Friday, November 30, 2007

Sliping down the charts

Sadly it gets almost boringly repetitive positing up links to news stories about the dire state of reading amongst British children but here is another. According to the global literacy league rankings England has sliped down to 19th position from a previous position of third because of the poor literacy levels among children.

"A generation of 10-year-olds are losing confidence in books, spending fewer hours a week reading at home and enjoying it less than five years ago..."

That was an excerpt from the article in The Guardian that made depressing reading - if of course you read it at all.

The Man Who Went up in Smoke - post I

After some Henning Mankell it was just too tempting to head back to those other great Swedish police procedural writers - husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - and the second in the series of books based on the main character of Martin Beck.

The first half of the book reminds you strongly of the Dogs of Riga because it is set in Eastern Europe in Budapest and just like the Latvian background of Mankell’s book has a feeling of subterfuge with Beck being followed throughout the city. There seems to be a better switch from Sweden to a foreign country and it is much more believable than Dogs of Riga.

But Wallander seems to have more of a personality because he is prepared to dump the police rulebook slightly more quickly and allow himself to be ruled by his heart. The policeman’s intuition is much more quickly expressed by Wallander.

Still Beck is a strong character for different reasons, the main one being that he will get the crime solved. He has his holiday ruined and is asked to head off to Budapest to find out what happened to a journalist who has disappeared. He grumbles and moans about his holiday but heads off to see if he can find the journalist. The trial is stone cold and even the local police do not seem to be that interested in the case until things hot up.

Beck manages to track down the journalist’s last known movements to a hostel where a young woman he was apparently dating lived and it is by applying pressure to her that things start to happen. Although she denies knowing anything about the journalist things develop after Beck refuses her sexual advances. He then heads out for an evening walk and is attacked and only just manages to avoid being killed by a duo that seem determined to get rid of him. At that point the local police start to take it more seriously and the case starts to unfold.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Woman Who Waited

The beauty of this book is that along with the narrator you are so sure that it is possible to predict the actions and decipher the motivation of Vera, the woman who waited. Already she has proved that she has not wasted all of her life waiting and there are a couple more surprises in store.

After getting close to making the relationship physical Vera backs off and then disappears to go to the festival in the large town nearby. She is gone for three days and while she is away the narrator stumbles around the snow covered landscape dreaming of her and almost being paralysed by her absence. But when she returns she moves swiftly to consummate their relationship and it is only afterwards he understands why – the man she has been waiting for never waited for her. A picture of a state official and a grandfather is pointed out by a neighbour from the local paper and Vera’s heartbreak is palpable.

But the narrator is seized by cowardice and runs away rather than facing the prospect of being trapped as a replacement love interest for the intense Vera. But as he tries to escape he meets her and after a silent but meaningful row across the lake she bids him farewell. She is able to see through him and be a braver and more worthy character to let him go.

Throughout the story the narrator makes arrogant assumptions not just about Vera, the tragedy of her life and her apparent natural decision to fall in love with him, but also about the villagers who he assumes are worse off than the intelligentsia in Leningrad. But he scurries off there frightened by the rawness of their integrity in the end.

A full review will come soon…

Thursday, November 29, 2007

book review: A Hero's Daughter

After reading a couple of Makine books over the last couple of weeks there are some clear themes that emerge from Andrei Makine’s work that are all in evidence in A Hero’s Daughter.

The first theme is the Second World War that devastated a generation of Russians and at the same time left the survivors with a clear sense of their importance to the world for the sacrifice the country made and to the state they were trapped by. This story starts in the war with the hero of the Soviet Union Ivan being saved by a nurse who has the foresight to hold a mirror up to his mouth to see if he is breathing.

But before too long the story moves away from the nurse and her hero and settles down to one of disappointment and living in the past remembering past glories. The story could easily stagnate there but Makine introduces a daughter who becomes a perfect way of juxtaposing the present with the past.

She also introduces the second theme, which is one of disappointment and disgust with the way Russia’s fortunes have turned out since the war ended. The daughter is a translator but ends up working for the KGB by sleeping with foreign businessmen and helping sort through their luggage while they sleep. She dreams of escaping by saving up enough hard currency to dress and move in the sort of circles that would attract someone from Russia’s intelligentsia.

She almost pulls it off but the two worlds collide with her father, who is now a widower and a drunkard, arriving in Moscow to discover not only does his daughter appear along with everyone else to ignore the past but she is also enslaved into prostitution by the state.

The shock of that discovery kills him over time and she is left realising not only the level of indifference over her father’s sacrifice as a solider all those years ago as she struggles to get anyone to bury him, but also how trapped she is. In the end she pawns his hero’s medal to pay for the funeral but returns to the job of state prostitution to help raise the money she needs to try and get the medal and a hope of her freedom back.

It is written in a way that in places is almost cinematic with sweeping battlefields and moments when you can feel the chill as the snow and wind creep in. As a method of looking at the past and at the present the idea of having a single generation works well and the relationship between father and daughter reflects that of the young and the old veterans throughout the book.

All the might be brighter and modern is not necessarily better if those behind the system are still rotten.

Lunchtime read: The Woman Who Waited

Just over half way through and the morale of the story so far seems to be about the dangers of judging someone not only by appearances but also by reputation.

Vera who becomes something of an obsession for the narrator is seen as someone who has wasted her life waiting in a little village for her childhood sweetheart to come home from the war. The narrator starts weaving scenarios around her that he believes happened and apart from clearly a growing love/lust for the woman there is strong sympathy mixed in with frustration she has spent thirty years waiting.

But when he finally sits down to talk to her it emerges that she studied linguistics in Leningrad for six years and has lived much more of a life than he ever imagined. Ironically you feel that her revelation makes it harder for him to maintain his sympathetic love and he will be forced to change his opinion and attitude towards her.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bad sex from Mailer

Maybe it's an odd last word to have on Mailer and Castle in the Forest but the decision by the Literary Review to award the recently deceased writer this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction award for a scene between Hitler’s mother and father is apt. No doubt the problem was not deciding on Mailer but knowing which of the many crude sex scenes from his book to choose from.

The Dogs of Riga - post III

Although this is a great read it differs from the first book that had the feeling of being a police procedural type thriller into something that is more akin to James Bond. The thing that keeps you going is Wallander who despite the increasing implausibility you still belief in as a character.

Wallander having left Riga with the case apparently closed has made a promise to return to help solve the crime of the murdered police captain who came to Sweden to solve the mystery of the two dead drug dealers from all those weeks before.

His return to Riga to help solve the mystery of which police boss ordered the killing of the Latvian police officer who had come to Sweden involves meeting mystery people and heading across borders in the dark. Once back in Latvia he is introduced to a group working with the dead policeman’s widow but before they can become acquainted the police burst in and kill everyone except Wallander.

Without guides and support he has to resort to survival mode and steals a car and then reintroduces himself with a woman selling postcards at the hotel who was a previous point of contact on his visit to Riga. She hooks him up with the widow and they search for the testament of the dead policeman who will expose the corruption in the police force and name the superior officer guilty of crimes and inadvertently his own murder.

The pace steps up a gear and there is a final showdown with Wallander getting it wrong but being saved by the principle that everyone’s enemy has an enemy. Once the details of the case are closed Wallander asks the widow to come back with him to Sweden because he has fallen in love with her. But he travels home alone.

There is an authors note at the end of the book that Markell uses to point out that it is very difficult not only setting a book in an alien environment but also hard to set it against a political background that is changing rapidly. The fact that he tried to bother at all is obviously the result of something that drove him on.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: The Woman who Waited

It might seem a bit repetitive but the lunchtime read continues to be Makine because they had a lot of his books in the library and they are the sort of stories that are accessible on a dipping in basis over a few days.

