J.J. Kitching (known as "Kitchen Boy") is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a signific...moreJ.J. Kitching (known as "Kitchen Boy") is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a significant occasion. The action of the story takes place in the lead-up to his death and the funeral itself, and the memories of him that are prompted in the minds of his family, friends, and others who knew him.
In his final illness he shares some of his war-time memories with his grandson, Sam. Different people come to his funeral, and even his close family are sometimes surprised at the range of his contacts and acquaintances, from the homeless philosopher who lived in a culvert, to the teetotaller manager of a hotel chain who was a customer of the brewery where he worked until he retired.
I'd read a couple of other books by Jenny Hobbs before, and bought this one becazuse I was impressed by them, and their authenticity to place and time. Thoughts in a makeshift mortuary had in some ways a similar theme to this one, the parents of a freedom-fighter who has been killed by the police, as they keep vigil over the body of a child they hardly knew, thoughts prompted by death.
When I began reading this one, I was very impressed at the apparent authenticity. Most of the novels we read in South Africa are published overseas, and are set in far-away places, so one often doesn't know whether the descriotions are authentic or not.
But this one is set in Durban and Zululand, places where I have lived. The description of World War II soldiers and returning POWs wandering round Durban on arriving home sets the scene amazingly well. The description of Twiggie's Pie Cart in Market Square in Pietermaritzburg revived memories of 50 years ago.
I recalled my uncle returning from the War. I was four years old and we stood on Salisbury Island and watched the flying boat come in dropping over the harbour entrance, landing on the bay. Many of my friends had fathers who had fought in the war. And we also had several uncles who had fought in the war. It was part of growing up. So the memories of J.J. Kitching, and his friends' memories of him, were part of my growing up, and also part of the family history we have explored more recently.
My wife Val's father would never spoeak about his wartime experiences, until one day we pleaded with him to tell us the story of "Shit in Italy". He was captured at Tobruk and kept in a prison camp in Italy, from which he escaped. I wish we had had a tape recorder to record it, because we have now forgotten many of the details, but like the grandson Sam in the book, we were fascinated by the story.
Most of the memories are stirred and described during the funeral service, but that is where the story falls apart. The rugby players, young and old, are authentic. The ex-servicement, the MOTHs (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) are authentic. The homeless philososopher in the culvert may be stretching things a bit, but is plausible. But then the author has to go and spoil it all by introducing an altogether phony caricature of an Anglican bishop. The bishop is not an incidental character, because the funeral service is the setting for much of the book.
The funeral takes place in our time, no more than five years ago, but just about every detail rings false. I'm not familiar with the current Anglican funeral service, and haven't been able to find out much since I started reading the book, but if I were writing a book that revolved around a funeral service, I'd do a lot more research than Jenny Hobbs appears to have done. The words of the service swing from Elizabethan to modern English. I once knew an Anglican bishop of Natal who might have entertained ambitious thoughts like the fictional bishop in the book, but he retired forty (40) years ago, and what we are presented with is a caricature from the 1950s, or even the 1920s, in a story set in about 2010. It's OK to have a fictitious cathedral in a real city for the sake of the story. But it's a pity that when there seems to have been so much research into some of the historical details (like the diets of prisoners in German POW camps), there has been so little into the hub that the story revolves around. Anglican bishops in South Africa are never referred to as "His Grace", for one thing, and and there are numeous other bogus details.
Forty years ago I was present at quite a number of Anglican funerals in Durban, and even back then they were none of them like this. Sometimes they were pathetic -- five MOTHs bidding farewell to a dead comrade, asking to play the Last Post, and one of them pulling out a tinny little portable tape recorder to play it. But nothing as phony as the one in this book.
When I began reading the book, I thought I'd give it four or five stars, but the more I read, the more the rating dropped.
I suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe's Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was i...moreI suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe's Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was it as long ago as that? And the author wasn't even born then.
Tinashe is a young Shona boy who grows up in a rural village, ocasionally visited by his rich uncle from the city and his cousin. He dreams of going to school and university, like his uncle, but his cousin doesn't seem to value these things. Tinashe's younger sister, Hazvinei, is strange, and communes with spirits. Her brother, and other people, sometimes find her rather frightening, but he feels obliged to care for her, even when it threatens to disrupt his education.
