Friday, February 29, 2008

Road to Calvary (part III) - post IV

The two strands of the story with the two sisters start to get to a stage where you can see them coming back together again with a possible happy conclusion.

Telegin and Dasha are comrades in arms fighting the Cossacks and thanks to good fortune are holding off the enemy and seem to be happily allowing their love to push out from each other’s hearts and flourish.

Meanwhile, Roshchin is moving further away from his White position and the more he has to justify his position the more it becomes clear he is not only confused but sick of the political posturing. He wants to find his wife and nothing more. At this rate he is not yet close enough to grasp her but it can only be a matter of time before they meet or news of the existence of her husband gets back to Katia.

The potential fly in the ointment is the arrival on the scene of the allies in the form of the French and British. Presumably these opportunists are going to be slammed in the text because they will fit uncomfortably in the context of the revolutionary war. They can only be seen as defenders of privilege and a way of life that has already ended but most, apart from Roshchin are unable to see that.

More to come…

Lunchtime read: Helena

Helena seems to be settling for a quiet life but her son arrives with wife and his own child in tow and tells her that they have to move. The Roman Empire is once again turning in on itself and Helena is in danger because her husband from all those years ago is Caesar in the West.

But the politics soon die down and the main issue becomes the question of the rise of the Christians. Helena’s old tutor arrives in town preaching his own strand of religion and those around the Empress are all dealing with their own beliefs. The news arrives that her son has become a Christian and declared that it is not longer a crime. Soon Helena is baptised and those who know about the history of the Church and of Christ will soon be released and in a position to take Helena to the secret holy sites.

In the meantime she has a visit, her first, to Rome to make and the seventy-year old surprises everyone by accepting the invitation.

More to come…

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Her birthday comes first

It is my wife's 40th birthday today. Before you wonder I am a bit of a toy boy so have not quite hit that milestone yet. Although who says it's bad. Certainly not a good idea to say anything like that to the wife on today of all days!

As a result it didn't seem quite right to dwell on the love and loss of the Russian civil war so a post on Road to Calvary will come tomorrow. The rest of tonight will be spent reminding my wonderful wife that years don't really matter...

Lunchtime read: Helena

Helena stands by her man and watches as he starts to live a different life from her indulging himself with a mistress and taking part in a religious cult. They don’t meet that often and their relationship seems to exist through their son.

Finally after years of waiting he is made a Caesar to step into the shoes of men who have been optimistic and then killed on a regular basis. He tells Helena his news and then in the next breath informs her is remarrying and that she is not to see more of her son, who will now begin his political education.

She is forced to live alone and has lost the red shine of her hair and has grown old being a faithful wife at the side of a man who seems to have been only motivated by power.

Still suffering from some language problems with phrases like “beastly” creeping in making it all seem to be like a scene from 1930s Britain on occasions.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Road to Calvary (part III) - post III

This epic Tolystian mimicking tale starts to get down to brass tacks with the real battle that is being fought in Russia coming to the fore – class war. Katia best illustrates the situation with her reluctance to marry a peasant even though he loves her and her husband is believed to be dead.

She challenges her would be husband with a speech that sums up the problem of ambition with those that were once downtrodden now dreaming of becoming the gentry. There has been no real change just a shift in personnel.

Meanwhile her husband is doing his best to get back to her and is inching closer but will he get to her in time and even if he does will a jealous peasant sabre him?

Meanwhile Telegin and Dasha move to the frontline and start to fight against White forces in what must be one of the final large scale battles to settle the future of the Don.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Helena

Helena is taken away from England by the would-be next Caesar who falls ion love with her despite himself. He takes her to Europe and promises her that in time she will be taken to Rome. She leaves behind her all that she has known and her father the King and is introduced into a world where she means almost nothing with her husband being the main attraction.

A couple of chapters in and the story starts to feel like it is going somewhere because the scenery changes and Helena is geographically closer to more interesting places and the centre of the world at that time- Rome.

Up to this stage the characters are rather one-dimensional and the love affair between Helena and her husband was limited to a glance at a dinner and a request from her father for her hand in marriage.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lunchtime read: Helena

There were a couple of moments when it was difficult to picture a general’s daughter in Roman Britain. Her expressions of “chum” and “what a blow-out” might have something to do with it.

But the key here is that you know thanks to Waugh’s preface that this is a story based on the life of Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. She is meant to have made a pilgrimage to Palestine and picked up one of the pieces of the cross that Christ was crucified on.

The story starts in Colchester of all places but soon a emissary comes from Rome and is struck by love on seeing Helena and you sense that it is only a matter of time before the young princess, who lives her adventures through the pages of the ancient stories of Troy, gets a chance to escape.

More tomorrow…

Monday, February 25, 2008

bookmark of the week

My eldest son is using this bookmark in his home work about somebody famous – in this case Lionel Walter Rothschild who set up the natural History Museum via his own property in Tring. When the collection got too big for his private estate it started to get transferred to London and became the world famous museum. But it all had to start somewhere and it started in Tring.

This bookmark shows the great animal lover riding his carriage, pulled by zebras. I’m hoping that the bookmark, with the marked homework, will come back in one piece.

The Road to Calvary (part III) - post II

To a certain degree one half of the story starts to fuse with Dasha finally meeting Telegin in a makeshift army hospital. She keeps her identity secret from the wounded battery commander until she can keep it secret no longer and then their love, which both had believed to be dormant, over flows and they start to plan for the future.

Meanwhile a totally disillusioned Roshchin sets out to look for Katia and drops his allegiance to the White army. While on leave he sets out to find her and as he starts to lose hope he also starts to question he decision to fight for a cause that he no longer believes in.

Germany surrenders and starts to pull out of the Ukraine and all around the signs that the Whites and the Reds are near to an end start to disappear and the ebb of flow of attack and reprisals starts afresh.

Meanwhile, Katia has set up home with the anarchists and believing her husband is dead starts to contemplate the idea that she might have to marry the peasant who has protected her.

