moss has the money and that the true nature of the looming threat has not been shared with the Vietnam veteran’s young 19-year-old wife. Bell is also able to piece together the events of the shoot out in the hotel where Moss and Chigurh first meet each other.

But you sense that Bell might not be needed as a man named Wells is hired to track down Chigurh and kill him. Wells finds Moss easily giving you the confidence that he can also track down the man he has been hired to kill. However it doesn’t turn out that way and Wells is shot in the face and the contractor also gets the same treatment.

Meanwhile Moss phones his wife and gets her and her grandmother to head out of their home and then makes the mistake of calling who he thinks is Wells. Chigurh picks up the mobile phone he has stolen and tells Moss that he is a dead man but if he hands over the money then his wife will be spared.

Can the Vietnam vet take on the psycho killer and will Bell get to them both first? More tomorrow…

book review - The Steppe and Other Stories

Any collection of short stories should provide an insight into a writer’s mind. Unlike a single piece of work there is the chance not only to see how an author handles different subjects and emotions but often in a single volume how their style has matured over the years.

It is no different with Anton Chekhov’s collection of short stories, The Steppe and Other Stories. There are some here that are short in length but deep in meaning and then the final title story, which is long and can appear to be without much direction at times, that is designed to be a tribute to the Russian landscape as well as a tale of growing up.

What you start to learn by reading through this collection is that Chekhov was putting down on paper what it meant to not only be Russian but also to be poor, wealthy and love struck in a country that had a clearly defined hierarchy of social strata. When love should strike as with the accountant and the beautiful landowner’s daughter in Verotchka, social as much as emotional resistance comes into play. On other occasions those with money are robbed and cheated by the poor who somehow thing that God is on their side because they have been dealt a bad hand in life.

The writing is focused but now and again takes flight – particularly the storm scene in The Steppe – and when it does you can start to appreciate just how good Chekhov is at painting a picture that would make most travel writers envious. He is able to draw you in to a story that twists and turns and is a world that is complete. The Mire is one of those stories where the final full stop does not prevent you from thinking about what happens next.

There is also a theme of pride, with the Jewish inn proprietors brother expressing anger at his perceived position in life in The Steppe. It is also at the core of the tragic tale Volodya, who takes his own life after being spurned by one of his mother’s friends. Her laughter and ridicule is too much for the young man to bear.

Because this is a short story collection it is not daunting and by the time the longest story comes at the end you are bedded down in his style and quite happy to stick with it. The reasons why this deserves to be looked at is because it shows just how a writer approaches different emotional situations and manages to work through a tight story despite being hedged in by pagination restrictions.

The perfect book to have with you for those situations when reading can only be done in chunks. There is a real satisfaction here being able to finish up a story in a matter of minutes.

Version read – Everyman Library hardback

Lunchtime read: A Clockwork Orange post I

You must have had that experience when you think you have read a book, in fact feel positive about it, but cannot remember a great deal about it. That’s the case for me with A Clockwork Orange and as a result it seemed to be a good lunchtime read and a case of nailing it for once and for all.

The problem with any book where you have seen the movie is that you have mental pictures already implanted that make it difficult to lose yourself in the narrative on the written page. It is made slightly easier here though as a consequence of the concentration you have to put in to keep up with the language. Also unlike the film, where Malcolm McDowell is cast as some sort of anti-hero, its pretty impossible to have any feelings of affection towards Alex and his stooges.

The first couple of chapters set the scene of members of the youth culture that have rejected the mainstream. They look for thrills from violence, drugs and sex and are prepared to take whatever they want.

So things start in a milk bar where the drinks can be laced to set you up for a night of violence and then the four members of Alex’s gang go out beating up someone leaving the library, a tramp, a rival gang, then beating up and robbing the owners of a shop before going one step further. They steal a car and drive out to a village they barge in on a writer and his wife, raping her, and destroying the book he was working on.

"Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was a name – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’."

You know some sort of justice is waiting in the wings for Alex and co. but will it mean anything to people who quite clearly don’t care?

More tomorrow..

