Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Kill by Émile Zola #bookreview

the killTo read Zola is to be plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed. France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is, in Zola’s eyes, a dynamic society weakened  by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity.  Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart he returns to this issue, finding evidence in every quarter – government, business, religion – of a diseased nation.

In The Kill,  his focus is on some of the uncontrollable appetites that have been unleashed in such a morally corrupt society.  Lust for gold and lust of the flesh come together in the triangular relationship between the business tycoon Saccard Rougon, his unstable wife Renée and her young lover Maxime (her husband’s son.).

Saccard is a self made man; immensely rich from a business empire that takes advantage of Baron Haussman’s visionary plans to modernise and re-build the city. He buys land and property at low prices and then re-sells using vastly inflated valuations. In Zola’s portrayal, Saccard is the epitome of insatiable excess and greed, a man who, no matter how much money he possesses, can never have enough. A man who “could not be near a thing or a person for long without wanting to sell it or derive some profit from it.”

His wife Renée is the key to the fulfilment of his ambition to conquer and plunder Paris.  She’s the daughter of an old bourgeois family,  pregnant as a result of a rape. In return for marrying her to save her honour, Saccard receives a large sum of money together with Renée’s dowry in the form of some highly valuable property.

Renée is as much an item of prey ensnared by Saccard as the people whose houses and businesses are demolished to make way for his business empire. It’s her dowry and inheritance that initially funded the business.  Then, when his business schemes start collapsing, he hatches a scheme to get her to part with the deeds to her family home (worth several millions) so he can keep up the pretence of success.

Renée played right into his hands. Caught up in the whirl of a lavish lifestyle, she had often had to ask her husband to pay debts to her costumier, little guessing the consequences of her requests.

With each new bill that he paid, with the smile of a man indulgent towards human foibles, she surrendered a little more, confiding dividend-warrants to him, authorising him to sell this or that. When they moved into the house in the Parc Monceau, she already found herself stripped almost bare.

Renée doesn’t understand business or money except how to spend it in great quantities. But that’s as far as her innocence extends.  Bored by her lavish lifestyle, the carriages, the jewellery, gowns, the grand mansion and extravagant dinner parties, she craves excitement. Her desire leads to a dangerous affair with her stepson Maxime and to increasingly irrational and scandalous behaviour.

She develops a deep interest in courtesans and prostitutes. Disguised as a boy she dines at a cafe in which no women from her class would dare to be seen. She relishes the doubly  transgressive nature of the relationship with Maxime, delighting in the risk of being discovered. Towards the end of the novel, when he is clearly tiring of her attentions, she appears at a ball dressed in such a skimpy outfit, she appears to be naked.

Not until the end of the novel, when her infidelity has been discovered, does she realise she had been little more than another commodity to her husband.

She was an asset in her husband’s portfolio, he urged her to buy gowns for an evening, to take lovers for a season, he wrought her in the flames of his forge, using her as a precious metal with which to gild the iron of his hands.

The novel’s French title La Curée, refers to scraps from the prey  that are thrown to the dogs after a hunt. Zola uses the hunting symbolism throughout the novel to represent the way the Empire has enabled people to chase after money, power and influence. It was a time, Zola, reflects:

… when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches..

and when people like Saccard “swooped down on Paris … with the keen instincts of a bird of prey capable of smelling a battlefield from a long way off.”

Zola clearly has no sympathy for people like Saccard; fortune hunters whose shady transactions, would “drag the country down to the level of the most decadent and dishonoured of nations.”  But neither does he hold any affection for Maxime – an androgynous narcissistic figure  who “had vices before he had desires” – or Renée. The latter, even after she has been abandoned by husband and lover, still acts recklessly, gambling, drinking and longing for new desires.

Zola’s primary critique is not however aimed at these members of the Nouveau Riche, but at the social, political and social system that enables and indeed encourages the decline of moral standards. As he made clear in a letter to the editor of La Cloche (the magazine that serialised The Kill), the novel was the product of its time, “a plant that sprouted out of  the dungheap of the Empire.”