Will Roshchin find her in time? It is quite a testament to the style and the writing that even after a collective 500 pages of this three-part novel you can be gripped by the struggle to reunite lovers across the war zones.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The book ends and it is only at the final few passages given in evidence by Dr Jones that the format of telling the story by documents starts to annoy you. There are some many unanswered questions that are left hanging there because of course for official reasons there would be no interest.

To a certain extent of course you can use your imagination and try to expand on the potential love story between Dr Jones and Harriet. In some senses that was a side issue to the political satire that culminates in the prime minister being swept away to his death. But after a while the politics starts to become a little bit clichéd.

The Alistair Campbell figure is distorted to an extreme and the prime Minister is also a two-dimensional caricature of Tony Blair’s worse bits – the cynicism and determination to win votes at almost any cost. But it is the questions of faith and love that are raised by the characters of the Sheik and Harriet that will be most memorable for me. This book leaves you wanting to know more about the power of one man’s vision to touch other people and wanting to forget about the politics.

A review will come soon…

Sunday, February 24, 2008

book review - Then We Came to the End

The weird thing about the timing of reading this book, that has its comic moments but is more than just a straight comedy by Joshua Ferris, is how I came to read it.

This was one of the tope ten books of last year according to quite a few authorative sources, including the New York Times Book Review and my boss also recommended it to me. That was the strangest thing of all because this is largely a story of us and them and of course my boss is one of ‘’them’ so for a good deal of the time I tried to work out who he would identify with in the story. The second set of circumstances that made an odd backdrop was turning up to work finding out that there were some redundancies.

The way most people would attempt to summarise this book is to describe it as a comedy dealing with the difficult issue of redundancies with a collection of characters that have been used to draw out the different possible reactions. So you get someone in complete denial, the revenge taker who comes back to haunt those that did him wrong and numerous other cases of people vainly fighting the inevitable as they put their personal belongings into a box.

It could have very much gone into an us and them situation with the boss and her stooge being painted out to be the villains of the piece. But Ferris is clever here because he gives both Lynn the boss and Joe Pope depth that reveals how lonely and scared the former is of dying of cancer and how the second is scared of being in a group because of something that happened in his youth.

At the end the years have gone by and the main characters meet up at a book reading by someone reading out something closely resembling Ferris’s own text. They go to a bar and remember the old times – what everyone always does with old colleagues – before going their separate ways ending the ‘we’ that has been maintained throughout the book.

There has to be a comment about the style. The story works because it is fuelled by humour but it is also real and keeps you wanting to find out much in the same way a soap opera unfolds.

But the style is something that is thought through and maintained creating a feeling that most of the time you as the reader feel part of the group. You identify with those that are scheming and plotting to protect themselves from the corporate axe. You feel that you would be with the workers rather than the bosses and at the end there is a hint that the reader has been there for the whole journey sitting alongside the narrator.

This is enjoyable, sadly now something that is of its time again as redundancies sweep through the corporate world. But it shows that there is life both inside and outside the office and the importance of friendships, love and even anger. Without those emotions this story would lack its ability to make you laugh and then cry within the space of just a few paragraphs. This is a story about something with all know, about people we can all lay over the characters and for those that work in a job they spend most of their time hating or trying to avoid this is a book about us.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Saturday, February 23, 2008

book review - Strait is the Gate

There is a style of writing that sets up a character to embody an argument as a way of life and Andre Gide delivers a great example of that here.

Where there should be happiness and love there is despair and death. Ironically the reason for it is because of a zealous devotion to God. This is a book about the sort of religious devotion that causes people to become martyrs and lose out on happiness because it is somehow sinful to enjoy life.

In a nutshell this is a love story about a boy - Jerome - and a girl – Alissa - who grow up to become a man and a woman. They are clear about their plans to marry from their teenage years but not far after reaching the point where an engagement would be announced in the lead-up to a marriage things start to go wrong.

The first sign that Alissa is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness comes when her sister falls in love with Jerome. Alissa steps back and is prepared to step aside for the sake of her sister’s joy. Once that fails she still seems determined to sacrifice her love with Jerome. He has to go away and further his studies and carry out his military service but she keeps him at bay. The weeks stretch into months and still Alissa keeps him at arms length.

Even after her sister has married and that reason for sacrificing Jerome has disappeared she continues to try and sabotage her love. Finally the extremes are reached with her dressing in a way that will make her appear to be a frump and she also makes the decision to dump the literature he has sent her to read quant religious texts instead.

Inevitably the end comes with her rejecting Jerome for once and for all and then dying of a broken heart after he fails to return as she secretly hoped. Her victory over her heart has been complete but it costs Alissa her life.

Diaries passed onto Jerome after her death reveal how Alissa had hoped that he would come back for her even after all she had done to dissuade him. He remains devoted to a memory and in a telling exchange with Alissa’s sister he tells how he will love her forever and she reveals, to the reader at least, that she has always loved Jerome.

The fact she still loves Jerome must have been known by her sister. The determination of Alissa to reject Jerome and all that he had to offer was a supreme effort that could only be supported and driven by a belief in God that sustained her effort.

For Jerome the irony is that he has been consistent all along with his love for Alissa but unbeknown to him it is the complexities of the heart that are happening all around him that seal his fate. He has made his choice but the fact he is also chosen is something beyond his control.

Sometimes Gide can be accused of going on a bit – Fruits of the Earth springs to mind – but he gets the balance just about right here. It is helped by the story and characterisation of Alissa and Jerome, which keeps it from becoming a tract on religious fervour.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, February 22, 2008

book review - Fire Down Below

This is the last book in the trilogy by William Golding that charts the passage across the oceans from England to Australia of Edmund Talbot. The young man is propped up by a relationship with a wealthy and politically influential godfather. By this last book he has managed to set himself apart from almost everyone because of his often naive but firmly held views.

His love for a girl he met for an afternoon and evening in the second book manages to irate his closest friends and annoy his enemies, with Mr Benet in particular badgered by Talbot for details on the girl he had shared a ship with.

