Mark Reece's Blog

July 5, 2020

Review- Death at Intervals

Death at Intervals Death at Intervals by José Saramago

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like all Saramago's fiction, Death at Intervals begins with a fantastical and jarring premise: in an unnamed country, it suddenly becomes impossible to die. However, people can still age, meaning that increasing numbers of the population become incapacitated. For the first half of the book, the story is told at the societal level, focusing on the effects of the absence of death on different people. Undertakers are extremely upset at the affront to their dignity, as they are forced to spend much of their time burying animals. The (Catholic like) church is worried that its theology will lose adherents once the fear of death has gone. However, in an hilarious aside, insurance companies find a way to persuade their customers to continue paying their premiums.

In the first half of the book, there are few characters, the prime minister being one of the few people to have a speaking role, as he pursues a corrupt deal with the 'maphia' to smuggle debilitated citizens over the border, where they can die and ease the country's burgeoning economic crisis.

The style is typical of Saramago's mature writing, with long, extended digressions, curious idioms that are explained at length, and speech written in extended sentences, separated by commas rather than speech marks. The general effect of this style is to create a sense of confusion and dissimulation that well reflects the chaos caused by the turn of events.

During the second part of the novel, there is an abrupt shift of focus on to the character of death, personified as a woman. It is revealed the events were caused by her going on strike, and when she returns to 'work', she decides to send purple letters to her 'victims' rather than killing them without warning. However, one day, a letter is returned. Seeking an explanation, death discovers that the person who cannot die is a cellist who lives alone. Determined to discover his secret, she takes human form and goes to meet him. Thereafter, the novel becomes a love story of sorts, as the two characters, both very lonely in their very different ways, try to communicate with one another.

I won't give away the ending, other than to say that it casts doubt on the reasons why the course of events were set in train.

Death at Intervals is a brilliant, inventive novel. As with much of Saramago's writing, it illustrates, and satirizes, social structures and ideologies, particularly the excuses that governments gives for authoritarian actions, and also the doctrines of religious organizations. However, it also gives a an extremely artful characterization of loneliness, that has apparently continued without regard to the dramatic events that dominate in the first half of the book. The only downside of such writing is that it ends.

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Published on July 05, 2020 12:18

June 29, 2020

Review- Gingerbread

Gingerbread Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried to read this book twice, but haven't got past the first fifty pages either time. I enjoy magic realism and whimsy, but this book was just dull. The characters are too irritating and self-absorbed to care about.

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Published on June 29, 2020 13:52

June 16, 2020

Review- Wisden 2020

Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2020 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2020 by Lawrence Booth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wisden largely follows the same format year after year, but it's a good one. The writing is forthright and intelligent, and the coverage comprehensive.

As always, the most enjoyable parts of the almanack are the zanier stories at the edges of the cricketing world, such as the international game abandoned because most of one team had been arrested for shoplifting, and the games that were delayed after the players were attacked by a variety of wildlife.

It's sad to imagine that perhaps there won't be an edition next year because of Coronavirus.

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Published on June 16, 2020 09:17

June 1, 2020

Review- Lifestock

Livestock Livestock by Hannah Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Livestock is an absolute riot. The story has two connected plots, the first of which concerns a group of The Thick of It style political advisors, who are trying to help the government of the day draw attention from the problems caused by a law that has legalized human cloning. The dialogue has a strong air of realism, and is simultaneously harshly cynical. The tone is set in the first scene, where the advisors discuss ways to draw attention from a minster's missteps. They consider whether he should release a charity single or find religion, before agreeing that he will buy a three legged dog with a sad backstory.

The other plot involves Clem, an entirely vapid pop star who also works as a government spokesman, supplying soundbites about how cool cloning would be and how everyone should support her 'gas aid' concert. Berry has a fantastic sense of comedic timing. In one sequence, a minister on Newsnight is being berated by a representative of a civil society group that has researched the funding of a group benefiting from human cloning. Clem sits in silence as the minister becomes more and more flustered. Suddenly, without warning, she announces that she's pregnant, which makes the presenters forget about the cloning scandal and ask her about motherhood instead. It's a brilliant sequence.

Most pop stars are signed up to political parties. With heavy irony, the main opposition to the government comes from an independent singer, Nina Malick, who annoys the government advisors by not being willing to sign up.

There is a crudity about the characterization and the plot. In particular, Clem gives every indication of being precisely what she seems: an empty headed puppet. Also, the government advisors do not show the distorted idealism that made the characters of The Thick of It so interesting. For that reason, it is probably wise that the story is kept short.

I liked the drawings, which are often bright and gaudy, accurately reflecting the mood of the book. There seem to be a plethora of grinning faces on every page, which has a somewhat disturbing cumulative effect.

