The first thjing I noticed about this book was the sticker placed on the cover, presumabl;y by the booksellers, saying "If you like Jo Nesbo you'll loThe first thjing I noticed about this book was the sticker placed on the cover, presumabl;y by the booksellers, saying "If you like Jo Nesbo you'll love this." And the books by Jo Nesbo have stickers saying "The next Stieg L:arsson". I'm not sure what these cvomparisons are supposed to achieve, except that Jo Nesbo's writing has recently come to look like a rather ineffectual attempt to imitate Stieg Larsson. But Lackberg has so far not tried to imitate either. Other than being crime fiction, and thus in the same broad genre, Lackberg is Lackberg, and there is little resemblance to Nesbo.
But the claim made me think of the differences between male and female crime writers, and this one is obviously written from a feminine perspective. For the first hundred pages or so I thought the protagonist was post-natal depression. And it got me thinking about differences between male and female crime writers.
One of the most notable ones is that the detective heroes of the male writers tend to be heavy drinkers, if not actual alcoholics, and are divorced or about to be. Alan Banks, Kurt Wasllander, Harry Hole and several other fictional detectives invented by male writers seem to fall into this category. Even Morse, though though unmarried, was unlucky in love, and tended to booze a lot. But the fictional detectives of female crime writers, though they may have faults, seem to be able to stay off the booze and avoid divorce -- Rex Wexford, Lindley, Adam Dalgleish and, in this book, Patrik Hedstrom.
In this book the murder of a child baffles the police, and when it is followed by apparently similar non-fatal attacks on young children the police find that find most of their suspects appear to have alibis for one or more of the attacks. In addition, many of the families involved in the investigation have secrets that they want to keep hidden. There is a kind of parallel story set in the past, which show that the roots of the crimes lie in an earlier generation, and in the upbringing of chiuldren in the past. Some of the police officers involved in the investigation have difficulties in bringing up their own children.
So the book turns out to be more than a simple whodunit, but is also an exploration of the ways in which dysfunctional families can produce criminals.If you love this book, you might not necessarily like Jo Nesbo. ...more
Go is generally regarded as the first novel of the Beat Generation, written between 1949 and 1951, and first published in 1952, nearly sixty years agoGo is generally regarded as the first novel of the Beat Generation, written between 1949 and 1951, and first published in 1952, nearly sixty years ago. I first read it when I was 20, fifty years ago, and rereading it after all that time is a rather strange experience.
It is set in the late 1940s, and that was another generation, a generation that I don't connect with. They are the people who came home from the war, whom I used to meet in bars around Durban, those boozy old men. In 1972 I used to go for lunch at the Grosvenor Hotel in Soldiers Way across the road from Durban station and sip my solitary beer and eat my 15c curry for lunch, and hear them talking about Smiler Small, who used to frequent the bar in Malvern, and I used to look at all the World War II memorabilia decorating the bar. It never occurred to me that those people, who frequented bars like that, were the Beat Generation, and yet they were. Jack Kerouac was the same age as my father-in-law, who occasionally used to go drinking at the Malvern Hotel.
Yet it was only ten years later, in 1960-61 that I was reading their books, envying their life, and wondering if had really happened the way John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac described it. But they are the generation I associate with alien things like Frank Sinatra, and males in suits and hats, and women wearing lipstick and nylon stockings, and people trying to get back on their feet after the war. So reading Go is very strange. It was only 20 years before 1970, yet 1970 is now forty years ago. And the Durban station is no longer there, and Soldiers Way is probably called something else, and if the Grosvenor Hotel is still there it too is probably called something else now.
But then I remember that I too was like that, even when longing to be like that and thinking it must be different somehow, and somehow more exciting. But it only sounded more exciting than the lives we lived in the 1960s. We too experienced that restless rushing around in the, rushing to Meadowlands to see Cyprian Moloi, or to Springs to see Noel Lebenya, travelling many miles to see if a friend was home, and finding that they were out, travelling many more liles to see another. Not as many boozy parties, and no one was writing a book, but perhaps our conversations were even more intelligent, even when we smoked pot, which was rare. And that was only fifteen years after it all happened in Holmes's book. Fifty years ago somehow seems quite close to the present, yet ten years earlier, when Holmes wrote, seems another world, another eon, another universe. In the sixties Holmes's world of New York seemed like some magic golden age, and looking back from now to the sixties, that seems like the real golden age. The times Holmes wrote about, I realise now, were different, not just because it was another generation, but another world and worldview.
And rereading it fifty years later, I see that Holmes actually tried to create the new vision that made us look back on his world with rose-tinted spectacles. What he longed for became part of our vision.
The essence of the book is summed up in the dream of one of the characters, Stofsky (a thinly-diguised version of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg). Stofsky dreams that he meets God, in a rather shabby dusty room, sitting on a very shabby throne, and God tells him to "Go, and love without the help of any Thing on earth."
For us in the sixties, that was the starting point. It was a kind of presupposition. It was the presupposition with which I read Go the first time. And so it all seemed rather wonderful, transported out of its time and place into some kind of beautiful timeless realm. I could not imagine them as part of the same world as the suits and hats and nylon stockings.
But rereading it fifty years later, I see it in a very different perspective. Another of the characters in Go, Paul Hobbes (who represents Holmes himself) doesn't have dreams and visions like Stofsky, but gradually comes to realise that their values and their life of endless boozy partying are rather shallow. He thinks of his friends, including one who had died, and wonders if anyone had actually loved them. And it is in this seeting of lovelessness, hopelessness, selfishness and despair that God appears to Stofky in a dream and says "Go, and love without the help of any Thing on earth."
Eleven years ago I was in Albania, and after being taken on a tour of the capital, Tirana, by a university student, Theofania, we sat down at a pavemeEleven years ago I was in Albania, and after being taken on a tour of the capital, Tirana, by a university student, Theofania, we sat down at a pavement cafe to rest and have something to drink. Theofania said that a man at the next table was Ismail Kadare, one of Albania's most famous writers. One of my recurring daydreams has been how nice it would be to sit at cafe tables having literary discussions, especially with famous authors. Tirana is a small enough town that one can see people doing that, even if one does not have the temerity to join in. In the course of our tour we also passed Albania's most famous film star, riding a bicycle.
I'd never heard of Ismail Kadare before, but having set eyes on him, if not actually having spoken to him, I was curious about his books, and when I found one in a bookshop, The file on H, I read it and enjoyed it. Not many bookshops stock his books, so when I saw Chronicle in stone, I bought it, and enjoyed it even more than The file on H.
It is set in the town of Gjirokaster in southern Albania, which is the town where Kadare grew up, so it is probably semi-autobiographical, and I have no doubt that Kadare must have witnessed scenes similar to those he describes in the book. It is set during the Second World War, when Gjirokaster was successively occupied by Italians, Greeks and Germans, with several changes as the tide of war ebbed and flowed.
It is seen through the eyes of a child, possibly a somewhat older child than Kadare would have been at the time. Though the age of the narrator is never stated, it seems to be about 6-10, whereas Kadare would have been about 2-3 years younger than that at the time. It is a child's-eye view, yet an adult recollection of a child's-eye view, with adult powers of description. But it looks at the the adult world through a child's eyes, remembering people for particular characteristics or foibles that would impress a child. Apart from the other children, most of the adults belong to the grandparents' generation, and so much of the information about the world comes to the narrator through his grandparents and their friends and relatives, aunts and great aunts who pop in to visit and gossip. There is the grandfather who lies on his divan each day, reading books in Turkish. There is the old woman who comments on each piece of news that it is the end of the world.
The nearest comparison I can think of is the "William" books by Richmal Crompton, which is also a fictional representation of a child's experience of war, but the viewpoint is different and the culture is different. Crompton's books reflect adult amusement at children's interpretations of the adult world, and so they are more detached from the characters. Kadare gets more into the skin of the child, and articulates it from the child's point of view. Another difference is that though Richman Crompton's books reflect fear of invasion, the invasion never took place, and the country was not occupied. The war was closer in Albania, the bombing more devastating, and, towards the end, with three different resistance movements, it also became a civil war. There is humour, but there is also tragedy and sadness.