Most of the focus of the narrative is on the debate between the first lieutenant Summers and the Captain and his favourite Benet about how to best fix the sail. Benet argues that it can be strengthened and repaired by driving red-hot bolts through the base. Summers believes that this ‘fire down below’ will lead to destruction.

But there is also the question of the ‘fire down below’ in Talbot’s heart when he is challenged by utopian Mr Prettiman to turn his back on responsibility and class and follow his heart. Talbot cannot do it but he develops a friendship with the anti-establishmentarian that confuses Summers and some of the other passengers.

All the way through this trilogy it has been hard to see how it could end. It seems to be a tale of growing up with the privileged Talbot coming into contact with members of the lower orders and their brutality – the destruction of Colley in Book one Rites of Passage – and the political views of extremists.

Talbot is also exposed to extremes of love and fear and witnesses the suicide of his steward and the demise of his friend Summers along with the destruction of the ship.

As a cross section of society the ship manages to illustrate the dangers of standing out against the majority. It costs Colley his life and at points seems to cost Talbot company as he is shunned by various sections of the ship.

Once he lands at Australia at the conclusion of his voyage he receives news that his godfather has died. He is then treated to the fickle nature of success with everyone around him treating him with indifference. Even when Marion turns up she is advises by her mentor Lady Somerset not to pursue a relationship with a man that will not be able to provide for her.

But news arrives that reveals that the godfather has left his money and his seat in the houses of parliament to Talbot and those fickle friends return. The tragedy is that he cannot tell his friend Captain Summers, who hew helped get promotion, because the fire down below finally consumes the Captain and his ship.

For Talbot the fire down below turns out to be his love but for other characters those words meant different things, both literal and metaphorical. Golding manages to spin a complete tale across this trilogy of a voyage through extreme heat, horrendous storms and into ice fields and although it is pleasant enough reading it you certainly would not have wanted to step into Talbot’s shoes and boarded that ship with him.

Version read – Faber & Faber paperback

The Road to Calvary (part II) - post I

The story picks up with the civil war entering its last stage. There is a bit of description that makes you feel slightly disappointed reading when Tolstoy introduces Stalin as the great military tactician who alone has the foresight to order the manoeuvres that smash the White’s. That’s what the prize must have been given for along with the complete absence of Trotsky, who from my schoolboy recollections was pretty important in keeping the Red Army going.

Dasha is picked up by the Reds and she gets closer to being reunited with Telegin, who is running an artillery battery and fighting alongside the campaign being handled by Stalin.

There is no sign of Katia and Roshchin but you know that no doubt just as Telegin or Dasha are about to meet they will be introduced to break up and slow down the move to the conclusion.

This is almost 19th century in its style but with both eyes on a different master and as a result it is hard to believe all of the historical context giving pieces of text. Still enjoyable but this might get classed as a bit of a ‘plodder’ if you were trying to describe it to a friend.

The one thing however that it has to be applauded for it’s the fantastic descriptions of the confusion of civil war and the penalties of not only making the wrong political decision but also the costs of becoming popular in an age of jealous hatred.

More soon…

Lunchtime read: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The moment when the salmon arrive in the desert gets closer and as it does there is a revived interest from the prime minister. Meanwhile this seems to be a story not so much about love but the influence of the power of faith. If you believe in something then the power of the prospect of it becoming real can start to change your life.

In the case of Dr Jones it is not just putting his work life into context but also his marriage as for the first time probably since he married his wife he is too busy and focused on his own world to notice her.

The shift in styles continues with diary entries being interspersed with Hansard quotes and letters written forlornly by Harriet to her dead fiancé. It forces you to concentrate and makes it far from clear what will happen next. Because of the previous interrogations in some sort of select committee or judicial investigation you just know that things are going to go wrong sometime very soon.

More soon…

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Yet another real-life plot twist

A very odd day at work. Almost like a scene from Then We Came to the End. Woke up to find a message on the Blackberry from the CEO announcing that my company was being divested from the parent operation. All of a sudden a lot of things that seemed important yesterday now no longer seem as relevant.

Most of the management carried on like pre-programmed automons unable to break the cycle but soon even they will have to realise that things are going to be different. Could be good - might be bad - but it is going to be more interesting.

Lunchtime read: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

This book is not just about politics, war and spin but is also about faith and love. Just as the rainwater has the potential to bring life to the desert so the prospect of being touched by something as real as love starts to help Dr Alfred Jones blossom into a different man.

There is a different style in his diary entries as he arrives in the Yemen and starts to explore a different culture and a different perspective on the world. Harriet opens up to him and admits that her fiance is missing in Iran and she is dreadfully worried about it.

It is almost as if escaping from his job, although he is let go, his wife, again she leaves him, and his narrow horizons is the best thing that could happen to Dr Jones.He is also developing into a character that you genuinely start liking.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Road to Calvary (part II) - post IV

The end of part II comes with the reversal in fortunes once again with the Reds galvanised by the Red Terror launching total war on their enemies proving to be too strong for the Whites.

Friends become enemies and comrades bitter rivals that deserve to be shot. Only the determination of the Reds in Moscow with the vision of the Red Terror can change the circle of despair. Once that starts the story becomes one of retribution again but this time with a sense of permanence. The options are running out for the forces of resistance. Hope of foreign intervention start to fade and the successes enjoyed by the Whites start to be reversed.

Katia has disappeared from the story along with Roshchin but Telegin reappears to meet Dasha and is betrayed by her father. The doctor has chosen his side but has a heart attack on discovering that he has backed the wrong horse and the second part ends with Telegin re-entering Samara. He draws up to the doctor’s house, which he last had to flee from or face certain death, and finds it abandoned and the doctor and his wife nowhere to be seem.

That sense of desolation and a sense that the end has come to those who wanted defeat for the Communists starts to pervade the last few pages and is an interesting starting place for part III.

More to come…

Lunchtime read: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The idea of the story being told through the diary pages of Dr Alfred Jones might have become a little one sided so the letters between Harriet and her fiancé in Iraq are used.

