I've read several books by Martin Cruz Smith, all whodunits featuring detective Arkady Renko, mostly set in Moscow in the late 20th or early 21st centI've read several books by Martin Cruz Smith, all whodunits featuring detective Arkady Renko, mostly set in Moscow in the late 20th or early 21st century. This one is different, as it is set in 19th-century England, in Lancashire, in the mining town of Wigan, to be precise.
Some of the Renko books felt a bit surreal to me, but no more so than Bulgakov's The master and Margarita, but this one felt a bit more jarring. I've been to Moscow, and I've never been to Wigan, but somehow the Wigan setting seemed less authentic than the Moscow ones, not so much the place itself, as the people in it. The story was interesting enough, and made me want to read on to see what happened, but it somehow felt inauthentic, as if it was set in some alternative universe, like Philip Pullman's His dark materials.
The descriptions of coal mining were authentic, but it was the events and conversations on the surface that seemed out of place. A coal miner in Lancashire in 1872 likening something to a volcano? How many of them would have seen a volcano, or even a picture of one?
A zealous Evangelical clergyman speaking of Low Mass, or any kind of "Mass" at all? Such a thing would have been anathema to any Church of England Evangelical in that period. It's a bit like Pullman's use of terms like "Magisterium", which clearly means something different in an alternative universe.
One is left wondering whether the surrealism is intended or not. The protagonist too is a bit surreal, an Indiana Jones-like character, but some of the other things in the book give the impression that it is intended to be a historical novel, authentic in time and place. It feels like 20th-century characters transported into a 19th-centry setting.
A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa -- a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.
I would like to be able tA Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa -- a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.
I would like to be able to say that this book "tells it like it was" in the same way that Andre Brink's A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,
The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks, Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn't his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Mahkana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.
At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that iscentral to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent mewmory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.
If the protagonist's memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist's memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from "telling it like it is", the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet's The Balcony.
So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three. ...more
Until about halfway through this book, I wasn't sure whether I was going to like it or not. It's about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in aUntil about halfway through this book, I wasn't sure whether I was going to like it or not. It's about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in an in-between place somewhere between the city and farmlands. I lived in such a place when I was that age, so to that extent it felt familiar, but I wasn't aware of the existence of such a bunch of messed-up people. That doesn't mean that they weren't there in the place where I grew up, just that I wasn't aware of them. And I wouldn't have dared to talk to my teachers the way those kids did.
The protagonist is one of the kids, Owen Brand, who has just moved to the area and so has to make friends from scratch, and one of the things that is rather confusing is that his viewpoint is in the first person, while the others are in the third person, but when he is just with one other person, and the viewpoint switches, one somtimes loses track of who is talking.
The messed-up people are just about everyone, friends, neighbours, teachers, family members. Part of the interest of the story is how Owen learns to cope with this, and how he and his family help to improve things for his girlfiend, who has an abusive father and an abused mother, and has learned to cope with adults by keeping them at arm's length.
So there are good things to balance out the bad things, and nothing's perfect, but that's true to life too. In some ways Owen seems to represent the idea of coinherence of Charles Williams, with people taking on the burdens of others. Williams appeared to think that people could or would do this consciously and deliberately, but Owen does it almost unconsciously.
In the end I liked the book, and liked it a lot. Perhaps I'll read it again, because it's the kind of book where there are lots of things you don't see on the first reading, and perhaps not on the second or the third either. ...more
This book was billed as a Sophie's world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not rememvber. That's probably why we bought it,This book was billed as a Sophie's world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not rememvber. That's probably why we bought it, because we had enjoyed reading [booK:Sophie's world] and thought we might enjoy this one, but I never got round to reading it.
Then with a cleanout and rearrangement of our bookshelves it came to light again, and I thought perhaps I'd better have another go at reading it.
The first chapter reminded me of why I had never got any further on the first attempt. Theo is a child. How old? About 6 or 7, I think. Later it turns out that he is 14. Describing a teenager as if he were a much younger child makes the character of the protagonist seem a bit shaky for a start. But this time I gritted my teeth and ploughed on. Theo does mature somewhat as the story progresses, but the first impression is off-putting.
Theo has a mysterious illness and though no one knows what it is, the prognosis is not good, so his rich (very rich) aunt decides to take him on a world tour, as a last fling before he dies, or a special treat in case he lives. But it's not your average world tour, it's a tour of different religions.