I enjoyed the book partly because it it portrays Albanian culture, and having been to the country, it helped me to understand more of the people and the way they lived and thought.
There is also a sense in which the city itself is the main character in the novel. Occupying armies come and go, the inhabitants flee as refugees and return, but the city remains almost as a sentient being. Even in translation, Kadare's descriptions are lyrical.
I'd never have read his books if we had not, by chance, being sitting at a table next to him at a cafe. I'd probably still not have heard of him but for that chance. But, having discovered his books, I'll be reading more in future. ...more
On reading this for the first time, it seemed to have been inspired by the popularity of Watership Down by Richard Adams. What Adams did for rabbits,On reading this for the first time, it seemed to have been inspired by the popularity of Watership Down by Richard Adams. What Adams did for rabbits, Horwood does for moles.
The system of mole tunnels under Duncton Wood is large, and moles in one part hardly know those from other parts of the system. There also some parts of the system that are almost forgotten, and there are also some customs that have been forgotten as well, so that the moles are using their centre, the silence of the Stone at the centre of the system. This enables a cruel tyrant, Mandrake, to take over the system.
Two young mioles, Bracken and Rebecca, the latter Mandrake's daughter, meet, and eventually embark on a liberation struggle.
The moles are given a philosophy and a mythology that is very human, and yet it somehow does not seem to diminish their moleness. ...more
At first I thought this was going to be one of the better books by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, when a doctoral student writing a thesis on uAt first I thought this was going to be one of the better books by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, when a doctoral student writing a thesis on unmarried mothers in Victorial literature is given an unpublished novel on the same topic, but set in the 1920s and 1930s to read. At the beginning it showed promise of being something like Possession by A.S. Byatt, or, if not quite at that level, like a Robert Goddard novel, with a mystery in the past coming back to haunt people in the present. I kept reading, hoping for some sort of dénouement, which never came.
The past action is all in the unpublished novel, which, dealing with unmarried mothers and homosexuality, could not be published when it was written, as those were taboo topics in those days. The thesis about how the theme of unmarried mothers was dealt with in Victorial literature piqued my interest, as I had just read Oliver Twist, where that is one of the central themes.
But The child's child is rather disappointing, as it comes in the form of a novella wrapped in a novelette, with very little connection between them. The novella is supposed to be based on the life of a great uncle of one of the characters in the wrapping story, but the connection is not made clear or explained, though one is led to expect that at some point it will be.
Barbara Vine has written better books in this genre in the past -- one of them is Asta's book, which I must perhaps re-read to see why I remember it as so much better than this one.
There are some books that one reads and re-reads, others that one reads once and discards, and yet others that one re-reads once and reads again afterThere are some books that one reads and re-reads, others that one reads once and discards, and yet others that one re-reads once and reads again after many years. This book is one of the last category.
Sometimes books re-read after a long period are slightly disappointing, not quite as good as one remembered them. Others are better than one remembered them. For me, Jane Austen's novels fall into the "better on re-reading" category; I think that the first time I read her books I was too young to appreciate them.
And then there are those books, like this one, that are much the same.
Because of the differences between the South African academic year and the English one, I had a few months to fill in before going to the University of Durham, and I spent them driving buses in London, and so learnt something about the South of England.
And though Durham University drew students from all over, there were several from the North, from whom I learnt that wogs came from South of the Trent.
So Wise's book about a football riot between northern and southern teams escalating into a civil war seemed like a credible scenario. It was about an England that I knew 45 years ago. And one thing that struck me on re-reading it is that little has changed. The book was first published in 1968, and is set a few years into the future, but in the book there is little that mkight not be equally applicable to the England of 2015, even though much has happened in between.
It could easily have happened in the "winter of discontent" in the mid-1970s, or during the Thatcher years of the 1980s that saw the deindustrialisation of the North.
It could have happened, but it didn't, so perhaps one can relegate it to the "unfulfilled prophecy" department.
But then again, in a sense it has happened. Not in England, perhaps, but in several other countries. One of them is Yugoslavia, which in some ways, in the 1980s, was like England upside down -- with rich Slovenia in the north, and poor Kosovo in the south, and both straining to break away, and all the bitterness and hatred that Wise describes raged through the Balkans in the 1990s, though in real life the Americans were not as benevolent as he portrayed them in his book. But Wise died in 1982, and didn't live to see that fulfilment.
Wise describes the destruction of Nottingham, and I remember when I first read it I thought he was getting carried away with hyperbole. I thought such cruelty and savagery could not happen in real life. But since then we have seen the destruction of Homs and Fallujah. Such things are not only possible, they have actually happened.
So though Wise's extrapolation of trends of his day into the near future didn't take place in precisely the way he predicted, they have happened, and will go on happening, and so his book remains fresh and readable. ...more
This is the third book I have read by Jo Nesbø, where the protagonist is Oslo detective Harry Hole. The book opens with Harry on indefinite leave, hidThis is the third book I have read by Jo Nesbø, where the protagonist is Oslo detective Harry Hole. The book opens with Harry on indefinite leave, hiding out in the opium dens of Hong Kong, and being brought back to solve a serial murder case -- two women have been found dead, drowned in their own blood.
I haven't read the book immediately preceding this one in the series, The snowman, which apparently explains why Harry was in Hong Kong, and perhaps one needs to read that to understand what happens in this novel, but I found it rather disappointing. The first book I read about Harry Hole, The redeemer I thought pretty good, the best of the flood of Scandinavian whodunits I'd read to date. So what was wrong with this one?
I suspect that Jo Nesbø has been influenced by the success of Stieg Larsson, and has been trying to imitate Larsson's style, and it doesn't quite come off. In most whodunits, the reader is exposed to clues as the detectives are, and has to work out the most likely suspects based on the same information, and that is part of the fun of reading whodunits. In this book, however, the reader has more knowledge than the detectives, and thus can work out the primary suspect long before they do. I won't go into the possible reasons for this, as that would probably be a spoiler.
In addition, Nesbø comes perilously close to jumping the shark by giving Harry Hole not one, but three near-death experiences. The book ends as it begins, with Harry Hole retiring to obscurity. I don't think that's a spoiler, but I do think that this time it's probably best if he stays there. ...more
This book is tale of three cities -- Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. But it is a great deal more than that, as it is also the history of the region ofThis book is tale of three cities -- Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. But it is a great deal more than that, as it is also the history of the region of the world in which the three cities are located, the region known to the French as the Levant, which is equivalent of the Latin "Orient", and means the land of the rising sun. More specifically, it refers to the lands bordering the Eastern Mediterranean which, from the 16th century to the 20th, were part of the Ottoman Empire.
The three cities that feature in the story (to which can be added a fourth, Salonica), were trading ports in this period, and were subject to a great deal of foreign influence, and in some periods the consuls of the trading nations, mainly West European, had more influence than the Ottoman government, or even its local representatives.
One result of this was that these cities became cosmopolitan, with a great variety of races, religions, languages and cultures represented in them.
Western Europeans were known as Franks, and the ones who were most active at the beginning of the period were Venetians and Genoans, and a kind of piggin Italian, known as Lingua Franca (the language of the Franks) became the de facto language of business in the Levant. In later times French and British influence overshadowed the Italian, but the concept of a Lingua Franca as a language of trade remained.
Much of the trade was in the hands of dynasties of foreign merchants, families who lived in the Levant for generations, yet never became assimilated into the local culture. In the 19th century, however, there were forces of change and modernisation. In Egypt Muhammed Ali, the Albanian-born Ottoman governor, aided by the foreign consuls in Alexandria, made Egypt virtually independent. The foreign communities had their own schools, and even universities, using their own languages rather than Arabic or Turkish.
In the 19th century there was also growing nationalism, both in the local regions becoming aware of themselves as distinct nationalitities as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, and also the powers behind the foreign communities, such as Britain and France, and later Greece.