His letters are heavily censored and Torday actually prints the blacked out letters. I remember hearing someone talk about this approach on an interview on Radio 4 and I’m sure Torday said that it was used to make it seem more real – and to illustrate to the reader how difficult it is to communicate to a loved one in a war zone.

It is also a metaphor for the wider technique of keeping the reader in the loop but the main characters in the dark about what could happen next.

Although working out what happens next is made slightly more interesting by a flash forward with the prime minister’s spin doctor facing questions about the affair in scenes that are reminiscent of the sexed-up WMD dossier.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Road to Calvary (part II) - post III

At the back of your mind you cannot help thinking that Tolstoy was awarded the Stalin prize for this book. Having read some Russian civil war history what does start to appear to be a style that would endorse this to Stalin is the portrayal of the Whites.

The Reds are portrayed as the victims of a class-ridden country that has no tolerance of those that have sacrificed blood and life in the trenches against the Germans. There is a moment when Roshchin returns to Rostov after the White’s have recaptured the city and it has returned to a pleasure palace for the wealthy with the poor being made to sweep the streets.

But aside from that criticism there is a real sense of the confusion that must have reigned with the different groups fighting for the soul of Russia. Dasha moves from being the wife of a Red officer to a helper of the White’s, even being considered at one point as a potential assassin of Lenin, as well as being a friend to the anarchists.

Meanwhile Roshchin is also feeling similar confusion and wonders quite what cause he is fighting for. Particularly after a fellow White tries to kill him by shooting him in the back of the head. That same sense of it being everyman for himself is evident on the Reds side with Telegin being sent on a mission to get orders to shoot the top commander who has named the crime of being too popular.

There is madness in the air and the way that Tolstoy weaves his characters through it is clever with one memorable moment where Telegin in disguise and Roshchin share the same bench in Rostov train station.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

This reminds me of the Adrian Mole diaries by Sue Townsend, not just because of the diary format but also because of the humour. The reader can see some of the twists coming long before they do and revels in the main characters stumbling into them. But this is also a political book. The spin doctoring, willingness to bend the civil service at will and the ambition all point back to the recent Blair years.

The story evolves around Dr Alfred Jones who works for Fisheries department and is asked – well pressured with the threat of the sack – to help with a project to create a salmon river in the Yemen. The project is on the face of it an impossibility because of the heat, lack of oxygen in the water and the impact on natural migration patterns.

But the Alistair Campbell figure believes it will be good for the government and its relations with the Middle East so Dr Jones is told in no uncertain terms to get on and make the project happen.

Having started he rather enjoys his entry into a life of attractive lawyers and Arab sheiks. At home his high-powered wife Mary is moving permanently to Geneva and her childless marriage with Alfred is falling apart – not that she seems to mind. That leaves Alfred stuck with a growing attraction for Harriet the lawyer for the sheik, who is engaged to a captain serving in Iraq - a bit more scope for politics there.

More tomorrow…

Monday, February 18, 2008

The road to Calvary (part II) - post II

Having introduced Telegin and Roshchin as Red and White army soldiers the narrative then moves to focus on both of their wives. Katia is devastated when she is informed that her husband has died and so she decides to leave Rostock and head off because she is heartbroken and cannot imagine sitting waiting for a man who never comes.

Her decision to travel ties one of the main characters into events happening in the German occupied areas of the Ukraine after partisans capture her.

Meanwhile back in Petrograd Dasha is also grieving for a lost life and finally starts to grieve for her lost love. An old collection of poetry sparks a trip down memory lane and the tears start to flow. She is interrupted by a letter being delivered from Katia that tells of her loss and her desolation.

At this point in the civil war the White’s were optimistic about their chances of smashing the Reds. The Czech soldiers that had gone native in Siberia created problems for Lenin and company. As the tide turns against the Reds the arrogance starts to come pout from the officer class and you sense that Tolstoy is setting them up graphically for a real fall.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Sorrows of Young Werther

In the end it is hard to feel too sympathetic for Werther because he plants a seed of destruction at the heart of Lotte’s relationship with her husband Albert. As the end draws near there is an interesting shift in focus with the reader being given a chance to see into the mind of Lotte.

She is torn between anger and love wanting on the one hand for Werther to leave her alone and then on the other hand expressing loneliness at his absence. She seems to know what is coming and also senses how much her husband Albert is ambivalent towards his rival.

But the long rambling suicide note not only tells Lotte how much he loved her but also does plenty of damage for Albert. It is pretty hard to compete with a dead man and so Werther exploits his last act to ensure his memory will be etched onto Lotte’s heart.

A review will follow soon (after I get through the queue)…

Sunday, February 17, 2008

bookmark of the week

This is a magnetic bookmark - aren't they nearly all now - from the London transport museum. The rest of thw words on the other side complete the sentence "Buses and Coaches for Hire". It looks like it might be a design from the 1940s when red buses drove through uncrowded roads through the rolling English countryside.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Sorrows of Young Werther

The inevitable happens and Werther is told by Lotte to stop coming to see her so often. The request is prompted by her husband Albert who points out that the love struck man keeps coming round and it is rather spoiling their marriage and is the subject of gossips in the village.

Lotte tells Werther not to come for a few days - which is Christmas Eve – and this is the final straw for him and he then plans to commit suicide. His letters/diary breaks off and another voice picks up the threads of the last few days piecing it together through fragments of unsent letters and the suicide note.

Although no doubt the suicide is meant to haunt Lotte as much as the early days of their friendship still haunts Werther you can understand why he has been asked to back off a bit.

There is one physical reminder of the pain of unrequited love when Werther comes across a former servant at Lotte’s house who has also fallen in love with her. The madness of love has caused him to lose his mind and he finally murders a fellow servant. Werther, who probably more than anyone can sympathise with his malaise, is the only one to defend the man, something else that goes against him with Albert.

Last bit tomorrow…

Friday, February 15, 2008

book review - The Heart-Keeper

The more you think about this short book from Francoise Sagan the more you feel it has to be categorised as a black comedy.

The reason is that although it is short on humour the idea that someone could be spending their life under the same roof as a cool-hearted serial killer is a quirky one. Then add to that the power that is put in Dorothy’s hands knowing that anyone she dislikes will be killed by Lewis and it does start to set up a story that could have gone in another direction.