In some ways it is like an African version of David Copperfield or The catcher in the rye, but it is also bound up with the surreal and unpredictabe world of Shona mythology, where the spirits can make people feel invincible at one moment and dash all their hopes the next. (less)
The book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parte...moreThe book takes the form of e-mail correspondence between two former lovers, Solrun and Steinn, who meet by accident some thirty years after they parted, at a hotel that was linked to the events that caused them to part. They reflect on the events that led up to their parting, which involve a mysterious "Lingonberry Woman", and the divergent interpretations of their shared experience, naturalistic and supernaturalistic, that eventually caused them to part.
The story is almost allegorical, with the main characters standing for two worldviews, a technique that is shared with some of Jostein Gaarder's other books. In the end, neither the philosophical nor the narrative mystery is solved, and both are left hanging. I can understand this in the case of the philosophical mystery of the natrualistic or supernaturalistic worldviews, but in the case of the narrative mysteries it makes the story a bit unsatisfactory.
Perhaps I am missing some literary allusions, but the title is one of the mysteries. All the action takes place in Norway, and none in the Pyrenees -- the closest the characters get to the Pyrenees is a trip to Normandy, which is mentioned in passing. And the "Lingonberry Woman" apparently has nothing to do with lingonberries (whatever they may be). She neither gathers them, nor eats them, nor offers them to the characters to eat. It might have been more appropriate to call her the "Foxglove Woman" since the characters are looking at foxgloves when they encounter her.
Marc Lucas is a social worker, miserable and grieving because he has lost his wife in a motor accident. He does, however, succeed in saving the life of a suicidal teenager. He sees an advertisement for a clinic that claims to be able to remove painful memories, and decides to visit it. He discovers that they are conducting memory experiments, and will give him complete amnesia, and then reload the pleasant memories, and decides not to participate, and leaves without signing anything. Then his nightmare begins.
It seems that his identity has been stolen. All the addresses have been wiped from his cell phone, his credit cards no longer work. He goes home to get medicine he needs to take because of the after-effects of the accident in which his wife dies, and the keys of his flat no longer work, but his wife answers the door, alive and pregnant, but no longer recognising him.
He is befriended by a woman who claims that she too is a victim of the same conspiracy, but then she appears to betray him, making him believe that she too is part of the conspiracy. The things that happen to him become more and more irrational and arbitrary, but the end, when all is revealed, turns out not to be like Dostoevsky or Kafka at all, but something far more prosaic, and far less believable. After reading the first few chapters, I was thinking that this would be a five-star book, but by the end it had dropped to three.
When I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that...moreWhen I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that would have been enough to make me put the book back on the shelf and look for something else, but I recalled that I had just read another book by Sam Bourne and it hadn't been nearly as bad as anything written by Dan Brown, so I thought I'd take a chance on it anyway. It was remaindered and going cheap so I wouldn't lose too much if it was a serious contender for Dan Brown's crown as a writer of trash.
But the cover blurb certainly influenced the way I read the book -- looking for comparisons with Dan Brown.
There are some superficial resemblances to The da Vinci code (the only Dan Brown novel I've read). The main characters are a man and a woman who meet and get hooked into travelling around ostensibly trying to solve a mystery together. Unlike Dan Brown's characters, they have more believable professions -- a doctor and a lawyer. And though it turns out that they are investigating a conspiracy, it is based on a real historical one, and not an imaginary bogus one.
Though the characters and many of the incidents in the story are fictitious, the historical setting is for the most part real. Like The da Vinci code, the story has several plot holes, but they are not as numerous and obtrusive as those in The da Vinci code. There are a couple of points at which the reader's credulity is strained, a sort of "this kind of thing just doesn't happen" moment, and then one thinks of former US President George Bush's "extraordinary rendition", and one realises that of course it does happen. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "Truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it."
I won't say too much about the actual story, because of the danger of spoilers. A suspected terrorist is shot outside the UN headquarters in New York, but turns out to be an apparently harmless old man. Lawyer Tom Byrne, who formerly worked for the UN, is hired to offer hush money the victim's family so they don't make a fuss about it, but gets a crush on the victim's daughter, which complicates things. It seems that shadowy people are looking for something that they suspect her father of having had, possibly his World War II memoir of persecution of the Jews and resistance movements against Nazi occupation, which the old man had been involved in.
It's not outstanding, but it's quite a good read, and the tale is quite well told. In that respect, Dan Brown doesn't come anywhere near challenging it. (less)
It was on the "horror" shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I'd never read anything by the author before, So I thought...moreIt was on the "horror" shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I'd never read anything by the author before, So I thought it might be OK for some light bedtime reading. I suppose it does fit into the horror genre, just. It's also a sort of half-baked whodunit (one of the main characters is a detective, though he doesn't do much detecting.