Monday, October 08, 2007

No Country for Old Men - post I

The great thing about reading other lit blogs is that you get all sorts of suggestions of books and authors that left to your own devices you might never read. Cormac McCarthy falls into that category. But the one most people have been talking about is The Road but sadly true to form the local library has a waiting list on it. So rather than give up on the idea of trying some McCarthy out I checked out No Country for Old Men.

A third of the way in and it is a book with a great pace but not always that easy to follow. There are no quote marks and working out sometimes not only who is speaking but being addressed is difficult. As it can be on occasions working out who just got shot.

The idea is simple but you have no idea how it is going to end. A criminal who is quite happy to kill anyone for almost no reason Chigurh kills a deputy then goes on a killing spree connected to a drug deal that appears to have meant to have been a double cross with the Mexicans bringing the drugs being killed before the $2m could be handed over.

The problem is that before Chigurh can get his hands on the money a local out hunting gets their first. But no sooner has he got his hands on the money than his life turns upside down and it becomes a matter of time before Llewelyn is tracked down.

In the meantime the chapters are introduced by memories from an old sheriff who is presumably the person who feels the sentiments expressed in the title. He struggles to come to terms with the rate of the killing but seems to have an ability to guess exactly what has happened and is not far behind the money or the killer.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, October 07, 2007

bookmark of the week

Maybe it’s the feeling of winter coming on but come 6pm at night and things start to feel chilly and bed seems like the only comfortable place in the house. As a result the planned reviews are going to have to wait and all that will go up today is the bookmark of the week.

This is one of those magnetic ones that clip onto a couple of pages. I did not like the magnetic bookmark at first – it either fell out or got put in the wrong place in a rush – but they are okay after a while. This one is printed in the latest Greenwich Maritime colours, which are meant to be blue for the Navy Museum, green for the Royal Park etc.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Red Pony

In a Steinbeck world it is almost a crime, a sign of weakness to show any sentimentality. Real men just get on with the daily drudgery and focus on the misery of living and dying. But there are real emotions out there and when Jody’s grandfather comes to stay and talk about the good old days of fighting the Indians it shows the lack of respect, failure to appreciate the lack of interest and the love that the young have as the generations fail to see eye to eye.

Throughout this book Jody’s father Carl has been painted as an overbearing, petty destroyer of dreams and he comes out of it badly. The mother seems scared to stand up to him nut will do it occasionally and Billy Buck the farmhand just tries to keep himself on the right side of whomever he is dealing with.

Syeinbeck describes a time and a land where speaking your mind could isolate you from the community forever but biting your lip could eat at your heart until you die.

A great little book and one that could almost be consumed as four distinct short stories.

A review will follow soon…

Friday, October 05, 2007

book review - The Little Man from Archangel

This little book by the man behind the Maigret detective stories Georges Simenon has a victim and a death but they are not the ones that you expect after the scene is set out. In a tale of discrimination, paranoia and the loneliness of being left completely alone this is on one level a story about trust and on another something a great deal more profound.

The trust story reminds you a bit of that film How to Murder Your Wife starring Jack Lemmon where he plays the role of a cartoonist who enjoys the bachelor life and then draws a fantasy cartoon strip about killing his wife. She sees the cartoon and heads off to sulk but her disappearance and the cartoon sparks a murder trial. No body can be found that but does not stop the prosecution whipping everyone up into a frenzy.

The pace here is a lot more sedate but darker because there is no humour. Jonas Milk, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who runs a second hand bookshop in a French market square goes to bed one night to find his wife has left him. There is a 16 year age gap between them and he was forced into the marriage by her mother against the will of her father and brother, who never come to terms with Milk. She walks out and rather than admit she is off cavorting with another man Milk when asked over his routine morning coffee lies about her travelling to see a friend in Bourges.

He persists in the lies whenever asked by family and friends and sticks to it as he goes through the routine of a morning and afternoon coffee and buying the croissants for his and his wife’s breakfast. The problem is that the family suspect him of foul play and as he sticks to the lie it becomes harder for him to then change his story, which he finally has to do under police questioning. The breakdown of trust with the wife is complete when the police tell him that she was frightened of him, a revelation that crushes him.

