This ia a book about life seen through the eyes of the 54-year-old concierge (caretaker) of a block of flats in Paris, inhabited by rich people.
RenéeThis ia a book about life seen through the eyes of the 54-year-old concierge (caretaker) of a block of flats in Paris, inhabited by rich people.
Renée grew up in a rural area, in a peasant family. She left school at 12, and her husband Lucien died some years previously, so she lives in her lodge with her television and her cat Leo (named after her favourite author, Tolstoy), and she fills her spare time reading. As a result she is probably more well-read and better informed than most of the residents of the flats, who, however, barely notice her.
One of the residents, however, has something in common with Renée. This is 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who feels oppressed by her parents and elder sister, and has a similar love of reading, and so is better informed in some ways than the rest of her family. She hates the idea of growing up to be like them, and so plans to commit suicide on ther 13th birthday. In the mean time, she records her profound thoughts, and movements in the physical world that she observes.
In some ways, the book reminded me of Sophie's world by Jostein Gaarder, which I read a few years ago, at least in the sense that the viewpoint characters, Renée and Paloma, express their philosophy of life.
I really enjoyed this book a lot, and I think it has a great deal to say about life and human relationships in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor his as great, if not greater, than in France, and is probably still growing.
This is a spy novel, but not the usual spy novel. There was a glut of spy novels during the Cold War, from about 1960-1990, so that one almost came toThis is a spy novel, but not the usual spy novel. There was a glut of spy novels during the Cold War, from about 1960-1990, so that one almost came to think of the genre as belonging specifically to that period. But this one is set 20 years earlier, in 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, so it also belongs to the genre of historical novels.
It has been also described in the blurb as a thriller and a love story, and I suppose that it is those too, though I didn't find it a page turner. I took quite a long time reading it, one or two chapters at a time, because each chapter gave me something to think about.
Harry Brett is a British soldier who was invalided out of the army after the retreat from Dunkirk, but he still wants to do his bit for the war effort, and is recruited by the intelligence services as a spy. He is a rather reluctant spy, however, especially when he discovers that he was recruited mainly to spy on a former schoolfellow, Sandy Forsyth, who is now a businessman in Spain.
He goes to the British embassy in Spain, ostensibly as a translator, but actually to find out what his old schoolmaate is up to. Harry had been in Spain before, where another school friend, Bernie Piper, was missing, believed killed, serving in the International Brigade on the Republican side in the civil war. Just before he went missing, Bernie Piper had had a love affair with a British Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, who had asked Harry's help to look for him. But when Harry returns, Barbara was living with Sandy Forsyth, astensibly as his wife, though they were not legally married.
As a historical novel it is very well researched, and I think it does give an authentic flavour of post-war (civil war, that is) Spain, and the early years of the Franco regime. The British are anxious to keep Spain neutral, and are concerned that Sandy Forsyth's business deals, rumolured to involve a gold mine, might make Spain's economic survival less dependent on British goodwill. But the German and Italian ambassadors are obviously more favoured by Franco's government, especially since they had helped the Nationalists to win the civil war.
I've read lots of British and Swedish whodunits. I've read several whodunits set in the USA and Norway, and a few set in DenA South African whodunit.
I've read lots of British and Swedish whodunits. I've read several whodunits set in the USA and Norway, and a few set in Denmark, Greece and Turkey. But it doesn't seem to be a popular genre with South African writers. So I enjoyed this one, and not just because it was set in South Africa, but because it was a pretty good specimen of the genre.
The protagonist, Detective Sergeant (or is it Constable? she seems to get promoted without explanation in the first couple of chapters) Persy Jonas, seems like a fairly ordinary person -- not a poet, not an aristocrat, not alcoholic or going through a traumatic divorce, not a rogue cop perpetually on the verge of being fired for drunkenness, but brought back in the nick of time because no one else is such a brilliant detective. Persy (short for Persephone) Jonas is an ordinary person and an ordinary cop. It makes it more real, somehow.
Of course she has her problems; which cop, real or fictional, doesn't? She has problems at home -- domestic violence3 in the family. She has problems coming to terms with things in her past. It's just kind of refreshing that those problems don't include booze and/or divorce, or perpetual disciplinary problems with superiors related to insubordination.
And of course there are problems at work. There are problems of racism, sexism and corruption, rivalries and personality clashes. But they don't take over the story.
In addition, in many whodunits one gets the impression that murder is the only crim,e the police ever investigate, so the stories seem somehow unreal. In this book there is a murder investigation, but it is sandwiched in between burglary, theft, and looking for a lost dog, which the police ar also investigating. That makes it feel more convincing as a police procedural, somehow.
There are a few editorial slip-ups -- Persie's rank being one of them -- but they don't detract from the story, so I'll still give it five stars. I think Persie Jonas could become one of my favourite fictional detectives.
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
Several books and articles have been written about the literary group known as the Inklings, but this is one of the best and most informative.
The InkSeveral books and articles have been written about the literary group known as the Inklings, but this is one of the best and most informative.