Mansel presents the history of the Levant as a struggle between cosmopolitanism (good) and nationalism (bad). Nationalism could not tolerate cosmopolitan cities, except where nationalists perceived trade as advantageous to their cause, and in the 20th century the cosmopolitan cities were nationalised, and made homogeneous, some more violently than others. Cosmopolitan Salonica became Greek Thessaloniki. Cosmopolitan Smyrna became Turkish Izmir. Alexandria expelled the foreign communities in the 1960s (even those whose members were Egyptian-born), and Beirut was torn apart by civil war in the 1970s.
I was aware of some of these events, from reading about them in other histories, or, in the case of more recent ones, in newspapers, but Mansel manages to weave the different threads into a tapestry to create a coherent picture.
Mansel's sympathies lie strongly with the cosmopolitan side, and at times I think he paints too rosy a picture of it. For one thing, the "cosmopolitan" side of these cities was the preserve of a wealthy elite, and did not affect most of the local people at all, or at least not in any advantageous way. And though I am sure that Mansel is correct in his assessment of the harm done by nationalism (much of the present tension in the region is the result of competing Arab and Jewish nationalism), the cosmopolitan paradise is, I suspect, overrated. In Lebanon before the civil war of 1975, for example, Mansel points out that deals were more important than ideals, and seems to regard this as a desirable state of affairs. But I wonder who prospered, and though those who prospered as a result of the war were an even smaller minority, I suspect that it was the very obsession with money that increased the dissatisfaction that led to the civil war in the first place.
In spite of this, however, the book is useful in helping to untangle some of the threads of mechantilism, captialism, nationalism and imperialism that affected and continue to affect the region once known as the Levant. ...more
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 thoughtIt 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.
A bookseller takes his ten-year-old son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where he is allowed to choose one book. The book he cA bookseller takes his ten-year-old son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where he is allowed to choose one book. The book he chooses is The shadow of the wind by an almost unknown novelist, Julian Carax.
The boy reads the book and enjoys it, and tries to find other books by the same author, but they are impossible to find, and he soon discovers that others are interested in his book, and he is made several lucrative offers, one from a person named after one of the characters in the book. He refuses them all.
As he grows up, he becomes more interested in solving the mystery of the book, and what happened to its author, and it soon becomes apparent that such a quest is dangerous, and that there are powerful people and forces intent on stopping him.
To say more would be a spoiler, and it is otherwise difficult to describe this book: a literary detective story, a tale of star-crossed lovers, a fantasy novel, an adventure-thriller. It's a cross between Romeo and Juliet, The Eyre affair and the film Pan's labyrinth, and more besides. At times, with the description of encounters with the police of the Franco era in Spain, it felt familiar, like the old apartheid South Africa, with echoes of A dry white season.
I'd only read one Mitford book before I began reading this joint biography of the Mitford sisters, and that was The American way of death by Jessica MI'd only read one Mitford book before I began reading this joint biography of the Mitford sisters, and that was The American way of death by Jessica Mitford. But I often like literary biographies better than the works of the authors themselves. Perhaps that is because the lives of the authoers are sometimes more interesting than the subjects they write about, though it seems that the Mitford sisters took a lot of their material from their own lives, writing semi-fictionalised biography.
Though I have not read any of her fiction, the eldest sister, Nancy, also edited Noblesse oblige, with essays about class markers in English speech some 50 years ago, which popularised the linguistic theory of U and Non-U speech, some of which found its way into a new edition of Fowler's Modern English usage, where one learns, for example, that the English upper classes say "napkin" and it's terribly non-U (i.e. middle class) to say "serviette" -- or at least it was 50 years ago.
So before reading this book I knew the Mitfords mainly through their writing about social customs: speech customs and funeral customs, specifically.
The book also brings out the wide political divergence in the family. Two of the sisters, Diana and Unity, had far-right views, being admirers, and in Unity's case personal friends, of Adolf Hitler. Diana left her husband and married Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader. Jessica, on the other hand, was for a time a Communist activist, and eloped with her boyfriend to Spain during the civil war. As a result she and Diana did not speak to each other for years.
One of the things that struck me most about it was the changes in values in different generations, and especially the huge change following the First World War. The Mitford parents belonged to the Victorian-Edwardian age, and brought up their daughters with a view to marrying into an upper-class family, where they would stay at home and manage a household with lots of servants. They regarded school as unnecessary for girls, and university was unthinkable. For some of them, therefore, the only creative thing to do was to rebel against their upbringing. And perhaps it was this very thing that made them creative in a literary sense. If they had had a more permissive upbringing, and been allowed to go to school and university, they might not have rebelled, and might therefore have been less interesting people.
Of all the sisters, I found myself most in sympathy with Jessica, who did not have a society wedding. Her elopement caused great distress to her parents, and she never saw her father again. It seemed to cause even more distress than the society divorces and extramarital affairs of some of her sisters. Yet in marrying for love rather than money and social position, she seems to have had more inner stability than some of her siblings.
Another interesting thing for me was that it brought out the extent to which the countries fighting Fascism in the Second World War were infected by fascist tendencies themselves. Diana and her husband, Oswald Mosley were interned without trial during the war. And Jessica and her husband in the USA were persecuted by the FBI duing the McCarthy witchhunt period in a manner reminiscant of the South African security police during the apartheid era. Perhaps Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's craving for 90-day detention is not so unusual after all. ...more
Detective Kurt Wallander's daughter Linda is about to join him on the police force in the town of Ystad in southern Sweden, and while she is waiting tDetective Kurt Wallander's daughter Linda is about to join him on the police force in the town of Ystad in southern Sweden, and while she is waiting to start work Linda re-establishes contact with a couple of old school friends, Anna and Zeba. Then Anna says she thiinks she has seen her father, who had been missing for many years, and shortly afterwards goes missing herself. Linda begins searching for Anna, and thinks her disappearance may be linked to a case her father is working on, of animals that have been cruelly killed and then a murder, that seems to be linked to a religious motive.
Untill about halfway through, I thought that this was the best book Henning Mankell had written. The point of view has shifted to Linda Wallander, and we see her father through her eyes, rather than his own rather jaundiced view of the world, and his battles with booze. There seem to be too many boozy policeman novels nowadays.
The second half doesn't hang together too well, and there seems to be too much of the deus ex machina. Perhyaps, however, that is more what real police work is like -- strokes of luck and chance happenings.
Despite these faults, however, it is still one of Mankell's better novels. ...more
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
The protagonist of this book is Moscow homicide detective Leo Demidov, who also featured in Tom Rob Smith's earlier book, Child 44. But though there iThe protagonist of this book is Moscow homicide detective Leo Demidov, who also featured in Tom Rob Smith's earlier book, Child 44. But though there is plenty of homicide in this book, there is little detecting. This is not a whodunit.
The bulk of the book is set in the period of the "Khrushchev thaw" in the Soviet Union, when, in his eponymous secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's dictatorship, the police state, and the Stalinist policy of arbitrary detention and sometimes liquidation of political dissenters.
During this period millions of political prisoners were released, and the liberalisation policy did not meet with the approval of hard-line conservatives. It was opposed particularly by some factions in the KGB, the secret police, and led to power struggles, with some trying to promote and some trying to hinder liberalisation. It is around this that the plot of the novel is built, and particulalry the fear of some KGB members that the newly-released political prisoners might seek vengeance on those who denounced and arrested them.
In the beginning the description of the setting is fairly convincing, and in many ways it reminded me of the atmosphere in South Africa 21 years ago, after F.W. de Klerk's speech of 2 February 1990. De Klerk's speech was not secret, but it had a similar effect on society. To some it gave hope of freedom, to others fear of vengeance.
But after the promising beginning beginning the book becomes less convincing as the author tries to move the main characters to every scene of action in the period, from the Gulag to the Hungarian Uprising. He propagates the view that the Hungarian Uprising was not spontaneous, but that it was stage-managed by a Stalinist clique in Russia to try to check Khrushchev's reform process. I'm not sufficiently clued up on history of the period to know if this was actually the case, and perhaps some historians have propounded such a view or have found evidence for such things, but it was not something I had heard of before.
Of course that would not make Smith the first novelist to manipulate history in favour of plot, and to paint "what if?" scenarios. It's just that in this case the main purpose seems to be to get the characters to the scene of the action, and it doesn't come off very well.
