Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “books”

A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

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All of a winter’s night

All of a Winter's NightAll of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose one could sum it up by saying this this book is to morris dancing what The nine tailors by Dorothy Sayers is to church bell ringing.

I looked at this book very carefully before buying it, to make sure that it was not Midwinter of the spirit sneakily published under a different title, since they have republished old Phil Rickman books under new titles before, as a trap for the unwary.

It turned out, however, that I had not read this one before.

Phil Rickman‘s early books were of the fantasy/horror genre, but he seems to have been moving in his more recent ones more towards the crime and detective genre. In this one, however, he seems to have been trying to give equal prominence, switching scenes between the Revd Merrily Watkins, Church of England Vicar of Ledwardine in Herefordshire, who is also the diocesan exorcist, but with the updated and rather twee title of “deliverance consultant”, and Hereford detectives Annie Howe and Francis Bliss who do their detecting while trying to keep their affair secret from their colleagues.

It’s a while since I’ve seen a new Phil Rickman book — as I noted, the last one turned out to be a false alarm, mutton dressed as lamb. Perhaps I have rosy memories of his style, or perhaps his writing style has changed, but I found this one stylistically disappointing. I don’t know whether is writing style has got worse, or whether I have just become more critical.

One of the problems is that he has sudden changes of scene, but the characters are only indicated by pronouns. So you have “he said” and “she said”, but only halfway through the paragraph do you realise that the he and she are not the same people who were in the previous paragraph, and go back to the beginning and read it with different characters in mind.

In the first few chapters, in Particular, it looks as though Rickman has been reading the elementary text books on fiction writing that give advice to wannabe writers — especially the advice to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. The problem is that for the first 15 chapters or so the build up to the cliffhanger falls flat in the next chapter, so that every chapter begins with an anticlimax. This becomes tiresome after a while. So one learns that people have been terrible things in a churchyard. It turns out to have been morris dancing.

I first learnt about morris dancing from the comic strip The Perishers, which appeared in the Daily Mirror back in the 1960s. The role of the morris men in the comic strip was never terribly clear, but they struck me as nostalgic old gits who were trying to keep alive imagined traditions of a Merrie England that had never existed. Twenty years later I saw them performing in real life in a series of church fetes in Pretoria, the ind of events announced on their posters as a “Fayre”. I once made a video juxtaposing them with a group of Pedi women doing a folk dance in what is now Limpopo province, but was then called the Northern Transvaal. Two folk traditions, one local, the other imported.

Rickman tried to introduce morris dancing as though it was uncanny, spooky and scary, but in my experience, however, it was just quaint and nostalgic, and morris men no more sinister than people who liked going around ringing church bells.

As the book goes on it gets better, at least as far as the plot is concerned, and I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that ultimately the villain turns out to be capitalism, especially as exemplified by property developers. In that it doesn’t differ much from some of the other more recent Phil Rickman books.

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Okavango gods

Okavango GodsOkavango Gods by Anthony Fleischer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On one level this is a teenage love story set in Shakawe in north-western Botswana. On another level it is a story of a devastating flood, which the author relates to the ancient Middle-Eastern flood stories of Gilgamesh and Noah.

A fisherman’s son and talented woodcarver, Pula Barotse, and his friend, the village doctor’s daughter, Julia Pinto, face the beginning of the flood together, and gradually Pula falls in love with Julia. Pula is black and Julia is white, they come from different backgrounds and cultures, and the flood both draws them together and yet places another barrier between them. There is an American pilot who has come to rescue the flood victims, and who who also falls in love with Julia, and quite a large part of the story is told from his point of view.

There is a villain, Potlako Lereng, a Mosotho, who pops up at odd moments in the story and does nasty things to the other characters, but his motives are never explained other than that he is a “maniac” and a “terrorist” and comes from Thaba Bosiu, the mountain of night, which is made to sound ominous, but with no explanation. I got the impression that the author had a deep prejudice against the Basotho people, and he made Lesotho sound like Mordor, and the Basotho had come to the Okavango delta like orcs, to ravage and destroy.

