Monday, March 31, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Man on the Balcony

By following his intuition and questioning a three year old boy Martin Beck discovers that the man who killed the children used a tube to get their and as a result his location can be narrowed down.

The problem is that there are few witnesses but the one that they are working with from the mugger sticks in Beck’s brain. He keeps replaying the description and realises that it tallies word for word with one he overheard being made by a colleague when he talked to a woman about a man on the balcony.

Although it is going to be like a needle in a haystack, and several colleagues think it is a waste of time, Beck starts to focus the search on the man on the balcony before he can kill again.

Last chunk tomorrow…

More fuel for the bloggers v. critics debate

Just before I left to head off to work this morning there was a discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme (it happened at 8.20 and you can listen to it online) about the differences between literary bloggers and traditional critics. This is a long running debate but the latest attempt to ignite the war of words failed mainly because the blogging representative from was almost as qualified as the academic reviewer.

Of course there are people blogging with axes to grind and idiotic views to share. But unless you take everything you read completely on trust there is always the option to go elsewhere. The ability to share a gut reaction to a book is very powerful in some cases because it is raw analysis. Obviously being able to put it into a literary context is helpful but there is this is not an either or debate there is a place for both approaches.

As a blogger one of the things I have wrestled with is a feeling that more time needs to be spent producing long essay length posts about literature. The reason finally for deciding not to do those is not just because of time, and possibly a certain amount of talent lacking, but primarily because writing those type of posts never motivated me to start blogging in the first place.

Broadly there seem to be two types of blogs: those that are written for personal reasons – for instance just sharing the joy of books and reading – and those that are written with a firm eye on the commercial opportunities and traffic stats.

Maybe the problems occur in the first category but that’s where myself and lots of other fantastic bloggers are happy existing.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Book snobs of the world unite!

There was a great moment in a charity bookshop yesterday when a woman walked in and asked if she could donate some books.

"Would you like these books?" the woman asked of the assistant behind the counter.

Bearing in mind this is a charity shop and they should be grateful for everything they get the answer was fascinating.

As she thumbed through the books on offer the woman behind the counter said "Some of these are alright but you can take the others because they should be sold by a general charity shop."

Talk about a book snob. The reaction on the face of the woman donating the books was something that was worth popping in the shop to see...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Acceptance World - post II

Although for most of the first two volumes you have wanted Jenkins to become more committed to a course of action that will either bring success in his career or love into his life when it finally comes as a reader all you sense is dread. Will a character that you have come to like change now he is involved with a woman?

So far there is little sign of it although he is only at the start of his relationship with jean and he makes it clear he has asked her to marry him and she seems to be delaying preferring to be stuck legally in a dead marriage.

One thing that strikes you as odd, which is even then covered in the story, is the lack of presence of children. At one point Jean says that her brother’s marriage might have worked if he had produced lots of children with his wife Mona. Jenkins seems to think that this is an odd thought and then goes further sharing his thoughts with the reader that it is odd that jean wants to spend time and fuss over her daughter Polly. It was clearly a time when children were seen and not heard and then at the earliest opportunity sent away to a boarding school.

Meanwhile Quiggin and Mark members are competiting to be the secreatry to a famous novelist and the first appearance of politics - in this case the Marxist variety - arrives with Sillery and Quiggin marching to protest.

More on Monday…

What's a notepad for?

I don’t want to moan too much but if there is one thing that bugs me it is reading a book that has been highliughted, underlined and annonated all over. Sometimes little words at the back of the book or inscriptions on the first page can add to the enjoyment of buying second hand books. But finding your eye constantly drawn to passages that someone else felt were important does undermine the enjoyment of the reading experience.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Man on the Balcony

With the discovery of a dead child the pace of the thriller picks up and the key to getting a break in the case is to disover the identity of the mugger who was operating in the park at the same time as the killer.

The police are at each other’s throats suffering from sleep deprivation, colds and general grumpiness. At points all they can see in each other are faults and because there are the dual investigations of the mugger and the child killer – who strikes again in another park murdering another 10 year old girl – Beck is not in overall control.

Where it does feel like it is getting back onto Beck dominated ground is when the policeman follows his instinct and interviews a three-year-old boy who unwittingly met the killer and was fobbed off with an underground ticket.

Added to that the mugger is caught as a result of his girlfriend dropping him in it and he did indeed see the killer. Those two developments mean the net is tightening but there are plenty of pages left to have a twist or two.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Acceptance World - post I

Straight into book three. After this I might take a break but for now it seems too early to leave the world of Nicholas Jenkins. The third book starts in the same vein as the other two with one of the first characters making an appearance being Uncle Giles.

This time the old man seems to be in a happier mood and he introduces Jenkins to a fellow guest at the Bayswater hotel he is staying at. Mrs Endleigh tells their fortunes and with her words things are set up for problems with two young men and an old one and for some romance.

The two young men must be Mark Members and Quiggin who are working for an elderly novelist. But before they start to play their role there is a chance for Jenkins to bump into Templer who is married now to someone who used to be an artist’s model and hang around Deacon’s studio.

It also provides a chance for Jenkins to meet Jean Templer again. She is estranged from her husband and living with her brother. On the way back to Peter Templer’s house, after an impromptu invitation, Jenkins finally finds love with Jean. It all seems spontaneous or is it planned?

“But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned – or everything is – because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.”

