Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “books”

Memoirs of a Guardian Angel (review)

Memoirs of a Guardian AngelMemoirs of a Guardian Angel by Graham Downs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found it a bit difficult to review this book, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to classify — fantasy? Yes and no. General fiction? Well, yes, but not quite.

At one level it’s a series of vignettes of people at crisis moments of their lives, as observed by a guardian angel. Then it takes us to the corporate headquarters of Guardian Angels Ltd, where the angels are assigned their charges and disciplined if they fail, or if they break any of the rules, such as one that prohibits a guardian angel from being in charge of anyone they had known in their life on earth.

There is plenty of drama in the vignettes of life on earth, which initially seem quite separate, but are eventually tied up together to make a single story, which is quite readable and held my interest.

The dialogue seemed a bit jerky in places, with a strange mixture of South African and American English (“curb”, “the hospital”, “exit” as a verb). But perhaps that’s just a generational thing, as the author recently reviewed one of my books and found the dialogue old-fashioned, so it works both ways.

Another difficulty I had in reviewing it is that I am writing a book that features guardian angels, and I have a totally different conception of them, so I found it quite hard to get my around the idea that angels had lived as people on earth, and are arbitrarily assigned to people to guard and then are taken off the job and set to look after someone else. But that’s just me, it doesn’t affect the book itself, and the story needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged on other criteria as a story.

View all my reviews

As I often do with book reviews on GoodReads, when I transfer them to my blog I make additional comments that go beyond the book itself and deal with issues that the book raises for me. In this case, one of the issues is angels, what they are, and how they are portrayed in fiction. In the review on GoodReads I tried to be a bit postmodern about it, and treat the text simply as text, and the story simply on its merits as a story — who knows what GoodReads readers are looking for in a book, or what ideas they approach it with?

But I approach it with certain ideas, and that’s what I talk about here.

In the Orthodox Church we take guardian angels seriously. At every Divine Liturgy we pray for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies…”

In the book the guardian angel seems to be a guardian of bodies rather than a guardian of souls, and as for being a faithful guide, in the book the guardian angel looks on helplessly while people make bad decisions.

The guardian angels were at work.

Of course the function of guarding bodies is quite important. An Anglican priest friend of mine (Fr Michael Lapsley). always invokes the guardian angels when he boards an aircraft. Many years ago I was returning to Windhoek from the Matchless Mine in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. I had driven there in daylight, but returned at night. We came over a rise with the headlights up in the air, and by the time they were pointing to the road again the road was almost gone; it curved quite sharply to the right, and we were already on the loose stones on the outside of the curve. The bakkie spun and rolled, and we were shaken around inside. When the shaking and rolling stopped I was lying halfway out of the window on the passenger side, with my right hand stretched out into the gravel on the side of the road in a bunch of duwweltjie thorns, and the roof of the bakkie hanging over me. Would it fall on top of me, or wouldn’t it? It fell the other way, onto its wheels, facing back up the road we had come down, and I fell completely out of the window. Abraham Hangula, an evangelist, who had been in the passenger sear, came round from the other side of the bakkie, and said, “The Lord must still have work for us to do.” The other passenger, who had been in the back seat (it was a double-cab bakkie) was also largely unharmed. We all escaped with a few scrapes, sprains and bruises. And I thought yes, the guardian angels had been busy, and may be tipped the bakkie onto its wheels instead of on top of me. Guardian angels do guard bodies as well as souls.

There have been many portrayals of angels in fiction:

C.S. Lewis, in his Cosmic Trilogy, calls them eldila, and his portrayal largely fits my theological understanding too. In Memoirs of a Guardian Angel they are, as in Lewis, portrayed as bodiless powers, invisible to human beings, for the most part. But unlike Lewis, Memoirs of a Guardian Angel shows them as people who have lived on earth who become guardian angels after they die.

Tolkien shows, in his fictional Ainulindalë (published as part of The Silmarillion) how angels were created, with surprising theological accuracy. One class of angels, the Maiar, can also take on visible form, and are known among men as istari, or wizards.

In the Holy Scriptures angels take visible form and appear to people when they bring messages from God.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the ikon of the Annunciation depicts him in human form, but with wings. We are not told if that is how Mary saw him, but she was aware of his presence and heard him.

But one thing is clear from Christian tradition: angels are a separate creation of God. They may sometimes appear in human form, but they have never lived human lives.