What keeps this story of a 45 year-old kind-hearted script writer who takes in a drugged out early twenties man is the message it is putting out about Hollywood and the hollowness of tinsel town.

Success seems to bring misery, jealously, spiritual emptiness and a drink and drugs problem. Large houses, luxury cars and glamorous friends are all arranged and approved by the contract made with the studio. Real people and real lives don’t really have a place in this artificial world.

Amongst all of this sits Dorothy who is considering starting a relationship with Paul. She has been married before but is a confident and attractive woman who likes her independence. Part of that independence is taking the decision to take home a young man that her and Paul knock down one evening. Dorothy offers Lewis her spare room and after a while a mainly silent but powerful relationship develops. It is neither sexual or parental but based around something more idealistic.

Lewis bumps off Dorothy’s alcoholic ex-husband, the dead man’s second wife and a very aggressive studio boss before Dorothy discovers his secret. Once she knows she is filled with terror and eventually to escape she marries Paul and flees on honeymoon to the continent. In the meantime Lewis has been nominated for an Oscar and has all the trimmings of success.

But when Dorothy returns and is given the tour of Lewis’s home she leaves only to find the young star whimpering at the car window begging to be taken back to her home. Paul seems to understand that they will never be rid of Lewis but with Dorothy as his wife he appears to be prepared to allow the threesome to exist under the same roof.

Quiet what Dorothy - who is the heart-keeper of not just Lewis but Paul – will do is left to your imagination because at that point the book ends.

What is similar to something like Bonjour Tristesse is the sense of a love triangle, fast cars that lose their brakes and crash with fatal consequences and the younger of the three main characters being the most emotionally intense.

An odd book that you certainly won’t forget.

Version read – penguin paperback

The Road to Calvary (part II) - post I

The second part of the Roads to Calvary is titled 1918 and this is a time of civil war in Russia. The battle for the country is being waged between Reds and Whites and Tolstoy splits the main male characters so they are fighting for different sides.

Things start with Dasha and Telegin in Petrograd, what was St Petersburg, starving and fighting the cold by burning pieces of furniture. They have had a son die after just a few days and their relationship is shattered by the shock and the misery. Meanwhile in the streets old colleagues of Telegin’s talk about revolution and fighting to defend the worker’s rights.

Meanwhile Katia and her officer Roshchin have made their way to Rostov, which has fallen to the Reds. Once in the city Roshchin is consumed by rage and leaves Katia to head off to the front. He joins the Reds with the intention of defecting to the Whites at the first opportunity. He manages to do it but is suspected by most of the Whites as being a spy.

Meanwhile Dasha and Telegin have parted in sorrow and he has joined up the Reds more out of something to do than political conviction. Because his heart is numb he is given special missions that he brings off successfully. But he still dreams of Dasha and wants her love to return.

In passages that are reminiscent of War & Peace there is a deal of historical detail that is put in to put the civil war in context. Then using a character that has headed home from the hospital to his village the Germans are introduced. As they sweep into the Ukraine and the Don it is an opportunity for the landed gentry to rise up and try to rip down Bolshevik changes.

Everywhere hatred is being planted and grown in the hearts of men and no one can be trusted. As the Reds and the Whites come closer together both are lead by leaders with torn loyalties and mixed ideas about why they are fighting.

This is occasionally plodding because of the style. Which builds up each different strand of the narrative in consecutive order until there is some sort of climax. It also reminds you of other epic novels set against war and civil war including War & Peace but also Quiet Flows the Don and in terms of the emotional turmoil there is some of Dr Zhivago echoing here.

More to come…

Lunchtime read: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Werther does leave Lotte and Albert and takes a position working in an office that offers an eventual career in the diplomatic service. The problem is that the hypersensitive youth manages to get on the wrong side of one of his superiors and then ends up making a social gaffe when he fails to withdraw from an event for the society elite.

That festers away with him and he starts to write bleaker letters to his friends and to Albert and Lotte about plans to resign.

In the meantime he receives the blow with the news that Lotte and Albert have got married. He then resigns and decides to head back in the direction of Lotte to be close to her but the more he comes into contact with her the harder it becomes. On one level she is quite naïve almost taunting him but then on another she is clearly hostile to his continued advances.

At one point Werther muses on the idea that Albert might die and you get an insight into the dark thoughts he is having about everything and anyone other than Lotte.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Then We Came to the End - post III

The final section of the book was the one that was most able to bring tears to your eyes of both laughter and sadness.

After wondering for weeks if Tom Mota will return to the office he comes back in fantastic style wreaking havoc before being arrested. His appearance dressed as a paint ball gun toting clown puts the lives of the rest of the office workers into stark relief.

In the moments before they expect to die a fair few of the characters have moments of piercing clarity where they decide not only what is valuable to them but which direction their lives should go in. Among them is Mota himself who is able to slay his dragons with the clown attack.

Following his reapparance and arrest the pace speeds up and the remaining members of the ‘we’ are laid off. And then time passes and it moves into reminiscing mode.

What is interesting about the whole process is how believable it feels but at the same time how detached you feel reading it. The idea of being laid off does not fill you with dread and by the end is almost an inevitability.

The meeting of the characters to hear a reading by one of their previous workgroup provides a chance to tie up the loose ends and bring the narrative to the present. The book comes to a close with the question about the narrator being left unsolved and the reader feeling that they are sitting next to the voice in the car waiting to drive off into the future.

A review will follow soon…

The burning debate

There has been quite a a debate about whether or not Nabokov’s dying wishes should be respected and his incomplete final novel burned. The fate of the manuscript, which lies in a Swiss bank vault, appears to be in the hands of Nabokov’s son Dmitri. He has been in an email conversation with The Times and is playing cat and mouse with those who want to know what he will do.

The point that is well made is that if author’s dying wishes were paid any attention to then we would not have had Kafka. The problem is that an incomplete novel is never that easy to read for the casual reader but for the ardent fan it is something that can only ever end in dissapointment because it stops in mid air.