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Man on the Balcony

The idea of a comfort break on the reading front has always included a well written thriller. Along with dipping into Tintin the next best thing to relax with is a literary puzzle. Some of the best are written by husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

They produced ten books charting the career of Martin Beck and having read the first couple the third was a birthday present from last year. Now seemed like a good point to drag it out.

The start does not start to fall into place until around the 7th chapter with the discovery of a murdered child in the park. Up to that point there has been a mysterious man watching children from his balcony and a mugger preying on middle aged and old people in the park. Martin Beck has disappeared to get away from it all after being recently promoted and there seems to be friction in the police station after the staff were moved around.

But the discovery of a body should crystallise the narrative and drag Beck back into the centre of the action.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Buyer's Market - post IV

It is rare to read a book that manages to wrap you up in a feeling. It is hard to describe but reading through the last pages of this book you start to really understand not just the social landscape of the 1920s/30s but also get an idea of what it felt like to be part of Jenkins’s world.

Everyone is starting to make those decisions that set out the course of their lives and as marriage and death comes for the likes of Stringham and Deacon respectively Jenkins is left to ponder just where he is going.

The book starts with him experiencing an infatuation for Barbara and it ends with him being informed of her engagement. As he leaves a dinner at Widmerpool’s and wanders out into the night the narrative describes that moment when major things start to happen.

In a way it is a testament to the writing that two books into the series and only now do you start to feel that Jenkins is about to start making some decisions that will move him from the role of observer to someone who is playing a more crucial role.

A review will follow shortly…

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

book review: House of Meetings

The book Koba The Dread is the equivalent of a well-articulated argumentative friend getting both increasingly louder and persistent in arguing their views. If Koba was a polemic on the crimes of Stalin and Lenin then Martin Amis uses another approach with House of Meetings.

Using a narrator who is a living embodiment of the horror that the Russian state inflicted on its own people the central figure never learns how to love. He learns how to lust and rape serving in the Red Army in the Second World War and he learns how to be jealous wasting away his hours in the camps.

Who is to blame for his anger and aggression? The state and its head that rule with hatred and establish a system of punishment and servitude. There seem to be two choices an individual faces – either to go with the flow and become aggressive or to try and take a Ghandi type approach and show that there is such a thing as pacifism and resistance. There is no option to contest innocence because no one is listening or looking to defend something that constitutionally does not exist.

In the prison camp the narrator, who is telling his life story top his daughter through flashbacks, recalls the time his brother arrived and tried to resist the system with a one-man protest that ultimately won him few admirers. Things changed when the House of Meetings was built and his brother became the hardest worker in order to win the prize of spending one night with his wife.

The jealousy that the other brother felt never went away and even after his brother died and he had raped the woman who many years earlier had gone to the house of meetings it doesn’t satisfy his yearning.

He sails down the river on a gulag tour to rediscover the House of Meetings and his own past. He is armed with an unread letter from his brother that he plans to read on his deathbed and as he nears the end he reads through an almost prophetic tale depicting the dangers of anger and lust. His brother accepts that his approach also failed because he died inside but the alternative to kill and snarl your way through was worse.

As the end comes the lessons that are passed from father and daughter are the same from the concluding arguments in Koba the Dread. A society led by people who were prepared to use terror, slavery, famine and death as weapons against their own people create monsters. At each level in society – in this case the camps – there are victims that reflect back the society that created them.

The moral of this story seems to be that declining population rates twinned with the apparent victory of the West have been both internal and external pressures that have highlighted the failure of Stalin and company.

Version read – Jonathan Cape hardback

A Buyer's Market - post III

If there is a theme emerging in this second book it is around the pursuit not just of wealth but also love. As Jenkins strolls around wondering just why all of his contemporaries have real drive he is also starting to be left behind on the romance front.

Moving almost seamlessly from the ball and dance to a London in summer devoid of any major social happenings Jenkins’s is desperate for a bit of company. He even decides to go and look-up Deacon in his studios and although does not find him home comes across the tenant from the top floor Barnby who willingly helps him fill in the time with a spot of dinner.

The only event on the horizon is an invitation to go and stay with the Walpole-Wilson’s and this he does with some sense of regret rather than relish. But things go in a different direction and there is a chance to go and visit Sir Magnus Donners in his castle and that also means seeing one of his henchmen Stringham.

Stringham tells Jenkins he is going to be married and introduces him to his fiancé. The marriage theme returns when he sits down to dinner and is put next to Jean Templer who is married and makes it clear she can tell that Jenkins’s is not. He even admits to himself that he would like to meet someone and transfer the feelings he had felt in the past.

More tomorrow…

Monday, March 24, 2008

book review: A Question of Upbringing

When you start an epic journey like the 12 volumes Dance to the Music of Time there is a sense of trepidation. That is heightened by the pre-reading knowledge of the books you have with the author Anthony Powell being described as a British Proust. Getting through seven volumes of Proust was a challenge so 12 might be too far.

But all of those fears start to dissipate the minute you start reading the first chapter. There are similarities to Proust with the descriptive power and the core cast but there is a major difference – things happen quicker.

The idea of this first book is to introduce the world of the narrator Jenkins. Things start at school will one of the oddest characters of the books the proud but natural victim that is Widmerpool running through the mist to the school house. Inside Jenkins is enjoying sausages cooked over an open fire by his wealthy friend Stringham.

They are interrupted by Jenkins’s Uncle Giles who is trying to gather information about the family trust fund to gain a bit of cash. As Uncle Giles leaves the final character enters in the form of Peter Templer who has the job of explaining to the housemaster Le Bas that it was the Uncle and not Stringham or Jenkins who was smoking.