Is there a way of reconciling, or at least comparing these views?

The ancient Romans, for example, believed the idea of the Genius. The genius was a guardian spirit of an individual that was assigned to each individual at birth, stayed with them throughout life, and after death conducted their soul out of the mortal world. The ancient Romans were expected to make a birthday sacrifice to their genius. If one had a good relationship with one’s genius it would become a lar, or household god, after death. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth. If one had a bad relationship, however, the genius could become a troublesome spook, plaguing the living.

This is not all that far removed from the Zulu idea of amadlozi, the ancestral spirits who are also associated with the isiku, the hearth.

Now some might object that these are pagan notions, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Some, who are interested in the history of folklore and transmission of ideas might wonder if the Romans got their ideas of lares from the Zulu amadlozi, or vice versa, and if so, how were the ideas transmitted? And the folklorists might conclude that the Christian idea of guardian angels came from the Roman idea of lares, and classify it as yet another “pagan borrowing”.

The Christian theological explanation is a little simpler: if everyone is assigned a guardian angel at birth (no transfers, as in Memoirs of a Guardian Angel), then every society and culture must have some experience of them, and though there might be some differences in the way people described this experience, there should be enough in common for one to recognise the commonalities.

This leads on to the concept of egregores, which I have discussed in other blog posts here and here.Someone recently came up with the interesting notion that one’s social media persona or profile could be a kind of egregore, so would that be one’s genius too?.

And what happens if one’s genius goes bad?

In Rabbinic Judaism this is attributed to the yetzer hara (Hebrew: יֵצֶר הַרַע‎). Though in Judaism, while the evil inclination is present from birth, the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, only appears at maturity (for more on this, see here). C.S. Lewis, however, personified the evil influence (the yetzer hara) as a kind of guardian devil in The Screwtape Letters, And in everyday English we still say, of someone who seems wedded to “the dark side”, that “he has an evil genius.”

So how does one represent this best in fiction?

 

Interrogating silence

I’ve been reading an interesting article by André Brink, on Interrogating Silence, which was in a book I found in the library.

No this isn’t a review of the book, which got poor reviews on GoodReads, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. This is rather some thoughts sparked off by reading a couple of the articles, and memories of old friends, and the kinds of silences that are imposed on us by changing circumstances.

Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995 by Derek Attridge

I took this book out of the library mainly because it had an article by an old friend, Graham Pechey, who died in Cambridge, UK, in February 2016. I had known Graham Pechey when I was a student in the 1960s, and it was he who introduced me to Bob Dylan. He lived in a flat next door to another friend, John Aitchison, and had borrowed the Dylan records from yet another student, Jeff Guy, who later became a historian.

On one memorable evening, on 11 November 1965, after Ian Smith had unilaterally declared the independence  of Rhodesia, and Bram Fischer had just been rearrested after several months on the run, and I had received an official warning from the magistrate in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, John Aitchison (who was banned) and I sat with Graham Pechey in his flat, and drank toasts to Bram Fischer, Harold Wilson, and Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve described the occasion more fully in another blog post here.

At that time Graham Pechey was an atheist and a bit of a Marxist, but he later explained his sympathy for monarchy, which I am inclined to agree with, on Facebook on the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:

‘The rise of Hitler, Franco and Stalin showed that there are worse institutions than a Monarchy–that a people deprived of a Royal Family can turn to far more dangerous gods. As one Socialist said before the war: “If you throw the Crown into the gutter, you may be sure that somebody will pick it up”‘. Wise words from the Observer, June 1953, reprinted in today’s issue.

Graham Pechey, 1965

Graham Pechey later married my philosophy lecturer, Nola Clendinning, who took to paining ikons, and in Cambridge, I am told, he was a pillar of the local Anglican Church. I would love to have been able to meet with him and chat about these things over a beer, but the last time I saw him was in 1971, and though we  were later reconnected on Facebook, it’s not the best medium for that kind of conversation. So now all I can do is interrogate the silence.

Though I do have the article in the book: The post-apartheid sublime:rediscovering the extraordinary.

The first article in the book, however, is by André Brink, on Interrogating silence.