The Okavango River near Shakawe, Botswana

There are all the ingredients for a good story, star-crossed lovers, a dramatic event, an evil villain, yet somehow it does not gel. In that respect it reminded me of another novel I read several years ago, Odtaa by John Masefield. Odtaa stands for “one damn thing after another”, and in some ways real life may seem like that, but it makes for boring fiction.

I’ve been to Shakawe, or at least passed through it, and took a boat ride up the Okavango river there, so I can picture many of the scenes described in the book — the bee-eaters nesting in the river banks, the crocodiles and hippos, the reeds and the fish eagles. So the descriptions are evocative, but the events themselves and the motives of the characters remain obscure.

*** spoiler alert ***

If you have not read the book and might like to, some of what follows may give away elements of the plot.

Towards the end of the book Pula and Julia go to the Tsodilo Hills, about 40 km west of Shakawe. During the flood Pula has planned to go there by boat, but it seems that the flood waters have receded. So the implication is that they have walked, a day or two after Julia has been desperately ill, at death’s door. The rescue plane gets stuck in the mud. How that happened is not explained, just hinted at. Pula’s father, John Barotse, suddenly decides to attack a crocodile with a small axe, but his motive is not explained. Potlako Lereng pops in and out of the story, threatening or doing nasty things to people for no apparent reason. It is clear that he is a bully, and behaves like one, but most of his actions, except for the last, do not really contribute to the story.

There is a traditional healer, Bubi. She is part diviner, part healer, part witch. That is credible. Healers can turn to the dark side and become witches just as security guards can turn to the dark side and help burglars. Her name suggests evil, but that may just be me — ububi is the Zulu word for evil, but she is not Zulu-speaking, and it may mean something completely different in her language, though with the menace the author tries to put on the Mountain of Night, ind with his refferring to he as a witch, it is quite possible that he is trying to suggest by her name that she is evil. Julia fears her, though whether this is just cultural prejudice, or because she fears real evil, is not made clear.

I’ve also visited Lesotho, and only a few days ago blogged about one journey there, at the age of 17. And shortly before or after that trip I also read the novel Blanket Boy’s Moon, which describes the ritual murders that lie behind some of the menace in Okavango gods. It was from reading that that I first learned of the practice of female circumcision, which I found almost as horrifying as the ritual murders. But the menace that author Anthony Fleischer ascribes to Thaba Bosiu seems misplaced. In Lesotho history it has an honoured place as a mountain of refuge and not does not have the Mordot-like qualities that Fleischer attributes to it.

In the end Bubi tries to drug Julia, though her motive for doing so is unclear, and Julia attacks her, with motives that are also unclear. She could have simply tried to escape, but in the end she has become like Potlako Lereng, who appears as a deus ex machina to threaten her once again.

It could (in my view) have been a much better book if the events had been described — Julia becoming ill, the grounding of the rescue plane, the journey to the Tsodile Hills — rather than just being hinted at, and also if the motives of the characters had been explained.

But in its present form it really is just one damn thing after another.

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The Western Canon

I took this book out of the library because I had read about it and its author online, and was curious to know more. I won’t, however, be adding it to my books on GoodReads because I doubt that I’ll finish it, which means that it would stay forever in my “Currently Reading” queue.

Is “The Western Canon” a thing? That’s what I was hoping to find out by reading The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, except that the opening chapter is “An Elegy for the Western Canon”, so apparently if it was a thing, it is so no longer, and all that is left is a lament that it is no more.

I resorted to two of my favourite reference books for such things to find out whether the Western Canon is a thing, and if so what kind of a thing it is. But neither The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature nor The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought had anything to say about it, either under “Western” or “canon”. The latter did note that “western” was “a perennially popular genre in American cinema since 1903”, but that was about it.

So what am I to make of the Western Canon, other than that it is a list of books that Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University in the USA, happened to like? And his elegy seems to be a lament that there were other people who either didn’t like those books, or who liked other books that didn’t happen to be on his particular list.

In my youth I studied English at university for three years. I never got to be an English Major, however, because I repeated English I three times, twice at Wits University, and once at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP, now UKZN). I passed each time, but they wouldn’t give me credit for it.