The rest of the novel moves from school to the time in-between University with Templer deciding not to bother with education and head straight off into the City. Stringham goes to visit his father in Kenya before joining Jenkins at Oxford. Widmerpool also turns up in France learning the language in the same place as Jenkins but he is clearly the lowest on the wealth scale, has a slight chip on his shoulder but is the most quietly determined to better himself.

Jenkins time at Oxford introduces him to another powerful figure, the don Sillery, who encourages Stringham to leave university and enter business. Stringham needs little encouragement after he Templer ruins an evening for them but shows them the delights of his motorcar and a couple of his City chums. As a result of Stringham’s departure to work for an industrialist Sillery has created a potentially powerful ally. That just leaves Jenkins who seems to meander through the rest of his studies.

Although most of the book is spent with people taking their leave of Jenkins there is never a sense of melancholy. The same people come and go through his life as they move upwards leaving him slightly behind. Jenkins does not seem to be so clear about what he wants to do. That is an attractive trait because it means that as he travels through situations the reader goes without too much idea of the destination.

Having read this book with a sense of possible trepidation it was a pleasure and Powell is a storyteller that sets out a scene with the emphasis very much on people. Each chapter is a detailed anecdote and although location plays a part it is the emphasis on the various different people that make this story tick and his cast of characters are a fairly enjoyable lot to read about. Ranging from lone runners like Widmerpool to the arguing Swedes and the wealthy Stringham and oily Sillery this first volume does enough to get you set for a journey you now are happy to take.

Version read – Flamingo paperback

bookmark of the week

This is another magnetic bookmark from the London Transport Museum that celebrates the Metropolitan line. I have no particular feelings about this line but did once work near to the Great Portland Street stop. It also had larger seats than the other lines with a distinctive herringbone fabric.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

Happy Easter from a cold and snowy London. Hope you have a good day.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Could a Rabbit upstage Amazon?

Saw an interesting story in the business section of the Daily Telegraph about a rival to Amazon launching called The idea is that it will apparently include a social networking side to its operation as well as allowing people to buy books. I clicked onto the site and you have to be invited to try out the beta. Let's see if I get my invitation and what this wonderful world of buying books and sharing thoughts with "like-minded people" is like...

Lunchtime read: Les Enfants Terrible

The book ends in the double suicide of Elisabeth and Paul but until the very last second the game is in full flow and they go together to a place no one else can join them.

The end might have seemed inevitable from a pair of young adults who seemed incapable of moving on from childhood but it is hastened by the actions of Elisabeth. She is determined to break Paul’s heart by encouraging Gerard to marry Agatha and it is the later who wakens the sister to inform her that Paul has taken poison – ironically supplied by the person who hit him at the start with the snowball.

As Paul is dying Agatha nurses him and they realise what Elisabeth has done and her treachery is revealed. She panics and fetches a gun and then focuses in only on Paul. As she feels he has taken his dying breath she pulls the trigger but not before their eyes have met and the bond of the game has been sealed forever.

A review will follow soon on what has been a provoking read…

Friday, March 21, 2008

book review: The Road to Calvary

Sadly whenever you have the surname and the country of birth that Alexei Tolstoy does you are always going to be compared to the great Russian writer sharing that surname.

But this is a book in three parts that cannot just be compared to War & Peace. It also chimes in with other works that looked at the impact of the civil war on Russians at different levels of society. It reminds you of War & Peace because of the grand descriptions of the movement of the armies of initially Russia and Germany and then Red versus White.

But it also reminds you of The River follows to the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Just like those stories there are the same disruptive and life-changing forces at work as the state collapses into bitter war. Those at all levels of society have to be careful just who they choose to support.

But the key to understanding this epic is to put it in the context of when it was being written. Completed in 1944 when the Russians had started to turn the tide against Hitler this is a morale boosting tale, a reminder of Stalin’s military greatness (that point will be returned to) and a history lesson on how much blood was split to produce the Communist state in the first place. The reward for Tolstoy was the Stalin prize but for the reader it is an occasionally dangerous rewriting of history. Something you never felt that was happening in War & Peace.

The first part describes the lives of two sisters Dasha and Katia. The youngest Dasha lives with her sister and brother-in-law and is studying as well as branching out into society for the first time. She destroys her sister’s world when she discovers that Katia has had an affair with a well-known Casanova and forces her to tell her husband. Quickly stability is lost and Katia flees to Paris and Dasha is eventually forced home to her father. But before she goes she falls in love with Telegin who informs is the one to inform her and her brother-in-law, who is staying in the Crimea, that war has started and Katia, is now cut off from them on the other side of the fighting. Katie’s husband joins up and is killed, a deserter needlessly murders the Casanova and the generation of luxurious debaters starts to find reality far more uncomfortable than a smoking room argument. Katia falls in love with Roshchin who is also fighting but there position remains sketchy as the story moves on.

In part two the focus is the year 1918 and the story picks up as the revolution is about to begin and follows the breakdown of the front and the difficulty of the four characters to settle. Telegin and Dasha find themselves in a cold harsh flat having watched their new born die and their relationships starts to fall apart and Telegin falls into the Red Army believing he has nothing left at home. Meanwhile Katia and Roshchin go in a different direction and he joins the Whites. The sister’s father, a provincial doctor, is used as an example of the opportunism many felt and tries to become part of a breakaway government in Samaria. He is quite happy to get the police to hand out retribution to those that have wronged him. Meanwhile in a similar fashion to Telegin and Dasha the strain of civil war leads Roshchin to leave Katia and go off to the killing fields leaving the two sisters left wandering Russia looking for comfort in a comfortless society.