He thus stresses the way in which in the new Empire, wealth could be accumulated with little effort and a lot of skullduggery. Saccard’s fortune has no firm foundations, it exists on paper only.  All around him marvel at how gold flows from him in endless waves but no-one can really be sure whether in fact he had any solid, capital assets.  What Zola shows in great detail is how government funding for Haussmann’s plans  in the form of grants and loans to developers, opened the door for speculation and creative accounting. Saccard ends up acting for both sides in negotiations over some property, driving up prices to his own advantage.

A novel which describes the intricacies of investment strategies and property negotiations probably doesn’t sound very exciting. But this being a novel by Zola, The Kill is written with a high regard for dramatic tension as Renée hurtles towards her fate. It’s a gripping tale of a city undergoing rapid transformation with devastating consequences for many of its inhabitants.


About the Book

The Kill/ La Curée was the second novel in the Rogoun-Macquart cycle of twenty books. It was first serialised in La Cloche newspaper in 1872. Serialisation was suspended by the Government on the basis that if was immoral (the novel does contain many bedroom scenes), prompting Zola to write a robust defence of his work.

My edition is published by Oxford University Press, with translation by Brian Nelson. As with all other OUP editions of Zola’s novels that I’ve read, this contains an excellent introduction about the historical context of The Kill, its major themes and how it reflected Zola’s concept of naturalisation.

Why I Read this Book

I’m trying to read all of the Rogoun-Macquart novels. Those I’ve read so far are highlighted on my Zola project page. The #ZolaAddiction2019 initiative, hosted by FandaClassicLit blog. was the spur to dig out another title from my collection.

For other reviews of The Kill, take a look at the readingzola blog site 

 

The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner

The Next Big Thing  is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness. This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life. Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.

Has this all come too late? “He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him. Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents. He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.

The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.

He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art. The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.” 

He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.

Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid, and But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”

A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny  –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?

The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace. Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed. It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.

The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Brookner’s “funniest yet.” I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness  experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis.  The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion. On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman  who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.

Not one of her best unfortunately even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.

 

Milkman by Anna Burns #BookerPrize

MilkmanImagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.

Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.

Where masked  paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.

Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.

We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.

She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.

Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books.   She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property.  He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.

Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.

Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population  fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.  Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”  Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.

It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’

But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.

The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman  Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a  Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of  a creepy stalker.  She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”

It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure.   It’s certainly unconventional.  It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.


About the Book

Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.  Chair of the Booker judges,  Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous; beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist. From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world — threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads — while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman, negotiating a way between the demands of family, friends and lovers in an unsettled time.”

About the Author

Anna Burns

Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones. She wrote Milkman four years ago while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book). She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.

Why I read Milkman

Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.

It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith #bookreview

vicar of wakefieldThe Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith was one of the most popular and widely read 18th-century novels among Victorians.

I wonder what appealed most to them in this tale of  the misfortunes that beset a country priest and his family, the humour or its emphasis on the strength of the family as a social institution?

It’s a rather ‘gentle’ comedy about one of life’s innocents, Dr. Charles Primrose, whose blissful family existence is brutally interrupted when the merchant investor to whom he has entrusted his family’s fortune, absconds with all the money.  As a consequence his eldest son’s wedding with the daughter of a wealthy family is called off as a consequence. The rest of the family have to move to a more humble parish. Further mishaps follow: fire destroys their new home; a daughter is abducted by a scoundrel squire and a son is thrown into jail accused of involvement in a duel.

What’s so funny about this you might well wonder? It’s certainly not laugh out loud material, rather the kind that just makes you smile as you find Dr Primrose stumble into yet another situation that he doesn’t fully understand.