Another bit of historical revisionism, which is even less convincing, is Smith's use and portrayal of the Orthodox Church. The book opens with a scene clearly based on the actual demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow. Thereafter the Orthodox crucifix reappears in the book as a symbol of the search for revenge -- revenge on those who denounced, arrested and sent people to the prison camps. A priest in one of the prison camps apparently acquiesces in this search for revenge and seems to believe that it is quite justified and only to be expected.
Far be it from me to suggest that Orthodox Christians are such super saints as to never have any thoughts of taking revenge on those who have harmed them. But Orthodox spirituality is such that to entertain such thoughts is a sin to be confessed, the encouragement of an evil passion. In all Orthodox manuals of devotion, in all Orthodox spiritual teaching, the most serious obstacle to receiving Holy Communion is enmity with others and the desire for revenge. This is an absolute incompatibility. The fact that the priest character has no qualms of conscience about this, and sees no need to excuse his behaviour, even to himself, makes him altogether unconvincing. And making the Orthodox crucifix a symbol of vengeance and the overriding desire for revenge seems utterly incongruous.
The Orthodox approach to the exaction of vengeance for past wrongs can perhaps be symbolised by what actually happened in the case of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished in the Bolshevik era. It was rebuilt in the form of a replica of the original, and so perhaps stands as a symbol, not of vengeance, but of restorative justice. ...more
One of the best-selling novels in recent times has been The da Vinci code by Dan Brown, and now the story has been made into a film.
Not only has theOne of the best-selling novels in recent times has been The da Vinci code by Dan Brown, and now the story has been made into a film.
Not only has the novel sold very well, but it has also generated a number of lucrative spin-offs – there are more than 20 books that claim to interpret The da Vinci code. There was a court case in which the authors of some other books sued Dan Brown for stealing some of his ideas from their books. They lost their case, but the publicity did them no harm: sales of their books soared as well.
In many ways the enormous popularity of The da Vinci code is hard to understand. It is not a particularly well-written book. It is a mystery/conspiracy novel, and there have been several other novels of that type recently, some better-written than Dan Brown’s book, but none of them has sold nearly as many copies, or been the subject of quite as much hype.
One feature of the book, which has led to several television programmes and feature articles in magazines and newspapers, has been that the novel puts forward some tendentious ideas on history in general, and church history and art history in particular, which the author has hinted are based on fact. The articles and TV programmes have treated us to quotes and sound bites from experts in various fields, and usually end up by saying that it’s up to the reader or viewer to choose between the various views expressed.
One of the most obvious errors in The da Vinci code concerns St Mary Magdalene, one of the three Holy Myrrhbearers and Equal to the Apostles. Dan Brown tries to give the impression that the Church has somehow tried to suppress all information about her, and to portray her has a prostitute.
We should be quite clear that the Orthodox Church has never tried to portray St Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. She was healed by Jesus and became one of his disciples. She was a witness to his burial, and was the first witness of his resurrection, bearing the news to the other disciples (for this reason she is called Equal-to-the-Apostles).
After our Lord’s bodily Ascension she continued to bear witness to the resurrection, and it is said that she once met the Roman Emperor, and was holding an egg in her hand. When she told him of the resurrection of Christ, the Emperor was sceptical, and said if someone rose from the dead, the egg in her hand would turn red, and it promptly did – hence the custom of blessing red eggs at Pascha.
St Mary Magdalene worked with St John the Theologian in Ephesus, where she died and was buried, and in the 9th century her incorrupt relics were removed to the Church of the Monastery of St Lazarus in Constantinople.
In the West a very late and quite unfounded legend arose at the time of the translation of her relics that she had gone with Martha and Lazarus to the south of France by sea and was buried there. In his novel, Dan Brown treats this legend as fact.
There is no evidence that St Mary Magdalene bore a child to Jesus, as Dan Brown asserts, and that the descendants of this line were the Merovingian kings of France. Of course The da Vinci code is fiction, and a novelist can make his characters say or do anything he likes.
The main theme of The messianic legacy appears to be the way in which a small semi-secret society, the Prieuré de Sion, is seeking to achieve its objective of restoring a Merovingian monarch to the throne of France. The Merovingians apparently claimed descent from the Old Testament House of David, and in an earlier work, The holy blood and the holy grail, the authors put forward the hypothesis that this decent was through Jesus or his immediate family.
The Merovingians (descendants of Merovech) were kings in what is now France from the 5th to the 8th century, and they conquered the Visigoths who had sacked Rome in AD 410, bringing away treasure reputed to include the treasures of the temple at Jerusalem, which had itself been sacked by the Romans in AD 70.
Baigent et al. have written the book in three parts. The first, "The Messiah" deals with the idea of the Messiah in Judaism and early Christianity. The second, "The quest for meaning", deals with faith and symbolism in modern Western society. The third is a bewilderingly detailed account of contacts and connections between the Prieure de Sion and various national and international figures and organisations in the twentieth century.
The connections between the three parts of the books are not at all clear, and nor it is clear how material in the first two parts contributes to the hypothesis. The authors have included a lot of material without bothering to make it clear why they have included it.
The first part, on the idea of the Messiah, seems to be intended to show that a descendant of the Jewish royal line could have gone to the Celtic area, on the Western seaboard of Europe. The authors throw in facts, fallacies, speculations and conjectures, most of which seem irrelevant to whatever point it is they are trying to make. Their knowledge of history seems shaky at several points, and they don't even attempt to paper over the cracks.
Briefly, their thesis seems to be that Jesus went to Jerusalem intending to become king of the Jews. The attempt was foiled by his arrest and execution at the hands of the Romans and Jewish collaborators. The succession passed to his brother James, and then this Jewish royalist/nationalist movement split, with the larger part, led by Paul, severing connections with Jewish nationalism. The nationalist section continued, however, as the Ebionites, who later made an alliance with the Nestorians, who provided a kind of theological halfway house. The Nestorians were influential in Egypt, and from there spread to Ireland, where in some unspecified fashion they were linked to the Prieuré de Sion. There are too many gaps, and much of it is based on false assumptions. It simply does not make sense.
Quite a large proportion of the illustrations in the book make the point of similarities between Egyptian and Irish Christianity. The authors say that Nestorius was exiled to Egypt, and when Nestorius was condemned as a heretic in 451 the Egyptian Church refused to accept the ruling it split with "Roman Orthodoxy" and formed the Coptic Church.
This is simply a gross distortion of history, and shows that the authors did not do their homework. The majority of Egyptian Christians did not accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, but for precisely the opposite reason that the Baigent & Co hint at. They thought the Council was too Nestorian, they and preferred the teaching of their own former bishop Cyril, who was utterly opposed to Nestorius. The reason the Nestorian leaders were exiled to Egypt was quite simple: The Egyptian church was so opposed to Nestorianism that if they tried to preach it there, there would be no danger that anyone would believe them. So whatever was exported from Egypt to Ireland or anywhere else, it was not Nestorian/Ebionite teaching, but the exact opposite.
Egyptian missionaries did go to France, and Christian monasticism was first developed in Egypt. It was exported to most other parts of the Christian world, and thus provided the chief instrument for the evangelisation of Europe and part of Asia. Between 500 and 1500 most Christian missionaries were monks. Baigent et al., however, make some astoundingly naive statements - for example that the monastic movement in Egypt "represented a form of opposition to the rigidly hierarchical structures of Rome", and that the monks were "tolerant" as opposed to the "intolerant" urban church. In fact the reverse was true. The Egyptian monks regarded the urban church as lax and effete, and they kept out of the cities for that reason.
The second part of the book deals with faith and symbols in Western European society. In some ways it is the best part. The authors are for the most part giving their own opinions, and are therefore not trying to base conclusions on "facts" that (in the first part) often turn out to be conjecture or wrong guesses. They look at the loss of faith in Western European society, and the consequent search for substitute faiths, such as Communism and Nazism. When they get on to some aspects of modern Christianity, they go off the rails again. A notable example is their attempt to make the British Israel theory a necessary part of fundamentalism, and even of South African apartheid. Now while it is true that some British Israelites might be fundamentalists, and that some supporters of apartheid were British Israelites, the British Israel theory was certainly not a part of fundamentalism, nor was it necessarily part of the thinking of those who formulated the apartheid policy. This is a failure in logic as well as in facts.