But on a more profound level there is a story here about exclusion and the speed to which a community will close its doors to an outsider. You can be living alongside people all of your life but the minute there is even a hint that something is wrong you become different – a Jew, a Russian a jealous old man married to a beautiful young woman.

It is that wall of suspicion that finally drives Milk to break with his routine and close in on himself. The potential release comes when a woman tells Milk where his wife is proving that he did not kill her but by then it is no longer, if it ever has been for him, about her. He chooses to end his life rather than live anymore among people who cannot look him in the eye and so blatantly talk about him behind his back. The memories of abandonment that come back to haunt him from his childhood experiences emigrating from Russia return to haunt him and remind him of how he is alone.

The power of the book is wrapped up in the final stages when the emphasis switches from the wife to the husband and he emerges as the real victim and ultimately is killed by the community around him. Simenon has a way of describing the cruelty of people too frightened to stand up and speak unless backed by the crowd in a way that any of us who has ever had that experience, even for a fleeting moment in a school playground, can relate to.

This book has as much resonance today than it ever did because bullying continues and the question of how we treat immigrants is as topical as ever.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Lunchtime read: The Red Pony

This book is based in the one location – the ranch but in a way each chapter could have been its own individually written short story – there is not too much overlap. But where Steinbeck does use the past it is subtly and not in a way that wastes precious lines discussing events that have already happened.

The second third of the book, chapters two and three, covers the second horse that Jody is promised as well as an odd appearance by a man who in almost all respects resembles freedom.

Having promised to look after the red pony that died the ranch hand Billy is reluctant to make a similar promise to Jody when his father lets him take responsibility for a colt that the mare will give birth to. When the birthing time comes the mare is in some trouble and Billy has to perform a deadly caesarean to save the life of the colt. But performing the operation, which kills the mare, leaves him emotionally and physically drained - a high price to pay to keep his promise.

Then an old man turns up who used to live on the land covered by the ranch and he says that he has come to die where he was born. The ranch owner doesn’t like his presence and makes that clear but the old man, armed with a ceremonial dagger, rides off with the oldest horse in the field into the mountains to die and avoid the humiliations that would have been visited on the old horse as well as the old man.

Final chunk tomorrow…

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Jailbird - post IV

The book comes to an end with Starbuck again heading back for prison but this time he is given a friendly send off from those who are grateful for what he has done.

You are left pondering what the message is and it seems to be that even if you try to do something honourable then it goes against you in a society that is so susceptible to corruption and fear of actually sharing its wealth with its own people.

The dream of the secret owner of RAMJAC to spread her wealth among all Americans collapses under administration and legal fees and the cold reality of globalisation.

Bullet points between pages 200 – 241

* Having worked out who Mary Kathleen actually is after his interview with the public head of the RAMJAC he decides to head back to see his old flame in the hidden rail repair sheds in the bowls of the railway station

* Mary has been hit by a taxi and is slowly bleeding to death in one of the unused toilets and she tells Walter what her vision had been of what she wanted to do with RAMJAC, eventually giving the company to the American people

* She tells him how her wealth had meant she could never be happy because she was always haunted with the thought of being captured and having her hands cut off because that is the only way of identifying her ownership of the company

* Walter claims her body and she is buried but by some twist the cemetery worker tells someone he know with the same name and he has the fingerprints checked to see if he is related and it comes out that Starbuck hid the death of the legendary Mrs Jack Graham owner of the RAMJAC corporation

* Things rapidly fall apart and as a result of keeping her death hidden Walter faces jail and says goodbye to everyone for the second time but this time his speech in front of Nixon that cost his best friend his freedom is applauded and this jokes are appreciated – there is life after political death

A review will follow soon…

book review - Three Men in a Boat

This is a pleasant book by Jerome K. Jerome to read but one that is a bit like a museum piece, a window into a world gone by. The Thames is still there and people still lark about on it in boats but the manners and behaviour of the people in this book have long since been eclipsed by a society populated with people who simply do not care about their environment.