This story seems to be autobiographical in feel with a writer just starting to enjoy the thaw of a post Stalinist Russia heading out to the country to find some peasants that might provoke some inspiration.

In the first 50 pages its established that life in the villages is so miserable it is hardly the stuff of satirical comment and that there is not really much there to write about. But there is one woman, Vera, who has spent thirty years waiting for her lover to come back from the fighting in the Second World War.

Vera manages to get under the skin of the narrator and he starts to become obsessed with her and unable to move on from the village.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Dogs of Riga - post II

There is always a danger with mixing politics with a thriller that it will get in the way as it has to be explained to the reader which distracts from the chase to catch the killers. Although it doesn’t get too bogged down in Eastern European post USSR politics it does slow things up. There is also a feeling that because the main character is in unknown surroundings it is also a limited horizon compared to the darting about he does with confidence back in Sweden.

The other problem with going on about a specific point in the history of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union is that it does feel rather dated. Sure the same problems still exist in terms of drugs being smuggled across borders and corruption but if you mention Riga to most people now the image that comes to mind is a location for stag parties rather than a dark, cold and mysterious location that is gripped by subterfuge and political tension.

As the shift from police based thriller to something more akin to a spy novel it leaves Wallander wandering and driving round Riga trying to avoid the people following him and trying to work out why the friends of the dead Latvian policeman he has come to help insist on such secrecy. After some coming and going with the wife of the dead policeman and her friends Wallander decides that the murdered policeman was onto a consipracy that involved one or both of his superiors.

But with one of the friends of the murder victim fitted up for the crime the time of Wallander's official visit comes to an end and he promises to return as a tourist and help them solve the mystery.

At this point credibility is being stretched to breaking point but it should be fun seeing just how Wallander blows the lid on the conspiracy.

More tomorrow...

Could Amazon rekindle the electronic platform?

Forgot to post the link to an interesting piece in the Telegraph yesterday by A.N.Wilson in response to the launch of Amazon’s Kindle. The Kindle, which I have also neglected to post about is Amazon’s ebook reader. Apparently it can do the same for reading that the iPod has done for music. Hold on though isn’t that exactly the line that Sony spun when it launched its eReader product earlier this year?

Wilson is right about one thing which is that the book is such a good design it is hard to top it with an electronic version:

“The book, in codex shape, really was a brilliant invention. And after the century of Gutenberg and Caxton there really was no looking back.”

It is a point that has been made before and one no doubt that will be raised in the future when the next ebook reader is launched…

Lunchtime read: A LIfe's Music

The second half of the book is more gripping than the first because the climax of the story is coming as the pianist on the train talks about his life and what became of his thwarted ambition to play the piano.

He tells of how the war saved him because he was able to steal the identity of a dead solider who had been killed in one of the first battles with the Germans. Having stolen the identity he goes on to fight through the war until chance puts him in the right place to become a general’s driver. He keeps driving for the general after the war and is finally introduced to his daughter. They flirt on the edge of an affair before she realises it is a crush and there is too much of a difference between their worlds.

But before the ties are cut she involves him in her engagement party where he is meant to perform a couple of piano songs that she is to be credited with teaching him. He stumbles through the first but then plays the second with a level of professionalism that shocks and brings the curtain down on that relationship.

The train arrives at Moscow and the pianist tells his fellow traveller that the general’s daughter married but then died of cancer and he has been quietly supporting her son with money he made while working in the far north in the camps.

By now the pianist knows that his parents were killed in the camps and that he is marked for life by his duplicity of keeping his connection with them hidden as well as taking the identity of a dead solider.

He invites his fellow traveller to a concert and you assume that the son of the general’s daughter steps out onto the stage just as the pianist disappears.

A book that is great because just as there is a life story here there are also questions for you to take away and mull over.

A review will follow soonish…

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Dogs of Riga - post I

A few of the questions that you are left with at the end of the first book are answered reasonably quickly with Wallander’s colleague dying of cancer and his personal life bedding down into a position of phoning his father on a daily basis and wondering if his daughter is happy.

Back at work a phone call that tips off the police that a life raft with two dead bodies inside is going to wash up on a local beach is all that disturbs Wallander on a night the snow comes in.

The boat has been discovered by fishermen and towed near to the shore before they cut it adrift not wanting to get involved with the police. The two men are embracing each other wearing expensive suits and when they do wash up on the beach the police are called in. Wallander keeps wondering what his old colleague Rydberg would have done but without his friend, who died of cancer in between books one and two, he has to try and struggle on alone.

The case does not seem to be easy and when it emerges that the victims are from Eastern Europe the hope is that the Swedish police can wash their hands of the whole thing. That wish seems to come true after the Foreign Office gets involved and it is established that the men originated from Riga and are known criminals to the Latvian Police.

A Latvian police officer is sent over to help with the investigation and he manages to explain that his country is dominated by drugs and gangs and these men were involved with both. He heads back to Riga with the coffins and documents from the Swedish police handing the responsibility back to the Latvian police.

But the policeman turns up dead hours later and Wallander is sent over to throw any light on the last investigation he was involved with.

This is a slow burner and a clever approach because you get a sense that Wallander and his men do not want the case and as a result their emotional involvement is not as great as it might have been. But with the case coming back to haunt Wallander and a trip to unknown and unfamiliar Riga in store the thriller changes gear.

More tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: A Life's Music

Russia is one of those countries that provides a wealth of material for writers. On one level there is the landscape, which in this case is only extensive but cold and covered in snow; there is the political environment that means you can never drop your guard and tragedy could be just round the corner; and there is also the history with the war and the extent of the sacrifice and destruction of the Second World War over shadowing the present as long as those with memories share them.

All of those ingredients are woven into the first half of this novella with Makine using a train journey from the Urals to Moscow as the opportunity to tell one man’s life story. The man in question is introduced playing the piano and weeping and as he starts to tell a tale about a piano concert that was never given because his parents were arrested and a society that shunned him as a result it is already lining up to be a tragic tale.

Add to that the decision the pianist makes to head to a relative in the Ukraine just before the Germans invade and it seems that everything that could go wrong is going wrong.

Quite how it works out has just guessing enough to want to read on to the end of the journey.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, November 25, 2007

book review - Castle in the Forest

There have been hundreds of books about Adolf Hitler all not only detailing how he came to power and what he did once he got there but also trying to get to the bottom of the dictator. Because of his anti-Semitic views, the holocaust and his wilful destruction of millions of lives he rates pretty highly on the evil index. So it is a brave author who decides to put Hitler as one of the main characters in a novel. Norman Mailer does take that on and then to make it even more uncomfortable hurls a fair amount of abuse at the reader.

On the positive side Mailer not only gets you to think about where Hitler's evilness came from but also makes you ask some questions about the nature and nurture debate as well as provoking thoughts about good and evil in the form of the devil and god. You are forced to dwell on the dark side and conclude that if someone is exposed to brutality in the form of parental abuse and sibling rivalry along with a helping hand from a demon then they might well go onto become an evil dictator. The problem is that Mailer overdoes the darkness and you find yourself being put off by old men who like young boys, mothers obsessed by the faeces and the arseholes of their children and fathers who sleep with their daughters.

The problem is that everyone bar Hitler's stepsister Angela and his brother Edward all come across as susceptible to the grotesque and Hitler almost gets lost in the line-up. There is also an odd tangent where Mailer's narrator demon heads of to the coronation of Nicholas the last Tsar. The point seems to be that the devil was busy looking at the bigger picture sowing the seeds of destruction that would lead to the Second World War. The fact he was making it difficult for the Tsar and thereby preparing the way for Stalin implies that he was backing both evil dictators.