The final part, A Bleak Morning, starts to bring the two strands together and for a convenient end to the story Roshchin decides he has had enough of fighting for those who are only looking to restore their own power and privileges. He ends up with the Reds but his main motivation is to find Katia who has been told he is dead. She ends up almost being raped by his old man at arms from the war but manages to fend him off and become a village teacher. Roshchin traces her down but too late she has gone. Meanwhile Telegin has become a loyal Red fighter and is reunited with Dasha in a field hospital where she is working as a nurse. Their love has never gone but it takes time to have the confidence to blossom again. In the final acts of the book the Whites are mounting their last desperate attempt to take Moscow and the two sisters find themselves back at the flat where is tall started. Roshchin is reunited in a moving scene with Katia and the foursome – once would-be aristocrats – are left in love and model Red fighters prepared to defend the city against the White hordes.

The story weaves this way and that and although you know that characters will end up reunited there is a skill to the way in which those moments take place. There is one great scene where Telegin has gone through enemy lines to deliver a message and is sitting in a station next to Roshchin and the recognition is brief but the later decides to spare the formers life.

The problem is that unlike War & peace the balance is wrong here with too much political information that is towards the end just blatant cheerleading for Stalin. The characters sometimes feel as if they are being forgotten and then simply stuck into a scene to reintroduce them. In War & Peace the history was deep but it never felt dull, which it can do here.

This reminds you of one of those black and white films that were made to keep the war spirit high. No one went in watching them expecting for anything other than drum beating patriotic fervour and this has to be seen in that context. When this was being written Russia was bleeding white with losses that are staggering and if this book helped keep some people going and reminded them of why they were fighting then it did its job. Clearly without that job to do today it fails to have the same impact.

Version read – Hutchinson International Authors hardback

Lunchtime read: Les Enfants Terrible

Apologies still ill so this plus a review I had forgotten to post from earlier in the week when I was okay.

The mood between brother and sister changes for the worse with the introduction of love. Elisabeth gets married to a wealthy man who dies before their relationship is more than a few hours old and as a result the two siblings move into his fantastically large house. They start to recreate the ‘room’ at their old home on a gallery, which Paul encloses.

Gerard continues to love Elisabeth and Agatha and Paul discover that they love each other. For some reason – it seems to be more than just for the game – Elisabeth decides to kill any chance that Paul has of happiness with Agatha and tell him that it is Gerard she loves and then immediately afterwards order Gerard to marry the orphan.

The problem is that if she is discovered then it spells problems and even if she is not it seems hard to carry on as a loose foursome with the bitterness that unrequited love can cause eating away at the friendships.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lunchtime read: Les Enfants Terrible

Still feeling very rough but managed to read a few pages in the doctors waiting room. Better than some leaflets about sexual diseases I can only ever fantasise about catching.

the first part of the book ends with Paul and Elisabeth joined not just by Gerard but by another orphan Agatha. The brother and sister are increasingly becoming creatures of the night playing ever more bitter games with each other.

Despite her being 19 and Paul being not too far off they both share the same room and Paul spends most nights getting naked. The whole thing feels uncomfortable and the boundaries that they jumped over on holiday stealing look like being smashed at some point soon.

maybe more tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Nothing to post about tonight. I have the flu so feel awful and can barely concentrate on a page.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Buyer's Market - post II

I haven’t been feeling well today so have only managed a few pages and no lunchtime read.

Once at the second party Jenkins gets to see a different world with those that have opted for finance as their main occupation hard at play. Stringham disappears and jis old don at Oxford reappears as if by magic to talk about some business deal he is trying to engineer for the college and of course himself.

Widmerpool is playing the game trying hard to make the right connections in a world that Jenkins’s discovers from a conversation with Deacon is full of rumour and strange antics.

More tomorrow hopefully…

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Buyer's Market - post I

The second book in the Dance to the Music of Time series starts with an anecdote that acts as a very roundabout way of reintroducing Jenkins. He is remembering meeting Deacon, an artist, in Paris just after the end of the First World War with his parents.

He remembers Deacon because one of his paintings hangs in the home of a young woman that Jenkins believes he might have a mind to develop a serious relationship with.

The first 100 pages is a vivid description of the world Jenkins now operates in with life a series of dinners and balls in-between squeezing in working at an art publishers – hence why he knows a bit more about Deacon and the value of his work.

The men use these dinners and balls as an opportunity to boast about their wealth and plans for social advancement and the woman are concentrating on establishing their reputations for beauty and the prospect of making a good marriage. This is a black and white world of dinner jackets and ball gowns where those that play the game jostle to advance.

By the end of the first chapter Jenkins has met Widmerpool, who is dancing his way round some of the grand houses trying to move up the greasy pole. Plus to bring it back to where the chapter started Jenkins bumps into Deacon and as an unexpected bonus Stringham, his old school friend appears. Following the lead from Stringham the odd group shuffle off to another party.

Whether it is because Jenkins is working at an art publication or more likely because the author appreciates art there are several references to art works throughout the chapter. Sadly if I knew anything about art I’m sure there would be a code that helps describe a location based on the owner’s choice of artwork.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Les Enfants Terrible

The closeness of Paul and Elisabeth is odd enough but it seems to deepen after their mother dies.