He’s a kind, good natured and well-meaning kind of man at heart. One whose spirit is dampened, but never extinguished by all the calamaties he experiences. When his money has gone he entreats his family to focus on happiness rather than trappings of gentility and to find “that every situation in life might bring its own particular pleasures.” Nothing gives him more delight than to be surrounded by his family near the fireside and he extols the virtues of married life at every opportunity.

The family is one of the key themes of the novel though Goldsmith also touches on class and gender and of course, faith. Ultimately this is a tale about a man whose devotion to his faith , though tested, doesn’t falter and who is rewarded for such devotion.

Was it an enjoyable book to read?

Not really.

I was on the point of giving up a few times. I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters or what became of them and I found the moral homilies and sermons irritating.  It was rather a dull book I thought and not one I would recommend.

I read it only because it was on my Classics Club list and it coincided with the ReadingIreland month hosted by Cathy at 746books.com


About the book

The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766 though is believed to have been written a few years earlier. According to James Boswell, Goldsmith’s biographer, the author was in some financial difficulties at the time and unable to pay the rent on his accommodation. He asked Samuel Johnson for help, mentioning he had written a book. Johnson sold a share to the bookseller Francis Newbery,  enabling Goldsmith to pay off his debts. Newberry then sat on the book for about two years.

About the author

Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish novelist, playwright and poet, whose best known work is  The Vicar of Wakefield . If however you went through the UK education system during the 60s and 70s, you may remember being forced to study another of his works:  She Stoops to Conquer . That was supposed to be a comedy too but the only reaction I can remember from my classmates is one of groans.

 

None So Blind (The Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries) by Alis Hawkins #writingWales

Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of  Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

Rebecca riots

Artist’s illustration of the Rebecca Rioters. Source: Wikipedia

In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.

The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers –  often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.

They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’

The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame. 

The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.

It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.

Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.

none so blind

Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”. 

We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation,  making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.

…  I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…

It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.

The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .

It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind  that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause.  Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:

… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.

None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of  mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a  lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.

This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.


About the Author

Author Pic Alis HawkinsAlis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.

About the Book 

None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.

Exploring the power of the mind #bookreview

healing powersI first came across the term “mindfullness” in the context of a new safety campaign at work. At the time I thought it was yet another buzz term winging its way across the Atlantic; a new trend about which we would hear endlessly for a year or so before it fizzled out like so many others.

But I kept bumping up against the term in newspapers and magazines and in radio interviews although these didn’t seem to have anything to do with safety awareness. Various ‘celebs’ seemed to be getting super excited about this mindfulness malarky  (a development which is guaranteed to get my eyes rolling). Over time certain expressions associated with this concept wormed their way into my head, the chief one of which was “being in the moment” whatever that meant. Sounded very hippy drippy to me.

It’s taken a while for me to get over that initial suspicion and I don’t claim to be anything like an expert but this year I’ve come round to thinking that there is after all more to mindfulness than I’d expected.

My ‘ah ha’ moment (conversion is far too strong a term) came during a mindfulness introductory day run by my local authority. I decided to go with an open mind. Fortunately the tutor was someone who had extensive research evidence to back up claims about the ability of the regular practice of mindfulness techniques to affect our brains, our sense of well being and our health.

Fresh with that new found insight, but wanting more, I went in search of some sitble reading material.

Oh dear. There is an awful lot of dross out there on this topic. Some books I came across contained about as much useful information as a box of detergent. Massive claims about how the practice can change your life. But little evidence about how….

But then, via NetGalley I came across a book by a man who is considered the leading expert on mindfulness, the man credited with starting the whole shabang.

Jon Kabat-ZinnJon Kabat-Zinn  has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. His work in the area of stress reduction and what became known as mindfulness, began in 1979 when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s developed the practice based on extensive research studies.

