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Archive for the category “books”

The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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The Secret History (book review)

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A crime novel, but not a whodunit, because you know who did it right from the first page. But the crime is central to the lives of the main characters.

I read this book because it was recommended in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels of the latter half of the 20th century. I don’t rate it quite as highly as that, but nevertheless found it quite an interesting read.

It takes the form, almost, of a student diary. I kept a diary as a student, but not in as much detail. This one weighs in at over 600 pages covering one academic year; mine for any one year was not more than 200. So the book goes into great detail, including what they ate, what they drank, what they smoked and how they smoked it,

In some ways the detail enhances the book. A middle-class small-town Californian student, Richard Papen, goes to study at Hampden College in Vermont. The landscape is unfamiliar to him, so he describes it in detail. I found that useful; not having been to Vermont it helped me to picture the scene, and not to mix it up with universities that I am familiar with.

Having done some ancient Greek at his previous college, Papen decides that he wants to major in it, but is advised against this. The professor, Julian Morrow, is fussy about which students he takes, and indeed rejects Papen at first, though when he accidentally helps some of the other students on the course in the library, he is eventually accepted, and becomes part of an elite group of six students who hang out together. The others all seem to have rich parents, though one of them, Bunny Corcoran, does not receive much support from his parents, and behaves like the last of the great spongers. It is Bunny who is eventually murdered by his fellow students.

The setting is the late 1970s or early 1980s, when personal computers were rare and smoking less outré, though the classics students, unlike most of the students of those days, go round in formal dress, the males in suits and ties, and even braces, even when working in the garden. The more casually dressed students they despise as “hippies”, under which label they seem to lump everyone who doesn’t fit their social model.

The leader of the group is Henry Winter, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of money. In the book Richard Papen does not, however, play Boswell to Winter’s Johnson, or treat him as the Great Gatsby, though there are echoes of those works in his writing from the periphery, observing the great man. It is only in retrospect that Papen recognises how much influence Henry Winter had over others in the group and so his descrip[tions are of his perceptions of the others, and he is quite self-effacing; we know what the others look like, because we see them through his eyes, but we never see him through their eyes.

The central theme of the book is the effects of their crime on members of the group — both in planning it and in trying to avoid discovery afterwards. Though in some ways the central group are the privileged among the privileged, and somewhat eccentric in their old-fashioned ways and manner of dress, in others they are fairly ordinary students, and their crimes are not those of monsters exiled from the human race. Crime is not confined to the “criminal classes”, nor are the criminals uniquely monstrous. What comes across is the banality of evil. Somehow amid their normal student pursuits — drinking, arguing, playing cards and, occasionally, studying — they murder one of their fellow students. In a way this book falls somewhere between Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby, but it isn’t as good as either.

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White writing, dark materials

On Thursday 4th January 2018 we got together at Cafe 41 with David Levey and Tony McGregor for our monthly literary coffee klatsch.

David said he had been reading a book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage, that was supposed to be a prequel to His Dark Materials, and thought it lacked a sense of purpose. Pullman is apparently also planning to write a kind of postquel, or requel, as he calls it.

That got us chatting about other books where a book was followed by others to form a trilogy, which wasn’t as good as the first book, or the first trilogy. I thought of Dune, where the sequels were mediocre at best, and didn’t nearly live up to the original. Val mentioned Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the first trilogy was quite good, but the second seemed to be running out of ideas. Another was William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, which was followed by five others, each one worse than the one preceding it. And probably the worst of all was the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best science-fiction books I have read, whereas the sequel was one of the worst. Some people have only one book in them. David said he thought that Madeleine l’Engle’s books worked with sequels, though I haven been able to read more than the first two, because they are hard to find in book shops.

I have been reading J.M. Coetzee’s White writing and I find it more interesting than his novels, and David agreed that he thought Coetzee a better critic than author, in spite of his having won the Nobel Prize for literature and all. I have learned quite a lot about European art history from the book — Coetzee points out that the first writers about the southern African landscape were schooled in the European picturesque style, and nothing in southern Africa fitted it.