I suppose in that there are some very faint echoes of Phil Rickman, who seems to hover uncertainly between the supernatural horror and whodunit genres, with his more recent works leaning (to my disappointment) to the latter. But Rickman's books have character and plot; this book has neither. And Shaun Hutson seem to try to cover over the lack of such things by playing the grossout card, right from the very first chapter, going over the top with blood and gore. Oh and the obligatory sex scenes with "throbbing members" -- it was, after all, first published in the 1980s, when most publishers seemed to make such scenes obligatory. In this book, however, they are combined with the "fetid stench" of still-throbbing freshly disembowelled entrails. The trouble is that when you have a "fetid stench" in every second chapter (and there are seventy chapters) one's sense of literary smell tends to become a bit jaded.
The book has a bunch of archaeologists who discover a cave with inscriptions and skeletons. Some of them meet with nasty accidents, which apparently serve no purpose in the plot other than to provide the occasion for another grossout. The archaeologists seem to know as little about archaeology as the detectives do about detecting.
As I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Gra...moreAs I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called on to investigate a serious hit-and-run motor accident, where the victim is an American student whose family have Mafia connections, promptin fears that they might take revenge on those they see as responsible.
Roy Grace has worries at home, however, as his girlfriend Cleo is having a difficult pregnancy, and has to spend some time in hospital. These were the bits I thought I had read before, and, having reached the end of the book I realise that that is because I must have read the next book in the series before this one, and in that one the pregnancy and its problems continue.
This is a police procedural rather than a whodunit, as you know who is going to do it even before it is done, but I think it is very well done, and is one of Peter James's best books I've read so far. (less)
I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at t...moreI enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.
David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.
David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.
C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.
In some ways the book reminded me of
by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.
One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.
Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might have beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a "big Volvo", used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).
I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime. (less)
Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidna...moreDetective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidnapped by her mother Angelina Upman. Since Azhar is not registered as Hadiyyah's father, it is not a matter for the police, so Havers puts him in touch with a private detective.
Angelina makes a reappearance when it turns out that Hadiyyah had been kidnapped from her mother, this time in Italy, and the action moves to that country, where a new detective hero emerges, Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco, who has to battle with an obstinate superior who wasnts a suspect, any suspect, to get the media off their backs. He works with Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard to search for the missing girl.
It is a long story (over 700 pages), with many plot twists, and at several points the reader's credulity is strained as Havers breaks one rule of police procedure after another.
In the afternoon I started to read The old man and the sea. I couldn't remember if I had read it before, but as it is a short book it coulodn't do any...moreIn the afternoon I started to read The old man and the sea. I couldn't remember if I had read it before, but as it is a short book it coulodn't do any harm to read it again. I think before I started but did not finish it. It's about an old fisherman who has been unlucky for 84 days, and really needs to catch something. So he goes out to catch a big fish.
But it struck me as weird. I have this image of Hemingway as the grand macho hunting', shootin' and fishing type, who knows all there is to know about game animals and game fish, and yet here he is describing dolphins as having gills. It sticks out like a sore thumb. I'm reading a school edition, with notes. Surely there must be a note on that. But no, there isn't. Is it just that the people who wrote the notes are equally ignorant, or that they don't want to suggest any weakness in the great master?
And it strikes me that if Hemigway is so ignorant of such an elementary fact of marine biology as that, does the rest of what he writes count for anything at all? How can he write about an old man and the sea and its creatures when he is that ignorant?
The topic of the sciences versus the humanities seems to have come up quite a lot recently, and I blogged about it last month here The dissing of the...moreThe topic of the sciences versus the humanities seems to have come up quite a lot recently, and I blogged about it last month here The dissing of the humanities | Khanya. It has also come up in various discussion forums. In one such forum I was reminded of the Victorian myth of the polymath scientist, when the media make Richard Dawkins, a biologist, an instant expert on topics like philosophy, theology and history.
And then I picked up this book.
I've been gradually entering our books into a database, so that we can see which ones we've read and which ones we haven't. We have sometimes bought books that we already have, so it's not quite as silly as it may seem. But how we got this book, I cannot remember. A street book stall, perhaps. It was marked down from R1.95 to 59c to 10c, and perhaps we bought it just because it was cheap.