In it he writes:

The experience of apartheid has demonstrated that different kinds or levels of silence exist. There is the general silence of which I have spoken above and which exists in a dynamic relation with language/literature; but there are also more specific silences imposed by certain historical conjunctions. If any word involves a grappling with silence, the word uttered in the kind of repressive context exemplified by apartheid evokes an awareness of particular territories forbidden to language. Just as surely as certain sexual relationships were proscribed by apartheid, certain experiences or areas of knowledge were out of bounds to probing in words. These were often immediate and definable: certain actions of the police or the military; certain statements or writing by ‘banned’ persons; the activities of the ANC or other organizations of liberation.

That recalled John Aitchison, who was banned from 1965-1970, and after a year of freedom, again from 1971-76. During those periods he was not allowed to publish anything, nor was any publication allowed to quote him. As described in the article mentioned earlier, in 1966 I went overseas to study in Durham, UK and was away for two and a half years. During that time John Aitchison and I were in frequent correspondence, writing, on average, about once a fortnight. In our correspondence we were constrained by the suspicion (which later proved completely correct) that our letters to each other were being read by the Special Branch (SB) in South Africa, so there was a kind of imposed silence there. The SB reports to the Department of Justice frequently referred to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron) for information that could only have come from letters we wrote to each other when I was overseas.

John Aitchison, 1965

At one point John wrote to me expressing the fear that it would become even more repressive. There was a proposal to extend the restrictions in banning orders so that In addition to not being allowed to publish anything, a banned person would not be allowed to write, compose, compile or distribute any document, photograph etc which was not a publication within the meaning of the act, if it contained any political reference at all. That would have been yet another level of silence. Even private letters not intended for publication would have to be bland and non-political.

I returned to South Africa. We shared many ideas and talked about them and bounced ideas off each other. We published a small magazine called Ikon which shared some of these ideas, about human and inhuman settlements, about theological trends and various other things. John was still banned, so his name did not appear as an editor. Articles we wrote jointly bore only my name. By that time John had married my cousin Jenny Growdon, who was an art teacher and did much of the artwork. But silence was still imposed.

Ikon was originally published under the auspices of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical group that was itself founded to counter some of the silence imposed by apartheid, particularly on members of the Dutch Reformed Churches. But Ikon proved too radical even for the Christian Institute, which was seen by the apartheid government as dangerously radical, and was eventually itself silenced by being banned; both the organisation itself and its leaders were banned in 1977. But it was the Christian Institute itself that attempted to silence Ikon, so we had to publish it independently. Nine months later I was in Windhoek, sitting in the boss’s office in the Department of Water Affairs. After working there for a month as a waterworks attendant, I was told that I was sacked; no notice, leave immediately. I could see a press cutting on top of the file folder open on his desk,. As it was upside down I could only read the headline: CI keer wilde jeugblad (Christian Institute rejects radical youth magazine). O! the ideological perils of being a waterworks attendant!

John’s ban expired in 1970 and communication was freer, but he was banned again  within a year. I was deported from Namibia in March 1972 and stayed with John and Jenny Aitchison in Pietermaritzburg. We had embarked on a new project, the promotion of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) in the Anglican Church. John wrote a 20-page executive summary of a 600-page book called Theological Education by Extension edited by Ralph D. Winter. I duplicated it on a stencil duplicator on green paper and we sent it to all the Anglican bishops in Southern Africa, and all those responsible for theological education in the Anglican Church.

Then I travelled the country (at my own expense) trying to sell the idea to the those we had sent the document to. Many of them were suspicious because the “Green Thing”, as we called the document, was anonymous. It was anonymous because if the SB discovered that John was responsible for it, he could go to jail for five years. In 1972 a lot of Anglican bishops were still rather politically naive, and were not really aware that South Africa was a police state. The following year the government expropriated the Federal Seminary, run jointly by the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, showing that they did indeed regard theological education as an ideological threat.

My career as unpaid promoter of TEE ended abruptly in July 1972 when I was banned. I was living in the same house as John Aitchison, but was henceforth not allowed to communicate with him in any way at all. More silence. The Minister of Justice dealt with that by banning me to Durban, even though I had nowhere to live there, and was dependent on the generosity of clergy (Anglican and Congregationalist) who took me in.

Steve Hayes and John Aitchison, 13 July 1972, about to part for 4 years, both banned and prohibited from communicating with each other in any way. If the SB had seen this photo and known when it was taken it could have meant 5 years jail for both.

But in a sense, that enforced silence was never lifted. It seemed to have a permanent effect. Even after our bans were both lifted in 1976, our friendship was never again as close. Instead of communicating once every couple of months, or once every couple of weeks, it’s now once every couple of years. Did the double ban make the effect permanent. Apartheid is dead, but perhaps in ways like this its ghost still haunts us. How does one interrogate that silence?