Inbetween the brother and sister is Paul’s friend Gerard who informs Paul that his school friend Delgado, who had thrown the snowball at him,, has been expelled. Paul idolised the boy and so in one fell swoop he has no reason to want to go back to school.

The world of the brother and sister is now controlled by the Doctor and a nurse but they are also given the chance to exit their world by going on holiday with Gerard and his wealthy uncle. On the trip they start playing the game with the role the escalate from pulling faces to stealing. Increasingly the brother and sister are moving out of control.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, March 16, 2008

bookmark of the week

I managed to pop into the to have a look at the exhibition covering the Avant Garde. There were some impressive things to cast an eye over including some imaginative and groundbreaking use of fonts and colour in book design. A lot of what was being done in the 1920s and 1930s looks passe but of course these people were doing it first and literally risking wealth and position to change the status quo. picked up the two bookmarks in the shop afterwards to add to the collection...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

book review: Helena

The blurb on the dust jacket warns readers that this is not going to be the type of satirical book that they might have come to expect from Evelyn Waugh. It is described as a story within the agreed boundaries of a legend and then the reader is left to go exploring on their own.

It is hard to try and second guess what the intention was but you start to feel it might have been to paint a picture of the power that Christ still managed to evoke in people three hundred years after his death. At this critical stage in the history of the Christian church as the Romans decide to adopt it as a faith rather than persecute it the chase is on for relics.

Leading the charge is Helena, the daughter of the British King who has been wed and divorced mothering in the process the emperor Constantine, who goes on to establish Constantinople.

Helena takes inspiration from her namesake from Troy and spends the first few years of her life hoping to achieve her aim of travelling to Rome. Through her marriage and then abandonment, as was the Roman custom, along with her introduction into the brutal politics of the empire, that usually included death for those at the top of the tree, her illusions fade.

In her twilight years Helena converts to Christianity and then becomes determined to find the cross that Jesus was crucified on. She tracks it down thanks to sheer determination and a dream and then starts to fade away with her life’s work complete.

Helena is on some levels a fairly two-dimensional character that never really displays much of an attempt to cause change within an establishment she clashes with. But perhaps that is the idea that she only becomes someone driven once she is converted. It is hard to know quite what the true aim of this book is without knowing Waugh’s own views on religion.

As a read without a great deal of knowledge about the motivation it is enjoyable but perhaps frustrating. More meat on the bones around the interplay between mother and son and grandson would have been good and the story of her slave tutor who becomes a priest is one kept at arms length. Surely that would have been an equally powerful illustration of the way religion can change the established order? Depends of course on the objective the author was aiming to achieve.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, March 14, 2008

Lunchtime read: Les Enfants Terribles

This book is incredibly descriptive but vague to start with on describing the nuts and bolts of the story. A playground incident where Paul is hurt by a stone in a snowball leads you into the home of the main characters – brother and sister Paul and Elisabeth – but it is far from clear.

What adds to the confusion is the idea that Paul and his sister are masters at something they term ‘The Game’ which from the descriptions seems to refer to the ability to roam at will around a very fertile imagination.

Paul’s father has dies and his mother is bed-ridden waiting for the grim reaper to arrive. The children are looked on with some pity and protection from the doctor who sees the mother but they sense that the future does not hold much in store for them.

The immediate future for Paul is to stay off school while he recovers from his injuries and that is where chapter one ends leaving the reader full of detailed images of Paris in the snow but none the wiser to quite what the future holds for the relationship of Paul and Elisabeth.

More tomorrow…

Thursday, March 13, 2008

House of Meetings - post IV

The book ends with the narrator screwed up in rage and waiting for death to come in the form of a syringe injected into the arm. He reads the letter that his brother had written to him before he died.

In that letter the true nature of the brothers are exposed. Both are destroyed by the state but one reacts by seeking solace in pacifism while the narrator resorts to violence. That violence was not only set down by his experience, as a rapist in the Second World War but is almost ingrained in his genes.

He seeks solace at the end by the idea that those genes are running into the sand because the Russian population is in terminal decline.

"I’m only doing what Russia is doing. And she tried it once before. Russia tired to kill itself in the 1930s, after its first decade of [Stalin]. He was already a cadaver, millionaire about ten times over, even before the Terror. But he did need Russians to go on producing Russian. And they stopped. After the starling census of 1936, the state jolted into action: crash kindergartenisation, maternity medals, a resolemnised marriage ceremony, the legalisation of inheritance, and the criminalisation of abortion. It was a general strike, of a kind; and the state broke it. What will the state do now?"

A review will follow soon…

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

House of Meetings - post III

Once a rapist always a rapist? It seems that the narrator is so determined not only to shock his daughter, to whom this book is a confession, but also himself. Left alone with his brother’s ex-wife, who he has coveted all his adult life he ends up raping her. That act leads to her suicide and it also pretty well puts a cap on a fateful life that has been destroyed by the state. The narrator might have outlived his brother, sister and his ex-sister-in-law but he is a dead man walking in a living hell of memories and the brutality of Russia.

A constant thread that pops up throughout the book is the episode of the school that was under siege with Chechen gunmen holding hundreds of school children hostage. This is seen as something that ended in a brutal way that reveals the underlying hatred the state has for its own people. But also there are suggestions it is all contrived by the state to fuel the paranoia about enemies within.