This might not be that difficult to read in terms of clearly signposted chapters and a reasonable argument for why the focus is Hitler's family. The downside is that the book backs off just as Hitler starts to get interesting and close to the man he was to become. It also keeps suggesting that all of the seeds of hatred were planted early on - the bees being gassed by sulphur, the swastika over the monastery school entrance - but a great deal of Hitler's political thought was shaped by his experiences and response to the German defeat in the First World War.

This book got quite a few plaudits from the book reviewers when it came out and Mailer worked the circuit and most I heard or read applauded the bravery of choosing such a potentially challenging subject. But there is not that much of a story here other than the straight forward one that details the incestuous background of Hitler and exposing how demons work and what they do for their clients.

In fact that is the only real leap of the imagination. The rest could almost be a historical novel expect for the occasions relapses into perverted territory. If you buy into the idea that Hitler was shaped by the devil and a demon could have the possibility of writing a memoir about it then this is a solid go at describing what that world might look like. But that asks the reader to exercise the same sort of suspension of disbelief that you are expected to exercise when you go to the cinema. Because of the nature of reading, that tends to happen over several days, it is hard to maintain the illusion that this is a devil's memoir and the more that process takes the more the cracks start to show.

This was a tough book to read and one that was certainly not one that was enjoyable but maybe it wasn't meant to be and that's why Mailer can be so frustrating.

bookmark of the week

Not exactly sure where this leather bookmark was purchased but I have a feeling it might be the Barnes Wetland Centre is South West London. If it is then this is a few years old and reminds me of a Sunday afternoon spent there with just a hint of rain on the wind and most of the birds being far away and looking gloomy in the grey water and against the grey sky. Still the shop was good enough to sell bookmarks.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Faceless Killers - post III

The plan was to do a review of Norman Mailer’s Castle in the Forest but the room where the computer lives has lost its heating and it is about three degrees so the idea of sitting here tapping away is not appealing.

But it seemed like a good idea to try and match the pace of Mankell and wrap up my thoughts on reading Faceless Killers. He manages to move things forward at a much quicker pace in the last section of the book. After progress being so slow that the case looks as if it night never be solved the months roll by and things seem to be going nowhere. You keep one eye on the page numbers and wonder how things are going to get resolved in the last thirty pages.

When it came to keeping things almost painfully slow then a breathless climax Mal Sjowall and Per Wahloo did it better in Roseanna and the reason is that this seems to go almost too quickly. The balance of the book is off kilter and the pace should have been upped a bit earlier.

It is enjoyable reading through the final pages watching Wallander solve the crime but things are going by a bit too fast and you finish the book with a load of questions about where Wallander is going in his personal life, whether or not his loyal colleague dies of cancer and what becomes of his relationship with the prosecutor.

No doubt that is all deliberately done to get you to do exactly what I will be from tomorrow – picking up the next book in the series The Dogs of Riga.

A review will follow after Castle in the Forest and A Hero’s Daughter

Friday, November 23, 2007

Faceless Killers - post II

Although there are plenty of character flaws with the main character Kurt Wallander you stick with it because you want to see how he solves the crime. As a person he is losing on almost every front on his personal life but as a policeman he retains a gift of insight that is capable of solving crimes others are scrambling in the dark over.

Although the double murder of the old couple in the farm remains unsolved attention switches to a racist attack that leaves a Somalian dead after he is shot in the face. A former policeman reports that it was his car that might have been used for the crime because it is missing but Wallander tumbles that he is in fact the murderer. He risks his life to prove it and they do manage to wrap up the case before any of the other refugees are killed.

Meanwhile Wallander has a terrible meeting with his wife, his father is going senile and he gets too carried away and tries to get physical with the chief prosecutor in a way that borders not far off assault. He is also caught drink driving by some colleagues who allow it to go unreported.

Morale in the police is low with the double farm murder remaining unsolved and Wallander is constantly looking for a breakthrough and starts to focus on tracking down the mistress of the murdered farmer without any luck.

The weather starts to play an increasing role with Wallander trying to fight off a cold and wishing the snow would stay away. You sense the cold, the loneliness of being newly separated and the desperation of wanting to close the case. In the meantime those who depend on him outside of the police station get forgotten and suffer from a lack of attention.

You might not be a total fan of Wallander but you want him to succeed and it hard to put down the book when the remaining pages hold the key to the story.

Final chunk tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Life's Music

It is easy to get stuck in a grove but if you are enjoying it then a little bit more of what you like should do no harm. For that reason it was without a great deal of hesitation that the lunchtime read choice went straight from one Andrei Makine to another.

I only managed to start the very first few pages of this novella but already the scene is set with a bitterly cold train station in Russia the location. A bunch of travellers are left huddled in the waiting room while they wait for a train, which is going to be delayed by six hours. That gives the narrator, who you have no idea of anything about them even the sex, time to wander round the waiting room and out onto the platform almost like a camera panning the opening scene setting sequence for a film.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Faceless Killers - post II

The similarity between Mankell and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is the commitment to detail police procedure down to a level that sometimes seems unnecessary but as a result it makes the story so much more believable.

It is also clearly set in a period of flux. In some respects Wallander is in the same position as Sheriff Bell in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Both characters are starting to question their ability to fight off drug related crime and cope in a world where the respect for the law is almost non existent.

“Rydberg gave him a sceptical look. Then he stood up to go. He paused at the door.
‘The daughter that I talked to, the one from Canada, had her husband with her. The Mountie. He wondered why we don’t carry guns. ‘
‘In a few years we probably will,’ said Wallander.”

The problems for the detective in a case without almost any clues is that the last words the dying woman says who becomes the second murder victim is that those responsible were foreigners.

That puts the spotlight on the nearby refugee asylum and various nutters come out of the woodwork threatening to stir up race hatred. The book is set in 1990 but the themes resonate 17 years later because ultimately the breakdown of the law is not something that happens overnight.

The case begins to unravel with the brother of the murdered woman revealing that the landowner was indeed rich and had made money out of collaborating with the Nazi's and kept his fortune, along with a mistress and a son, hidden from his wife. A bank search reveals that the story appears to be true but there is no sign of the mistress.

Meanwhile on the relationship front Wallander finally gets in touch with his wife but is hostile, forgets to visit his father and has no idea what his daughter is up to.

Lunchtime read: A Hero's Daughter

The book comes to an end and the misery of the Gorbachev years is similar to the decades that have gone before. The only difference is that people now have the ability to complain. The result is they feel even worse because the illusion that their lives were going in some sort of directed formation handled by the state becomes unsustainable.

Ivan turns up for his court appearance and starts spurting out all of his feelings about the past, present and the fact they have turned his daughter into a prostitute. He never lives to see her reaction to his shared knowledge because he dies from a heart attack.

The hero’s daughter is left stranded with her father in a coffin and nothing but misery so she buries him after selling his hero’s star medal, has an abortion and heads back to sleeping with foreigners for the KGB hoping to get the money she needs to change her life.

It feels as if everybody loses in this story but the biggest loser is a country that staggers from one deceitful and decrepit leader to another with each of them undermining what little faith the people have in their own existence.

A review will follow at the weekend…

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Faceless Killers - post I

This might seem like an odd thing to write but after an experience like Castle in the Forest you want something to read that is relaxing and for me a thriller always fits the bill. After enjoying Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo it seemed like a good idea to head back to the Nordics for another tale of murder and police procedure.

Henning Mankell is famous for creating Kurt Wallander – a detective who is recently divorced, estranged from his daughter and almost facing a breakdown in relations with his father. On top of that there are moments when you get an insight into his state of health and his taste in classical music.

If there is one feature of a good thriller it should be that no matter how slow the action appears to be there should be some sense of a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. Here there is the bonus of one on almost every other page as the scene is set as an elderly farmer wakes up in the early hours of a cold January morning to look out of his window and realise that something is wrong over at his neighbours.

He tells his wife and then goes over to discover his neighbours in a horrific state with the husband butchered and the wife clinging on tied up with a noose around her neck.