After the end of apartheid I wrote a couple of novels set in the apartheid years. One was a children’s story, Of wheels and witches, set in 1964. You can read more about it here. The other was for adults, set 25 years later, but having some of the same characters. It is The Year of the Dragon.

In these books there is a release from some of the immediate and definable constraints of apartheid that André Brink speaks of, the things that were out of bounds to probing in words, namely certain actions of the police and military.

For such things, the silence has been lifted — or has it?

In the last week of 2018 review copies of the book were available free, and I wondered if anyone would like to talk about these things. Eighty review copies were taken, but so far there have been only two reviews. One you can see on GoodReads here.

John Davies, sometime Anglican chaplain at Wits university, now retired in the UK.

The other review, by Bishop John Davies, has not hitherto appeared on the web, but I did send it, along with the invitation to take review copies of the book, to members of three book discussion groups I’m a member of. One group meets face to face once a month, the other two meet on line.

In all three forums The Year of the Dragon has been met by a resounding silence. Apartheid has ended, and so cannot be blamed for this silence. No one has said they have liked the book or disliked it. No one has said anything at all. It seems as though everyone is avoiding the subject.

How does one interrogate this silence?

In an attempt to get a wider readership than just people I talk to anyway, I promoted the book on Twitter, among other things by using the hashtag #iartg. That is the Independent Authors Re-Tweet Group. It provided an interesting assortment of books on my Twitter feed, quite a large proportion of which had covers featuring male human torsos. Perhaps they’re more attractive than dragons’ torsos.

I’ve invited people to ask questions about the book on GoodReads. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Lutho. Silence.

Can you interrogate this silence?

There is something else about the Writing South Africa book.

As I said, I haven’t read all the essays in it, only the introduction and a couple of the other articles. And it did get bad reviews. But it was about the period before 1995, and so was looking forward to a kind of postcolonial literary future, that would not be dominated by struggle literature. It is interesting to read it 20 years on, and compare hopes and expectations of 1995 with the reality.

After the Zuma years that sanguine outlook seems a little naive and unreal. Most of us are a lot more cynical and pessimistic than we were back in 1995. Is there any hope? Is there any reason for hope?

One lesson some of us may have learned is from a Psalm that is sung at almost every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church:

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth, on that very day his plans perish.

And as for hope after the Zuma years, perhaps this:

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed (Joel 2:25-26).

 

Speaking in bones

Speaking in BonesSpeaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a rather disappointing book. It features Dr Temperance Brennan, who, like the author, is a forensic anthropologist, trying to assist in the solving of crimes through the examination of human remains, especially bones.

It started off quite well, and introduced me to several things that I didn’t know — that there were such things as websleuths, amateur detectives who use information from the Internet to try to match unidentified dead bodies with reports of missing persons. It sounds like quite a good idea, until you discover that there is also a great deal of rivalry and sometimes hostility among them. But that kind of thing appeals to the family historian in me, because a lot of family history is in effect looking for missing persons.

Colin Darlington Rogers once wrote a book on Tracing missing persons and found that most of the readers were actually genealogists and family historians, so he wrote another book called The Family Tree Detective which was a pretty good how-to book for its time (pre-Internet), in England and Wales, and has followed it up with several more.

So I was thinking that this might be an interesting missing person’s mystery, but then it seemed to fall apart as I read further. The first thing that struck me as strange was that the author seemed to be enjoying commercial sponsorship. I kept wondering about that, when the protagonist didn’t just make calls on her cell/mobile phone, but we were told specifically that it was an iPhone. And when she was searching the Internet for websleuths, she opened her Macbook to do so. And her mother didn’t just go on a computer course, it was an Apple computer course. So I was wondering if she was getting paid for each mention of the brand name.

That was slightly irritating. But it was also annoying when the author tried to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, and when you read the next chapter the “cliff” turned out to be nother more than a nine-inch wall. One was led to expect dire and perilous happenings that turned out to be quite banal.

And then quite a lot of the plot turned on the beliefs of a weird religious sect that majored on exorcism. Now there are lots of weird religious sects out there that do very strange stuff, like spraying people with insecticide and getting them to drink rat poison. But the one in the book seemed inauthentically weird. It struck me that that is one of the problems of using the web for research. It is great for verifying information when you have a framework of knowledge to put it into, but if you try to research from scratch without knowing what you are looking for, but can get seriously led up the garden path. And while there is a considerable difference between social anthropology and physical anthropology, reading a book by a social anthropologist, like Demons and the devil by Charles Stewart might have been a better preparation.