Presumably that story will be played out to climax with the last few moments of the narrator who seems to be nearing the end. He holds onto a letter that he promised to read before he died – presumably from his brother or the woman he raped – but in terms of redemption it is hard to see where any could come from – surely the metaphor for the Soviet system.

Last chunk tomorrow…

A Question of Upbringing - post IV

The book comes to an end with partings between the original trio of friends. Firstly, it is after a driving accident and an introduction to his brash City life that drives a wedge between Stringham and Templer.

But seeing his old friend gives Stringham an appetite to leave Oxford and head out into the real world and he allows himself to be manipulated by a Don who can place the young man in a position close to power providing him with useful information. Stringham is only too happy to leave Oxford and heads out of Jenkin’s life for the moment.

Secondly, Jenkin’s does finally head up to London to see his friend but Stringham announces that he is not going to see his friend and instead will concentrate on courting a rich woman. The parting of the ways takes up the last few pages and there is a sense of finality as the friendships sketched out in the first chapter have gone in different directions.

But what is absent from this story is a sense of regret. In France Jenkin’s is left after Widmerpool heads home and in Oxford he is left again after Stringham leaves. But there is never a sense of deep regret that he has chosen to take a slightly different path. There is a sense of not knowing where to go in the future, but not a sense of regret that you might have expected.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

House of Meetings - post II

I didn’t manage to read a great deal of this book today. Part of that was because there is a tremendous difference between this and Powell. This is a book that has a central character that is working overtime trying to make you dislike him. At every opportunity when he could show some humanity to his brother in the camp he fails to do so.

Even after several years and all of the hardship he harbours nothing but jealously for his brother who is able to meet his wife in the House of Meetings for a night of passion in return for backbreaking work.

Even when the flashbacks stop and the narrative places the craggy old prisoner in a modern context he is still trying his hardest to provoke hateful reactions. There is real bile fuelling this book and having read Koba the Dread you sense the idea is to make the argument about the grotesque nature of the system by creating a character that is a living embodiment of everything that Amis hates about Stalinism.

More tomorrow…

A Question of Upbringing - post III

The world that Powell is painting is obviously one surrounded by the high fences of the British class system. But there is a fondness that you start to feel towards the main character Jenkins that keeps you reading. Where it could have been possible to turn you off this is more of a comfortable story rather than a reminder of your own middle class limitations. Even when Jenkins starts university it is never explicitly said to begin with where he is although it is clearly Oxford or Cambridge.

At the same time as painting a picture of the state of the minor aristocracy this is also a rites of passage story with Jenkins discovering feelings of love. He convinces himself that he has fallen in love with Peter Templer’s sister Jean and then likewise falls in love again with Suzette on his trip to France.

Having described Stringham, Templer the scene moves to France and staying in the same guesthouse trying to improve his French is Widmerpool. The consequences of his father’s death have impacted his situation and he shares a flat with his mother in Victoria and is aiming to become a lawyer.

Before he leaves France there is a chance for Jenkins to mistake a woman he wanted to declare his love to and the humour is unexpected and all the more enjoyable because of it.

Then he returns to go to University and after a matter of weeks Stringham joins him there and the older friends share their college life.

More tomorrow…

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Question of Upbringing - post II

You can see what Powell is doing having introduced three characters in addition to the main Jenkins. He takes Jenkins into situations where he is one-on-one with them. As a result you are given a basic introduction to different figures from his school days and their wealthy backgrounds.

But on top of that there is an insight into how that level of society was feeling in 1921 with those that had served in the military in the war being held in high esteem. Being part of the military world gave you connections and Jenkin’s family exploits those as he travels to France to spend some time picking up the language.

There are occasions when the chapters feel a bit too polished like anecdotes about Templer and his family and their hangers on. But this is enjoyable and already you can see that this first volume is being used to lay the groundwork of friendships and acquaintances that will last Jenkins for years to come.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, March 09, 2008

bookmark of the week

We popped into the Design Museum today and had a look around. There was the annual Design award and as usual Penguin had some books nominated. These were deluxe US editions of classic including Lady Chatterley's lover. But on closer inspection in the shop they had clearly put a lot of effort into the covers but apart from that the editions did not feel that 'special'. Still let's not moan there was nothing else there remotely as interesting from a book point of view.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

House of Meetings - post I

Having read Road to Calvary it seemed like a small leap to The House of Meetings by Martin Amis. This is a memoir of a survivor of the gulag system and written as a testament from a father to a daughter.

The man telling the story seems determined to inspire some sort of disgust in his daughter as he talks about raping his way across German in the second world war and the jealously he harboured for his brother’s wife. In an ironical way it is this later emotion that causes more problems.

The narrator’s brother turns up at the camp and although they have each other the closeness of a family member seems to provoke odd feelings in the narrator. The description of the life of the camp is seen through his brother’s eyes and his brother’s experience. The reasons for the narrator’s own imprisonment is sketched in between showing life in the gulag from a new entrants point of view.

There are flash forwards to when the narrator is taking a gulag tour in post communist times but this is about the dark places that a human being can be forced to go to and so there is probably worse to come.

More soon…

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Question of Upbringing - post I

Whenever you start a book that is the first in a series, whether it is a trilogy or more, you are acutely aware that you may be introduced to characters that you have to live with for a long time.

The introduction to the world of Jenkins and his school boy friends is introduced in a magical scene where a childish imagination quickly extends an image of workers heating themselves in the fog to one of fantasy. The fog hides not just those fantasies but also the school and some of the more fantastic people who live inside it.