In his book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, he shares examples from his decades of experience working with people suffering anxiety, depression and stress. He’s clear that it isn’t a cure for all situations  – he doesn’t claim it cures serious illness for example – though it can boost the immune system to make you less susceptible to certain diseases. It’s more a case that the regular practice of mindfulness techniques helps rewire the mind so we can each deal with our particular challenges and make the most of what we have, whatever that might be.

Through the book we learn about a concept called brain plasticity (the astonishing ability of the brain change and reorganise itself – as evidenced by studies  showing the effects of meditation of Buddhist monks. Now in case you were alarmed, thinking that you’d have to become a monk to reap the benefits of mindfullness, rest assured Kabat-Zinn isn’t expecting that of you. In fact, some years ago he deliberately removed the Buddhist element to his teachings so that it would have wider appeal.

Reading The Healing Power of Mindfulness, I also, finally, got to understand what that phrase “being in the moment” really means – it’s about coming to terms with things as they are, not worrying about the future or revisiting the past. But just thinking about the present moment.

Stress is cause by being here, but wanting to be there, or being in the present but wanting to be in the future. It’s a split that tears you apart inside. … It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is ….

This is not an easy book to read.  Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book titled Coming to Our SensesThe Healing Power of Mindfulness is written often in a complex style that means I had to read passages more than once before I grasped the meaning. It wouldn’t be the book to read if you had no prior knowledge of mindfulness. But if you have some knowledge, and want to go further, this would be great resource. If your appetite is still not satisfied by the time you to the end, there is an extensive bibliography of additional material to explore.

 

 

Last Man in Tower by Arvind Adiga #bookreview

Mumbai skyline

Within a few minutes of arriving at Mumbai airport, passengers get their first experience of the gulf between poverty and wealth in this city. Right on the fringes of gleaming business districts and five star hotels lie some of the Mumbai’s largest slum settlements.

The contradictions of the new India – and particularly its sprawling metropolis of Mumbai – form the background to Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower.

Amid the slums of the Vakola district sits Tower A, a block of apartments that is a relic from the Vishram Society, a co-operative housing society established in the 1950s. Its residents pride themselves on their respectability and their spirit of comradeship. Though it’s not much to look at with its “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey’ facade and the tenants regularly complain about the unreliable water supply, they still consider Tower a model of a middle class abode. It’s a ‘pucca’ place to live in their eyes.

Not that they wouldn’t just as happily change it for an even swankier dwelling if the price was right.

When Dharmen Shah, an ambitious property developer, offers to buy each flat for a sum of money beyond the tenant’s wildest dreams, the residents immediately plan how they could use this new found wealth. Mr and Mrs Pinto will send some of the money to their children in America, Mrs Puri will get a better home in which to care for her 18 year son who was born with Down’s syndrome; social worker Georgina Rego, sees a way to “trump” her well-to-do sister while the Vishram Society secretary Kothari realises he can once again live in sight of the flamingos of his youth, obliterating  “all the wasted decades in between.”

Just one problem lies in their way.

Or rather one man.

Long-standing tenant, retired schoolteacher known as “Masterji”, decides that no matter how much money Shah offers him, he will not sell his apartment. It holds too many memories of the daughter killed in a railway accident and his, now dead, beloved wife.  Masterji quickly becomes the linchpin of opposition to Shah’s plans, persuading a few of his closest friends in the tower to reject the offer. Unless all of them sign, the deal will fall through.

The battle ground is drawn. Shah deploys his “left-hand man” Shanmugham to ‘persuade’ the tenants to turn on Masterji and get  him to cave in. Will Shah’s strong arm tactics prevail or will Masterji stick to his principles? Which will prove the strongest driving force:  sentimentality or material desire?

last man in the towerLast Man in Tower warmed on me ever so gradually. Initially I found the slightly comic tone used to introduce the characters rather irritating. They felt more like stereotypes than real people. That does however change as the novel gets fully into its stride. 

There were some touches of humour that worked well, particularly the scenes where the residents gather on plastic chairs to meet as a “Parliament”, the seriousness of this event undermined by the necessity for each parliamentarian to lift their feet clear of one tenant’s dirty laundry water.