So it turns out to be a rather didactic book, teaching about different religions, and trying to sugar-coat the pill by wrapping it in a very thin and threadbare plot. Because the story needs to follow the syllabus, the plot line often seems very contrived.
It covers a fair variety of religions, and most of the way through it seems to lead one down the path of syncretism, showing how each religion incorporates elements of other religions, or has points of resemblance to other religions. This led me to expect that it would probably lead up to the most syncretistic religion of all, Baha'i, but somerwhat surprisingly it doesn't. I can't recall that Baha'i is even mentioned once.
It covers most other major religious traditions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam (and returns in later chapters to deal with different aspects of them). It covers Indian religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. It deals with Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, Shinto, Chinese religion (Taoism, Confuscianism and ancestor veneration), African traditional religion, Brazilian syncretism and even Mormons. But not Baha'i.
I couldn't help feeling that the treatment of some religions was rather distorted, with some trivial things included, and some important stuff left out.
Theo is half-Greek and so has an Orthodox grandmother (well, half-Orthodox, because she is syncretistic too, mixing Orthodoxy with faith in the Olympian gods). And the treatment of Orthodoxy is pretty skimpy, saying it is all about sorrow and suffering. There are detailed descriptions of rituals for some religions, at least three different rituals for the African traditional religions, but there is no comparable description of the rituals of Orthodox Christianity, not even a memorial service. All there is is a lot of guff about sorrow and suffering.
There seem to be similar gaps in the treatment of some of the other religions.
Sophie's world works better as a kind of fictionalised exploration of philosophy, but Theo's odyssey falls a bit flat. It doesn't really work as fiction, and it doesn't even succeed in its didactic purpose. When I was about the age of Theo in the book, I had a book called Faiths of many lands. It was a straightforward presentation, and I learnede more from it than I did from this book.
At the same age I also read a work of fiction that told me far more about some religions than this one -- Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It was aimed at promoting British Imperialism, but it had a better story line, and presented religions more interestingly too.
Extracts from Virginia Woolf's diaries, selected by her husband Leonard Woolf. The extracts deal with her reading and writing, and describe the progreExtracts from Virginia Woolf's diaries, selected by her husband Leonard Woolf. The extracts deal with her reading and writing, and describe the progress of her novels and other works in the period from 1919 to 1941, when she died. Why is it that I often find diaries and biographies of writers so much more interesting than the books they write? Certainly the case with V. Woolf. I tried reading her Jacob's room, but gave up after a few chapters. I did manage to findish The Waves though....more
I picked this book off the library shelf and read the blurb, and decided to read it because there seemed to be parallels with my own youth.
What did II picked this book off the library shelf and read the blurb, and decided to read it because there seemed to be parallels with my own youth.
What did I hope for? To make sense of my own youth? To make sense of things that happened to me?
The protagonist in the book is a mathematics student at the University of Cape Town who wants to go to London to become a, writer, a poet. In the 1960s he goes, but having arrived in London he needs to get a job in order to live, and with his mathematical qualifications he manages to get one as a computer programmer with IBM. In his spare time he sits in the British Museum doing research for his writing, and later for a thesis for which he is offered a bursary.
But gradually loneliness and mediocrity and boredom squeeze all the creativity out of him and he has less and less to say.
And I could see parallels with my own life. Why should I write about my own life? It's not about me, it's about the book. But I picked up the book thinking it was about me, or that it might tell me something about me, so in a sense it is about me, and I compare myself with the protagonist in the book.
I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and studied there from 1963 to 1965, majoring in Theology and Biblical Studies, with a minor in History. The Anglican bishop of Natal had found me a place for further study at St Chad's College, Durham, for the post-graduate Diploma in Theology.
So, like the protagonist in Youth, I went to the UK in January 1966. The UK academic year only begins in September so I got a job driving buses in London to fill in the time, and I stayed in a lonely bed-sit, and for six months spent much of my spare time in my room in Streatham feeling alienated. Like the protagonist I felt a bit concerned about the Vietnam War. He wrote to the Chinese embassy and offered to go and teach English. I went to a couple of demos, one of them by accident.
So much for the similarities, But there were also differences.
The book tells nothing of the protagonist's journey, how he left, his first impressions on arriving, or anything like that. Just that he was glad to be in London, and glad to be out of the stifling restrictions of South Africa, and planned never to return. He went by sea, because he landed at Southampton. Though he seems to have been uninvolved in political activities in South Africa, he did not approve of the Nationalist government, I wondered how, having majored in Mathematics, he was allowed to enrol for postgraduate studies in English literature, with a thesis on Ford Madox Ford. In my experience South African universities don't work like that, but J.M. Coetzee was a professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town for several years, so perhaps he knows something that I don't.