It's written by a Shakespearian scholar, so it comes down firmly on the side of the humanities. It was published in 1966, just a year or two before student power demonstrations broke out all over. It would probably not appeal to feminists at all, as all the main characters are male, and the only strong female character is almost, but not quite, the villain of the piece. But it does highlight some of the problems and tensions that arise if the sciences and the humanities are kept apart, and 45 years later genetic engineering is still a live issue.
So I found it a surprisingly good read, but perhaps that's because I'm prejudiced in favour of the humanities. (less)
Several students are shot by police in a campus demonstration at a small US college, and three are killed. Six policemen were put on trial for the sho...moreSeveral students are shot by police in a campus demonstration at a small US college, and three are killed. Six policemen were put on trial for the shootings, and were acquitted. Five years later some of those affected by the shooting plan a memorial gathering, bringing together the survivors, the parents of the dead students, members of staff and stuents of the college, and, the organisers hope, members of the police and the local community.
The story is told through the eyes of different participants -- the parents of the dead students, some of the survivors, the judge at the trial of the policemen, the defence layer, and one of the main witnesses.
The parents of the dead students have mixed motives. Some want revenge and vindication, some just want to forget and "move on".
I can't remember when we bought this book, but, realising that I had not read it before, I took it down and began reading, and found it rather good. The narratives show the different outlooks of different characters, some certain, with clear goals, others filled with doubts, wondering what they are doing, and yet others tring rather desperately not to allow anything to shake the wall of their own self-perception that they have built around themselves.
So I'm glad I found it; iot was definitely worth a read. (less)
A student is murdered in "The Maze", a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. Hi...moreA student is murdered in "The Maze", a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. His colleague Annie Cabbot, seconded to another division, is called to investigate the murder of a disabled inmate of a home in the coastal town of Whitby. Subsequent investigations reveal links between the two cases, which have historical roots going back to previous cases, and events in described in some of Robinson's earlier books.
As a police procedural/whodunit it is up to Peter Robinson's usual high standards for the most part, though it seemed to get off to a rather shaky start. Having been a student myself, albeit a long time ago, I'm pretty sure that if one of my friends had disappeared after we'd been to pubs in town, we would have been very concerned about it, and would have been anxious to contact the police before they contacted us (though in South Africa in those days we might also have considered the possibility that the police themselves might have been responsible for the disappearance). So there is an air of unreality about the first few chapters of the story, where the friends of the missing student seem quite uncaring, and even after discovering that she was murdered, seem reluctant to get involved.
Though Peter Robinson lives in Canada his books, set in Yorkshire, have generally seemed fairly authentic to me. But in this one I noticed a transatlantic drift. He used "momentarily" in the American sense of "in a moment" rather than the more usual one of "for a moment", and also used "moot" in a transatlantic sense of "not worth debating" rather than "debatable". Most notably several of the characters are described as rolling their eyes.
Now it's quite a long time since I lived in the UK, and for all I know people there have adopted eye-rolling widely, and similarly the other modes of expression, but it struck me as a bit out of place.
One of the early scenes is a funeral. At first it is not clear who has died or how, but then there is some reference to "the accident". I'm now 120 pages into the book, and there have been several more references to "the accident", but I'm still not sure what happened, who was involved in it, or how it affects the plot of the book, other than that it seems to have resulted in the protagonist, detective Patrik Hedstrom, not being able to work full time. Though at times it seems that that may have been the result of illness rather than "the accident".
Perhaps all this is made clear in the previous book in the series, but to find out would mean going out searching bookshops for a book that may by now be out of print. This seems to be becoming a trend, and a rather annoying one. I noticed it when reading the books of Louise Penny, where there were references to things that had happened in previous books of the series, but in those it did not affect one's understanding of the book one was actually reading. In The lost boy, however, it simply makes Camilla Läckberg another author to cross off my list. Unless I get very, very bored, I'll probably never finish it. (less)
Eleven-year-old Julia wakes up one morning to find that the sun is late. The earth's rotation speed is slowing, and soon clock time is out of sync wit...moreEleven-year-old Julia wakes up one morning to find that the sun is late. The earth's rotation speed is slowing, and soon clock time is out of sync with the procession of days and nights. At first there is panic, and people behave strangely. Julia's best friend, a Mormon, moves with her family to Utah. A Jewish family is not sure when to observe the Sabbath.
For a schoolgirl the problems of friendship, popularity and peer pressure are exacerbated by the changes in the environment. As nights lengthen, crops are threatened by the lack of sunlight, and people begin hoarding food. Animals begin to behave in strange ways, and some species become extinct.