But about half way through the novel became far more interesting as Adiga ratchets up the tension and forces us to switch our allegiances, not once but several times. Masterji is initially presented as  a sympathetic character who spends his afternoons breathing in the scent of his wife’s clothing but then doubts crept in about whether his highly principled stance is in fact selfish. He is denying his neighbours a brighter future. 

And yet these neighbours are not exactly squeaky clean people themselves. As the money looks to be slipping from their grasp, their behaviour deteriorates. Their frustrations are understandable. Mumbai is a city where everything is already for sale:

In the continuous market that runs right through southern Mumbai, under banyan trees, on pavements, beneath the arcades of the Gothic buildings, in which food, pirated books, perfumes, wristwatches, meditations beads, and software are sold, one question is repeated, to tourists and locals, in Hindi or in English: What do you want?

Shah’s offer simply means another opportunity for a trade is opened up. This is in a city being transformed into a landscape of silvery skyscrapers at dizzying speed. The residents just  want a piece of the action. If they don’t grasp Shah’s offer now they could lose out forever.

What Adiga shows is how their desire for a better future quickly becomes greed that drives them to behave more and more maliciously.  Gossip and mutterings are set aside in favour of ostracising the teacher. When that doesn’t work, they resort to some particularly vicious actions.

In essence this is a novel about the nature of personal corruption and what it takes to turn perfectly decent law abiding citizens into nasty, monstrous creatures. Along the way Adiga takes a pop at some of the flaws within his native India: the corruption that allows people with ambition and money the ability to thrive for example, and the ineffectiveness of the police,  legal system and the media to step in and aid people like Masterji. 

Is this a fair portrayal of Mumbai? All I can really go on to answer that is some newspaper reports I saw while visiting the city a few times in recent years. Every time I arrived, it was to see yet more apartment blocks and business districts. Yet the slums were just as much in evidence.

About the author

Aravind Adiga was born in 1974 in what is now called Chennai, and grew up in the south of India. He was educated at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford. His debut novel, The White Tiger, (the link is to my review) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008.  Last Man in the Tower, is his second novel, published in 2011.

To Catch a Killer by Emma Kavanagh #Waleswrites

to_catch_a_killerEmma Kavanagh’s training as a psychologist is very much in evidence in her most recently published novel: To Catch a Killer.

This is a taut thriller which features Detective Sergeant Alice Parr, newly returned to duty after a traumatic incident in which she almost lost her life in when her apartment caught fire. Seven months later she still bears the scars both physically and emotionally.  The scars on her face she can try and hide with concealer. The emotional turmoil is not so easy to disguise though she makes a good attempt in front of her colleagues on the murder squad.

Her latest case threatens to tip her over the edge.

She is the first officer on the scene when an attractive woman found in a local park with her throat cut and multiple stab wounds. Alice holds her hands, trying to comfort the woman until emergency medical aid arrives. The woman can barely speak but Alice thinks she hears her utter one word: wolf. 

The search begins to identify this victim and her killer.  They have few clues. No-one saw the attack although it happened in daylight and the killer must have been covered in blood. Why hasn’t anyone report her missing? Why did she have children’s toys in her pocket? They have more questions than answers the more the dig into the attack.  Every time the police think they are closing in on the potential killer, he is one step ahead.

For Alice, the hunt for the killer is more than just another case. It’s personal. The killer is taunting her, sending her direct messages in which he reveals he knows a lot about her.  She needs to find him before there are other deaths. Her boss and some of her colleagues, particularly her closest friend Poppy, are afraid she is taking this case too personally and allowing her judgement to be affected. But Alice cannot stop now.