How it fits in with the third part is not clear, unless it is intended to show that monarchy is a powerful symbol that can be linked with faith. But if that is the intention, it certainly does not succeed. The third part is a very detailed account of meetings and connections of various members of the Prieure de Sion and possible members with insurers, spies, politicians and others. It seems to bear no relation to the other two parts, and the point it is trying to make is obscure. The authors end up by saying that they are sympathetic towards some of the objectives of the Prieuré de Sion, but sceptical or dubious about others. The trouble is that they have not made it very clear what those aims are. They do seem to think, however, that the Prieuré de Sion might be capable of producing a Messiah of the kind that the authors think Jesus actually was.
But this, like much of the rest of the book, is based on a fallacy. The Prieuré de Sion, usually rendered in English translation as Priory of Sion or Priory of Zion, has, since 1956, been an alleged cabal featured in many conspiracy theories and works of pseudohistory. It has been characterized as anything from the most influential secret society in Western history to a modern Rosicrucian-esque ludibrium, but, ultimately, has been shown to be a hoax created by Pierre Plantard. Most of the evidence presented in support of claims pertaining to its historical existence, let alone significance, have not been considered authentic or persuasive by established historians, academics, and universities (from Wikipedia).
The real mystery of The da Vinci code is how such a mediocre book has managed to sell so many copies. Even in the genre of conspiracy novels, it is far from the best (if you want a good conspiracy novel, try Foucault's pendulum, by Umberto Eco). The da Vinci code is too predictable and unconvincing.
The main characters, supposedly an expert cryptographer and symbologist (whatever that may be) who cannot recognise mirror writing (which Leonardo da Vinci was known to have practised) are just too thick for words. They go on for pages as pages wondering what can be the meaning of some or other puzzle, when the reader can see that the answer is starting them in the face. And this happens not once, but several times in the book. The de Villiers code by Tom Eaton was a much better read, though since it is a send-up of The da Vinci code, one needs to have read that first. It's the only good reason I can think of for reading it.
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 theThe 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. ...more
Police officer Andreas Kaldis is a bit disgruntled when he is transferred from Athens to the tourist island of MykonoA readable and exciting whodunit.
Police officer Andreas Kaldis is a bit disgruntled when he is transferred from Athens to the tourist island of Mykonos in the Aegean, from investigating murders to being a nursemaid to tourists is not an exciting prospect. But soon there is a report of a dead body, found in the crypt of a rural church, apparently of a young woman. The case becomes more urgent when another young woman, a tourist, disappears, and it appears that the police on Mykonos have a serial killer to look for.
But there are political complications. The mayor of Mykonos does not want the news to leak out -- nothing must be allowed to frighten away the tourists on whom Mykonos's prosperity depends, When the police start to trace the movements of the murdered girl, and those who last saw her alive, there seem to be too many suspects, and at a crucial point in the investigation, most of the suspects disappear without trace.
There are a few plot holes and discrepancies in the story, but none of them serious enough to get in the way of enjoying a good read, if you like crime fiction. ...more
This is the second historical murder mystery I've read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is farThis is the second historical murder mystery I've read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is far more complex.
Dissolution is set in the sixteenth century and stays there, and though there are lots of deaths, they all take place in the 1530s. The Unburied is set in the nineteenth century, in the fictitious English cathedral city of Thurchester, but as the primary narrator, Dr Edward Courtine, is a historian, it harks back to several mysterious, or at least historically-disputed deaths in the past, in several different periods.
I enjoyed the book a lot, but perhaps that is because history is a topic that interests me a great deal. An interest in history, however, is not enough to make one enjoy historical novels, and in fact can impair enjoyment of them. A historian reading historical novels is always on the lookout for anachronisms (and yes, there are some in this book -- the use of the word "teenager", is but one example). But because the protagoinist is a historian, as are some of the other characters, perhaps one could call this a historigraphical novel, and that would make it of more interest to historians.
As I said, it is complex, and you have to keep your wits about you when reading it, to follow the motives not only of the characters, to see who had a motive for murdering whom, but also the motives of the historians who left their written accounts of the events, and the motives of the current characters in the story who interpret the documents and other evidence -- part of the evidence is in the fabric of Thurchester Cathedral itself.
The bulk of the book is taken up with Dr Courtine's visit to Thurchester, which lasts five days. He visits an old friend, from whom he has been estranged, and also visits the cathedral library in search of a manuscript that he believe's may throw light on the death of a ninth-century bishop, which may in turn illuminate the character of King Alfred. During his visit there is another murder, in which Dr Courtine is a witness, and uses his skills as a historian to try to work out what actually happened, but to some extent he is blinded by class prejudice, and so misses some important clues. So we have to read his account with a critical historian's eye, looking for unjustified assumptions and other historical errors.
It's a good and challenging read, especially if you like history.
It's interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]'s Brave NewIt's interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]'s Brave New World when I was about 17, and found it very exciting and stimulating. I re-read it when I was 57, and after 40 years found it rather flat and dull. I've just finished reading No Highway after a gap of about 60 years, and found it as good as when I first read it.
It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten. I was about 13 or 14 when I first read it, when I was still crazy about aeroplanes and wanted to be a pilot. By the time I was 15 my ambitions had dropped, and my main interest was cars. From the age of 11 to 14 most of what I read had something to do with aeroplanes, and if No Highway had not been about aeroplanes I would probably not have read it at all.
When I first read the book the most memorable things were the technical bits to do with the aircraft. I could recall the love story vaguely, but I could not recall the British Israelite angle at all, though it is quite prominent in the story, though I did recall the part with the planchette.
I read it about the time that the first commercial jets, the De Havilland Comets, were in the news because of unexplained crashes. I seem to recall that when it was determined that the cause of the crashes was metal fatigue I knew what that meant because it was central to the plot of No Highway but it is possible that it was the other way round -- that I understood the point of the plot because of the real-life incidents with the Comets.
It was the first book by Nevil Shute that I had read, and because I had enjoyed it I went on to read others written by him, though I still thought (and after re-reading it still think) )that No Highway was one of his best. I think it has aged well. Of course, one is aware that it belongs to its time, and that many things have changed since then. On the technical side the most obvious thing is air navigation. Back then the cabin crews were small (because the planes were smaller and carried fewer passengers) but the flight-deck crew was large, including, in addition to two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a wireless operator. Advances in electronics have made the last two redundant.
Social attitudes too are different. One of the most noticeable is that sex has replaces smoking as one of the most commonly-described recreational activities. Another is that sex roles were much more rigid back then: males were useless at cooking and cleaning and buying clothes for children; females were useless at research and design.
I find the social differences interesting too, because I'm also reading a historical novel, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. When reading historical novels I always have one eye out for anachronisms, things that the author gets wrong about the period in which the novel is set. No Highway is set in our past, but it was contemporary when it was written. So when I first read it, it was much closer to the time in which it was set and I did not notice such things, but the second time around, it gives an authentic view of a vanished past. Give it another 60 years, and some things in the book may need to be annotated, because there will then be no one around who lived thourgh that period. But I thought it was a good read back then, and it's still a good read now, and probably will be in 60 years' time too, ...more
When I started reading this book I didn't think I'd like it, and wrote some initial thoughts on my blog, here The book of air and shadows | Khanya. BuWhen I started reading this book I didn't think I'd like it, and wrote some initial thoughts on my blog, here The book of air and shadows | Khanya. But it seemed to improve as it went along, and in the end I rather enjoyed it.
In a way it reminded me of The de Vinci Code in that the characters go running around in search of a myterious artifact, pursued by shadow villains, with secret ciphers that need to be solved. But The book of air ans shadows seems to be better written, and the plot holes are not quite so crass and annoying.