So yes, it was disappointing in the end.

View all my reviews

Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this book a long time ago, and had even marked it as “read” in GoodReads, but I think that was because it was shown to me in one of those book compatibility tests, now hidden behind a “More” button. I soon realised that I hadn’t read it before, and I was probably thinking of Dombey and Son.

I was moved to read Bleak House because I had just read Black House, in which the characters read it, and I’m glad I did, because I think it is one of Charles Dickens‘s best novels. As it was published over 160 years ago there have been countless reviews of it, and so I won’t try to review it, but rather comment on a few themes.

I found it rather difficult to get into, because Dickens has a large cast of characters, introduced piecemeal, so that the connections between them only become apparent much later. It also seems to cover several different genres. Quite a number of Dickens’s novels have a storyline that is entwined with a moral crusade. In this case there are at least two moral crusades, one against rapacious lawyers, and another against people whose obsession with abstract causes leads them to neglect ordinary human relationships and become increasingly selfish and self-centred. So the heroes of the story are those who embody unselfish love. In a sub-plot it is also a crime novel, and from another point of view it can be seen as a love story.

One thing that strikes me about this is how it contrasts with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who detests altruism and propounds the virtue of selfishness. She claims, in a rather contradictory way, that altruists are all self-centred, and that altruism is at its core selfish, therefore altruism is bad and selfishness is good. And she gets pretty preachy about it in her novels.

While Dickens appears to be making a similar point about the self-centredness of altruists like Mrs Jellyby in the novel, he ascribes it to a somewhat different cause. Those who are addicted to the Cause, whether it’s development in Africa, winning a law suit or fashion (Deportment with a capital D) manage to persuade themselves that they are being unselfish when at their most selfish.

But Dickens comes to a different conclusion. The characters who are so wrapped up in the Cause that they have no time for people lack love. People like Mrs Jellyby might gladly give their bodies to be burned, as St Paul says in I Cor 13:3, but if they have not love, it is worthless.

In this sense, Bleak House pleads for Christian values as strongly as Atlas Shrugged pleads for capitalist ones.

Another thing that struck me about it was the language, which seemed surprisingly up to date. I had no difficulty in understanding it, which shows, perhaps that in many ways English has changed remarkably little since Dickens’s day. But I suspect that while we may have little difficulty in understanding Dickens’s language, he might have considerably more difficulty in understanding ours. It is not that words have changed, but things have changed.

And perhaps for that reason I would not recommend that most of Dickens be read by anyone under 40. I think if I had read this in my teens, as a school set work, say, a lot of it would have gone right over my head. Or even in my early twenties, at university. For a start, I wasn’t aware of the difference between Common Law and Equity until I was in my 30s and researching genealogy. There are some books that people can enjoy at different levels at different ages, Gulliver’s Travels for example. Quite young people can enjoy the stories as adventure stories in strange place. As they grow older, they can appreciate other aspects, like satire. But in Dickens, with a few exceptions like A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, the ground floor and first floor are not there. Bleak House starts on the third floor, and though it may sometimes go higher, it rarely goes lower.

View all my reviews

The Talisman (book review)

The Talisman (The Talisman, #1)The Talisman by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d just read the sequel, Black House, so thought I would reread this, because I read it so long ago that I’d forgotten parts of the story. I see I gave it four stars after my first reading, and after reading it this time seriously considered dropping it to three, but then decided to leave it.

Jack Sawyer is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying, and he sets out in search of a mysterious talisman that might be able to heal her. He has to travel across the United States, partly in the real world, and partly in a mysterious other world called The Territories, where travel is sometimes faster, but more dangerous.

Jack is quite an engaging protagonist, and some of the people he meets in his travels help him, while others hinder him or overtly hostile. Many of the people in this world have opposite numbers in the other world, called “twinners”, In ther help and hindrance he gets, Jack is a bit like the hero of Sammy going south, which is also about an epic journey by a young boy, though it takes place entirely in this world. It was a goo0d deal shorter than The Talisman, and I thought it was also better, partly for that reason.