We talked a bit about the plaasroman, which Coetzee deals with in some detail, and Val mentioned three in the genre by Elizabeth Vermeulen (none of them mentioned by Coetzee), She had had one of them as a school set book, and it was the most interesting of their school set books, far more interesting than Thomas Hardy, which they also had. . She had mentioned this to a work colleague, who had found her copies of Vermeulen’s trilogy: Towergoud, Fata Morgana and Reënboog in die skemering.

Tony McGregor mentioned Alan Paton’s account of a journey to Malawi in search of the Mountains of the Moon, and David promised to send us a copy of his thesis on Alan Paton’s early writing, which was very different from his later works. I had thought that the Mountains of the Moon were further north than Malawi, and once read an adventure story about an expedition to find them that involved airships, probably written in the 1930s, about the same period as Alan Paton’s expedition.

In the abstract of his thesis David notes:

Paton’s earliest, fragmentary novel, ‘Ship of Truth’ (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, ‘Brother Death’ (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story ‘Little Barbee’ (1928?), his short story ‘Calvin Doone’ (1930), his third novel, ‘John Henry Dane’ (1934), and a novel or novella, ‘Secret for Seven’ (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive

Perhaps that can form the basis of future discussions. I tend to find the concept of “identity” rather vague and problematic
as I have noted here.

Tony told some stories about his ancestors in the Eastern Cape, and David also seemed interested, so we recommended that he get the RootsMagic genealogy program and link it to the FamilySearch site.



Saving a tokoloshe and jumping the shark

Tokoloshe SongTokoloshe Song by Andrew Salomon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me quite a while to get into this book, because the characters and their roles in the story are introduced in separate chapters, with no apparent connection between them. Richard Nevis helps out at a shelter for abused tokoloshes. Toby is intimidated by Kras (who appears to be very rich) into stealing something for him. Two midwives wander round in long coats. A bloke is conducting surveillance on someone (who has nothing to do with the story) in Mumbai. Another bad guy has a couple of hangers on who are not midwives.

When the characters come together and you see how they connect, the story starts to move a bit, and eventually moves out of Cape Town to Nieu Bethesda, though it doesn’t stay there for long. What was quite nice about that was that I could actually picture several of the places, having been to some of them, though following the directions in the book will not get you to Nieu Bethesda from Graaff Reinet.

The tokoloshes in the book are not the fairy-like creatures of popular folklore, but rather shy and rare animals that are calmed down by singing, hence the title.

I was enjoying it and was getting ready to give it four stars, but then in the penultimate chapter it jumped the shark, literally as well as figuratively, so I gave it three instead.

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Steinbeck: American or British?

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is a place of fish processing plants, a marine biology lab, a grocery shop and a brothel. Steinbeck describes some of the characters who live there, and the efforts of a group of semi-homeless people to organise a party for the marine biologist who runs the lab, and is regarded as a benefactor by most of the people who live on the street.

It reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is written about the other side of the USA, and may have been inspired by Cannery Row, but this one is much lighter, and there is more humour.

One thing I did find rather annoying, however, is that the edition I read was published in the UK, and the publishers had decided to use their own British house style for spelling and terminology. House style is all very well, but when it is obviously alien to the setting of the book it is distracting. So “curb” has been changed to “kerb” (or has it? Maybe Americans in general, or Steingback in particular, spelt it that way in the 1930s). It made me pause and wonder what other liberties the publishers had taken with the text. Would a bunch of down-and-outs living in California in the 1930s really have filled a truck with petrol? Or would they rather have used gasoline? Or did Americans actually speak of petrol back then, and is gasoline thus a more recent innovation?

In some books this might not be so important, but Cannery Row is mainly about the place and the people who live in it — the plot is pretty sketchy. So inauthentic dialogue is a distraction for the reader.