The story is not altogether believable, as some things that one would expect to be affected by the changes appear not to be. Though the wheat supply is threatened, there seems to be no problem in ordering pizzas, and ice cream continues to be readily available, through fresh fruit is not. People in the middle-class suburb where Julia lives still appear to go to work every day, even though one would expect there to be massive unemployment in sectors affected by the changes.
The story is told through the eyes of a child, of course, and one would not expect a child to know of everything that was happening. Apart from a few discrepancies, it is well told, and a good read. (less)
This book is about the 1970s as you probably don't remember them.
A quick glance at the cover and at the blurb gives the impression that it is a kind o...moreThis book is about the 1970s as you probably don't remember them.
A quick glance at the cover and at the blurb gives the impression that it is a kind of cultural history of an era. For Francis Wheen the Seventies began existentially when he decided to drop out. As he describes it:
With my rucksack and guitar in hand, I came to London on 27 December 1973 brimming with the ambition and optimism of the Sixties -- a dream of change, a sense of limitless possibility -- only to find the Seventies enveloping the city like a pea-souper.
In another place he is more explcit:, when discussing when the Sixties ended and the seventies began:
So it goes for most of us as we try to reconcile our private histories with a public narrative. Philip Larkin, recording the start of free love in 1963, lamented that 'this was rather late for me.' For me, alas, it was rather too early. I came to the party a full decade later, on 27 December 1973, when I caught a train to London from suburban Kent, having left a note on the kitchen table advising my parents that I'd gone to join the alternative society and wouldn't be back. An hour or so later, clutching my rucksack and guitar, I arrived at the 'BIT Alternative Help and Information Centre,' a hippy hangout on Westbourne Park Road which I'd often seen mentioned in the underground press. 'Hi,' I chirruped. 'I've dropped out.' I may even have babbled something about wanting to build the counter-culture. This boyish enthusiasm was met by groans from a furry freak slumped on the threadbare sofa. 'Drop back in, man,' he muttered through a dense foliage of beard. 'You're too late... It's over.' And so it was. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, had declared a state of emergency in November, his fifth in just over three years...
The promise these passages (and he blurb on the cover) give of the reconciliation of private histories with public narrative is not fulfilled. We are not told whether or how Francis Wheen dropped back in, or how he spent the rest of the Seventies. He presumably survived, or he wouldn't have written the book. So I was expecting a cultural history, but instead it was more of a political history, and the political history of the 1970s was laced with paranoia, at least according to Wheen.
So having established what the book is not, what is it?
It's the public narrative turned inside out.
Those of us who lived through the Seventies remember some of the headlines, and some of the major events. But what Francis Wheen does is take us behind the scenes, backstage, as it were, to see the stage props, and the actors without their make up. What were the motives for the much publicised political decisions? What was Edward Heath really up to with his successive states of emergency? What was the story behind Watergate, or Nixon's rapprochement with China, or the Allende coup in Chile? What was really going on with nihilistic terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Tupamaros urban guerrillas in Uruguay, or the Symbionese Liberation Army?
Wheen has trawled through the various memoirs, diaries, letters and papers published by people close to the seats of power, and revealed some of the conversations about and motives for some of the decisions that were announced in the press. These documents were not available at the time, and it is only now that the inside stories can be revealed. Books have been published, archives made available, and Wheen concludes that Nixon, Heath and most of the other world leaders at the time were barking mad and quite paranoid. The Seventies were the paranoid decade, and that paranoia was the decade's major bequest to those who followed.
Most of us don't have time to read those documents, and so Francis Wheen has done it for us and made a digest of it to save us the trouble.
The trouble is that his selection of events to record would not have been mine. The events that stood out for him were not those that stood out for me, even in the public narrative.
Living in South Africa we were only very vaguely aware of Britains "winter of discontent" and its "Who governs Britain?" election (Answer: Nobody).
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 (40th anniversary at time of writing, but Telkom alone knows when I'll get to post this) made more of an impact. It meant the reopening of the Suez Canal, and within a few months I no longer looked out from my front door in Durban North on 30 or more ships in the roadstead waiting to enter Durban harbour, and one could walk on Durban's beaches without the lumps of crude oil making them took like the aftermath of an explosion in a Marmite factory.