I strongly recommend this graphic novel. It has the two essential qualities of successful satire, being both funny and apt. It can be easily read in one sitting, but can be enjoyed many more times, which is what one might wish of any short book.

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Published on June 01, 2020 14:02

May 25, 2020

Review- Dead Girls

Dead Girls: The Graphic Novel Dead Girls: The Graphic Novel by Richard Calder

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is of the graphic novel only, I've not read the novel it was based on.

The story is set in the near future, where humans have been infected by a virus that turns teenage girls into cybernetic 'dolls', who further transmit the virus, vampire like, to men, whose offspring will thereafter also be infected. The book tells the story of one such doll- Primavera, and a boy she infects- Iggy. They flee from London to escape the 'Human Front' government that has come to power there- a Nazi like regime that wants to kill all the dolls to 'purify the blood'. They make their way to Bangkok, where they interact with various government agents, criminal gangs, and other colourful characters.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the 'graphical' part- future London and Bangkok are both vividly rendered. Bangkok is a blade runner like site of chaos, with the omnipresent sex dolls giving the world an additional sleazy undertone. Most of the novel is based there, and the artwork is consistently arresting.

The central premise is interesting, if not strongly developed. After the move to Bangkok, the characters seem to go from one scene to the other for no obvious reason. The characters are not as compelling as the backdrop, and the dialogue varies from serviceable to bad enough to break the reader's immersion. At one point, Primavera is surrounded by goons pointing guns at her, and she says:

"Well, is that all you desiccated specimens of antediluvian slime-mould have for me?"

Erm... Her motivation for doing things is unclear, especially as she may no longer be human. Iggy's role in the novel is to spectate as Primavera goes around fighting.

The book purports to be a satire of the way men reduce women to stereotypes and deny their sexuality. That does serve as an interesting overarching premise, but is undermined by the crudity of the characters. Primavera flashes her knickers when kicking her enemies, and in other panels too. Sometimes, the purported satire felt like a pretense, with the actual goal being to show a scantily clad teenage girl as often as possible. Surely, a better way to have made the satirical point would have been to have made Primavera a more developed character.

Overall, the visuals and the original premise were good enough to make this graphical novel worth reading, despite the flawed execution.

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Published on May 25, 2020 08:02

May 16, 2020

Review- The silence of the girls

The Silence of the Girls The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a retelling of The Illiad through Briseis, who is the captured Trojan slave who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost led to the Greeks losing the war (in the mythology).

After being captured from a looted Trojan city, Briseis is kept in the Greek soldiers' camp as Achilles' 'bed girl', or slave who is forced to have sex with him. The Greek camp forms Briseis' world after she is captured, and she narrates most of the events in the novel. However, in places, the story is told from Achilles' perspective, particularly when events occur that are important to the plot but that Briseis could not know about. This adds an element of irony to a story that is purportedly told from the perspective of 'the girls'.

The book has a tone of semi-realism. Most of the Greek soldiers are depicted as crude, often drunk, thugs and rapists. As they also are in The Illiad, of course, although in that telling, more elevated language is used. On the other hand, Barker decides to keep several fantasy elements in the story, such as Achilles' goddess mother bringing him a new set of armour. I wonder whether a chance was missed to provide a more likely explanation for those events; perhaps the author did not want to stray too far from the original plot, nevertheless, those aspects of the story were a little jarring.

Some of the dialogue is also a little odd on occasion; characters often use modern phrases and idioms. Trying to replicate the language of a culture of several thousand years ago carries the risk of inaccuracy, and looking ridiculous, but nevertheless, I think a little more effort should have been taken in that direction.

Briseis is an interesting character, and the strength of her narration is key to the novel. The author does a good job of depicting the mentality of slave keeping- not necessarily in gross mistreatment (although there is some of that), but in petty ways, such as the slave not being noticed, or referred to as 'it'. On one occasion, Briseis remarks that some people mistakenly think that slaves are people being treated as things, whereas in reality, they are things.

Her attitude towards her captors, and Achilles in particular, contains real psychological depth. Oftentimes, she hates them, and silently wills on their Trojan counterparts. However, whenever people live in close proximity over a period of time, relationships form that are not driven purely by hatred and opposition. Achilles' second in command, Patroclus, shares a few kind words with Briseis, something that she cannot at first understand. In time, she comes to see him as a friend. Although in one sense she always hates Achilles, who has killed many members of her family then repeatedly raped her, the intimacy in which they live gives their relationship a deeply ambiguous character. At one point, Briseis thinks about killing Achilles with a pair of scissors. Achilles intuits what she is thinking and asks her why she doesn't do it, making no effort to stop her. Briseis thinks that it is because Achilles' companions would torture her to death afterwards, which would of course be true. However, it is also the case that she has come to know Achilles too well by that point to easily kill him.