At UNP I learned all about canons. Back in the 1960s the English Department there followed the Leavisite canon of D.H. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence and D.H. Lawrence. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad were permissible but everything else was taboo. One English Honours student once noticed a copy of Ulysses on a professor’s desk. We speculated that he might have confiscated it from a wayward student. My friend, Ritchie Ovendale (where is he now?) asked if he should read it, and was advised against it, as it might leave his critical faculties impaired.

The Wits English Department was a bit more broadminded. They included E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and William Golding in their set works for English I, but I was sad that I never made it to English II. I attended more of the English II lectures, though, because there was a lecturer, Cronin, whose lectures were packed with students who were not taking his courses, because of his wit. Even engineering students came along for the entertainment.

Bloom appears to like Dante and Milton, though I’ve tended to avoid both of them, out of pure prejudice, possibly. When I was 13 I used to pore over a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy owned by some friends. What interested me, however, was not so much the text as the illustrations by Gustav Doré. And Doré managed to make hell look a lot more interesting than paradise or heaven.

But since then I’ve steered clear of them. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are two wrong attitudes one can take to the devil and his minions, the “lowerarchy”. One is to pretend that they do not exist, and the other is to take an unhealthy interest in them. At 13, influenced by Doré, I was beginning to take an unhealthy interest in the lowerarchy, trying to classify demons and the like according to their infernal ranks. And I suspect that Dante and Milton have had a big influence on Western theology in areas where it differs from Orthodox theology. For one thing, there is no purgatory in Orthodoxy. There are occasional theological disputes about toll houses, but I don’t think either Dante or Milton mentioned those. Yes, it’s prejudice, but until I can read an Orthodox equivalent, I’ll give them a miss. Reading them might impair my critical theological faculties or something.

So I’m not much wiser about the Western Canon. Is there an Eastern Canon?

 

 

 

 

Russophobia: the key to success in Anglo-American politics

It seems that the surest path to failure in politics in the US and the UK is not to be Russophobic enough for the war-mongering “mainstream” media.

Last week it was Newsweek and the London Independent trying to outdo Bell Pottinger in trying to stir up race hatred in South Africa by misrepresenting the land issue. This week it’s the Guardian  joining them on the alt-right by pronouncing doom on Jeremy Corbyn for failing to be enough of a Russophobic bigot: Theresa May transforms into cold war colossus by not being Jeremy Corbyn | UK news | The Guardian.

I can think of plenty of things one could criticise in US President Donald Trump’s policies — poisoning the air and water and killing off endangered species for a start. But it seems that the most common criticism is that he isn’t Russophobic enough for the media pundits.

Perhaps we need to put prejudice on hold, and heed this warning: Russian to Judgement – Craig Murray:

The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.

This is not to say that Russians, and possibly the Russian government could not have done such a thing, but the British démarche makes it clear that Teresa May is playing the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland — first the sentence, then the verdict, and the evidence must follow as best it can. Jeremy Corbyn is quite right to be cautious. It was his own party that fell for this 15 years ago. And there is still a great deal of obscurity about who developed and provided the poison gas that was used in Syria a few years ago.

As a result of the Russophobic hype of the last few years, I don’t trust anything that Anglo-American media say about Russia, its government, or its role in world affairs. As a result of an apparent tit-for-tat policy that has developed in the Russian media since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, I don’t trust anything the Russian media say about Britain and the USA either. So who can one trust? Perhaps a more neutral source like the Irish TimesUnlikely that Vladimir Putin behind Skripal poisoning:

Theresa May’s first scenario, that the Kremlin was directly involved, seems unlikely. Skripal was in the UK as part of an official spy-swap deal with Russia. The only suggestion of suspicious activities on Skripal’s part has been a report in the Daily Telegraph that he was close to an unnamed person in the organisation run by Christopher Steele, who produced the dossier claiming Russia had compromising material on Donald Trump.

For President Vladimir Putin to have launched such a vicious attack would have been counterproductive as it would jeopardise any spy swaps in the future.

There’s a lot of hatred and violence in the world, and it’s bad enough when the media report it. When they report it, however, they are just doing their job. But when they are busy stoking it up, it’s something else.

And I’ve just added Creating Russophobia to my “Want to Read” list on GoodReads. As the blurb on GoodReads puts it:

Contemporary Russophobia is manufactured through the construction of an anti-Russian discourse in the media and the diplomatic world, and the fabrication and demonization of The Bad Guy, now personified by Vladimir Putin.