The police are called and Wallander comes to investigate and has his stomach turned by what he sees in the house. The problem is they have no leads to go on. The surviving woman is rushed to hospital and Wallander keeps his fingers crossed she survives.

In the course of the following day some more of the detective’s back-story is filled in with his daughter Linda phoning up but then disappearing again. Wallander is also nagged by his father to visit.

In terms of the case some work is done on house-to-house but no one seems to know anything. The hope is that the old woman will survive and tell her story.

She dies and Wallander is called back to the station to be told by a colleague what she said in her last ten minutes.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Hero's Daughter

The same tragic situation that keeps Ivan trapped in the past and reliant on the bottle strikes in Moscow and his daughter’s life quickly unravels.

After discovering that his daughter is effectively a state sponsored prostitute her father chooses to take his anger out on a tourist café and is dragged off by the police but suffers a heart attack on the way to the station. Meanwhile any dreams his daughter had of marrying a rich diplomat crumble and she along with her flat mate who loses her boyfriend in Afghanistan both slip into the same miserable existence their parents knew before them.

Dreams of escaping are sadly beyond their reach. But suddenly the hero’s daughter discovers she is pregnant and she starts to pin her hopes on having a son of her own and leaving the capital and returning home to the country. Sadly that is the only dream she can cling to as everything else goes wrong for her.

Meanwhile Ivan is waiting to come out of hospital and be charged and hands over his hero’s medal for his daughter to look after.

All around the misery continues and there is an ironical scene where a German who had been in the army and looked through the Kremlin towers as the Nazi’s advanced on the city manages to see the same view again but this time from his hotel bedroom window.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post IX

At last this book is over. That might sound unfair but it has felt like being taught history by someone determined to make you feel sick. Mailer really knows how to get your attention but you do come to the end of this book with the view that it could have been written without some of the sexual and bodily functional detail.

When this book came out everyone focused on the Hitler story, which is the main crux of the book apart from an odd diversion into Russia, but in my recollection, certainly of radio interviews with Mailer no one asked him why he obsessed with erections, masturbation, faeces, homosexuality and incest. No doubt those questions were not hinted at on the press release plus most interviewers had probably not read the book.

If they had they would have come to the end and sat back and agreed that if a demon had been involved with hand picking and helping Adolf Hitler grow up to become the dictator and Jew killing monster of the 1930s and 1940s then this is how it might have read as a memoir. But at the same time Hitler is just one of a cast of odd dark characters that implies if anything that it was almost impossible to come through a youthful existence in Austria in the 1890s without being severely damaged.

With death all around, parents that struggled and failed to break the bounds of a class system it is no wonder that Hitler grew up full of resentment and hatred.

The final section of the book covers the breakdown of the relationship between Adolf and his father and the latter’s death leaving the family reasonably well off but Hitler in power. He is an academic failure, a drifter who has a strong belief in his own ability and is left by Mailer in a position where all the tendency’s are there to make him a Nazi but there is a lot still left to do to get him there.

A difficult book to read because it was far from enjoyable. Mailer must have wanted to evoke a response of disgust and he manages to do that several time. While that might tie in with the theme of the devil and the darkness it hardly makes it an enjoyable experience.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: A Hero's Daughter

After wondering if there was not a case of lack of depth around the characters in this novel it suddenly becomes clear that there is a unifying force – Russia itself.

It starts to work through the novel in a more direct way as Ivan enters a Moscow world that is changing rapidly under Gorbachev. He has been sliding into alcoholism after being widowed and has pawned nearly all his war medals. It gets so bad he is picked up by the drying out station in Moscow and proceedings start against him trying to strip him of his position as a hero of the Soviet Union.

Just as he considers ending it all a letter comes from his daughter inviting him to Moscow and he is dazzled by her wealth and the prospect that she might marry a rich man. But an old war veteran pulls the wool from over his eyes and reveals that his daughter is not much more than a whore sleeping with foreign businessmen to get their secrets.

You feel that not just Ivan and his daughter’s worlds are on a knife-edge but Russia as a whole doesn’t know where it is going. The might and terror of Stalin are missed and the watering down of everything people believed in that started with Khrushchev continues to provoke merriment but also fear among the people.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post VIII

It must be something to do with the nights drawing in but it seems like walking through treacle reading a book these last few weeks. Luckily there is light at the end of the tunnel with this heavy Mailer tome and when he starts going on about masturbation, the enjoyment of a father feeling his son’s buttocks and old perverts like Der Alte the end cannot come soon enough.

Watching Downfall the other night for the second time it struck me that where this book struggles is to try and make a young boy seem evil. In Downfall you know what Hitler has done and that is why it is possible to watch a situation that in other circumstances would inspire sympathy with a detached interest. The problem here is that it has to be worked on all the time that Hitler has the makings of a mass murdering egomaniac.

The result is that he is implicated in the death of his brother Edmund by passing him the measles and he is taught to appreciate the qualities of showing no pain but exploiting his strength of personality to command others.

It might have worked but Mailer makes almost every other character equally distorted and the more the father becomes a monster, apparently unassisted by demons but helped by drink, it makes Adolf seem almost normal, one grotesque in a gallery of them.

With the last 67 pages waiting it will be interesting to see how Mailer leaves it.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, November 18, 2007

book review - The Immoralist

This is not the easiest of books to get through. Curling up on the sofa with the fire blazing away and a copy of this novel by Andre Gide is not an image that springs to mind.

Part of the problem is that you never anticipate it being that much of an enjoyable read after you read the preface that warns that Michel the main character should not be judged too harshly. After that you expect a story that is not that easy and Gide serves one up.

There are several things that constitute the immoralist ranging from his views on God to his increasing interest in young boys. But after some reflection what stands out most is his attitude towards his wife. The story starts with him newly married going on honeymoon and discovering that he has tuberculosis on his journey. He starts coughing blood and for a while it looks like the worst might happen in Algeria as he waits in his bedroom unable to move. But the love of his wife and his own determination see him through to a recovery.

He then starts wandering and coming across Arab boys that first spark jealousy because of their youth and strength but then after seems to spark arousal. He carries that with him back through his travels to Paris and then throughout his return journey back into Africa.

What Michel starts doing is rejecting everything that is around him so in his historical lectures he refutes the mainstream views about the past; he makes it clear to his wife when he is ill that he believes God cannot help him and does not have a place in his life; he then shows an odd attitude to helping his wife after she has lost their child and herself starts to decline in health.

As his wife starts to slip into a spiral that ends with death Michel spends all of his fortune travelling around Europe to find a place to make her better but is drawn back to Africa. Any idea that he is being motivated by a desire to help her by returning to a place he found health is quickly dispelled by his movements. In order to try to meet up with one of his favourites from his first trip he moves his wife around too often weakening her health.

Finally when Michel is out carrying on with one of the older boys and his mistress he returns in the morning to find his wife dying. Yet he seems to feel no remorse sticking with a philosophy he outlined to her earlier in her illness that maybe the weak deserve to die.

He tells his story to three friends who are quite shocked by its contents and also his continuing apparent lack of remorse. To the end Michel is showing that he can go against the mainstream morals of his friends and his society.

The problem for me with the book is that just like Fruits of the Earth, the other Gide that I have read, in essence there could have been a great story there but because of the way he writes and his sometimes myopic concentration on feelings and red herrings that should be allowed to pass it feels like a struggle getting through the book.