There were some consequences of the Yom Kippur War that Wheen does mention, though -- reduced oil production, rising fuel prices, and fuel restrictions . The fuel restrictions (in South Africa) were announced in November 1973, with speed limits in towns of 50 km/h and on open roads of 80 km/h. On 30 November I was driving into town from Durban North along Umgeni Road -- the traffic was preferable to the sleep-inducing boredom of driving on the freeway at 50 km/h. I stopped at a robot and an Indian guy in the car next to me shouted, "Have you filled your tank, petrol is going up to a Rand a gallon." Several other people told me the same thing on that day. Rumours abounded, and queues at filling stations were long. Now I doubt if we'll see the fuel price as low as a Rand a litre again. But back then we were suddenly aware that whether we used it quickly or slowly, oil had to come to an end some day. Someone somewhere said that if every adult male Indian used toilet paper, the world's paper supply would be exhausted in two weeks. So yes, Wheen was right about that. The Seventies was a time of the feeling of an approaching disaster, of inflation and the imminent end of the world.
But in South Africa it was also the decade in which PW Botha and Magnus Malan decided to invade Angola (Wheen did not consult any diaries of their associates) and thus of what the South African public were led to believe was the "Border War", though much of it took place a long way from any borders.
In the 1960s, under Vorster, South Africa had turned into a police state, but with the accession of P.W. Botha there was a military take-over, By the end of the Seventies the "Border War" had mutated into the "total onslaught" and South Africa came to be ruled by a military junta which lasted throughout the 1980s.
So in Wheen's book I was expecting more of a cultural history of the 1970s, though there was not much of that. But the book did inspire me to think of how we do reconcile our private histories with public narratives, even if Wheen does not deliver on this. I'll continue with that theme on my blog, since it drifts away from the actual content of the book.
This is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the on...moreThis is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the one we bought first, because of the blurb, and only after getting it did we discover that there is a metastory that runs through the series, with the same characters popping up again and again.
Chief Inspector Gamache is on leave in Quebec, recovering from injuries received in an earlier shoot-out, and is asked ny the local police to help with a case -- an amateur archaeologist, notorious for his obsession with finding the grave of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, is murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, an English-speaking institution. The murder could increase tensions between the French and English-speaking communities of the city, and Gamache is asked to help because he speaks better English. He has also been doing some historical research of his own in the library.
I suppose one of the reasons I like books like this is my own interest in historical research, and so mysteries of the past that have repercussions in the present are the kind of thing I like reading about. Added to that is that my wife Val's great great grandfather, William John Green, was born in Quebec in 1790, so the city is the setting of a historical mystery that has exercised many members of the Green family for more than a century. The period is entirely different to that of the story in this book, but the setting is the same, and the book gives a feel for the city and its present inhabitants.
In addition there are some more historical threads in this book. Gamache keeps having flashbacks to an earlier case, where he feels he failed, and he sends his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, to have another look at yet another case, which he thinks may have gone wrong, in the village of Three Pines, which seems to crop up in all these novels. These cases may have been covered in a couple of the books that we haven't read, so mentioning too many details may be spoilers for the books we haven't read yet.
There are a couple of things about the series that become slightly annoying -- Louise Penny seems to be more given to detailed descriptions of every meal the characters eat than Enid Blyton and I, for one, get a bit tired of reading yet another description of maple-cured bacon and other Canadian delicacies. But it is generally a good read. (less)
This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache....moreThis is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The first one I read, Dead Cold, is the second in the series, and this one features many of the same characters in the same setting, the small village of Three Pines somewhere south of Montreal.
I'm beginning to feel that there is not much I can say about this book until I've read more of the series, and get a picture of where things are going. I'm beginning to wonder if Three Pines is about to rival Midsomer Worthy as the murder capital of the world, despite its small size, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache trying to overtake Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders. Tom Barnaby's exploits are chronicled in books like Written in Blood by Caroline Graham.
The other reason for wanting to read more is that in the two books I have read there seems to be a metaplot that carries over from one book to the next. In addition to solving the case at hand, Chief Inspector Armand Gamashe has to watch his back because some of his colleagues are out to get him because of an earlier case.
In this book a group of people in Three Pines decide to hold a seance, and when it proves to be a bit of an anticlimax they decide to repeat the exercise in an abandoned house that is believed to be haunted. One of the members dies during the seance, apparently of fright, though it in the post mortem examination there are indications that it could be murder.
One of the interesting things about the book is that, like the novels of Phil Rickman there are hints of supernatural forces at work. Rickman started off writing horror stories that gradually moved towards becoming whodunits. Louise Penny's novels seem to have the same mix.
That's enough for now -- I'll need to read more to see where the series is going.