The anecdotes are the sort that you aged uncle might share with you as he prepares for a snooze after a heavy Christmas lunch and the outcome of this book is similar. This is a pleasant experience but you are not going to be asked major questions as a reader, not going to be left dwelling on the content and mulling it over. That is not to say it is a waste of time but it is a bit like a hot bath at the end of a cold trudge home through the misty rain and should be seen as such.

Even as Jerome is describing the trip down the Thames with his two companions and his rather aggressive dog Jerome gets lost in the past. The banks of the river are described in terms of what happened there with Kings and Queens and the years of the Tudors rather than what is going on now. It is almost as if he realises, and the steam launches are a symbol of this, that the very journey he is describing is also a historical act.

The humour is pleasant and there are moments when each character gets a chance to have a comic moment with the dog also getting more than his fair share of the spotlight. Harris getting drunk and fighting with swans, George being the one to tempt them to throw in the towel and Jerome quite happy to share previous experiences of mishaps on the water.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this is seen as a classic is because it is a view of the world that is forever captured in print. A time when people actually cared for each other and enjoyed their environment without feeling the need to spray can it, burn it or leave rubbish all over it.

A pleasant read that does not demand too much of the reader. It deserves to be read because it is referred to so much by so many people but my suspicion is that it will not be a book you will return to that often.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Reviewing somewhat differently

Having trawled around the blogosphere and seen what else is out there I am mighty tempted to change the way I write book reviews. I have tended to stick to a formulaic arrangement that is a bit like some of the reviews I occasionally have to knock out on computer products. However it feels too restrictive so from now, until things change again, I’m going to go for something a bit more straightforward.

Lunchtime read: The Red Pony

Whenever you pick up a Steinbeck you start to fell that you might have read it somewhere before. That is not to say it might be unoriginal but it is a result of the way he is able to describe human emotions so well. The story of a boy fearing his father but wanting his approval is as old as the hills and add to that the idea that an adult can let you down and you have basic emotions that mix to make a compelling story.

The first third of the book deals with setting the scene and Jody is a single child who lives with his mother, father and the farm hand Billy. He lives by a strict code set down by his father who lives, as to do they all, a strict life based on the hours that a farmer has to keep.

One day the father and Billy come home from a trip to the town with a surprise for Jody, a young red pony. The boy dotes on it everyday and keeps it in prime condition. But one day he is going to school and concerned that after a week of rain, when he has left the pony indoors, the animal will get left out in the rain if the weather turns.

Billy assures him that it will not rain and then promises to take him in if it does. He fails on both counts and the pony is soaked and becomes ill.

Despite the best efforts of Billy and Jody, who nurses the horse most nights, the pony becomes worse and finally wanders off and stumbles and dies in a field leaving Billy feeling awful and Jody distraught.

Where will the story go from here – in some sense it is already a powerful short story – but you sense that there is more disappointment and heartbreak to come for the young boy.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Jailbird - post III

A colleague from another magazine that works next to mine wandered over and picked up my library copy of Jailbird and commented that Vonnegut was a tight writer but weird. That didn’t seem to bother him so I recommended this book promising it would match both of those requirements.

The comment about tightness is particularly apt because things do fall into place and the same sort of feeling of time travel you get in Slaughterhouse 5 is here but based on memory rather than alien intervention. There is only one place where the reader realises what is happening long before Vonnegut tells you but then he pulls the authority over the story back with a twist that you did not see coming.

Bullet points between pages 130 – 202

* Things go from odd to odder for Walter Starbuck as he greets his old friend, the one he put in prison, who thanks him for the opportunity to discover that life is meant to be a trial

* But their discussion is interrupted by a mad bag lady who identifies Walter and then starts trying to talk to him – you realise that is his second great love from his communist activist days – and he finally recognises her as Mary Kathleen

* He hugs her and she drags him to a secret area in central station and then up to the top of the Chrysler building where for some reason Walter decides to tell the owner of the American harp company that he has some stolen clarinet parts to sell

* While waiting for the police, which he doesn’t know are coming, he tells his old flame about all the nice people he has met since he left prison ranging from the prison guard to his old friend who he had helped put in jail