Let’s wait and see what Dmitri decides to do…

Lunchtime read: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Just as you suspected they would, things start to go bad for poor Werther. He had been warned all along that Lotte was betrothed and her fiancé returns and turns out to be a very good man – clever and thoughtful. Werther evens gets on with him and discusses with Albert thoughts of suicide.

What drives him to that point is the realisation that all of his hopes and dreams have hit a rock and Albert and Lotte are going to be a couple. He cherishes the moments they had together and his growing involvement with her siblings but has to accept that it is over.

His mood turns dark incredibly quickly and he vows to leave Lotte and Albert and never return. You sense that this is the crucial moment because if he continues to remain close by then he will be driven to despair. But does he have the strength of resolve to escape?

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Sorrows of Young Werther

A colleague at work is always warning me off depressing books because he argues that they make me more likely to moan and be a doom merchant. I’m not sure its anything to do with the books but more a consequence of my daily working life. But anyway better not tell him about this weeks lunchtime read.

You know what is coming here partly because of the title and also because of the first few pages. Here is a young man, Werther, who is clearly dissatisfied with life and wondering what it is all in aid of. He sets things out in a dated letter form to a friend to who he can reveal all of his innermost thoughts and feelings.

He is warned that he should not fall in love with the betrothed eldest daughter of a local landowner but he cannot help himself and is spell bound at a ball. He leaves her head over heels in love and asks permission to call on her next day.

Given his former state of mind you wonder what will become of him if she will not break off her engagement.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Then We Came to the End - post II

If the first part of the book is about the different characters in the office and the pain of redundancy then the second part is about Lynn. This is a clever twist because introducing the vulnerability of a boss who is scared of hospitals and suffering from cancer stops you from demonising her.

Without this human side, and it need not have been cancer, you could go through the novel with a hate figures set up to take the blame for all the negative things that happen to the rest of the characters. Not only is Lynn not personally responsible for the downturn leading to redundancies but of course she is not able to cope with the disease that is spreading through her body.

Her loneliness, which is graphically displayed with her decision to sit outside her boyfriend’s office wondering whether or not she should go in, makes her three-dimensional. Ferris is making the point that we are all people and all likely to be victims in different ways of office life.

For Lynn the fear of hospitals and perhaps of knowing the worse means that she will come into the office and hide away on the very day she is meant to have an operation to remove her breasts.

It might be described as a comedy on the blurb on the dust jacket but this is something hitting a different note.

More tomorrow...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Then We Came to the End - post I

This book starts with the collective ‘we’ and starts to unfold describing a scene that if you work in an office you know all too well. There might be differences in the location – Chicago - and the type of office – an advertising agency – but those are minor issues.

What Ferris has observed so acutely is the way that people in an office are split into an us and them. In this case the ‘us’ group is being slowly chipped away at through a process of lay-offs. This is the post era at the turn of the century and the last thing people wanted to pay for was advertising. There are several examples of how people react to being told they have been laid off with the mysterious and threatening to the tears and denial.

But even with a couple of employees gone the group remains relatively intact and spends its time hanging around in Benny’s office hearing about the reactions of Tom Mota and Chris Yop to being told that they were being let go. Although self-preservation is at the top of everyone’s list there is a collective mentality that does not want to see anyone go. At the top of the tree sits Lynn who has the ability to fire at will along with her side kick Joe Pope, who seems to have a foot in both of the us and them camps.

There are some funny moments but bearing in mind we have had some redundancies at work recently it is more the acute observation of the workplace that you appreciate.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, February 10, 2008

bookmark of the week

My preference of all the possible characters in the Mr Men series, which used to run when I was a child with Arthur Lowe as the narrator, was Mr Bump. The poor character was always getting into 'little accidents' bumping into things. He made me laugh but also stirred some pathos as a character that clearly saw an alternative existence but was never able to get one. That's something I certainly share with him now, even if I don't bump into things.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lunchtime read: Strait is the Gate

After Alissa’s death Jerome is given her private papers and through the pages of the diary he gets to see the last few years through her eyes.

The moments when she denied him of her love are painful and extraordinarily difficult for her and at the final meeting she regrets their parting and years for him to come back. Of course by then too much damage has been done to make the relationship work and Jerome walks out of her life for the last time.

Years pass and he takes up the invitation to visit Alissa’s sister and they talk and Jerome expresses his belief that he will never be able to marry anyone because he still loves Alissa. At this Juliette takes him into a private room and questions him about if it is possible to love someone all your life and cries in the darkness revealing that despite the marriage to a farmer and five children she is still in love with Jerome.

This revelation at the end shows the dangerous consequences of love that Alissa in her own way tried so hard to avoid. She could not cope with the thought that someone would be hurt, either as a result of disappointment, or because of falling in love with someone else.

A review will follow soon…

Friday, February 08, 2008

Plugging the gaps

Do you ever get that feeling that there is a gap in your reading? That moment when you think ‘hold on a minute I’ve missed that one’ and head out to try and plug the gap. Listening to a Guardian podcast where Philip Pullman was interviewed around Christmas time it dawned on me when he was admitting there were some references to Paradise Lost in his Northern Lights trilogy that I had no idea what he was talking about. After a couple of days it proved impossible to get it out of my head and so tonight I popped into Waterstones and picked up a copy of Milton’s most famous work.

There is a big difference of course between owning a book and actually reading it but at least step one has been completed…

Lunchtime read: Strait is the Gate

Sacrificing yourself to some sort of higher ideal is the idea behind Alissa’s treatment of Jerome but it appears to be so pointless. To be closer to God and ensure that their love is no sullied by the experience of the everyday she distances herself from him firstly physically then intellectually. She tones down her appearance to rid herself of any beauty and cleans out of her life anything other than a commitment to peasantry pursuits.

Finally her resistance to Jerome is so complete that they part and she disappears from his view deciding to travel the world to rid himself of his restlessness. Three years pass before they meet again and then in a chance encounter by her garden gate they talk for the last time and as he almost breaks down her barriers with a kiss she closes the gate on him and shuts the door on their love.