I had forgotten quite a lot of the story the second time around, but what I had not forgotten was my reactions to it, the parts I enjoyed and the parts I didn’t. On the whole I enjoyed the parts in this world better than the parts that took place in The Territories. In part that was because The Territories was a rather unconvincing alternative world. There are quite a lot of books in that genre (or is it a subgenre?), but in most of them the other worlds are more internally consistent and coherent than this one.

The Territories seem to have a kind of medieval technology, with animal-drawn vehicles, no real towns and shops, just fairs and markets. Until the end of the story, where there is a very unconvincing train that crosses radioactive blasted lands. C.S. Lewis does a much better job of explaining how a lamp post got into Narnia than King and Straub do of explaining how a train got into The Territories. Lewis doesn’t even try to explain the sewing machine in Narnia, but it seems less out of place there than the train in The Territories.

Jack travels about 2/3 of his journey on the train, from Illinois to California, and allowing for shorter distances in The Territories, that must have been a distance of at least 700 miles, most of it over very loose sand, which would complicate track laying. So how would anyone build such a track, in an extremely unhealthy and hostile environment, while transporting all the materials from this world? The train, we are told is small and light and battery driven, so one pictures a narrow-gauge set up, like the old sugar cane trains in KZN, but then we are told that it was actually a broader gauge than the trolleys that used to run in this world. And even more puzzling than the how is the why? Why build such a track for one light three-car train? It is far too much of a deus ex machina, and towards the end there is a new deus ex machina on virtually every page, so each new danger Jack faces is more yawn-inducing than the last because you stop thinking he is in any real danger from an 11-foot high knight in armour. The most convincing attack on him is a kick in the balls from his best friend’s father, who happens to be the villain of the piece.

The last 150 pages or so were the worst, where the descriptions seemed to be confusing and interminable, or perhaps that was just because they were so dreary that my mind kept wandering and I was not taking in what I was reading.

When reading Black House I wondered which parts had been written by which author, and on rereading this one I began to think I had a clue. I suspect that the parts I enjoyed least were those written by Peter Straub. They were lengthy and over-described. And I’ve had that feeling when reading other books by Peter Straub, and since reading this the first time I had read Stephen King’s book on writing, where he says, of description, that:

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

I wish they had followed that advice in The Talisman!

View all my reviews

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (review)

The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (The Reader's Companion)The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel by Peter Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book quite useful to pick up at odd moments when there was nothing else to do, when Eskom was doing its load-shedding and the electricity was off, for example.

The plot summaries and comments on the selected novels were generally quite good, and served to remind me of books I had read and half forgotten, or to note ones that I had not read but might be worth reading.

One of the weak points, however, was the novels selected for inclusion. Of course one cannot include everything worth reading in the period in a single volume, but one of the first things I noticed about it was that it made no mention of the novels of Charles Williams. It dis seem to include almost every published novel by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They are both authors I quite like, and I think their best work ought to have been included, but Waugh, in particular wrote some quite mediocre stuff, and they could easily have been dropped in favour of Williams.

There were several books by Somerset Maugham, who described himself, quite accurately, I think, as being in the very first rank of the second raters. There was a rather patronising article on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, with no mention of his science fiction.

The book was also published in 1993, when there were still seven years of the twentieth century to run — did they think that nobody would write anything worth reading in what was left of it?

View all my reviews

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A picaresque novel about Allan Karlsson, who decided that he did not want to attend his hundredth birthday party at the old-age home where he was staying so he decided to leave, with no particular plan for what he was going to do.

He has various improbable adventures, and the story is told with a series of flashbacks to his life story. He was a self-taught explosives expert, and as such had played a minor but significant part in various world events, learning several languages along the way and earning the gratitude of several powerful politicians.

I read it mainly because I had seen a film based on the book which I had enjoyed, and from what I could remember of it the film seemed to adhere quite closely to the book.

While it is primarily a picaresque novel, the story seems to overlap several other genres. On one level it is a crime novel, a police procedural, though also with a lot of incompetent bumbling — in the film version it is more like The Lavender Hill Mob than a serious whodunit. But perhaps these are all part of the picaresque genre anyway.

View all my reviews

A deadly trade (whodunit set in Botswana)

A Deadly Trade (Detective Kubu, #2)A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read one book featuring detective David “Kubu” Bengu and enjoyed it, when we found another in the local library we grabbed it, and found it just as enjoyable. It’s set in Botswana, which, though I have only visited it a few times, is sufficiently close to home to feel “local” and almost familiar territory — at least I can picture the landscapes in most of the places described.