This is the first detective story I've read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, an...moreThis is the first detective story I've read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, and try to solve the mystery. Most of the others these days withhold such clues from the reader, perhaps to resist spoilers, and the detective protagonist trots out the solution at the end, revealing for the first time the clues that enabled him to solve the case. Perhaps that's because most of the crime fiction publishjed nowadays are police procedurals or psychological examinations of the criminal mind -- the whydunits.
In any case, I managed to work out the identity of the perpetrators about halfway through, because the clues were available.
Of course crime fiction is not true life crime. The author can go around scattering clues for the detectives (and the readers) to pick up, but in real life criminals rarely do that.
Dead cold is the second of a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, We actually bought the sixth one (Bury your dead) on a sale, and discovered references to earlier books featuring some of the same characters, and tried to get the first one, but it was not available, so I've started reading the series with the second book.
Chief Inspector Gamache is dealing with two murders -- one of a homeless woman in Montreal, and the other of an interior designer in the village of Three Pines, 100 km away. The first case is not really his, but one that he is giving a second opinion on, by an informal arrangement with a friend in the Montreal police. One of the biggest difficulties is to find the identity of the victims.
A minor mystery is that [Book:Dead cold] was originally published under the title of [Book:A fatal grace], and one wonders why the title was changed. The most notorious example of this was the change of [Book:Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone] to [Book:Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone], but it seems to be a confusing and unnecessary practice. Is it done for copyright re4asons, or just because publishers like to confuse readers, or perhaps dupe them into buying two copies of the same book, thinking that, becxause it has a different title, they haven't already read it? (less)
In many ways this is a novel for our time, a novel of our time. It's about the generation gap, which has become inverted for the generation that inven...moreIn many ways this is a novel for our time, a novel of our time. It's about the generation gap, which has become inverted for the generation that invented (or provoked) the term "generation gap". That's my generation.
Marcus and Dora were part of a left-wing commune in the 1960s and 1970s and hoped that their children would grow up to share their ideals. Their daughter Clara is a teacher of rather prosaic subjects, but at least she is teaching working-class kids. Their mathematically-gifted son Serge, they believe, is working on a PhD in Cambridge, and seems set for a career of pure research, which will not prop up the blood-sucking capitalist system. What they do not know, and what he is too afraid to tell them, is that he has been head-hunted as a risk analyst by a firm of high-flying financiers, and is helping them to ride the rough seas of the financial crisis of 2008, and is what they would regard as immorally rich, and getting richer. His parents' values and his upbringing give him occasional twinges of conscience, but he manages to suppress them quite easily, for the most part. He is a bit more worried about getting caught.
The third child, Oolie-Anna, has Down's syndrome, and so lives at home, but her social worker keeps urging that she move out and become independent, because her aging parents will not be able to look after her for ever.
This one is also funny and sad, but the main characters are British, and there is only one Ukrainian, who is not a viewpoint character. The viewpoint moves mostly between Doro, the mother, and her two children Clara and Serge, with Marcus having his say much more rarely. There is thus no protagonist, or perhaps one could say no human protagonist, because the real protagonist is the new capitalism, and its effects on its devotees and its victims.
It is set in Britain, but the kind of values it represents are very much evident in South Africa today as well.
It took me a while to read this book, even though it is quite a short one, and all the action takes place in a single day. I suppose ideally one shoul...moreIt took me a while to read this book, even though it is quite a short one, and all the action takes place in a single day. I suppose ideally one should read it in one day too.
It is a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a London housewife who is preparing for a party. The story switches from one viewpoint to another, not only her own, but those of people around her: servants, an old friend, her daughter, a suicidal shell-shocked soldier and others. It is set in the 1920s, and so scenes from Downton Abbey come to mind.
I could not help but be struck by the contrast between Mrs Dalloway and The Greater Trumps. Both are set in a similar period, between the World Wars of the first half of the 20th century. But in Mrs Dalloway I was much more conscious of the setting in a specific time and place -- London of the 1920s. I lived in London for a few months in the 1960s, but the London of 40-45 years earlier was very different, just as it is very different today from the 1960s. Some things may have been the same -- the sea of bowler-hatted businessmen crossing London Bridge each morning and afternoon may well have been similar in the 1920s and 1960s, but now they belong to a vanished past. But in Westminster, where Mrs Dalloway is set, the fashions were very different in the 1960s, and are probably different from both today.
In The Greater Trumps, by contrast, though the action moves from a London suburb to the country, the time and place are less important. One could film it today, in present-day clothes, and it would make little difference to the characters or plot. The setting is important, in the sense that it is an isolated country house, and there is a snow stom, but characters and plot take precedence over time and specific place.