Version read – Penguin paperback

bookmark of the week

There has been a great deal of fuss made about the Tutankhamen exhibition down the road from where I live at the O2 and after feeling indifferent towards the exhibition it now seems likely myself and the family will drag ourselves along and have to cough up the fees to see the 150 exhibits. As part of the publicity machine this bookmark is being made available on Watrerstones counters to promote the fact that it is the official bookshop for the exhibition.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

book review - The Crossing

This is the second in the Border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and there are several similarities with the first book All the Pretty Horses. Again there is a teenager who is wise and brave beyond his years. Billy Parham starts off by living in New Mexico with bus brother Boyd and mother and father. Like most rural family settings life is relatively hard and the father rules his sons and his land. But Billy is a bit of an independent spirit and it comes to the fore when his father and him track a wolf.

Throughout the book there are moments when there is not only symbolism but almost scenes that resemble biblical parables. To get into those moments it requires Billy to jettison the ranch and family and head over into Mexico with the trapped wolf, which he decides deserves to be taken home. There is something about man mastering a beast here as well as the wolf being a lightning rod to channel Billy’s maturity and when finally the wolf is killed he loses something physical but has gained the same independence that the wolf displayed. After meeting a priest who tells him a tale of how he met someone who challenged God and as a result of watching that struggle stopped believing himself he is given an insight into independent thought and the consequences of going against a calling.

The first crossing ends with him returning to find out that his father and mother have been killed and the horses have been stolen. He seeks out Boyd and together they go hunting for the stolen horses. They travel through Mexico and find the horses but as a result of fighting for them put their own lives on the line and ultimately become marked men. It doesn’t help that not only they get in a scuffle that results in the local gang leader ending up with a broken back but that they show no signs of appreciating the different rules that operate in Mexico. At this point a bit of Mexican history would have helped out because there are numerous references to the revolution but when Billy does sit down with a blind man who has a story to tell it is unclear what actually went on.

Boyd is shot for stealing the horses and Billy finally finds him and then helps reunite him with a girl they helped earlier on in their trek for the horses. Boyd and the girl disappear leaving Billy with little option but to cross the border and head for home. Three years go by with him working on various ranches before he decides to head back to Mexico to find his brother. Myths surround Boyd, who is reported to have killed two men, and Billy finally establishes that his brother is dead. The girl has disappeared but the corpse of his brother is retrievable and he digs him up and starts to head for home. After almost losing his horse to bandits and his own life he has a chance to squeeze in a third encounter with another parable teller. This time it is the father in search of the aeroplane his son was flying when he crashed and died. He knows that the plane the gypsies find for him is not the one but does that reduce the feeling of success that the quest has ended? He advises Billy to find what he is looking for. That leads Billy to head home and bury Boyd in his home soil.

With this being a trilogy it ends with Billy feeling pulled back to Mexico where you know the final part will begin and the story will continue and conclude.

Version read - Picador paperback

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post VII

By now the whole idea that on top of this whole nature versus nurture debate they might be the influence of demons is starting to get disturbing. The problem is that although most of The Castle in the Forest goes past your eyes with you not really believing any of it, this central concept does start to get under your skin.

For the rest of it although there is plenty of historical references thrown in to make it all seem like a factual account (there is an extensive bibliography at the back showing the research has been done) it still seems unbelievable. Where mailer has been clever is that most accounts of Hitler start as young failed student with the pre 18 year-old days summed up in a brief chapter.

This might be a great idea for a novel to exploit a period that has not been widely written about but by now there are too many times that Mailer tries to suggest that seeds planted when Adolf was young came out in later life. For instance the bees being gassed and the swastika above the school entrance.

The problem is that as the story progresses and Adolf takes his seat as the eldest son after Alois junior burns his bridges after torching the bee hives, poisoning the dog and then stealing the horse and heading off to Vienna.

Now in a position of authority in the family Adolf starts to learn that enjoyment that can come from exercising authority via his voice and his position.

With not much more than 100 pages left to go it is going to be interesting to see where this story goes because although interesting right now it is nowhere near being a favourite read of 2007.

More to come…

Lunchtime read: A Hero's Daughter

There is always something tragic lurking not too far from the surface in a Russian novel and it comes out in the second chapter of this story with a useless death as people fight over imaginary sausages in a food queue.

The irony is that Tatyana dies as Ivan is waiting for her to come home and see him on the television talking about his role in the battle of Stalingrad and it is partly because she uses her veteran pass that the others in the shop show her no sympathy.

The occasion of the funeral brings home the hero’s daughter who is almost through with her translation course in French and English and after being caught sleeping with a French athlete during the 1980 Moscow Olympics is being used by the KGB. She doesn’t seem to mind as it looks like she is going to be offered a comfortable job working on behalf of the secret police.

She seems disconnected from her widowed father who she sees as an old man who is now left alone with memories continuing a life his daughter views largely as a average sad existence.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post VI

There is something about Mailer that you have to either love or hate. He seems to relish the prospect of provoking distaste in the reader by either being sexually graphic or by describing smells and body parts you really would rather avoid.

But for all that, and it is a significant but, he does get you thinking. Is it possible that some people can be singled out be the dark side and as a result go in that direction? I was looking at my son tonight and wondering if it was possible and found the idea disturbing. Maybe that shows that Mailer has been successful in some way.

Back on the pages of the book the expedition to Russia ends with hundreds dying in a field as they wait to see the Tsar and celebrate his coronation. The devils make sure that not only the tragedy occurs but also that he is encouraged to go to the French embassy ball that night and dance while the corpses are counted.

The reason for the excursion to Russia is not clear and before it starts mailer advises you that there is the option to skip to page 261 and avoid it completely and stick with the Hitler story.

One of the reasons why you might not want to do that is to get an insight into how the demons fight the angels to try and influence events. But if that all seems like straying too far from the point then skipping might not be such a bad idea.

Back with Hitler’s family the eldest son returns and the highly sexed teenager decides that he will take advantage of the sexual yearning of the old bee keeper Der Alte and in a chapter that is really Mailer notching up the uncomfortable barometer the young man exploits the willingness of the older bee keeper.

Quite where it goes from here is not clear but it is almost odd to remark that Hitler seems almost normal against a backdrop of weird and evil characters.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Hero's Daughter

You can just tell that this is going to be one those books that is relatively easy to read. Compared to the Mailer, which as the post this evening will show slides into dark areas, is it a pleasurable alternative to read the Makine.

The hero Ivan is informed that the nurse who saved his life and he had promised to marry has been seriously wounded and is in hospital. He goes to visit Tatyana and she has been hit by shrapnel and lost three fingers. She has been told that she can never exert herself and have children. Ivan considers leaving her but his heart rules his head and he takes her back to his village, marries her and then goes through starvation with her and buries a son that dies before they pack up and head for the Moscow suburbs.

There the hero status manages to hold an attraction even after Stalin has died and the interest has moved onto what is happening in space and Cuba. The old veteran starts to forget the details of the war. Meanwhile he has a daughter and his wife continues to defy medical advice and puts pressure on her old war wound.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post V

If you buy into the idea that the reason that Hitler did what he did was because he was walking hand in hand with the devil then this book must have you nodding along in that sort of ‘told you so’ agreement. If however you think that history and human nature is a bit more complicated than that then this starts to read like a perverted fairy tale.

After hinting that Hitler and the old bee keeper were going to become friends – the kind that has an old man leaving his knee on the young boy’s leg – the focus shifts to Russia with the coronation of Nicholas II.

The loving and godly tsar is almost beyond the reach of the demons so they try to make his coronation or at least the days after it marred by some act that they can influence.

Meanwhile the bees are progressing in the farm and Alois and Adolf are both interested in what will happen to the bees and the order and society within the hives seems to be interesting Hitler in a way that will become all too evident when he reaches power later on, particularly over the aspect of the weakest not deserving to live.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post IV

I was always told never to speak ill of the dead – thankfully that doesn’t apply to my boss as he is still breathing – but when it comes to Norman mailer some people just can’t resist.