In this one two guests at a remote tourist camp in northern Botswana are murdered, while a third has disappeared, and naturally becomes the prime suspect. Then two others who were present in the camp on the fatal night are also murdered, but while staying at different camps in different parts of Botswana.

The characters, plots and settings feel authentic in the “this could have happened” sense, which is what one looks for in a whodunit. The only thing that seemed as though it didn’t fit was the names of the characters. In a novel dealing with international crime and plots and murders of tourists, and ex-Zimbabweans living in Botswana one expects to have foreign names, but when characters said to belong to old Batswana families have Zulu names, some kind of explanation seems to be called for, but is not forthcoming.

The authors (for Michael Stanley is a composite) leave enough clues scattered around the text to challenge the reader to solve the mystery.

View all my reviews

South African Camelot

Today at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch we started off by discussing some of the problems of the country. Every day there is news of more political scandals and more corruption. The rich robbing the poor on a grand scale in the VBS bank scandal. Racism is making a comeback on a grand scale too, especially after being deliberately and assiduously promoted by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

There’s the story of land reform. One day our President is going around handing out title deeds to people and telling them how important and valuable they are, and the next day he is saying how expropriating land without compensation will solve all our problems, thus rendering the title deeds worthless. And expropriating land without compensation will make it much easier for the government to hand it over to foreign mining companies in places like Xolobeni.

And at this point David Levey asked why we weren’t talking about books, and I thought that it was actually a good lead in to a book I have just been reading, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the original Inklings literary discussion group, many of whom were very interested in the mythos of King Arthur. They incorporated elements of the Arthurian legends into their own writing. There are echoes of it in C.S. Lewis’s novels, especially in That Hideous Strength. Charles Williams retold many of the stories in his poetry. Much of their work on this topic was collected here: Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso.

Roger Lancelyn Green retells many of the stories in prose, for children. They have been retold many times, by many authors, in both prose and poetry. Since they are told for children there is no critical apparatus: no footnotes or cross-reference or explanations. Such explanations as are needed are incorporated into the text. But Green tells the stories in such a way as to bring out more clearly the Inklings’ take on them. One of the things that many of the Inklings emphasised was the distinction between Britain and Logres.

King Arthur’s adventures did not end when he had defeated the Saxons and brought peace to Britain: for though he had set up the realm of Logres — the land of true good and piety, nobleness and right living — the evil was always breaking in to attack the good. It would need many books to tell the story of every adventure that befell during his reign — that brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages…

And that is where I see a parallel with South Africa. In the mid-1990s we experienced a brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages. Apartheid, like the Saxons, had been driven out. “And the Saxons throughout the whole of Britain, and in Scotland also, fled away in their ships, or else swore to be King Arthur’s loyal subjects.”

In this way peace came to the whole island for a great many years: though still there were robbers and outlaws, cruel knights and evil magicians dwelling in the depths of forests and deep among the mountains, ever ready to break the peace and stain the realm of Logres in one wicked way or another.

The evil that threatened Logres was not merely external. It came from within. The Realm of Logres was set in the land of Britain, and Britain kept breaking through and threatening Logres. And so we read of the magic of Nimue and Morgana le Fay, how Nimue buries Merlin, and Morgana le Fay provokes fights between friends. The whole story is a kind of analogy of South Africa, where in 1994 we had a brief glimpse of our Logres, but even during the glimpses it was tainted with evil. How Jacob Zuma, who was once a loyal knight of the Round Table, became a usurper, and allowed evil to flourish. Could Winnie Mandela be cast in the role of Morgana le Fay, or perhaps the cap would fit Victoria Geoghegan better.

It’s not, of course, an allegory of South Africa, but there are many symbolic analogies, and one could probably find similar analogies to life in other countries as well. Maybe this is why the stories of King Arthur are told and retold, because they have an almost universal appeal and applicability.

Another version I have also been re-reading is The Quest of the Holy Grail. It concentrates on only one aspect of the mythos, the quest of the Grail. It’s also full of medieval moralising. Perhaps that’s why I prefer Green’s version — his modern moralising is more to my taste. But maybe I ought to heed the medieval moralising as well. The modern one deals with sins I am more aware of in others, the medieval one makes me feel uncomfortable because it reminds me of sins that I am more aware of in myself.

Post Navigation