I was a bit more involved in political activities in my final year at university than the guy in the book, and in the middle of my final exams got an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act that if I did not desist from activities that "further or are calculated to further any of the objects of communism" action would be taken against me. Most of my friends who had had such warnings got banning orders a few months later, so, in view of my plans to go and study in the UK I dropped my idea of a political holiday, and after my last exam went to Johannesburg and worked as a bus driver, saving money to pay for the boat fare overseas. Like the protagonist in the book, I wanted to go by sea.
I drove buses and did as much overtime as I could to save money for the boat fare. Nevertheless, one afternoon as I was about to go to work I got a phone call from a Detective Sergeant van den Heever, of, as he said, the CID. He wanted to come and see me. I told him I was going to work, and would arrange to see him in the morning, after my overtime. I thought he could only want me for one (or both) of two things: to confiscate my passport or give me a banning order, either of which would scupper my plans for overseas study.
After consultation with friends, I decided it would be best to be out of the country when Detective Sergent van den Heever wanted to see me the next morning, so I drove through the night to Bulawayo in UDI Rhodesia in my mother's car, with a friend who would bring the car back. We crossed the border at Beit Bridge when it opened at dawn, and by the time we got to Bulawayo there was a message from my mother to say she had booked me on a flight to London. So I boarded the plane late in the afternoon, and arrived in London the following day, feeling homesick, like an exile.
Unlike the bloke in the book, my alienation set in right away. I hadn't expected culture shock, because after all they spoke English, there, didn't they? But it was all so sudden and so strange. I suspect many South Africans who left South Africa in a hurry in the 1960s had similar experiences to mine, but the book mentions nothing of that.
One of the first things I had to do after arriving was to apply for an Aliens Registration Certificate. And when I got it, it said that I was not permitted to take employment, paid or unpaid, without the permission of the Minister of Labour. So how was I to survive for eight months until the university term began? The protagonist in the book faced nothing like that.
So I began to ask how I could get that condition waived, so I could get a job. Well, they said, if you come to us showing you have a written job offer, you can apply for that to be altered. But no one was prepared to offer a job and then wait for the bureaucracy to grant permission. It was the classic Catch 22, just like black people in South Africa had to face under the pass laws, but there it was in their own country. I knew about the effexta of the pass laws from being told about it and from reading, but now I was experiencing it first hand. Useful experience if one wants to be a writer and write a book. That's what the protagonist in the book says too.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts, I worked out how to play the system. I went to London Transport, applied for a job as a bus driver, noting that there was a labour exchange just across the road. Once I and the other applicants had been definitely offered the job, I asked the bloke at London Transport to sign the paper from the Ministry of Labour saying that employing me would not deprive a British citizen of a job. That was unlikely -- London Transport had more vacancies (about 7000) than the entire running staff employed by the Johannesburg Transport Department (about 1700).
While the others all went off to tea I scuttled across the road to the labour exchange, showed them the paper with the job offer, and the application form from the Home Office for permission to take employment, and said "please sign there and put your stamp on it". The bloke behind the counter looked at me as if I was mad, but did what I asked, and I went back across the road and joined the others for tea.
Having passed out as a driver (and yes, driving double-decker buses on the skid pan was great fun), I had to choose a garage. I said Peckham or Lewisham, which were the closest to some South African friends I might want to visit in my time off. But they said, no, it has to be where you live. I said I don't live anywhere. I'm staying with a bloke who put me up out of the kindness of his heart, but now wants me out of his guest room. But that didn't wash. Brixton was closest to his place so I must go there
I looked at the notices offering rooms to let. There was one with an Indian landlord. I went and knocked on the door. While I was waiting for someone to answer the door of the next door house opened (the houses were all built up close together -- I hadn't yet learned that they were called terraces), and an English woman asked what I wanted. I said they had advertised a room to let. She said, "They're Indians, you know. I wouldn't like you to stay there." I was gobsmacked (well, not really, "gobsmacked" only came into the language about 20 years later, but you know what I mean). I thought I'd left such racism behind in South Africa, and one of the cool things about being in Britain was that I could have an Indian landlord and the government wouldn't do a thing to stop me. I hadn't taken nosy neighbours into account.