In the Guardian today Joan Smith puts the boot in to Mailer describing him as a sexist homophobic reactionary who had pulled a confidence trick since the 1960s. No reference was made to The Castle in the Forest but it might have helped stand up some of her accusations.

The story slowly moves onto the location of the farm the family moves to after Alois the father retires to cultivate the land and indulge in some bee keeping. Hitler and the others have to adapt to farm life, which involves hard work and seeing a lot more of their father than either they or he are used to. It also provides the location for another pregnancy and a chance for the husband and wife to improve their relationship.

The demon narrator is busy carrying out his master’s bidding trying to work out whether or not Alois is heading towards some sort of godly moment with his love for nature and then working hard to put Hitler in front of an old man who sells bees and works for them.

The parts of the book that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, not because so much the subject but the repetition, is around the idea of faeces, the anus and bodily odours. The devil it seems is obsessed with the first two and his chosen ones exhibit particularly bad cases of the later. After a few graphic illustrations you do get the point and can do without even more attempts to rub your nose in it if you pardon the pun.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: A Hero's Daughter

After a while of doing the same thing you get used to it, even if it feels a little bit like a chore sometimes. So it was without a great deal of thought that a slim volume was popped in the work bag for the lunchtime read. The only problem was that meetings interfered a little bit so only the very start was consumed.

The start links together the hero of the Soviet Union and the nurse who saves his life by holding a mirror under his mouth. He manages to seek her out with his eyes and then his body as he recovers. The war is at that stage when the Russians are pushing back the Germans and making inroads into villages that have been destroyed by their enemy.

Having recovered the hero is sent back to his unit and the pair part but not before he promises to return and marry her and take her to his village after the war – something she does not seem to resist.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 12, 2007

bookmark of the week

After a meeting on Friday I was walking past the Houses of Parliament towards Westminster tube station and on the corner opposite the main crossroads there was a small Parliamentary Bookshop that was selling a couple of bookmarks. This is one of them and it shows the Houses of Parliament with the world famous Big Ben. It is one of the most evocative buildings in London and always gets you buzzing as you drive past it on the way home from a trip.

The Castle in the Forest - post III

Having revealed that the narrator is a demon the possibility that you might have entertained the idea that this book had some sort of fresh insight to make into the history of Hitler does tend to fly out of the window.

“Indeed, it must be obvious by now that there is no clear classification for this book. It is more than a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel.”

From that privileged position the narrator reveals that after initially worrying that Hitler might die his mother comes to love him, as he grows stronger. But then mailer gets slightly obsessed about arseholes and faeces and it all seems to be verging on some odd psychotherapy session.

What keeps things going is the story of Hitler’s father Alois who manages to first of all illustrate to Hitler the way to show power over humble and loyal followers when his father beats the dog. But then the family move from location to location as his father is promoted and then finally pensioned off after having found that the heady heights came with snobs and back stabbers not to his liking.

Along with the Hitler family story there are plenty of observations thrown in by the narrator about God, the devil and the nature of their relationship and the way that demons work being assigned people like projects.

The slight problem with all of this is that we all know what happened to Hitler so it will be interesting to see where the narrative goes because it is not as if the conclusion could have been any different.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

In the end the slide away from not only his morals but his wife starts to snowball even before she has died of the very disease that almost finished him off – tuberculosis.

After leaving Paris and drifting through Switzerland, down into Italy before finally heading back to Tunis Michel’s wife’s health continually decreases. In Italy he kisses a boat hand and hangs around the port in Naples. Back in Tunis he looks up his old favourite among the boys that used to come to the house and he is with him and his mistress the night his wife takes a turn for the worse.

He runs back but she is on her last legs coughing up blood and she dies not long after. He then finishes the story he has been telling his friends. From their perspective what they notice is the almost complete lack of remorse. If anything he is almost oblivious to how he might be judged and seems to feel that having brushed so close to death himself and survived there is not much sympathy that should be spared on those who have failed.

A review will come soonish…

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Time to remember

It somehow doesn’t seem appropriate to do a bookmark today so will post one tomorrow. Walking through the park my son asked me why we were wearing poppies and a lot of other people were not. I told him that some people did not want to remember the past and others might not know about what happened. It is a shame that those men and women died and continue to die for people that do not seem to care.

Before The Charge

The night is still and the air is keen,
Tense with menace the time crawls by,
In front is the town and its homes are seen,
Blurred in outline against the sky.

The dead leaves float in the sighing air,
The darkness moves like a curtain drawn,
A veil which the morning sun will tear
From the face of death. – We charge at dawn.

Patrick MacGill

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Goodbye Norman

The news bulletins tonight are rightly marking the death of Norman mailer as a major event. The interesting conclusions seem to be that the Living and the Dead and his books of journalism will be the things that will live on. The Living and the Dead is sitting on the shelf and has been for a couple of years and after a couple of things it will get read but the journalism about lee Harvey Oswald and the criminal on trial are new to me and something maybe to try to get at the library or eBay. Mind you it would be quite fitting if they were hard to get hold of because just as with Castle in the Forest that’s one of the things you have to say about Mailer’s writing. From the bits I’ve read so far he could be brilliant but he never made it easy.

The Castle in the Forest - post II

Watching an interview on the Culture Show with Stephen Poliakoff tonight he remarked that in the drama that is showing on the BBC on Monday night, Capturing Mary, there is a character played by David Walliams, the tall one out of Little Britain, that is almost supernatural in its darkness. Although not too much of the plot was given away it seems that he is an evil man who tries to snuff out someone’s ambition and passion through controlling them.

When told it was almost supernatural Poliakoff said that he tried to shy away from that and make the evil at least grounded in a believable person.

It seems as if that is not something Mailer is worried about with the narrator stepping forward describing himself as an agent of the devil, some sort of demon, that was influencing the events leading up to Hitler’s birth as well as working for Himmler as a special investigator at the start of the story.

In chapters that describe Hitler’s father and mother it becomes clear that the father was a womanising drunkard who had not time to worry about the feelings of his three wives – with the first two dying – before upsetting the third who was probably his daughter as well as Hitler’s mother.

After three children die sex becomes something that does not come naturally to Klara but she finally succumbs to the plunging hound and with a little help from the devil on his shoulder the pair of father and daughter or at the very least cousins manage to conceive Hitler.

More to come…

Friday, November 09, 2007

How it felt today...

... suffering one of those days when your life seems to be consumed by running around doing things that waste energy and leave you mentally drained. The result is that while sitting in a meeting with various other people I stopped taking notes and wrote the following, which sums up what today felt like:

The feeling that your time is not your own must be one of the worst in the world. It is akin to being a prisoner in your own body. Walking past windows that you want to stare into, catching a park bench surrounded by fallen autumn leaves out of the corner of your eye and feeling the suppressed thrill of seeing the Thames. It all has to be walked past as you head for another meeting in another room with cold air conditioning and biscuits in the middle of the table that nobody will ever touch.

Life should be for living.

The Crossing - post VIII

The book comes to an end leaving you in a similar position to the end of All the Pretty Horses with a young man far from home in surrounded by nothing but hostility and loneliness. Billy manages to pin down not just how his brother Boyd died but where he is buried.

He digs up the remains and then is held up on the road and Nino his horse is stabbed and for a while it looks as if the horse will die and Billy will be left with a corpse in a blanket, miles from anywhere.

Gypsies come and fix the horse and then he meets a strange American who has lost his son in a plane crash who is paying the gypsies to retrieve the wreckage and take it home despite the likelihood tha it is not even his son’s plane. The man advises him to sort himself out and Billy seems to trekking back across the border for a final time to bury his brother in American soil. He works here and there and then he ends up sleeping in a barn on a stormy night. A dog wanders in – you realise it might actually be Boyd’s dog – but Billy chases it off. When he wakes he searches for the dog but it is long gone and he breaks down in tears at the loss of everything.