Moreover, Briseis recognizes that even if the Trojans win the war and take back their woman, her previous status would not necessarily be restored, as the Trojans would consider her, and the other slaves, to be tainted by their time they have spent with the Greeks. Being captured has rendered Briseis, and the other captured women, stateless.

The silence of the girls is a success. It is compelling written, has a complex and interesting central character, and adds something significant to the Trojan war myth.

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Published on May 16, 2020 16:20

May 1, 2020

Review- Dead Souls

Dead Souls Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The five star rating is strictly in relation to the first part of the book, for reasons I'll explain below. The protagonist of the novel, Chichikov, is a fraudster, who takes advantage of a tax loophole in feudal Russia, whereby peasants (or 'souls') continue to be bound to an estate for a period after their death, making the landowner liable for additional taxes. Chichikov travels around Russia, enriching himself by buying 'dead souls'. This serves as an incisive critique of feudalism in which peasants are treated as property, regardless of the author's intentions.

Many of the landowners Chichikov meets are very bizarre- including compulsive liars and gamblers, and many who are mean and greedy. The depictions are hilarious, particularly Korobochka, who is an extremely dim widow. Korobochka is worried about being cheated and constantly asks Chichikov what is the real price of a dead soul, which results in him becoming exasperated. The novel quickly gains a surreal air, particularly when the author insists that the characters are eternal types who are to be found everywhere in Russia. In fact, of course, they are heightened artistic creations. It is this strange contrast between the insistence of normality, and the unusual nature of the plot that heightens the tone of the novel.

When visiting a town, Chichikov visits various dignitaries and soon becomes popular, as people believe him to be very wealthy. In this way, the shallowness of the small landowners and middle classes is made hilariously stark.

Gogol was a Russian nationalist and a reactionary who supported feudalism. The oddness of his political beliefs are sometimes evident in the text. Peasants are always drunk and lazy, and can only be brought under control by being beaten by a paternal overseer. There is nothing more decadent than learning French or going to university; virtue is to found solely in the stolid virtues of working the soil. The novel is full of silly asides about the 'Russian soul'. However, at least in the first part, these are largely tongue in cheek, and don't detract from the story, but rather add to the general sense of unreality.

The first part of the novel ends with an extraordinary chapter, which gives a potted history of Chichikov's life. This adds a lot of depth to the character and casts a heavy sense of both irony and poignancy over the events hitherto. The technique of giving a detailed background of a character only after a series of events, which then casts the interpretation of those events into doubt, is one that Gogol also used in his short stories, and is very effective.

Dead souls is an unfinished novel, as Gogol destroyed much of the manuscript of the second and thirds sections, following an emotional breakdown. The second part of the novel, at least that which has been recovered, is inferior. Gogol seems to have intended the remainder of the book to describe Chichikov's redemption. Of course, the extent to which he was happy with the recovered manuscript is unknown. In any case, the text is moralistic, dogmatic, and lifeless, with the characters reduced to ciphers that crudely shoehorn the author's political views into the text.

Putting aside the unfinished chapters, this is a brilliant work of literature by an author who creates an genre of his own. A curiously case of a man who understood the world so little, yet was able to describe it so well.

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Published on May 01, 2020 19:54

April 29, 2020

Story accepted

I've had a short story, 'the cosmic jigsaw', accepted for Stand magazine-

The decision only took three weeks- efficiency certainly feels better when the result is acceptance.
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Published on April 29, 2020 12:35

April 14, 2020

Review- a brief history of time

A Brief History of Time A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There were parts of this book that I did not understand- perhaps as one would expect, otherwise, I would myself be a theoretical physicist. However, I did learn a great deal from it, and it's definitely a book that I'll re-read at some point, which is absolutely what one would want from a science book written for a general audience.

Hawking sets the scene for the findings of modern science by discussing previous models of cosmology, such as the ancient idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, and that the sun revolves around the earth. He then gives a potted history of the central ideas underpinning modern physics, most of which concern gravitational forces and how they influence matter both on the large scale- celestial bodies- and on the tiny scale- atoms.

For the most part, Hawking is a good writer, and many of the chapters highlight his wonder at the scale and majesty of the universe, in addition to his sense of fun. He plainly enjoyed a silly anecdote and a witty turn of phrase. This means that although some of the ideas expressed are hard to understand for a lay reader, the book never feels imposing.