So this is not really a review of Mrs Dalloway, but the Good Reads review prompt asks "What did you think?" and that's what I thought.
My younger son is a great fan of Terry Pratchett, so I bought this book as a birthday present for him, and when he finished he passed it back to me to...moreMy younger son is a great fan of Terry Pratchett, so I bought this book as a birthday present for him, and when he finished he passed it back to me to read. Terry Pratchett is not my cup of tea, and the only one of his Discworld books I've tried to read I never managedf to finish. But I have enjoyed books by Neil Gaiman, and I quite enjoyed this one.
It's about an angel and a demon, Aziraphale and Crowley, who are charged by their respective principals with some of the preparations for the battle of Armageddon, but make some serious errors, which they then together attempt to cover up.
The Antichrist, who was meant to be brought up by an American diplomat, and presumably to grow up in a position to be able to influence the statesment of the world, is instead entrusted to an accountant and his wife in a small English country town. Aziraphale and Crowley are desperate to get him to fulfil his destiny, but his middle-class upbringing and healthy country living seem to thwart them at every turn. In fact his life as a schoolboy with his friends seem to resemble that of Richmal Crompton's William Brown. In fact one possible alternative title for the book was William the Antichrist.
Rosenblad's book is very similar, but it is set in a period 30 years later. He too was a partner of A.W. Eriksson, and covered much the same ground as Een did.
The main difference is that in Een's time the country was divided into a number of small states that were sometimes at war with each other. In Rosenblad's time, it was the German colony of South West Africa. It is interesting, therefore, to read descriptions of the same country by two writers a generation apart.
Quite a lot of the difference in the writing reflects the New Imperialism that swept the world in the 1880s, and led to the Scramble for Africa by the European powers. Germany was a bit late in the Scramble, and got a largely desert country. One of the effects of the New Imperialism was that it gave Europeans in Africa an enormous sense of their own superiority to the native Africans, and of the importance of showing the natives that the white man was the Boss. Even though Sweden was not an imperial power, Rosenblad's writing reflects this sense of European superiority.
Een was aware of cultural differences, and often compared local cultures unfavourably with his own Swedish culture, but he described them in some detail, and assumed that his readers would be interested in these descriptions. Rosenblad tends to dismiss them as not worth describing, except when he is making a point about the superiority of his own culture. He quite often describes the way of disciplining his own employees, with a sjambok, and giving them a beating. He does not entirely lack compassion, however, and expresses pity for a tribe that resisted German rule and were taken as prisoners of war, but it is pity from a position of superiority, as one might pity an ill-treated animal.
Both Een and Rosenblad admired A.W. Eriksson, and recognised him as a remarkably kind and generous man. But when Een was there, Eriksson was a young man, who had started as an assistant to the Anglo-Swedish trader and explorer C.J. Andersson. Thirty years later he was older and more experienced, and clearly had a good reputation with just about everyone.
Rosenblad's book is less satisfactory than Een's in other ways too. Not only does he give less details about the different cultures, but also about the individuals he met. Een gives character sketches of people, and describes something of their lives. Rosenblad often does not even mention their names.
At one point he describes how two German soldiers at Heigamkab discoverered a portmanteau with clothes, books and letters in the Namib desert. The papers revealed that the owner was a Damara (Herero), who had gone to the Cape Colony and studied at a mission institution. He had apparently returned by sea, and decided to walk across the desert rather than waiting for wheeled transport, and then got lost. This supposition was verified when Rosenblad's party reached the Cape, and he writes,
He had probably lost his way in the darkness and fog. He must have drifted around for some days, suffering all the agonies of hunger and thirst, and then must have lain down to rest expecting the end. So much time had already elapsed when the soldiers found the portmanteau, that it was no use starting a search. Perhaps one day his skeleton will emerge from the treacherous drift-sand and grin at the passerby, but then the memory of this event will already have faded long ago.
But it might not have faded quite so much if Rosenblad (or his editor) had bothered to record his name.
The translators of the book, Jalmar and Ione Rudner, have gone to some trouble to give more information about people who are named in the text, but there is obviously nothing they can do if the names are not mentioned.
One of the reasons we read the book was because of our interest in family history, but apart from A.W. Eriksson himself (a relative by marriage), the lack of names makes the book of little use in that respect. It consists, for the most part, of hunters' and travellers' tales, such as are told by hunters around campfires in the evenings. That was their entertainment before satellite TV appeared, but for us the lack of historical detail made them less interesting.