That doesn’t make Putin the “good guy” either. He’s a politician like the rest of them, and he believes in Realpolitik like the rest of them. The real “bad guy” is the Orwellian rhetoric of the Anglo-American media.

The Psalm Killer (review)

The Psalm KillerThe Psalm Killer by Chris Petit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty years ago I read The Monkey House, where a detective has to try to solve a murder case in the middle of a civil war, where different factions are taking pot shots at one another in war-torn Sarajevo. This one, published about the same time, is very similar, except that it is set in war-torn Belfast about ten years earlier.

In both cases the temptation is not to bother too much, and simply ascribe any unexplained deaths to “sectarian violence” and leave it at that. But of course if they did that there would be no story. But there is also the danger that if the detective solves the crime, the interests and deeds and loyalties of powerful figures might come to light.

In this case, the killer publishes verses from Psalms in newspapers with each killing, almost as if wanting to be found.

The two main detectives in the case, Cross and Westerby, have no first names, or at least the reader is not told them. This calls to mind Inspector Morse of Oxford, whose first name was not known even to his closest colleagues on the force. I’m not sure what the purpose of that is — to depersonalise them? But they are the strongest characters in the book. Perhaps to show that they are puppets, manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Despite a few puzzling plot holes this one is a very good read, and shows how the exercise of trying to find the “good guys” in conflicts like these is almost impossible. There is no “war on terror” here, there are just terrorists against terrorists, with ordinary people as the victims.

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The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The house on Falling Star Hill

The House On Falling Star HillThe House On Falling Star Hill by Michael Molloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read an earlier book by Michael Molloy, The witch trade, and was not at all impressed. The blurb made this one sound a bit more interesting, and as I had nothing to lose I took it out of the library anyway. I could alwasys dump it after a couple of chapters if it didn’t look interesting.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised tom find that it was a considerable improvement on The witch trade. The characters are more interesting, if somewhat stereotyped.

A boy, Tim Swift, meets a girl, Sarre, from another world, called Tallis. According to the Chronology of the story they are both about 11 years old, Tim and his dog Josh get unexpectedly dragged into Tallis where Tim discovers that Sarra is a Chanter, with special powers. Tallis has some similarities with Earth, and some differences. Jewels are plentiful but flowers are scarce, which makes a lucrative trade for some. There are also power struggles between the king and a would-be usurper., which makes for interesting adventures and excitement, in which Tim and Sarre, as somewhat precocious brats, play a significant part.

There are also hints of a romantic interest, especially on the part of Sarre, which at some points looked as though it might turn it into a rerun of His Dark Materials , but fortunately it didn’t. But while His Dark Materials appeals to adults as much as to children, I think The house on Falling Star Hill will appeal mainly to children, and rather younger ones at that.

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Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second dragon book I’ve read this month. The first was The dragons of Ordinary Farm).

Both books are about the last dragons on earth, and both of them feature an older girl and a younger boy, so they invite comparison. Both satirise commerce and corporate greed. Of the two, I think this one was better. The plot was less repetitious, it had more humour, and the dialogue was a lot less stilted.

But the biggest difference for me was that while in both books the children (a girl in her early teens and a pre-teen boy) had to outwit adult authority, in The Last Dragonslayer the reason and need for doing so was clear, whereas in The Dragons of Ordinary Farm it wasn’t.

Having said that, however, I also don’t think that this is one of Jasper Fforde’s best books. Jennifer Strange and her sidekick Tiger Prawns are running a dying business of managing magic. The owner of the business is missing, and they find themselves looking after a bunch of retired and semi-retired wizards in the Kingdom of Hereford which is about to go to war with the Duchy of Brecon over who gets to control the Dragonlands when the last Dragon dies. In addition to the political aspect, there are commercial interests at stake, with commercial firms vying with individual speculators to grab the biggest and best bits of real estate. The satire on this it a bit heavy-handed in a Mad magazine kind of way.

I found Jasper fforde’s earlier books much better, and this one seems a bit slapstick: Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett, if you like that kind of thing, but not really as good as either.

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