He writes appealing to Alissa’s sister expressing his concerns that she is very ill and not far from death. The return letter confirms his fears with the news that Alissa has died.

The sense of waste is palpable and the wonder at why someone would deny themselves love as if they deserved punishment? Real love is all about going through the ups and downs of life but it is importantly about doing them together.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, February 07, 2008

book review - Wise Children

Sometimes when you read a book there is a quality of voice that carries through the reader and adds to the experience. Most voices that you come across tend to be from people going through the transition from childhood to adulthood. But Angela Carter chooses a narrator in the shape of a 75 year-old twin dancing girl who delightfully leads you through her past and present.

The story of Dora and Nora Chance is one of family, love (often the absence of it) and the wisdom of knowing your place in the world. It reads as if it was a transcript of a conversation with an aged aunt over a cup of tea and some lemon drizzle cake, told over many hours on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon. But this is not just the stuff of memories and it concludes with the sisters wandering through Brixton very much looking forward to the future.

What ties it all together is the search the twin sisters have for recognition from their natural father, Melchior Hazard. He is himself suffering from damage done by his father, but that is only revealed at the end. The only person from the Hazard family to give the girls any recognition is their uncle Perry who keeps them in dancing lessons and shoes and brightens up their lives. The girls grow up under the influence of their grandmother but do have a successful break into Hollywood. A large chunk of the story concentrates on the hollow nature of the US film industry and the girls eventually escape back to England.

But all of the book has been leading up to the climax of Dora and Nora’s father’s 100th birthday. On a night of numerous revelations the twins are finally recognised by their father and get the chance to put a happy full stop to that story.

The book is a joy to read and once the weird cast of characters becomes familiar it does become easier to follow. The things that you are left with at the end of the story arte not just contemplating on the importance of family and love but also harking back for a lost age. The dance hall that the girls became stars of was killed off by cinema and lack of popularity but that doesn’t mean it was replaced with anything better.

The title refers to a saying about the wise child knowing their own father. At the end they know him slightly better but more importantly they know themselves. Their sense of need was fulfilled by the other twin and the only real moments of anxiety in the story comes when Dora and Nora might be separated. But this is a story of optimism and ends with the twins, both 75, heading off into the future in a direction that you could have never expected.

Version read – a QPD (bookclub) paperback

Fire Down Below - post V

So the voyage comes to an end and for some it is a joyous climax but there is also plenty of regret and misery still to come.

Edmund manages to get a promotion for his friend Summers to the position of captain and then almost immediately loses his relationship to the man. Summers becomes obsessed with his boat and the jobs he might have to undertake in the harbour.

In a cruel twist of fate the fire down below that he always suspected was there in the mast bursts into life and Charles and the boat he loved are destroyed. At the same time Talbot’s influential godfather dies and he loses his position. Most of those around him start to snub him and consider him no longer in the ascendancy.

Most importantly the love of his life Marion arrives and because of his fall in fortune she is advised to keep him at arms bay by her patron Lady Somerset. But they declare their love for each other and she leaves him promising to wait for him for as long as it takes.

Meanwhile, the utopian dreamers the Prettimans disappear into the bush and most of the other passengers also vanish leaving Talbot alone working for the governor.

But another reversal in fortunes follows the reading of his godfather’s will and the announcement that Talbot has won his godfather’s old seat in a rotten borough. He heads back to England via India. He finally gets the chance to run into the arms of his beloved Marion.

During the voyage what is most interesting is the growing fire down below, which for Talbot concerns his love for Marion. For others it might be political, jealousy or ambition but for Talbot it is reasonably innocent.

A review will follow soonish…

Lunchtime read: Strait is the Gate

The relationship between the central characters Jerome and Alissa becomes like one of those moments when someone is clearly trying to break things off and the other fails to see it.

Or maybe Jerome does realise that Alissa does not want to see him and so after a year apart he does complain and call on her for explanations. The reader can clearly see that she has decided to try and wean herself off him and hope that he falls for someone else but his constant letters should indicate that is not going to happen.

As a result a date is finally set when they will meet but she tries to keep it to just a couple of days - a request that surely will make it clear to Jerome that she is trying to end the relationship?

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What on earth?

For those people that wondered if A-Levels were getting easier just take a look at what is being proposed with the choice of texts for English. Out of the window go the classics with Elliot, Forester and Conrad being replaced by a Richard and Judy book club selection approach.

In a quote in The Guardian the Oxford and Cambridge exam board director of qualifications Clara Kenyon said: “The public has a real enthusiasm for literature, as shown by the popularity of initiatives such as the Richard and Judy’s book club which have been hugely successful.”

Most of the books on the R&J list appear to be thrillers, romances and literature with a small ‘L’. Surely the whole point of studying literature is that you have made a decision to delve deeper into the subject and are not going to be put off by texts that might be for the common reader “dull and boring” as Kenyon seems to suggest.

making things more 'interesting' and simple does not mean that it makes it better.

Lunchtime read: Strait is the Gate

This story could have got bogged down as Alissa sticks to her guns refusing to get engaged because of some religious feelings.

But the truth suddenly becomes apparent as Jerome’s friend attempts to ask for the hand of marriage of Alissa’s sister. She is in love with Jerome and that is the reason Alissa has refused his offer of engagement.

The revelation that the two sisters are in love with the same person really throws everything off kilter and leaves Jerome and his friend wondering just what will happen to their chances of getting engaged to their respective loves.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Fire Down Below - post IV

After a while you start to see the world of the ship as a metaphor for society and the different social strata and the different [political views. After having made his piece with the Prettimans, who he has insulted and almost killed who both hold socialist ideals, Talbot is challenged to be consumed by the fire down below – in his heart and work towards some sort of utopia.

He resists because of his inhibitions but also because of his inability to believe it could really happen.