That one fell through, but the next one I tried advertised an African landlady. That felt like closer to home. She turned out to be from Sierra Leone, which is a long way from South Africa, but at least halfway home. She was Mrs Emily Williams, and her daughter Joyce was in her last year at high school and hoping to start at an English university at the same time as I was. The next door neighbours there were English too, but a lot more friendly.
So the book was my story, but not my story. Perhaps another book needs to be written. Perhaps several other books need to be written.
The trouble with reading these Roy Grace books out of order is that the baby keeps popping back into the womb, and in this case it is made more compliThe trouble with reading these Roy Grace books out of order is that the baby keeps popping back into the womb, and in this case it is made more complicated by flashbacks to 12 years before, so keeping track of the action gets a bit complicated.
It's nevertheless a readable crime novel, though more of a police procedural than a whodunit -- the reader knows more than the police, and so it is easier to work out who the perpetrator is.
Roy Grace also seems to make some serious mistakes this time. Saying what they are would be giving too much of the plot away, but even though the reader has more clues than the police, Grace seems to miss some of the clues that he does have.
There are also some oddities of language. Is Peter James American, like Elizabeth George? I thought cars in the UK had number plates rather than licence plates.
One of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliOne of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliar, but this book comes far closer to home, in time, in place, and even in people.
A man opens a box left by his father, George Jameson, who had died when he was 8 years old, and tries to reconstruct his father's life and his own family history. In this the book reminds me of A recessional for Grace by Margurite Poland. One of the similarities is that the protagonist in that book was researching the life of a Xhosa linguist, making a study of the terms for different kinds of cattle, and in The Native Commissioner the protagonist is fluent in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans as well as English, his native language, so it is difficult to avoid comparisons.
The father was a civil servant, and, like many civil servants, was subject to numerous transfers in the course of his career, and most of those places I was familiar with, having passed through them many times. George Jameson was born to a white farming family in Babanango, and when I lived in Melmoth 35 years ago I regularly visited a farming family there. Jameson was stationed at Tsumeb in Namibia, and at Libode in Transkei, which I passed through on the way to visit my mother when she worked at St Barnabas Hospital, Ntlaza. So it was easy to picture the places and the settings.
Also, I could not help picturing the protagonist as being like Buller Fenwick, a retired Native Commissioner I knew in Melmoth. When I knew him he was doing odd jobs for various people, and would come to us for photocopies, because back in 1979 we had the only photocopier in Melmoth. He was an interesting bloke, and confirmed in real life one of the things that is central to the story. Before the Nats came to power in 1948, his job as a Magistrate and Native Commissioner was to administer justice -- white man's justice to people of a different culture, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. After the Nats came to power the nature of the job changed; it was no longer to administer justice, but to administer government policy. And that is the central dilemma faced by the protagonist in this book, which eventually drives him to a nervous breakdown.
The book is therefore, at one level, true to life. It can give an authentic picture of what life was like for some people in South Africa in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But was only like that for a relativly small proportion of people -- white civil servants who had doubts about the morality of the National Party policy juggernaut, where the alternatives, if you did not jump on the bandwagon, were to get out of the way or get crushed. Jameson tried, but failed, to get out of the way, and got crushed.
The method of telling the story, reconstucting a life from documents, has its disadvantages, however. I know from my own interest in family history how difficult it is with real people -- it is all so fragmentary, and there are so many loose ends. Using such a technique in a work of fiction is unnecessarily limiting, though I think Magurite Poland handled it better than Shaun Jameson does. In this case it leaves too much of the story untold.
For example, the narrative tells us that "On the 5th of September he sends a reply to the Johannesburg head office regarding its instruction to repatriate one Buthi Mngomeni to his homeland. Unfortunately, writes my father curtly, your order cannot be acted on as neither we nor he know where his homeland is."
In real life biography, coming across such correspondence in the archives is pure gold. It speaks volumes to the researcher. It portrays exactly the impersonal bureacratic cruelty of the apartheid system, treating human beings who have names, like Buthi Mngomeni, as non-persons, as mere "human resources" (why is that obscene term still in such common use?) And it tells you of a civil servant who is gatvol of the whole system, who has had it up to here.
But the average reader of a novel is not a historical researcher, easily able to tease out the significance of such documents. Many people, especially white people, lived through that period with very little clue about what was going on there, and so its significance would escape them. Those who were born after 1980, or those who have never been in South Africa, unless exceptionally well-read, would miss it altogether.