I suppose one of the reasons I found The da Vinci code annoying is that history is my subject, and that book was based on obviously bogus history. In The book of air and shadows the plot revolves around accidentally discovered ancient documents that seem to point to a hitherto unknown play of Shakespeare which might be found if only the coded letters can be deciphered. Perhaps the difference is that I know more about history than I do about Shakespeare and dramatic art generally. I mean I've read some of Shakespeare's plays and seen some of them performed on stage and screen and found them enjoyable enough but truth to tell I found author Samuel Beckett]'s Waiting for Godot or Jean Genet's The Balcony just as enjoyable, if not more so. No doubt this will mark me as a Philistine among the true devotees of Shakespeare, but I'm just saying that this is why my bullshite detectors were more sensitive to The da Vinci code, and if there was similar nonsense in this book, I was less able to detect it.
But The da Vinci code was simply ludicrous. A character who was supposed to be an expert cryptographer could not detect simple mirror writing, and they went on puzzling about it for several pages while the reader is urging them not to be so thick and just get on with it. In The book of air and shadows, by contrast just about every character has a go at deciphering the coded letters, and somehow manage to solve the puzzle with ridiculous ease.
Though there are plot holes, they are not quite as annoying as in some other books, and it is generally better written, and there are some occasional quite astute observations.
There are two main characters: a rich intellectual property lawyer, Jake Mishkin, and a poor book shop assistant, Albert Crosetti, who dreams of being a film director. They only meet about halfway through the book, and the lawyer's story is told in the first person, while the film fan's is told in the third person. At one point after they have met they are discussing movies and life, and Mishkin is interested in Crosetti's view that movies really determine our sense of how to behave, and more than that, our sense of what is real.
'surely not,' Mishkin objected. 'Surely it's the other way around -- filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films.'
'No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street of a Western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It's the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real Old West. They were heavy and expensive and no one but an idiot would wear one in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional Western gunslingers. And it's not just thugs. Movies shape everyone's reality, to the extent that it's shaped by human action -- foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it's movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We've all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment whem resistance turns to passion. He's seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not.'
I quite enjoyed the only other book by Camilla Läckberg that I have read, The stonecutter, but I doubt that I'll finish this one. It is simply too fruI quite enjoyed the only other book by Camilla Läckberg that I have read, The stonecutter, but I doubt that I'll finish this one. It is simply too frustrating and incomprehensible.
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. ...more
This is Somerset Maugham's first published novel, and of those of his that I've read, I think I like this one the best. About 12 years ago I bought seThis is Somerset Maugham's first published novel, and of those of his that I've read, I think I like this one the best. About 12 years ago I bought several of his books cheap at a library sale, put them on a shelf and forgot them, and in the course of tidying the shelves I took them down to read, so I've been reading one after the other.
Liza of Lambeth is based on Maugham's experience as a medical student in a poor part of London. Well it's poor in parts. I once went to a garden party at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there's nothing poor about that!
Liza is a young girl, a teenager, 18 years old, who saves enough from her job in a factory to buy a new dress, which she wears to a street party and has a jolly good time. Her mother, who is a bit of a hypochondriac, and also a bit of a boozer, thinks the money would have been better spent on booze for herself. But Liza is happy and carefree, and enjoys herself. And her joy and love of life are infectious, and spread to others.
But gradually things start going badly for Liza. This partly because of her own choices, and partly because of the pressures of other people and society generally.
To say any more of the story would give away too much of the plot, but I will say that it still today, more than a century after it was written, gives an insight into the lives of poor people and the conditions in which they live. It's an outsider's view. As far as I know Somerset Maugham didn't grow up in poverty himself, so he writes from observation, not from first-hand experience. And it is pretty good observation.
But books like this are probably not read by the poor. They are probably read mostly by fairly comfortable middle-class people like me. And from what I have observed of the life of poor people, though the time and the place may be different, there is much that is similar.
To give just one example, it's the people in the streets. The book is about the inhabitants of one street, and they meet each other and talk to each other in the street. They sit on their doorsteps and talk to their neighbours.
Earlier this week I had a couple of hours to kill while my son wrote an exam, so went to visit a friend who lived nearby. Their gate was locked, so I called them on my cell phone, but there was no reply, so I thought I might as well sit in the car in the street and read my book.
It was a lower middle-class suburb. The houses were not pretentious. They were originally built by the Iskor steelworks nearby for housing their white workers, and were later sold off. But they had pleasant gardens and the street was quiet. Only one car passed. There was a tapping on the car window. It was a rather agitated bird, wondering what I was doing there. I waved and it and it went away. Two fat pigeons ambled across the street. A dog barked. In one of the houses nearby a baby cried briefly. A young black woman in a hoodie came walking over the hill and passed me, but there was no interaction between us. Another black woman with hair extensions came walking up the hill and went into the house over the road. But for the most part, nothing happened. And in our neighbourhood it is much the same.
But when we visit Mamelodi, a "previously disadvantaged" township, there are always people walking in the street, talking to each other, greeting neighbours. There are children playing games, hopscotch, cricket (as in Lambeth), football etc. On Sundays (which is when we mostly go there) a phrase from a poem I learnt at school comes to mind, "man's heart expands to tinker with his car." There are cars with bonnets up, cars being washed. On some Sundays there's a Golf club -- rows of Volkswagen Golfs with their bonnets up, with the owners hanging around discussing technical points.
The houses may be different, the languaghe may be different, the clothes may be different, the time and the place may be different, but Maugham's descriptions still ring true. ...more
It seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughtsIt seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughts prompted by reading it.
Dickens is generally regarded as a Good Author who wrote Good Books, and so reading them must be Good For You. Even F.R. Leavis allowed Dickens into his canon.
As a result, Dickens's books are often prescribed reading for schoolkids, to do them good. But the only book by Dickens that I liked when I was at school was A tale of two cities. It seemed to fit in with The scarlet pimpernel and others of the same genre.
Another one we had at school was Great Expectations. It was a matric set book, and our English teacher, a guy called Derrick Hudson-Reed, told us that in 20 years time we would come back to visit the school and confess to him that we had never read Great Expectations. Quite a number of us told him that right after the exam. We'd read an executive summary to get the main points of the plot. Perhaps if I'd read it I'd have got an A instead of a BB in the exam, but I rather doubt it. I rather suspect that Charles Dickens is wasted on the young.
About every four or five years I pick up a book by Dickens and read it. I've enjoyed them, but as I've read them I've been glad that I hadn't read them when I was younger. There was so much that I just would not have appreciated.
Oliver Twist begins with scenes in a 19th-century workhouse in England. When you are at school, they explain such things in a brief footnote, or maybe the teacher would say something about it.
But reading it now, at my age, I've read quite a bit about workhouses because of my interest in family history. I know that my great great grandfather (well, one of them) died in Bodmin Union Workhouse at the age of 83. It was what passed for an old age home in those days, and if you'd spent your life as a woodman, scrounging wood from the woods, you didn't end up with much in the way of a pension. Oliver Twist not only describes life in a workhouse; it has graphic descriptions of death in a workhouse.
So I'm glad that I read it at the age of 71, rather than at the age of 11 or even 21. If I'd read it then, I'd have missed too much.
Having said that, I might not have noticed the plot holes if I'd read it earlier. There are just too many improbable coincidences, too many people fortuitously meeting too many other people who turn out to have been related, or friends of relations, or enemies of relations. I suppose that that is in part the result of its having originally been written as a serial, and having so many plot threads that Dickens had to find ways of tying together in the end.
If you haven't read it yet, you might enjoy it, especially if you are over 50.
But Dickens, in spite of having a chapter to tie up the loose ends, never does tell us what happened to the Artful Dodger. ...more
I've read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I've read Dracula several times, but all the othersI've read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I've read Dracula several times, but all the others were disappointing.
I suppose I might have enjoyed 'Salem's lot by Stephen King if I had not aleady read Dracula several times; it might then have come to me as something fresh and exciting. As it was, it seemed entirely predictable.
I read Interview with the vampire by Anne Rice because someone had told me about it, and forced myself to stick it out to the end, boring as it was, just to be able to say I had actually read it, and did not dismiss it as not worth reading just from prejudice.