When I started reading To Catch a Killer I did wonder how effective Alice’s personal problems would be as a device. But the more I got into the book the more reassured I became that this wasn’t just a trick. Emma Kavanagh has years of experience working with police and the armed services as a psychologist. She knows how people react in extreme situations – and how traumatic incidents impact them long after the incident itself is over. So there was an authenticity when she writes about Alice’s inability to sleep and her guilt that she is letting the victim down if she gives up her quest to find the killer.

To Catch a Killer proved to be a novel that kept me guessing. Unusually I did manage to identify the killer before the end but that wasn’t an issue because Emma Kavanagh avoids the temptation to wrap everything up neatly. Instead she leaves us with a cliff hanger that could well lead into a sequel…

About the author

Emma KavanaghEmma Kavanagh  was born in Wales and trained as a psychologist. As a psychology consultant, she has provided consultation and training services for the police force military personnel and NATO. Her first novel Falling was published in 2014 since when she has published six further titles including To Catch a Killer. She currently lives in Wales.

Hear an extract from To Catch a Killer by clicking on this link 

 

My thanks go to Orion Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of this book

Kingsley Amis in virgin territory

Take a Girl Like YouAccording to the Wikipedia notes on Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis, the author takes great care to describe minutiae in much detail. Such meticulous description, we are told, gives rise to humour and brings ‘the world of the novel as close as possible to the physical world of the reader’.

Well possibly. I see the point – and it may work for some readers – but for me this approach delivers tedious and rather boring passages. I’m afraid I had to jump ship after some 70 pages (my absolute minimum litmus test). 

Amis tends to squeeze the pips out of a scene and then jump up and down on the pulp. The impression is of a writer rather over-pleased with his verbosity.

Of course, allowances have to be made for the passage of time. Amis was one the Angry Young Men on the British literary scene in the 1950s but he was 38 when this book was published in 1960 and times were changing. As Amis’ friend Philip Larkin remarked:

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

The coy and knowing way in which Amis deals with sex in Take a Girl Like You (and it is a novel largely about sex, though without much actual sex) is slightly exasperating to the modern reader.

Like many modern readers, I am not held by ‘will she, won’t she?’ passages (unless, of course, they done well by the likes of Austen). My reaction after a dozen or so pages of attempted seduction is: ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’.

The story concerns a comely (is one still allowed to say ‘comely’?) Northern lass of 20 and her determination to hang on to her virginity until her wedding night. Jenny Bunn has moved to lodgings in a London suburb to begin teaching at a local school. Her comeliness does not go unnoticed and soon the wolves – one in particular – are circling.

Patrick Standish is the sort of stock Leslie Phillips-type character familiar to anyone who has watched those formulaic British comedy films of the 1950s and 60s (‘Ding dong! I say!’ whenever a pretty girl hoves into view; lots of drooling, eye-rolling and pitiful chat-up lines – that kind of thing.)

Kingsley Amis

Pursuit of a desirable female by such a character was regarded as a kind of hunting game; one in which the ‘prey’ really wanted be caught but insisted on a bit of chasing around the Mulberry bush  before melting in the arms of a macho charmer.

If the depictions were cringe-worthy in those days they are positively laughable now, as well as being insulting to both sexes.

I’m not getting into revisionist territory here. I appreciate that this novel was of its time and perhaps even then offered up stereotypes for comic effect. 

Comedies of manners from previous eras, satirising contemporary social mores, ridiculing conventions and so on, can still be entertaining to the modern reader (Austen, Dickens, Spark for example). But tales of the tedious sexless sex games of the 1950s have not travelled well, as this novel demonstrates.

My previous experience of Amis’ work is limited and mixed. Lucky Jim, his best-seller of the early 1950s, I found irritating, unfunny and dull while his 1980s Booker prize-winning The Old Devils is a masterwork which improves on re-reading.

Amis is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century and comes highly recommended by many writers whose opinion I respect. So I’m not giving up on old Kingsley just yet. I have several more of his novels lined up as well as a hefty biography.

But in the case of Take a Girl Like You, I’ll leave it thanks.

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

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