Very comfortably you are introduced to the world of Jenkins and his friends Stringham and Templer. The two boys are older than Jenkins and soon the cozy afternoons where they toast bread and fry sausages are a memory of the past.

But as the boys return home the story extends into their families. For Jenkins his Uncle appears on the scene first and to the embarrassment of his nephew starts talking about the family trust and his need of money. Then the world of Stringham is introduced with his wealthy mother and his divorced father living in Kenya. Templer is coming next.

This is one of the most inviting books that I have come across with the story and the characters drawing you into a world of the 1920s that far from being off putting is cozy and inviting. All the senses tell you that this journey is going to long but very enjoyable.

More soon…

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Road to Calvary (part III) - post VI

I avoided posting about this last night because it was just a few pages until the end and it seemed like a better idea to hold it over until tonight.

Two reactions spring to mind after the conclusion of 680 pages of small type and thin margins. Firstly, there are two great love stories here that are concluded neatly at the end. But secondly, there is a political message that towards the end sadly overshadows the human story.

The blatant rewriting of history with Stalin taking the role of Trotsky running the Red Army and repelling the Whites really spoilt the ending. Anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge would know that the Red Army was galvanised by Trotsky and his War Communism changed the direction of the war.

Instead Stalin is deposited in his place and you then start to wonder which generals being referred to in the story are actually real or have been replaced with current political favourites. In one sense you could argue that this is fiction so what does it matter. But because Tolstoy has aped War & Peace and introduced stages of the story with big chunks of historical explanation if those facts are wrong then it does undermine the experience for the reader. In some senses it is a breach of trust.

But there is a voice in the back of your head which tells you that the most important sentence in the book is the very last one: June 22, 1944.

Until June 1944 Russia stood alone against the Germans in terms of fighting on the same continent and it was only after D-Day that the allies took the pressure of with a legitimate Western front. This is a clarion call for people to take the sufferings of war, remember what cause it is all in aid of and to remember what a glorious leader Stalin is. If he did it once before (debatable) he will do it again.

A review will follow soon…

A day for celebration

Hurrah! Well sort of. It’s World Book Day. What does that mean? Not sure but in the case of my son it seems it is a good excuse to have a book fair lasting all week in the school hall.

The idea of having a day that celebrates books is great but surely it should be world reading day? Buying a book is not quite the same as reading it – a quick glance at my bookshelves will back that statement up.

But there is a bit of razzmatazz and a cause for celebration and that cannot be that bad a thing so raise a book to World Book Day.

Lunchtime read: Helena

The blurb on the dust jacket warns the reader that this is not the usual Waugh satirical novel. Towards the end you can only conclude it is a story framed in historical legend that is designed to show the power of Christianity and the miracles it could evoke to a sceptical people.

Helena pitches up in the Holy Land and is given a dream of where the cross has been hidden and sure enough she finds it. The holy relic cures a woman near death’s door and sets the Roman Empire into raptures. She has shown a devotion and a determination to find the cross and show her devotion to the Christian faith.

Her end is fitting for a woman who saw the world and tried to fight injustice wherever she went

The story shows flashes of humnour but this is not a satire and something quite different is being said here and if anything it is a memorable because of the mirror it holds up to the insecure and political society that was meant to be the greatest in the ancient world.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

lunchtime read: Helena

The story is nearing its conclusion and the emperor leaves Rome and sets off to the East to establish Constantinople. He is followed by his mother Helena who is determined to find the cross that Christ was crucified on.

Before they leave Rome there is a bit of blood-letting with Constantine losing his son, who he had sent into exile, and then in revenge he decides to kill his wife Faustia. She pushes it too far after she tries to build on her triumph in getting rid of her step-son by suggesting that Helena should be killed.

She gets a witch to back her up but Constantine sees through it this time and the witches and his wife are snuffed out. He then decides to leave the city and hands it over to the Pope commenting that despite the tombs of Peter and Paul the place is heathen.

Final chunk tomorrow…

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

book review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Putting together a narrative that is a collection of documents will turn some people off this book by Paul Torday. The reason is that it has been highly praised as being one of the books of last year and as a result is included in a lot of the promotions run by book shops keen to get you to leave the store with three books instead of just one.

One friend described it to me as a clever indictment of the Blair years and there are clear characters that jump out as fictional accounts of people you know well, So the spin doctor is Alistair Campbell, the PM is Blair but beyond that it is hard to draw too many parallels. Unless you go down the road of using salmon, as some sort of metaphor for weapons of mass destruction – sounds surreal just suggesting it – then the rest of the story is more genuine fiction.

Aside from the political satire, which is good, this is also a story about how faith can change lives. Not just faith in God but faith in a dream, an idea the project to get salmon swimming in the desert. In that respect Dr Alfred Jones is the key character that starts off in a stuffy job in the civil service working on something incredibly dull to do with fish and then ends up liberated from his dead end job, dead marriage and his old self.

He wanders through the political and cultural minefield that is planted around the British politicians and the sheik paying for the project and he becomes almost simplistic in his ideas about life. He also falls in love with Harriet, a young woman working on the project who suffers the loss of her fiancé who dies on a commando raid in Iran. Jones doesn’t really stand a chance with Harriet but against the backdrop of the sheik’s world, where faith makes everything possible, he holds a torch for her.

In the end the project ends in tragedy but for Jones it completes the liberation from his former life and sets him onto a life that he prefers to lead working with fish and water and living an almost hermetical existence.