The historian is the first vampire book I have read that seems to be a fitting sequel to Dracula. Not only is it a fitting sequel, I think it surpasses the original.
Perhaps I should digress from the books for a moment to describe an interesting event that took place at the University of South Africa nearly 20 years ago. Some people came and delivered a lecture on Dracula. They were from the Transylvanian Society of Dracula in Romania, and for them Dracula, as in Bram Stoker's novel, was a new and exciting discovery. With the fall of the Communist Party regime a few years before, Romania had a sudden influx of tourists and journalists looking for Dracula's castle. At first Romanians had no idea what they were talking about, because Dracula had only been published in Romanian in 1990. The Ministry of Tourism set up a group to research this, and they decided that it was a tourist gold mine, and so they renovated an old castle and renamed it "Dracula's Castle", and turned it into a kind of vampire Disneyland to cash in on the tourist trade.
Their historical investigations did not turn up an original for Stoker's Count Dracula (Stoker's story was rather set in Styria, in Austria), but they did turn up a rather bloodthirsty ruler, a Prince of Wallachia (one of the three provinces of Romania, the others being Transylvania and Modldavia) whose epithet was Vlad the Impaler, and who appeared to enjoy impaling invading enemies and his own subjects on stakes. His enemies included the invading Ottoman Turks, and the neighbouring Kingdom of Hungary, and he seemed to be the the historical figure who came closest to being a model for Bram Stoker's arch-villain.
Elizabeth Kostova builds on this, and unambiguously links Dracula the vampire to the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, with three generations of historians investigating the legends by doing research in various libraries. To say more about the plot might be a spoiler, but I can say something about the way the plot is constructed.
After a hundred or so pages I became curious about the author and her background, because, in spite of the book being set in at least three different historical periods (the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s) in several different countries, I spotted no glaring anachronisms. In addition, there were references to several different periods of medieval history, and again, the settings seemed authentic.
The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth Kostova notes that a very high price was paid for it
Publishers Weekly explained the high price as a bidding war between firms believing that they might have the next Da Vinci Code within their grasp. One vice-president and associate publisher said "Given the success of The Da Vinci Code, everybody around town knows how popular the combination of thriller and history can be and what a phenomenon it can become.
That was very interesting, because one outstanding feature of The da Vinci code was its bad history and worse plot, made worse still by Dan Brown's spurious claims that the historical background was accurate. It is a claim that Elizabeth Kostova could justifiably have made, but, with more modesty than Dan Brown, didn't.
I spotted just one, very minor, anachronism -- a character referred to his having grown up in Cumbria twenty years before Cumbria became an official county name -- before that a person would be more likely to have said "Cumberland", or "Westmorland", or possibly "The Lake District". There may be others, of course, but if there were they weren't so glaringly obvious as to be distracting, like the errors in The da Vinci code. The descriptions of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 seem to be pretty accurate, and are also informative.
Descriptions of life in Orthodox monasteries are also fairly accurate, as are those of of some folk-religion customs, such as fire-walking.
Bram Stoker manages to avoid this difficulty when writing about contemporary England, though his knowledge of the geography and folk-religion of the Balkans was derived entirely from books, and was sketchy, to say the least. But his story holds up in spite of that, and in spite of the plot flaws it remains a good read. Kostova manages to get in all three -- a combination of history cum thriller cum horror story that comes off well. She uses some of Stoker's techniques -- telling the story through letters written by the characters, and also uses some of the conventions that Stoker established for vampire folklore -- that vampires are afraid of crosses and garlic, for example. One of the things I do have some doubts about though, is that Kostova seems to invest Turkish worry-beads with a religious signficance analogous to Western rosaries, and therefore good for scaring of vampires. Greeks also use worry beads, but they seem to be purely secular, and quite different from the Orthodox prayer ropes that are closer to Western rosaries.
As an Orthodox Christian, this was one of the things that I found a bit unsatisfactory -- the main characters in the story were agnostic, yet the seemed to put great reliance on religious symbols like crosses for warding off vampires. This strikes me as being purely superstitious.
On the other hand, it probably does reflect the attitudes of many nominal Orthodox in Balkan countries, especially those that were deliberately secularised after several decates of atheistic communist rule.
But those are minor quibbles, and don't detract from enjoyment of the book, which is a very good read indeed.
Phil Rickman's books are difficult to find, and one buys them when one can. This was one of his earlier ones, which we hadn't read. Many of his otherPhil Rickman's books are difficult to find, and one buys them when one can. This was one of his earlier ones, which we hadn't read. Many of his other books have characters that appear again, but this one is in a different setting, with different characters.
The characters are not as convincing as those in some of his other books. It is more tinged with horror and dark and evil forces. His later novels, especially in the Merrily Watkins series, turn out to be more like whodunits, and one misses the supernatural chills.
In many ways I should not have liked it as much as I did. And I think the reason I liked it is that I have been in the kind of situations he describes. He gets the relationship between Christianity and paganism better aligned in his later books -- the kind of situation he portrays in The man in the moss has been shown to be historically inaccurate in England. But it is in many ways true to life in parts of Africa. It may be wrong in its setting, but move it to another setting, and it becomes true to life. ...more
This is a difficult book to review without revealing too much of the plot to those who have not read it. Like several of Conrad's books, it is a storyThis is a difficult book to review without revealing too much of the plot to those who have not read it. Like several of Conrad's books, it is a story within a story, a narration within a narration. Five sailors in a boat on the Thames settle down for the evening and the narrator describes how one of the others, Charles Marlow, tells a story about his experience on another river at another time.
Neither the unnamed forst narrator, nor Marlow, the second narrator, is the protagonist. That role belongs to a man called Kurtz, who only gradually makes his appearance. Through his aunt who knows someone who knows someone, Marlow got a job as captain of a river steamer on a big river. He travels to an unnamed country for his job interview, and the office is guarded by two women in black, symbolising the growing darkness. And to take up his employment he travels on a French ship to an unnamed country with an unnamed big river. But it is clearly the Congo Free State, then being conquered by a Belgian company, whose white employees Marlowe describes as faithless pilgims, worshipping the ivory they extract from the country.
The greatest white employee of the company is Kurtz, who gets more ivory than anyone else. But Kurtz, it is said, is ill, and must be relieved. His station, however, is at the furthest point up the river, and before they can set out the boat must be repaired. Eventually they set out upriver, Marlow accompanied by black cannibal woodcutters, who cut the wood to fuel the boat, and the white pilgrims. As the river narrows and the forested banks get closer, Marlow feels he is sailing in to the heart of darkness.
I'll say no more of the story, for fear of revealing too much of the plot, but will add that when I reached the end of the book, I went straight back to the beginning again, and started reading it again, because there are some things about the beginning that one does not really appreciate until the end. It begins at sunset, with the Thames being a river that ships sail down to all parts of the world, and as the dark settles over the river, it too becomes he heart of darkness, and the Roman legionaries that sailed up it thousands of years before must have experienced it rather similarly to Marlow's experience on the big river.
When Marlowe was a boy he looked at the big river on the map, and it looked like a snake. And the area on the map was white, because it was terra incognita to the mapmakers, but as the employees of the company travelled along it to exploit its resources, it darkened. And as Marlow travels up the river, he is alienated from both the white "pilgrims" and the black cannibals. He knows enough of them to predict their behaviour in certain circustances, and try to avoid what he sees as the worst of it, but he feels unable to even try to penetrate it, and discover the human beings behind it.
I think I'd probably have to read it ten time to review it adequately. ...more
Marc Lucas is a soWhen I began reading this book, it reminded me of The double by Fyodor Dostoevsky, with the atmosphere of Kafka's novels thrown in.
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.
This is the third book in Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, the others being The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire. While thThis is the third book in Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, the others being The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire. While there is something of a gap between the first book and the second, this one carried on right from where the second one leaves off, so if you've read the second book, don't wait too long before reading this one, because it is in effect one long book in two volumes. Leaving it too long might mean that you forget some important elements of the plot.
I also think that this one is by far the best of the three.