Meanwhile the officers are fighting for the captain’s favour and the ship continues to sail through waters without anyone in the crew having much idea where they actually are. The consequences of that action are suddenly put into stark context as Talbot spots ice and brings the ship to life and the end of the voyage that sudden moment closer as they sail towards the ice.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Strait is the Gate

This is not the first Andre Gide book that I have read and the others varied in their readability but always stuck to a central point – often communism or a blend of naturism.

You sense that this is not going to be too different with the theme being around the balance between religious dedication and commitment to earthly love.

The main character Jerome is orphaned in a relatively short space of time but in between his father’s and then his mother’s death he is introduced to his cousin Alissa. They fall in love but the girl is very religious and becomes even more so after her mother runs off with an officer.

Jerome’s mother then dies leaving him determined to make something of himself but also to seal the marriage with Alissa.

More tomorrow…

Monday, February 04, 2008

Fire Down Below - post III

The main character of this trilogy Edmund Talbot continues on his personal journey of discovery. He manages to offend and infuriate a fair few passengers and members of the ship’s crew. Making it no secret that he disagrees with the decision to repair the mast by driving red-hot bolts through the bottom of it he clashes with those that have supported that plan.

Once the mast is held by the red hot bolts, which are meant to go cold because of the lack of oxygen, Talbot and his friend officer Summers continually express unease about the fire below but the advanced speed seems to undermine their concerns.

Meanwhile a ferocious sea attacks the boat and the boat is tossed through storm and high seas with even the sailors deciding to hide below than face the fury of the ocean.

Talbot continues to walk into arguments because of his ability to irritate people with a missed place remark here or there and he almost kills a fellow passenger who he tries to help by moving on his deathbed.

By now the story has settled into a pattern that is regulated by the conditions of the sea and the moods of the crew and passengers. Talbot seems to be spending more time reflecting on his own faults and you get hints that he will be a different man once they land.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Heart-Keeper

There are just a few pages left, but enough for Lewis to commit another murder, and declare his love for Dorothy. He shoots the director of his film with a gun that is meant to be unloaded and as a result gets away with the crime. But his cold-hearted attitude pushes Dorothy over the edge.

Her only real option is to get away from home and Lewis and so she marries Paul and spends six months on honeymoon. When she returns Lewis has won an Oscar and is installed in a huge house by the studio. He meets Dorothy and Paul and clings onto them as they are given a tour of the house. As they leave he runs out and begs to come back with them. The final scene has Paul acknowledging that Lewis is going to be with them for life.

Lewis, with his cold-hearted nature, is a living embodiment of the callous nature of the world of Hollywood where success buys love and wealth and failure leads to alcoholism, bitterness and ultimately obscurity and death.

“It was evident that he had lost his self-control. Hollywood had destroyed him, too, at last – Hollywood and alcohol.”

A review will follow soon…

Sunday, February 03, 2008

bookmark of the week

This was free at my local library but worth picking up not just because of the message - plant trees to save the planet - but also because of the design. It is very graphical and also reasonably long so will fit into most of my books with an edge at the top that will make it clearly visible. Sometimes free bookmarks can be a bit of an embrassament if they are spotted on the train by other passengers but this one is okay and for now at least is going to be used next week until it gets too dog eared and has to be recycled.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

book review - Memories of my Melancholy Whores

If there is a take away from this short book from Gabriel Garcia Marquez it is around the ideas of love and age. Ultimately you are never to old to fall in love but more importantly you can never be too cynical.

The cynical nature of the 90-year-old central character comes from his history of frequenting with incredible regularity the brothels in the South American town he inhabits. A man who has literally had hundreds of sexual encounters has almost trained himself to turn off any thoughts of love. He remembers the only occasion he came close to having any normal sort of relationship he ran away on the day of the wedding.

To celebrate his 90yj birthday he decides to visit the brothel but this time specifies that he must have a virgin waiting for him. Thus begins an off, non-conversational, relationship with a 14 year-old girl that is not given a sexual element until the very end. She sleeps, after working in a factory, and he talks to her and starts to plough all of his money into paying to see her.

At the same time the main character, who writes a weekly column for the main newspaper, decides he is going to stop writing. But he has gone through various stages of being criticised for being old-fashioned to a stage where he is in vogue. So the editor urges him to carry on and because of the costs of visiting the brothel he continues. As his columns start to cover the topics of love he becomes a must read in the town dividing readers but always sparking a debate.

He is advised finally to marry the girl to not only save money but to ensure that she is somewhere close by so his jealously, which is the other side of the love coin, does not eat up his last years.

The ending sees him vowing to live on in comfort with his young virgin discovering after believing that it was not possible what love is like and starting to understand why living for someone else is such a powerful life force.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, February 01, 2008

Fire Down Below - post II

Life on board the ship is dominated by the divisions between the first lieutenant Summers and the upstart Mr Benet. Edmund Talbot favours the first and is keen to try and delay any attempt to rebuild the main mast using burning iron – presumably the reason for the title.

In the meantime Talbot moves back into the hutch that has already been the location for the deaths of the parson Colley and his steward. He moves because of the comments made by fellow passengers who accuse him of being too cosy with the officers.

The only other break in the concentration on the debate about the main mast and the likelihood of the boat sinking is the marriage of two of the passengers. Talbot is called onto be a witness to the ceremony of two people he doesn’t care a great deal for.

Not a great deal happens in these books but you do feel that it is a passage from innocent and sheltered youth to something more substantial for Talbot who is continually making mistakes and overstepping the mark because of arrogance and ignorance.

More next week…

Lunchtime read: The Heart-Keeper

There is always something special about the moment when a reader has been ahead of the plot and then catches up. What happens next is when the ability of the storyteller really comes through. If it becomes easy to guess then to some degree the story has failed but equally go too far from reality and it becomes implausible.

Sagan has now reached that moment. It has become clear that Lewis is killing anyone who tries to insult or hurt Dorothy. Finally the penny drops and she confronts him with the truth and he admits it easily enough. But then she is in a dilemma because she realises the power she has over life and death – is she dislikes someone then Lewis will happily kill them for her.

She keeps it secret to herself but you wonder just how lone she can go on living in the shadow of the strange young man who is a cold-hearted killer.

More tomorrow…