If there is a moral from the story it has to be that those running the country and operating in the circles are pretty shallow and cynical people that are unable to see beyond the limits to their very stunted imaginations.

No doubt once you have started to write the book as a collection of documents – diaries, government memos and inquiries – then you have to stick with it. But at times it felt like the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole with Dr Jones’s diary and that level of humour was even kept up in the Hansard reports even when it was not a subject that incited humour.

The story carries it off but other authors trying this could fall into the trap of style being more than substance. It is also hard to imagine my young son picking this up in years to come and having the instance connection that those who have lived through Blair have. We know what it has been like to be involved with shady goings-on in the Middle East. Know the world of spin and the cynical politics that prize votes above everything else.

An interesting book that deserves to be praised but the fear is that it will date.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Road to Calvary (part III) - post V

The book is moving into the final stages and it looks set for a happy ending. Of course in this context a happy ending means that everyone becomes a supporter of the Reds and the Whites are crushed.

As the story has unfolded it has been dogged by a political stance that the other Tolstoy managed to avoid in War and Peace. Here there is an agenda that manages to make those parts of the narrative that are setting up the next stage of the civil war feel slightly too long and when the action comes the characters are sometimes lost to the politics.

But when they do break through there is a great writer underneath that is able to describe people and places in a way that makes it powerfully imaginable. Roshchin closes in on Katia. His wife has to fend off the attentions of the peasant who has set his heart on owning her and she flees before he returns just as Roshchin arrives in her village. He is so close to her he can see her handwriting in her diary and the small cottage where she has been staying.

Meanwhile, Telegin and Dasha have been in hard fighting and there love blossoms again as they realise how precious the moments together are. She becomes ill and is left by Telegin in the care of a former priest who promises to get them removed from the battle area.

More, possibly the last chunk, tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Helena

Having watched 300 on DVD last night it seems rather apt stepping back into a time of togas, generals and war to the streets of Rome with Helena.

She is unimpressed by what she finds in the city with factions ripping each other apart and her son and grandson being far from sight and not willing to come and see her.

In the end she manages to get some time with her grandson and he opens his heart and reveals that he is a marked man in Rome, for reasons he cannot work out, and that he is scared of what will become of him.

Helena promises him that she will taken up his case with his father, her son, and she heads of too see Constantine. The meeting does not go according to plan and the Emperor is surrounded by mystics and petty officials trying to get him to sign paperwork.

The upshot of a meeting with a couple of witches is that he does finally send his son away because he has been warned that he is a threat.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, March 02, 2008

bookmark of the week

This is rather hard to capture in a scan but this is a crocodile that opens his mouth when you pull the central section of the bookmark. I picked it up in a stationary shop rather than a bookshop and it has caused great amusement. The one problem is that although fun it is not very practical - being longer than nearly all average sized paperbacks and therefore prone to damage. Something to sit on the bookshelf.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

book review: The Sorrows of Young Werther

At the heart of this tragic tale of suicide by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the character of young Werther. Although he is warned that it is going to be dangerous if he falls in love with the local young beauty Lotte he is unable to stop himself and so the trouble begins.

Lotte is engaged to a man who is away studying law and for a few weeks Werther has a relationship that he forgets is not his alone to enjoy. He forgets about the fiancé and carries on falling deeper in love becoming a friend to Lotte’s brother’s and sisters and a reliable source of company.

But the inevitable happens and the fiancé Albert returns and with his arrival Werther is stunned. Firstly surprised to find himself liking his rival and then secondly to realise that there is no hope for him. He wavers between dwelling on the few weeks they had together to trying to prise himself away.

The book is told as a series of letters and diary entries and for most of the text he is writing to a friend who at this point advises him to move away. But Werther is distracted and unable to settle and ends up making a couple of faux pas with his employer and a potential love interest and in the ends resigns his position and heads back dangerously to Lotte.

There are a couple of premonitions of his own demise with Werther coming across a servant who had been besotted with Lotte and as a result lost his mind and then been driven to murder. At this point the letters are often addressed to Lotte and are a mixture of reminisces that try to paint a picture of a deep love in those few weeks they had together or are bitter about life.

Increasingly Werther becomes uncomfortable company and in the end Albert, rightly considering the social position, leans on his wife to try and get her to see less of the man. Her request that he reduces his visits sends Werther into a tailspin and he starts to plan his suicide.

Ironically his absences are felt by Lotte who by now starts to understand that maybe she also has a stake in the relationship and needs Werther around for company. The young man plans his end and writes various letters to Lotte that spell out his feelings.

The narrative is broken and picked up by a third party that tries to piece together those last days and hours. The result is that Werther does plenty of damage to Albert and Lotte by imposing his views and beliefs on them through his suicide note. He also makes sure that he is the ghost that haunts their marriage.

There is plenty in this reasonably short novel to inspire other writers and some of the moments at the end almost feel like the stuff of Hollywood with the dramatic ending of Werther’s life.

At the end of the book you feel that Lotte could be blamed for ignorance of anything maybe being too friendly with someone not mature enough to cope with friendship and not love. Albert is the protective husband but the fact he allows Werther to borrow his guns, when everyone suspects it is to kill himself, will haunt his marriage for ever.

But Werther elicits little sympathy because he failed to heed the warnings and then failed to accept reality. In the end it might have seemed a bit glib but a slap in the face accompanied by the phrase “there are more fish in the sea” might have been better than a pistol shot to the head.

Version read – Penguin paperback