I won't describe it, because saying too much would probably be a spoiler for the second book if you haven't read it. I didn't learn much from it, and its nothing profound, just a good story, well told. It differs from the preceding one in that there's more police action, and a bit of courtroom drama thrown in. ...more
The First Book of Enoch was fairly well known in the first century, and accepted by both Christians and Jews. It is a composite book, made of severalThe First Book of Enoch was fairly well known in the first century, and accepted by both Christians and Jews. It is a composite book, made of several books joined together, but all deal with the visions of Enoch, the great grandfather of Noah.
Book of the Watchers -- I Enoch 1-36 (BW) Similitudes of Enoch -- I Enoch 37-71 (Sim) Astronomical book -- I Enoch 71-82 (AB) Book of Dreams -- I Enoch 83-90 (BD) Epistle of Enoch -- I Enoch 91-105/6/7 (EE) Apocalypse of Weeks -- I Enoch 93:1-10; 91:11-17) (AW) Animal Apocalypse -- I Enoch 85-90 (AA)
This book deals with the oldest of these, The Book of Watchers. It is a scholarly text, and studies how the book was received by Jews and Christians at various times in their history.
When Christianity first appeared, its historical origin was in Second-Temple Judaism. The first temple was built by King Solomon, and was destroyed when the leading Jews were taken into exile in Babylon. When Babylon was conquered by Persia, Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, and the temple was rebuilt under Ezra. This was the temple that Jesus and his disciples knew.
Second-Temple Judaism had many different schools and sects. The Pharisees and the Saducees, mentioned in the New Testament, were among the better-known. But the Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70, when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, and the only Jewish Schools and sects that survived for a long time after that were Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.
The Book of Watchers was generally accepted by the early Christians, and was quoted by the New Testament book of Jude. Among the Rabbinic Jews, however, it was rejected.
The Book of the Watchers is an apocalypse from the third century BC, which describes Enoch's ascension to heaven and what he saw there. It also describes the "Watchers" (egrigori), the "Sons of God" of Genesis 6:1-4, who are accused of corrupting humankind through their teachings of metalworking, cosmetology, magic, and divination.
These Watchers are fallen angels, who are led by Semihazah and Asael, and the book expands on the somewhat cryptic references in Genesis 6:1-4.
The later parts of I Enoch, however, have a different emphasis. They concentrate on the sexual sins of the angels, rather than their teaching illicit and corrupting knowledge. They lusted after the daughters of men, and breeding with them to produce a race of giants, the Nephilim. It is unclear whether these all perished in the Flood, but the spirits of those that did perish remained on the earth, and became the demons that plague the human race.
Rabbinic Judaism rejected this view, and gradually adopted the view that the "Sons of God" of Genesis 6:1-4 were purely human, and one interpretation was that they were children of Seth rather than children of Cain, and the stories were told to discourage intermarriage. Later Christian interpreters tended to adopt the Rabbinic Jewish interpretation, though in the medival period some Jews returned to the idea of the "Sons of God" as angels, described in 3 Enoch, a much later work.
That's a very inadequate summary of 277 pages of text, and not being an expert on ancient texts, it would be foolish of me to try to give a scholarly review of it.
What I find interesting are some of the ideas that the book promotes or preserves, and the way it was used by 2nd-century Christian apologists, like Justin Martyr. He developed an interesting theology of religion, which modern "theologians of religion" don't talk about much, but which would have made a great deal of sense to Christian converts from Greco-Roman paganism in the 2nd century.
According to Justin, the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were these very Watchers, fallen angels.
Justin's understanding of these Enochic traditions, however, is informed by an innovative interpretation of the identity of the fallen angels and their sons. Reading the Book of Watchers' association between the spirits of the Giants and present-day demons through LXX Ps 95:5 ("all the gods of the nations are daimones"), Justin asserts that these figures are the very gods celebrated in Greek myths and worshipped by the Romans who ironically persecute Christians for their alleged atheism and impiety.
By equating fallen angels and demons with the pagan pantheon, Justin is able simultaneously to explain and to undermine Greco-Roman traditions about the gods by reading them through the lens of Enochic traditions about the Watchers (Reed 2005:164-165).
The tales told in pagan mythology about the Olympian and other gods having sexual relations with humans are, according to Justin, also derived from the stories told in the Book of the Watchers.
Justin not only recast the angelic descent myth to speak to the situation of Christian persecution, but he did so in terms that rendered it accessible to accessible to an audience of former pagans. He cites the Greek myths much as he uses the Jewish scriptures, claiming that the truth therein can only be exposed by a certain mode of reading. Just as his anti-Judaism is founded on the inversion of the Deuteronomistic approach to biblical history, so he offers a distinctively Christian variation on the euhemeristic and allegorical interpretation of Greek myths by learned Greeks and Romans: the tales about the impious deeds of gods and sons of gods actually attest the activities of the fallen angels and demons, and the legends about their divine deeds are really fictions that the demons invented about themselves in a petty imitation of the true prophecies about Christ.
Much the same can be said of Justin's approach to Greco-Roman religion: pagans already acknowledge the role that daimones play in the cosmos; what he tells them is that all daimones are evil (i.e. "demons" as in the Jewish and Christian understanding of this Greek term). Likewise, his denunciation of pagan sacrifice and idolatry echoes Greco-Roman philosophical critiques of popular religion, and his assertion of the fallen angels' role in transmitting corrupting skills and knowledge grounds its plausibility in myths about divine and semi-divine culture-heroes. When read through the lens of Justin's historiographical and demonological approach to the history of human culture, his retelling of the angelic descent myth resonates with the cultural expectations of Gentile Christians, even as it serves to confirm their choice to reject their pagan past -- a choice here elevated to the level of a decision to free themselves from demonic enslavement and ally themselves with Christ in the cosmic battle against evil (Reed 2005:186).
One thing I thought was rather a pity is that, apart from a passing reference in a footnote, there was no mention of the reference to "Sons of God" in Deut 32:8 or Job 38:7, and no reference at all to Psalm 82.
A thing that I found interesting was that the fallen angels promoted the cosmetics industry, the arms industry, and magic and divination, and these led to the earth being filled with violence, which in turn led to the Flood.
And something I found interesting about this was that back in 1993, when I worked in the Editorial Department of the University of South Africa, we organised tutorials on distance teaching methods led by one Fred Lockwoood, of the Open University in the UK, as part of our contribution to "transfomation" - changing Unisa from an apartheid indoctrination machine into a real university. The "old guard" at Unisa were furious with us for doing this.
But when Fred Lockwood came, it was clear that he despised the humanities, and regarded them as useless, and for his examples of teaching methods chose a subject he regarded as more useful -- which happened to be Cosmetology. It wasn't a subject that was taught at Unisa, and if looking for a subject of more practical use than the humanities, perhaps food production might have been better. But no, he chose a subject that, according to the Book of the Watchers, was first taught by fallen angels.
I was also interested to learn that the Greek name for Watchers -- egrigori was the origin of the word "egregores", which has been used by some to mean a group that takes on its own character, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. So a collective entity like a nation can have a "national spirit", which in this sense is an egregore, and the Orthodox ikon of the Tower of Babel shows these national spirits, the angels of the nations, "sons of gods" of Deuteronomy 32:8, the egregores, or egrigori, the principalities and powers of Ephesians 6:10-12. ...more
I first learnt of Will Campbell when I got sick in Cape Town, and was taken in and nursed by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and his wife Helen. ThaI first learnt of Will Campbell when I got sick in Cape Town, and was taken in and nursed by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and his wife Helen. That was over 40 years ago, in 1972, when the police were rioting in the Anglican cathedral in Cape Town, and there were student protests all over. We were talmking about all that, and the response of Christians to the growing repression. And Theo handed me a book and said "Read this. It's far more radical than anything I've ever heard of."
So I read it on my sick bed, and got about halfway through.
But there was something that jumped out at me on the first page, which struck me as very radical, and very orthodox, not to mention Orthodox.
Back in those days everyone was talking about Christians being activist, and saying that we should not be concerned about status but about function. Being a Christian was not enough, you needed to do something. You had to do theology.