* He is then whisked off to jail and dumped in the basement in a padded cell where he goes through the motions of having a breakdown before one of the best lawyers in the city comes to spring him

* The reasons why the lawyer has come is because the bag lady turns out to be one of the richest women in America the secret force behind the RAMJAC corporation which has been mentioned throughout the book owning everything from Sesame Street to MacDonald’s

* In the car are all of the people that Starbuck has mentioned to the bag lady and they are dragged off to the public face of RAMJAC to be told that because they are virtuous people they are to be given executive jobs in the company

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

The story, and the collection of short stories, ends with the steppe again the main backdrop to a terrific storm that darkens the sky and turns the normal in a lightning illuminated horror show. Just like the storms that Joseph Conrad describes out at sea the sky turns black long before the rain comes. At the end of the storm Yegorushka has gone through some sort of illness but also changed in terms of becoming more grown up and is able to start his new life – he has no choice – far away from home.

Highlights from pages 115 – 148
Dymov apologies to Yegorushka and the travellers get ready to set off but the sky darkens and the experienced waggoners get ready for a storm. They pass Yegorushka a mat to keep the rain off but the young boy is terrified as the lightning illuminates strange outlines and those who were one minute before within earshot are now drowned out by the thunder and then the rain. By the time they reach the village where his Uncle and Father Christopher are waiting he is very ill. It is the priest rather than is uncle who looks after him and the next day he is well enough to be taken to his aunt’s house to be left to start his new life at school. The young boy chases after his uncle and the priest when they leave but they are gone and he is left alone to wonder what his new life will hold.

The steppe serves as the backdrop to Yegorushka growing up coming into contact with peasants, understanding that he is being separated from his mother and learning about the priorities that those with money have not just his uncle but also the rich merchants who operate in the area.

A review will follow shortly…

Jailbird - post II

Without going overboard Vonnegut paints a picture of corruption not just in the Nixon administration but also at the heart of the top tier of American politics and business. As he links in with themes not just of Watergate but also how large corporations are running most of the country he is able to build up a much more subtle indictment of corruption than if he had gone for its hammer and tongs.

Bullet points between pages 40 – 130

* Walter Starbuck is a difficult target for the zealous Christian trying to have one last time converting him to the right path before Starbuck leaves prison and the lead character is finally taken out of his cell by his guard

* As he wanders over to the main gate and freedom he coincides with the arrival of one of the senior government ministers being sent into serve his term for corruption charges

* Starbuck gets in the convicts limousine and heads off into the city and then travels to New York to stay in a hotel he once stayed the night in when he took his first girlfriend out for a meal

* It was a disaster because he had been told to behave like an aristocrat by his mentor Alexander McCone and he blew it by over tipping a violin player and appearing to rub his dates nose in his wealth

* He came clean about what he was doing and they became friends but never married because she ended up with one of his good friends Leland Clewes, who Starbuck had betrayed in the anti-communist witch hunt of the post-way years

* His betrayal of Clewes, who served time in prison and had his political ambitions ruined, lost Starbuck a lot of friends and made it very difficult to get a job or even now have someone to lean on after he came out of prison

* He heads back to New York stays in the hotel where it is so run down they are amazed he has made a reservation and then he wanders into the quarter of the city where his old betrayed friend lives

* He spots Leland Clewes before he in turn is seen and although he could turn and walk away he stays rooted to the spot making a meeting between the two old friends inevitable

More tonight….

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Vonnegut would no doubt have enjoyed this

I sense that Kurt Vonnegut would have had great fun with the Black Water stuff going on at the moment. The idea of shady operators leading their own private war is something that could easily feature in Jailbird
The big private corporation working closely in and around the government seems to be 
as live and well as it ever was.

Sorry for the lack of a Jailbird post will do that tomorrow morning...

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

Yegorushka starts the process of growing up before he even gets to school as he is confronted by injustice, jealously and has to come to terms with the fact he is different from the others around him because he is a ‘gentleman’ and not one of the peasantry.