In a discussion with my McCarthy loving friend last night over a couple of pints he made the observation that it often feels that Cormac is writing for himself and it is almost accidental good luck if you like it. I made the point that what McCarthy does brilliantly is describe that moment when a smile flips to s sneer and violence erupts. The one thing we both agreed is that the last place you feel like jumping on a horse and riding off into the sunset into is a Mexico filled with horse knifers and killers sitting round every campfire.

A review will come soon…

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

It is starting to look like the immoralist is more about failing to conform to society in terms of thought and deed rather than necessarily action.

When Michel is presented with a conversation with someone who suspects his tastes of straying from the norm he is indignant and heads home to resume his normal life only to discover that after being forced to socialise and exhaust herself his wife has lost her child.

For a while his wife drifts close to the edge but is pulled back and they head off to the estate in Brittany and there Michel manages to drift even further off the point and ends up hanging around with poachers. When he is discovered in a fit of pique he announces that he is going to sell the estate and he packs up and with his still ill wife heads off begging her to go travelling to hot lands to try and rekindle their love.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Becoming a 24/7 reader

Surfing around iTunes the other night it was at first pleasurable and then horrifying to discover the number of literary podcasts that are available. Up to now I have only really dipped my toe in the water with the Penguin podcast but it is now possible to listen to the Guardian books podcast, the New York Times podcast and a host of other BBC radio programmes about literature and the arts.

I am rapidly taking the view that the only option is to read on the commute, squeeze it in whenever there is a chance at home and then lie in the dark awake all night consuming all the podcasts – then it might be possible to take advantage of everything that a book lover could get access to.

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

Although Michel has been leading a double life where most of the immoral thoughts are in his mind and rarely displayed in public he runs into someone who knows his secret.

After giving one of his lectures on archaeology that sets up an aggressive position against traditional views he is greeted by someone who has become an outcast because of some scandal. This man invites Michel to dinner and reveals that he followed in his footsteps to Tunis and discovered his relationship with the Arab boys and in particular his favourite who he refused to confront over the theft of some scissors.

Michel doesn’t quite know what to make of the revelation and manages to focus in on his lectures, spending money he hasn’t got doing up his Parisian apartment and meeting people and worrying that all the socialising is hurting his wife, who is suffering from tiredness in her pregnancy.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Crossing - Post VII

The second crossing ends with Billy returning to New Mexico without his brother and without a chance to fight for his country leaving him with little option but to make a third crossing of the border.

Having kept the story moving at a steady pace McCarthy suddenly puts the foot down and in a couple of pages speeds through three years of Billy’s life as he gets to the point where he is ready to make the journey back to Mexico.

He leaves for the second time after his brother Boyd, who he had tried to help recover from a shot in the back, disappears with the girl they had met together earlier in their travels. Boyd makes Billy promise that he will go and fetch the girl and then after three days Billy wakes to find them both gone.

He searches for them for a while but inevitably ends up drifting back towards home and arrives at the border crossing to be told the war has started. Despite three attempts he is turned down for military service because of a heart murmur and then wanders for three years working at ranches all over the place.

He finally decides to go back and try to find Boyd but retracing the steps they took those years before is initially a fruitless activity. Then he is told that his brother died and the girl disappeared but you sense that the truth might be different otherwise the future looks bleak for loner Billy.

There is a real sense with the placing of a date – the Second World War – that the sound of horse’s hooves clicking down the street is already something from a different time. The old ranchers have to suffer the death of their sons on far away battlegrounds and the age of cowboys is coming to an end. The only refugee is to head to Mexico where things are slightly removed from the world and the ways of the past do not seem to be so unusual.

More, maybe the end, will come tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

The problem with where Michel is clearly heading – into either some sort of infatuation with Charles the estate manager’s son or some growing interest in boys that started with those he met on his travels in Tunis – is that you feel sorry for his wife.

He starts leading a double life, which is made even more duplicitous because he starts leading his own life while his wife stays at home pregnant. After his health returns and they start to make love he really does seem to be in love with her and they return to France and move to a property in his family that has not been lived in for a while.

The estate manager is running the place and tries to make life comfortable for them and the wife seems happy enough but once the estate manager’s son comes home from studying on a model farm Michel is very much influenced by him, despite him only being 17, and starts to take his advice on the estate management front. The result is that things start to change but the teenager has to go back to his studies leaving the farm in the hands of the ageing estate manager and tenants who have no loyalty.

According to the blurb on the dust jacket this fight with immorality is something that Gide himself had to cope with in his life but you have to hand him the credit because it in no reads like a confessional.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Crossing - post VI

As Billy travels through Mexico there are various moments where it becomes almost biblical with parables about life and death. Having met the priest who no longer believed in God on his first trip over the border he now meets a man who has his eyes sucked out who can see nothing but has an immense amount of pride about how he is dependant on no one.

The problem with these little excursions into the past with a message for the present is that they tend to intrude a bit on the main story of Billy and Boyd trying to get their stolen horses back home. You feel that the timing of the parable of the blind man is particularly odd because the posse trying to get back the horses has shot Boyd and Billy is yet to find out if he is alive or dead.

After taking their horses out of the town and watching the leader of the five-man gang trying to get them break his back Billy and Boyd seem to have got away from another potentially thorny situation. But they are discovered and Boyd is shot in the back as they try to escape. One by one the men kill the horses and Billy puts Boyd on a truck with some workers before riding off on the remaining horse Nino.

Then he meets the blind man who lost his eyes as punishment for his role in the revolution. But the pace picks up again when he manages to track Boyd down who is still alive but after he is seen by a doctor not given a great deal of chance to pull through.

There must be a message that the priest and the blind man are offering the problem is that you get impatient waiting for them to share it and by the time the moral of their story arrives it has lost its punch. Things improve when McCarthy gets back onto the plains and the action focuses on Billy and Boyd.

More tomorrow….

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

"There is nothing more tragic for a man who has been expecting to die than a long convalescence. After that touch from the wing of Death, what seemed important is so no longer; other things become so which had at first seemed unimportant, or which one did not even know existed."

Having recovered to the extent that he is able to get up and go about Michel wanders widely gaining strength. But the result of having been warned in Gide’s preface about bad things to come is that you are on the look out for some sort of slide into moral ambiguity. As a result the interest that Michel takes in the local boys seems to be heading in a unnatural direction and his attitude towards the need for secrecy in his relations with them sets some alarm bells ringing.

But before a chance emerges when he might get the chabce to do something he might regret – or is this akll just imaginary? – they head off away from Tunis towards Algeria. Michel starts to get stronger, bronzing his body in the sun, and as a result starts to take more of an interest in the world around him and his desires start to become stronger.

More tomorrow…

Monday, November 05, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

You know where Gide is going with this book because he warns you in his preface that there is going to be some odd behaviour from the lead character. Things start reasonably quickly with Michel becoming ill almost as soon as his honeymoon starts. He manages to get over to Tunisia after sailing from the South of France but starts coughing up blood and is soon consigned to bed with the diagnosis of tuberculosis.

His wife, who he actually starts to fall in love with after it having been a business type of relationship up until that point, nurses him and does all she can. But it is Michel himself who decides to try to take his health into his own hands and before too long he has started to improve and is taking walks without her. He seems annoyed at her mothering now he can walk around.

Just as his health returns there starts to be a shift in his mental outlook and you sense that having touched death he is now going to live life in a slightly different way.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, November 04, 2007

book review: Saturday

One of the advantages you get from reading classics is that with the author six feet under you come to it with a reputation established and acres of analysis already completed. With someone still living there is a chance for the reader to make up his or her own mind. Maybe that is a prospect that is in itself slightly disturbing because there is a strong chance a book will disappoint and you won’t have the numerous views of others to lean on when making your own judgement.