The fiction writer has the opportunity to tell the story fully, to show Buthi Mngomeni as a real person with a life, with a family. It could be expanded to a paragraph, a page, a whole chapter even. But the "documentary research" format does not allow it.
So while one can say that the story is true to life, it is what apartheid was really like for some people, it gives only a tiny fragment of the picture. There is also much more to the story than this.
This is J.K. Rowling's adult book. Well, her first adult book, maybe she'll write more.
It's about small-town politics.
Somehow one doesn't expect smallThis is J.K. Rowling's adult book. Well, her first adult book, maybe she'll write more.
It's about small-town politics.
Somehow one doesn't expect small-town politics to be gripping stuff, but it is, and the more you get into it, the more gripping it gets, as the community and families are gripped by political and personal rivalries and you keep reading to see what happens next. ...more
In May 1844 Frank Bassingthwaighte, a blacksmith turned sailor, was at St Helena Island when Thomas Lawton a trader from Walvis Bay came aboard his shIn May 1844 Frank Bassingthwaighte, a blacksmith turned sailor, was at St Helena Island when Thomas Lawton a trader from Walvis Bay came aboard his ship, and recruited him to work for him and and his partners, so he transferred to the Susan and went back to Walvis Bay with Lawton, whose partners, Ben Dixon and James Morris (erroneously referred to as Thomas Morris in the book), had a contract to supply meat to the British garrison on St Helena.
This book is the story of Frank Bassingthwaightte and his eldest son James, several of whose descendants still live in Namibia today.
Frank Bassingthwaighte married the boss's daughter -- Rebecca Dixon -- which did little to advance his career, since they lost the contract a few years later, and the partnership broke up. The Dixon family moved to the Northern Cape, where they had a farm, and the Bassingthwaightes also lived there for part of the time, and young James stayed with his grandparents until he was 9 years old, and then went back to Namibia to join his parents, and found himself kept busy working as a herdboy, wagon driver and various other jobs.
The Bassignthwaightes were sometimkes farmers, sometimes traders, and sometimes hunters, but their hard work did not make them rich, and they had long thirsty treks through the semi-desert country of the Northern Cape and Namibia with little to show for it except dead oxen and horses that had died of thirst.
Towards the end of his life Frank was infirm and could not do much, but he still travelled around with his son, apparently loving the wandering nomadic life.
James Bassingthwaighte married Philipina Von Schlicht -- according to her father she was marrying beneath her -- and they had several children. She died young, and James brought up his family as a single parent. The Germans took over Namibia, and the Bassingthwaightes lost the family farm at Neuheusis because they lived in such remote areas that they did not hear of the regulation requiring them to register it until it was too late.
In the First World War the South Africans invaded and took over from the Germans, and threatened to intern James Bassingthwaighte as an enemy alien. They asked his nationality and he replied, "I am the son of an Englishman, born in this country. During my life I have lived under the rule of Hottentots, Hereros and Germans. I don't know what I am, but perhaps you bcan tell me."
It's an interesting story of hard lives, well told.
A Polish couple is separated at the beginning of the Second World War, and reunited in Britain after the war is over. In the six years that they haveA Polish couple is separated at the beginning of the Second World War, and reunited in Britain after the war is over. In the six years that they have been apart their different experiences have made them different people. Then there is the child Aurek, who has only known the life of a fugitive, hiding in the forest. He has to adapt to living in a suburban house in a society where the language, is strange.
The story alternates between the present and the past, starting with their reunion, and going back to their former life, leading up to the present.
I picked this book up on a remainder sale, after reading the blurb I thought it looked interesting for the same reason that I found the The long road home the aftermath of the Second World War interesting. I'm interested in transitions, in between times, changes from war to peace, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers. How do such people make a transition from one life to another?
And so I bought it and brought it home to read it, and was surprosed at how good it was. When I read historical novels, I tend to look out for anachronisms, well, not actually to look for them, but when I spot them I find them jarring, and so I tend to be reading in nervous expectation. In this book I didn't spot any, or at least none that were jarring. It seemed remarkably authentic and true to life -- not that I've ever been to Poland, so I might not know anyway, but it didn't seem much different from novels by Polish novelists that I've read.
The characters and their reactions are believable, yet not predictable, and this unpredictability is what makes the novel seem so authentic. It is like the unpredictability of real life, when you never know what will happen next or how people will respond to it. ...more