Highlights of The Steppe between pages 75 – 115

As the travellers head along the road they start to talk about the past and the old man, who has been reasonably kind to Yegorushka, reveals that his wife and children were burnt to death but despite that the wool traders loved to dwell in the better days of the past
“The Russian loves recalling life, but he does not love living.”
Yegorushka listens along with the others as the old man Panteley tells them about how he was accompanying merchants who were about to be killed when either the Lord or bystanders intervened to save them. Then a love struck man wanders across their camp and afterwards those who are depressed turn on each other and Yegorushka springs to the defence of those being attacked by Dymov, who seems intent on causing trouble to ease his own boredom and depression. As he loses his temper it becomes clear not only does the young man not know how to relate to Dymov but he is also pretty naive about the cruelty of life.

Last chunk tomorrow…

The cost of the Playstation generation

t is a sad indication of the declining position books have in the lives of most young people that school libraries are becoming almost obsolete through a lack of use. A storuy in the Gudrain today, which I cannot find a link to, sets out a sad picture of no one using school libraries and money to support them drying up. I remember spending many happy hours in the school library, some occasionally reading books, and it would be a real shame if these quiet temples of learning are lost. There is such little chance for people to find the sort of mood a library produces with the quiet and peace that to lose them would definitely not help children in both learning and behaviour.

Jailbird - post I

Before starting this the only other Vonnegut book I had encountered was Slaughterhouse 5 and this starts in a similar way with a prologue that seems to be providing you with the motivation for the story and the background. It is enjoyable to read and written with feeling, particularly the bits about the strikers being shot, but all the time you are trying to work out what it has to do with prison or, after you turn the first page of the novel, how it relates to the Nixon era.

The same strange feeling of not knowing what was coming next was felt with Slaughterhouse 5 so there is a bit more comfort there that this is going to be fine and the references made in the prologue will become important.

Bullet points from the prologue and pages 1 - 40

* The prologue talks about all manner of things but mainly concentrates the story of the McCone family, which owned a steel plant and decided to put out strikers and leave them to starve rather than reemploy them after the strike had broken

* The strikers come to demonstrate and the McCone family have hired sharp shooters to shoot and sure enough 14 demonstrators are gunned down and the youngest son in the steel magnate's family Alexander becomes a stuttering wreck and leaves the family firm

* He has no friends with his wife and daughter living apart from him so he plays with the cook and driver's son who he decides should follow in his footsteps and become a Harvard man - there is a fair amount of stuff about the virtues, or lack of them, of being a Harvard graduate

* That chess playing boy grows up to have a role in the Nixon administration and end up being sent to prison along with a host of the presidents other political team for embezzlement and other crimes that spilt out from the Watergate affair

* The main book starts with the character of Walter Starbuck about to leave prison to try and pick up the pieces of his life with a son who hates him and a wife that died just a couple of weeks before he started his three year prison term

* Although it is for crimes commit ed by the Nixon administration he is behind bars he only came to the attention of the president once and was largely an non-entity that smoked and churned out memos and reports no one read from a basement room

* While he waits for the guard, Jimmy Carter's cousin to come and release him, one of the other inmates who has found religion comes to try and convert him and points out to the bitter and cynical Starbuck that he has no friends whatsoever so why not be friends with Jesus

That has hardly done justice top what is a clever, passionate and intricately weaved introduction but it should at least tempt you to pick this up and have a read. More tomorrow...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Steppe and Other Stories

There are some passages that paint a picture of the steppe with its wide horizon, sounds of wild birds and roads so wide that they seem to be have been made for giants. The advantage of putting the story in a well described landscape is that is suddenly comes alive and it is easier to visualise Yegorushka as he trundles through the countryside.

Highlights from The Steppe pages 49 – 75

Yegorushka starts dreaming about the merchant Varlamov and Countess Dranitsky who are both rich and seem to be figures in a world that is well beyond his reach. He is then transferred away from his uncle to the wagons carrying wool and he starts to meet a motley crew of characters including an old man who recommends he gets some education and a young troublemaker called Dymov who is a practical joker.

Hard at this stage to see where the story is going but more tomorrow…