The Inklings were a group of friends who met in Oxford to read to each other, and criticise each other's work. There were 19 members of the group, though they were not all present at every gathering, and joined and left at various times. At the core of the group was C.S. Lewis, and most of the other members were his friends. Among the most active members were C.S. Lewis's brother Warren Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. The book has an appendix listing all 19, with a potted biography of each.
Glyer shows how the members of the group influenced one another, and challenges the view of many scholars that there was no such influence. She notes that an entire generation of scholars was discouraged from studying or asserting mutual influence among the Inklings when C.S. Lewis warned a correspondent who asked about influence among the Inklings that he should not "waste time" on a "barren field". Glyer argues that there was a tendency to confuse influence with imitation. "In claiming that Tolkien was not influenced by Lewis, for example, scholars typically mean that his sub-created world does not resemble Malacandra and his creative aesthetic is different from that which envisioned Narnia."
The Inklings were not a literary school with a common point of view, and they sometimes disagreed vehemently over the merits of each other's works. Tolkien disliked Lewis's Narnia stories, Hugo Dyson poured scorn on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, they did influence one another, not merely in the comments on the work that was read, but in joint literary endeavours, in dedicating their work to each other, reviewing each other's work, and occasionally recommending it to publishers.
The negative attitude towards influence is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is a result of post-Enlightenment individualism, where there is an excessive concern for originality and "genius". Barfield explained that the concept of independent creativity emerged well after the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance "genius" is a spirit-being other than the poet himself, and they would say "he has a genius". After the Renaissance the inspiration is seen as part of the poet himself and we say "he is a genius".
Lewis and Tolkien agreed that if they wanted to see the kind of stories they liked, they would have to write them themselves, and this influenced Lewis to write his space trilogy, though Tolkien never completed his contribution, which was to be based on time. To children who wrote to ask Lewis to write more Narnian stories, he replied that he had no more to say, but there was plenty of room for them to contribute their own.
Glyer concludes "I am persuaded that writers do not create text out of thin air in a fit of personal inspiration. I believe that the most common and natural expressions of creativity occur as part of an ongoing dialogue between writers, readers, texts, and contexts. This truth is exemplified by the weekly meetings of the Inklings. It is manifest in their relationships with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And it is expressed in many of their own statements about the creative process. As Williams reminds us, an emphasis on isolated individuals must give way to an interactive view of life, culture and creativity."
I think Glyer makes a very good case for this, and I recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed reading anything written by the Inklings. It gives new insights into their lives and their works.
Several years ago I had the opportunity of completing a History Honours degree that I had had to leave unfinished because of lack of funds. I had to cSeveral years ago I had the opportunity of completing a History Honours degree that I had had to leave unfinished because of lack of funds. I had to choose three papers out of several on offer, and one of them was Medieval History. I asked the professor what it covered. "Diplomatic and political history of England, France and Germany," he told me. I lost interest, and enrolled for courses on other places and periods.
The syllabus illustrates the prejudice among Western historians, from the Renaissance to the present, that Judith Herrin's book attempts to counter. Perhaps it was just as well that I was put off from taking the course on Medieval history, because this book was not available back then, and so even if the course had covered the so-called Byzantine Empire, I would have lacked an important resource for understanding it.
The term "Byzantine Empire" is itself an invention of Western historians, and a reflection of their prejudices. None of its citizens regarded themselves as Byzantine, or would even have known what it meant. In their own view they were Romans and the empire was the Roman Empire, founded in 753 BC. But even if we do regard it as Byzantine, it lasted for 1123 years, from 330 to 1453, which is longer than any other polity in Europe.
Herrin's book is about the life of the Empire. She touches on diplomatic and political history, but includes far more. Economics and trade, religion and spiritual life, education, art and everything else. The way she tells the story is fascinating, and she gives a rounded picture.
The book is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to study Byzantine history in more detail. But even if one reads nothing else on the subject, it plugs a significant gap in many people's knowledge of world history.
As an Orthodox Christian I found it especially interesting, because it helps to place much church history into context, and especially the divide between the Christian East and West, which was fixed by the Western occupation of Constantinople in 1204. Herrin maintains that it was in an attempt to justify this that the West denigrated the Byzantine empire, and Western historians did so down to the present. Twenty years ago, just before the outbreak of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, the Western press was full of op-ed articles trying to re-awaken the old prejudices. We have learnt since that a lot of this was the work of public relations firms hired by Croatian and Slovenian secessionists. Herrin notes the essence of it, quoting an Irish historian, William Lecky
Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other eduring civilization to absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet 'mean' may be so emphatically applied... The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.
That there were intrigues and conspiracies there can be no doubt, and Herrin describes many of them, but such things were not lacking in the West either, nor, indeed, in other parts of the world. The book is also helpful in understanding Christian-Muslim relations over a period of many centuries. ...more
I saw this book going cheap in a bookshop that sold remainders -- unsold copies of books returned to the publishers. I knew Jacques Barzun as one of tI saw this book going cheap in a bookshop that sold remainders -- unsold copies of books returned to the publishers. I knew Jacques Barzun as one of the authoers of The Modern Researcher, which I had helpful in writing my doctoral thesis. So I bought it, and I'm glad I did.