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On the Eve by Turgenev

On the EveOn the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a lot about Ivan Turgenev, especially in connection with nihilism, but this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read, mainly because it’s the first one I’ve seen. I picked it up from a toss-out box at the Russian Church in Midrand. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

It’s a story about romantic love and romantic nationalism during the build-up to the Crimean War There’s not a breath of nihilism in it that I could discern.

Concerning nationalism, I was once inveigled into joining a web site called Quora, where people ask questions and other people try to answer them, though most of them are quite unanswerable, and if you want examples of “begging the question”, you’ll find plenty on Quora. One of those questions was Why is nationalism bad?. I was tempted to respond with corollary question: Why is imperialism good?.

On the Eve will not answer either question. But what it does do is give a sympathetic portrayal of the nationalist hero, which, I think, shows insight into the mindset of 19th-century romantic nationalists. Though the hero is not a poet, and is in fact rather prosaic, he did remind me of romantic poets like Byron and Shelley who sympathised with nationalist struggles in the Balkans.

Twentieth-century nationalism seems somehow to have been less romantic. There were plenty of nationalist struggles in Africa and elsewhere against imperialist powers, and some of them generated poetry and novels, but nothing, to my knowledge, as overtly romantic as this.

To the person who asked “Why is nationalism bad?” on Quora, I would recommend this book. As I said, it won’t answer the question, but it may show why it is the wrong question to ask. When it comes to the question whether nationalism is good or bad, a brief answer is “It’s complicated”, and I’ve written more about it here Orthodoxy and nationalism and here Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, but that goes a long way beyond Turgenev’s book.

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A churchy whodunit

The Martyr's ChapelThe Martyr’s Chapel by Dudley J. Delffs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An American Episcopalian (or Whiskeypalian, as one of the characters puts it) version of Father Brown solves the mystery of a murder in an almost disused chapel in a quiet university town in Tennessee. Father Griffin Reed’s sister Bea is also a would-be Miss Marple, but she doesn’t solve the mystery, so doesn’t actually make it.

It also reminded me a bit of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman, with its diocesan exorcist-turned-detective protagonist. I wonder if the murder-mystery in a churchy setting is becoming a genre in its own right.

It is not, however, quite up to the standard of G.K. Chesterton or Phil Rickman. For one thing, Dudley J. Delffs doesn’t get the church background and setting quite right. “Divine” seems a very improbable name for an Anglican/Episcopalian cathedral, and the author clearly doesn’t have a clue about the role of deacons and the diaconate in an Anglican setting, which makes it feel rather inauthentic.

The author tends to go into great detail about the characters’ clothing. Perhaps to those familiar with the culture this will send cultural signals that I, having never been to Tennessee, may miss. I was picturing wing tips as a kind of collar, until the author described them as tapping on the floor. There is also an almost Enid Blytonish feel to the descriptions of food and eating.

In spite of these shortcomings, however, it’s quite a readable story, and as a whodunit it kept me wondering who the villain was until almost the last chapter.

I also learned things about American culture that I hadn’t known before. Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving I’d heard of, as important US cultural festivals, but apparently there is a third, at about the same time of the year — Homecoming. I had to Google to look it up — perhaps it isn’t as controversial as the other two, and so seems to be less discussed on the Internet. It also seems that, as the US academic year finishes with Commencement, it commences with Homecoming. I suppose the nearest thing to that in my student days in South Africa was the annual charity Rag, but I don’t know if they have those any more.

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Falling man

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange book. The title relates to a performance artist, David Janiak, who emulates those who jumped or fell from the World Trade Center when the two towers caught fire after planes crashed into them. Using a safety harness, he hangs himself from various structures around New York. But he gives no explanation of his behaviour.

The protagonist is Keith Neudecker, whose office was below the fire, and so he was able to escape, and instead of going home, he went to the home of his estranged wife, and is reunited with her, and their son Justin, whose age is not mentioned until much later in the book, and it turns out that he is about 7 when his father comes home.