At a few points, the figurative language used seemed a little uneven. For example, Hawking suggests that the universe might be like the earth, in that it possesses neither a beginning or an end; one can travel around the earth without ever 'falling off'. It's possible that only the analogy is faulty here rather than the idea (as I'm not qualified to assess the idea), but I found this very confusing, as the earth has a boundary. If one flies up, one eventually leaves the earth behind. I suspect Hawking doesn't mean to imply that one could leave the universe by going the fourth dimensional equivalent of 'up'.

Also, a few of the ideas were expressed only in passing and could have been unpacked a little more. For example, Hawking at one point suggests that the universe would have been infinitely dense and have no size before the big bang. Although elsewhere, he says that the rules of causality did not apply prior to the big bang, that sentence indicated that something that can be labelled 'the universe' could at one point be said to contain no properties. Perhaps this is just being greedy in a book so packed with ideas, but I'd have liked to know what that meant.

I was much less convinced by the passages where Hawking comments on philosophy and the philosophical implications of his work. For example, at one point, he states that the uncertainty principle has great implications for philosophy that philosophers have not worked through because of their ignorance of physics. On the description given in the book, the uncertainty principle limits the ability of an observer to establish causality because measuring matter changes the properties of matter. This clearly undermines scientific determinism- the ability to predict everything if one knew the properties of all matter in the universe, but not necessarily determinism per se. It may be the case that determinism is true, but that finite beings cannot learn enough to establish universal causality in practice. As is often the case, a person with brilliant knowledge in one subject can overreach when discussing another.

However, despite the difficulties I've outlined, this is a book that I would recommend without question to any general reader. It is well written, compelling, even thrilling, which is not a description one often applies to work of theoretical physics.

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Published on April 14, 2020 14:53

April 3, 2020

Review- Memoirs of a geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is novelistic in the best possible way. That is, the tone is always heightened; it is passionate in a somewhat otherworldly way. Every aspect of the lives it portrays, even the mundane and squalid ones, are clearly meant as part of a narrative. That is what makes it a compelling work of art.

The central character, Chiyo (as she is known at the start of the book), is taken as a young girl from the small fishing village she grew up, after a local businessman notices how beautiful she is. She is sent to Kyoto to train as a geisha, where she is immediately subject to harsh discipline, in a world where the madam of the okiya (geisha establishment) where she is being trained, thinks nothing of sticking her fingers into the girls under her care to check whether they have had sex.

Chiyo suffers terrible bullying by an older geisha living with her- Hatsumomo- and while waiting to see if she will be trained, a chance encounter with a kind man on the street (known as 'The Chairman') is often on her thoughts, setting up a romantic sub-plot that runs throughout the novel.

The novel is made by its sophisticated characterization. Chiyo is at first unquestionably sympathetic. Bullies are most frightening in small worlds- and the world of Chiyo's okiya is very small indeed. Hatsumomo is spiteful and malicious, and the reader is cheered by each of Chiyo's tiny victories over her adversary. Chiyo is a clever girl, often thinking and speaking in extended metaphors, which both makes her endearing, and annoys some of the people around her.

However, after a time, a more complex picture emerges. Politics- in the form of the establishment of a military government in Japan in the run up to the second world war, then the war itself, feature in Chiyo's mind only allusively, as idle thoughts, before she returns her focus on becoming a more successful geisha. It is at this point that Chiyo's obsession with The Chairman and the social niceties of Kyoto society start to seem like willfully contrived ignorance, rather than innocence, as they did when Chiyo entered her okiya as a young girl. Chiyo seems beset by a poverty of ambition- her training has taught her that the best she can hope for in life is to obtain a wealthy male 'danna' (patron), and despite her sometime rebelliousness, she has accepted that without question.

It is at this point that the reader starts to notice that Chiyo has become devious in her social interactions and cannot give a straight answer to any question asked of her. It is her geisha training that is in part responsible for making her this way, of course. It is this subtle switch, from an unabashed sympathetic character to a flawed but in some ways still admirable one, that makes Chiyo an interesting protagonist.

Many of the other characters are also vividly portrayed, such as Mother, the head of Chiyo's okiya, who is money grubbing and cunning. Auntie, another important character in the okiya is described in hilariously memorable terms. She is hideously mean and ugly, with skin damaged by cosmetics, who treats her servants like slaves, forcing them to rub her feet, amongst other, less agreeable tasks. I haven't read a more memorably physically repulsive character since the eponymous antagonists of Roald Dahl's 'The Twits'.

The language used throughout the book is elegant and refined, reflecting the rarefied society in which the book is based, and also of the geisha themselves, where cleverness in conversation and turn of phrase is valued. Despite the complexity of the book, with its multiple characters and themes, it is very readable. It's certainly a book that I felt compelled to read multiple chapters of during every sitting. And that is the reason why I would unhesitatingly recommend the book to anyone, whether or not they have an interest in Japanese culture.

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Published on April 03, 2020 15:05