It's a kind of history and tourist's guide to modernity. It's taken me a long time to read it, because it's a long book. I read other stuff in the mean time, and when I was halfway through I forgot about it for a while. I was moved to pick it up again after an internet discussion on science, magic and miracles, and now at last I've finished it.
It covers a tremensous range of Western culture, and in this age of globalisation you could say it's global culture as well. A generation ago, back in the 1970s, the BBC did two TV series that produced books on similar topics -- Kenneth Clark on Civilisation and J. Bronowski on The ascent of man dealing with arts and science respectively. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt at seeing "civilisation" spelt thus. It needed to be spelt "civilization", and "civilisation" just looked wrong, and somehow uncivilized, though I've got used to it now.
Barzun's book deals with the last 500 years of both, and deals with culture, religion, politics and science, and how they have influenced the modern worldview. In doing so, he also draws attention to things one tends to forget or overlook. In thinking of modernity, I tend to think of the Reneaissance, the Reformation and the Englightenment as the shaping forces. Perhaps that's because, as a missiologist, I see those as the things that formed the worldview of Western missionaries who came to Africa, and that can lead to an over-simplification. I tend to overlook Romanticism, as a reaction against the Enlightenment. I don't forget it altogether, of course. I enjoy Beethoven's music, and J.M.W. Turner's paintings. But most of the 19th-century Western missionaries who came to Africa were anything but romantic in their outlook. Or if they were, they managed to hide it pretty well.
It's a long book, and that's why it took me a long time to read it, but it's also divided into short sections that make it easy to refer to a little at a time. So having read it through, I think I'll keep it at my bedside to refer to again and again.
Here are a few of my favourite bits, and there are many in a book this long:
The 18C, that is, Diderot on Painting, Lessing on the Laokoon, and finally Winckelmann on Greece, made detailed art criticism an institution. Its role is part scholarship, part advocacy. Winckelmann's lifelong work was to glorify Greek art and discredit the Roman and this to revivify Plato's belief that Beauty is divine and to be loved and worshipped. It may be a symbolic coincidence that Winckelmann was the victim of a homosexual murderer.
Every age has a different ancient Greece. Winckelmann's is the one that moved the 19C. By way of Goethe, Byron, Keats and lord Elgin, it inspired the universal urge to put a picture of the Parthenon in every schoolroom. It also aroused the Occident to support the Greeks' war of independence against the Turks.
And, of course, that helped to shape modern Greece as well. It was the Occidental supporters of Greek independence (like Byron), with their Romantic notions of the glories of ancient Greeks, that led modern Greeks to think of themselves as Hellenes rather than Romans, and to produce such abominable slogans as "Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism", and led to the inclusion of Byron in a Greek books of "Saints' names". ...more
I read this book 34 years ago, but with the death of Andre Brink it's perhaps time to write a review of it. I will, however, have to write it from memI read this book 34 years ago, but with the death of Andre Brink it's perhaps time to write a review of it. I will, however, have to write it from memory, because I lent my copy of the book to someone soon after I'd read it and never got it back.
The great merit of this book is that it tells it like it was.
It is an absolutely true-to-life story set in South Africa of the late 1970s. It is told from the point of view of an Afrikaner school teacher who gradually discovers what lies just under the surface, of society, which at first he can't believe. He thinks there must be some mistake, this sort of thing can't happen. But as he gets drawn in he discovers that such things not only can happen, but they do. And eventually they not only hasppen to other people, they happen to him.
In a way it is a South African version of Franz Kafka's The trial, though without the surreal element. Brink writes soberly, without exaggeration, without hype, but it is absolutely authentic. This is how it was.
A film was made of it, but because it was filmed in the time of apartheid, it is as inauthentic as the book is authentic, because it was filmed in Zimbabwe.
I think that is one film that really does deserve a remake, in a South African setting, with South African actors. Some remakes I've seen, like The taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or The flight of the Phoenix were unnecessary, and no better and in some ways worse than the originals. But this one cries out for a remake.
One of the problems with the film of A dry white season is that it was set in an English-style private prep school, where the kids wore English school caps, and the setting was horribly unlike an Afrikaans high school, and so missed the point. When I read the book I pictured the kids in the brown and gold blazers of Helpmekaar Hoerskool. I'm not sure what Andre Brink pictured when he was writing it, but Helpmekaar would have been an authentic seeting.
It will perhaps be more difficult to find an authentic black township nowadays, as many of the locations are very different from what they were like in the 1970s, so it needs someone to do it soon.
I think this is one of Henning Mankell's best crime novels. Four nuns and a fifth woman are murdered in an unnamed African country, and there is an atI think this is one of Henning Mankell's best crime novels. Four nuns and a fifth woman are murdered in an unnamed African country, and there is an attempt at a cover-up, which is torn open by a police officer with a conscience.
The killing sparks off a chain of murders in Sweden, which are investigated by Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team, and as their investigation proceeds they find that they are also investigating crimes that have apparently been committed by some of the victims.
To say much more than this would probably reveal too much of the plot.