The book follows Keith and his wife Lianne, and to some extent their son Justin over three years. It purports, in the blurb, to show how the events of 11 Septermber 2001 affected American consciousness, but I must be dim, because I didn’t see it. Several of Keith’s poker buddies are dead, so for a while he doesn’t play poker, but then resumes. Lianne continues her work with Alzheimer’s patients, and is rather distressed by their inevitable deterioration. But the fall of the towers seems to have nothing to do with this.

We are told little about their lives before the fall of the World Trade Center, so it is not really possible to see how their lives have been changed. The story is not clear, and it is often difficult to tell whose experience is being described.

In spite of this, however, I found it compelling reading. I wasn’t bored, and read to the end of the book.

If you want to read a better review, try this one Inner Diablog: Falling Man, which I largely agree with. But I didn’t feel I could say much about the book, but rather about some thoughts it provoked in me. One thing that struck me in the book was Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients. She encourages them to write down their memories while they can, and when one of them can no longer do this, they want to wrote about her. That struck me as very sad, but it would have been sad with or without the fall of the World Trade Center.

Another thing that struck me was that within a couple of days of the events, reporting on them stopped. For two days we were saturated with images of planes flying into buildings, the buildings burning and then collapsing, and then it all suddenly stopped. In other such disasters one often find that within a few months a book is published, with stories of witnesses and survivors, explaining what happened. But in this case there was a strange silence. I believe there is now a TV documentary showing, but 16 years later. Kids like Justin in the book would now be 23.

And so I wonder if this silence is why the book about it is a work of fiction, but really what is needed is for survivors to tell their own stories. Perhaps they did, in New York, so maybe I’m missing something that was there all along, but it it seems to me the kind of topic that doesn’t lend itself to fictional treatment.

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Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

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Nauseating words

I’ve occasionally read articles about words that people hate. Apparently one of the most disliked words in the English language is “moist”.

But this article reminded me of two of my least favourite words — 2 New ‘Harry Potter’ Books Are Coming This October:

Harry Potter fans have yet another reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the iconic wizarding franchise: They’re getting two new books this October.

For me two of the most nauseating words are “franchise” and “brands”, but “iconic” comes a pretty close third.

Harry Potter is a fictional character in a series of books. Why call him a “franchise”? Why are so many sports teams called “franchises” nowadays. These words do have proper uses. I have no objection to referring to a fast-food joint like KFC as a “franchise” where it means that they have been licensed to use the KFC brand and logos even though they are independently owned. But call it a franchise when referring to their business model;, not to the stuff they sell (ground up chicken beaks and gizzards called “nuggets”).

But how many authors have been licensed to write Harry Potter books? How many sports teams around the world (or even the UK) have been licensed to call themselves “Manchester United” or “Norwich City”? As far as I know, one and one only in each instance. That doesn’t make them a franchise, or anything remotely like it.

And all this talk about “brands” — are you interested in “brands”? Yes, I’ve seen online questionnaires that ask that. Should I say yes, I’m interested in brands. I really do prefer KFC to Ford, for example. Fried chicken gets me from A to B so much faster than a motor car, Dettol plays much better cricket than the Titans.

But perhaps I’m alone in this. “Brands”, “franchise” and “iconic” don’t seem to have made these lists, no matter how high they are on mine “Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates | Thought Catalog, and 11 Gross-Sounding Words Everyone Hates To Hear, According To Science.

The SAfm radio station has a Sunday morning programme on media, and “brands” feature pretty prominently in it.

Samuel Maverick

It all makes me rather sympathetic to Samuel Maverick, whose name entered the English language because he never branded his cattle. Unbranded cattle that did not belong in the herd were called “mavericks”. Later it came to be applied to people who didn’t follow the herd, like politicians who didn’t toe (or nowadays “tow”) the party line. Like Makhosi Khoza. I suppose that’s why I like to read the Daily Maverick. And why I would like to see Makhosi Khoza as our next president.

So the more talk I hear of “brands”, the more I think of Samuel Maverick. No matter what else he did, he made an important and much-needed contribution to the English language.

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