Ian McEwan’s Saturday is slightly different because not only have critics deemed it a modern classic but also sales figures show that readers seem to agree.

One of the challenges is to work with a book that is so clearly set on one day at one moment – Saturday, 15 February 2003. There are a lot of specifics that create not just an impression but an exact picture of a neurosurgeon moving around a world of hard work but certain wealth in London. This is pre-Iraq war because the momentum towards the conflict is building despite the resistance of the public and the UN. But the Twin Towers had occurred so this is a book about one a very clear level terror and the challenge of living in its shadow.

But there are also other things going on here that make it not just a simplistic reaction taking someone comfortable and to a degree insulated and viewing the new uncertain world through their eyes. There is the question of what is worse – real terror or the imagined kind. Then there are some issues about class with Baxter being clearly from a different world compared to Henry the surgeon and his family. Family is important here with it being everything that matters to Henry and in the end something he is prepared to almost die for. But family is also a route for genetic flaws to pass down through the generations. Baxter with his Huntington’s disease is the most graphic example of that but Henry is also losing control of his own children as they grow and take the characteristics their parents gave them and move beyond them to become successful in their own right. Henry accepts that his fate will be to follow in the footsteps of his senile mother who he visits on Saturday afternoon.

What keeps a book that could have not only easily dated but got bogged down in politics going is the central character Henry Perowne. He is likeable, quite willing to please and generates the tension with the final involvement with Baxter who he could so easily have punished for breaking into his home at knife point and humiliating his daughter and threatening his wife. Maybe the fact that poetry saved their lives and sparked off something in Baxter spurred on Henry's decision to forgive rather than revenge.

Along with Henry the structure of the book also works with it covering the action of one particularly long Saturday. Although the reader knows that this is one day, a snapshot, into a life and a family. The war of course went ahead and the war on terror rumbles on and the bombs did come to London as predicted in the closing pages. But it is because it is one day and it has to have en ending that makes it so accessible. It is possible to grasp that there is a shadow over everyone’s lives, part of the reason for Henry waking and looking to the skies, which makes you feel surrounded by potential danger.

It doesn’t matter if you are a neurosurgeon, thug like Baxter or a poet the key to Saturday is that it shows a mirror to the fears and reactions to a new landscape. This book, more probably than most of the political histories of the Blair and Bush years that have been written and will come, manages to convey the sense of what it has been and continues to be like for those living in the shadow of the unknown.

Version read – Vintage paperback

bookmark of the week

This bookmark was picked up while browsing in Bath library. The series of pictures including Stonehenge and some Roman mosaic is to get you to flip over and read about applying to carry out some part-time study in archaeology at the University of Bristol. A great bookmark to get you thinking about digging up the past and not the usual run of the mill paper mass photocopied slips of paper that academic institutions hand out under the description of bookmarks.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Castle in the Forest - post I

The only books I have read by Norman mailer have all been about Mailer. While he was as interesting person as any to be centre stage it did start to feel as if you were stuck with a pub bore who thought he was actually the most interesting person on earth.

So when you pick this up expecting Mailer to come stumbling into the narrative with tales of how he is upsetting his wife and annoying peers with his political views it is quite a shock to get an introduction to Himmler and his obsession with incest.

Thoughts on the first 38 pages (it is the weekend after all)

The narrator quickly places the activity in Nazi Germany with Himmler, the head of the SS and someone susceptible to bizarre theories, trying to ascertain if Hitler is the result of an incestuous relationship. Before he can verify that though he needs to discount the suggestions that Hitler was actually of Jewish descent. In chapters entitled The Search for Hitler’s Grandfather and then Adolf’s father you start to get an idea this is going to be an examination into an individual’s evil based on their family and development.

That’s not a bad idea but where the history lover in me gets a bit concerned is with the idea of putting words into people’s mouths that might never have happened. Just because someone is universally seen as evil – Himmler and Hitler – it does not necessarily give free reign to go to town with artistic license. That’s my view, something that others might think the opposite on believing that in fact if you have the guts to do it then fair game.

More to come of this…

Friday, November 02, 2007

Round in pointless circles

The real disappointment watching the BBC breakfast news programme this morning was not hearing about the lack of improvement in literacy rates but the discussion about it. A children’s author and a woman who runs a website for parents came on to talk about it and the sum of their advice was to make reading enjoyable and not a chore. Great but how should you do that? No answer because the slot for the deep discussion had ended and it was probably time for some failed soap star or wannabe reality TV personality to come on and plug their career. Or maybe Heather Mills might have popped up and started shouting again - a ratings winner if nothing else.

The problem is that there are plenty of people telling us that reading is not improving, in fact it seems to be very topical to moan about it right now pointing to the figures stating that too many children cannot read. But there is nowhere near the same number of people trying to provide answers and help parents tackle the problem.

The Crossing - post V

The story starts to become clearer with the brothers having taken back their own horse from the doctor who was attending on the dead girl and then trying to work out where the horse was purchased.

They trace a horse dealer but by the time they get to the town they are out of money, in a sorry state and their relationship seems to be on the brink of breaking down as a result of mistrust – Boyd being a bit more immature than Billy who is prepared to play a waiting game.

Thoughts on pages 191 – 261

The boys get another step closer to finding out who sold their horse and who killed their parents but get side tracked by the appearance of a young girl who they save from probable rape at the hands of two men. Boyd takes a shine to her and lends her his horse so she can go back and visit her mother.

Then they have a stroke of luck and come across all but two of the horses that were stolen including their father’s horse. They take them back but are quickly disposed of them at gunpoint. But the brothers pursue the horses and make a more forceful claim for them and are given them. The only problem is that not everyone is happy for them to be reunited.

There is a real feeling of weighing up the risks and is it worth taking the horses but then having to risk attack and possibly death to get them back all the miles it will take to get home? It’s a bit like the question that is asked in No Country for Old Men when keeping the drug money is also a death sentence but one too tempting to not try to chance the luck over.

More hopefully over the weekend…

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Lunchtime read: The Immoralist

It is always interesting to see the way that a book starts. This starts not only with a preface by the author trying to explain why the subject of the story Michel does not conform to the usual pattern of a hero or villain and then has an italicised explanation that his three oldest friends gained the following account from his own lips.

The idea of a non traditional central character is interesting and Gide is clearly trying to warn the reader that although not good Michel is far from being totally evil. There is a decision that needs to be made about his actions that is for the reader to take.

Having gained your intrigue things start with Michel explaining to his friends that he has not seen them since his wedding and that he has called them together to explain himself. You sense there is some calamity that has happened in the relatively short time since they last met in the church on his wedding day.

Tomorrow might bring an idea of what has happened…

The Crossing - post IV

After thinking that everything was clear in a matter of pages McCarthy has changed the direction of the narrative and things get slightly more confusing. You read like a man stumbling through the tall grass trying to get back to the road trying to work out not only who killed Billy’s parents but whether or not they are going after them.

Thoughts on pages 131 – 191

After the wolf has gone Billy heads back to the US and home but not before meeting a priest who tells him about a man who had lost everything and decided to challenge God. He died realising that God was not so easily beaten but managing to dislodge the priest’s faith in the process. Billy sets off to find his own tragedy with his parents killed and his brother disturbed by the incident.

The culprits appear to be the Indians – the one that the brothers managed to walk away from instead of giving money for? Billy meets up with his brother and they head off together back into Mexico. They come across a house where someone has recently died and you sense that the brothers think it might be the residence of the people who killed their parents but it turns out to be harmless and they continue on their way.

The relationship between the brothers is strained partly because one cannot talk about events the other wants to know about and also because Billy disappeared for so long without telling anyone where he was going and was absent when the killings took place.

Quite what is going to happen is far from clear but just like the first crossing over the border this is going to be a growing experience for both brothers and their relationship.

More tomorrow…