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Archive for the tag “reading”

Literary Coffee Klatsch: Books Mentioned

Here are some of the books mentioned at our literary coffee klatsch in April 2019:

David Levey said he enjoyed poems by Theodore Roethke, who writes poetry about ordinary things, but very good poems.

At a book club he belonged to they had been reading Educated, by Tara Westover, a memoir about growing up up a survivalist family with parents who did not believe in education, especially for daughters. This was also linked to works by Octavia Butler.

I have been reading books by John Connolly, and a memoir of Zakes Mda, in a strange order, described here. The John Connolly books I have finished reading and reviewed are The Wrath of Angels and Dark Hollow. These both feature private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but if you are going to read any of that series I strongly recommend beginning with the first one, Every Dead Thing, which I am reading now. There is so much in the later books in the series that refers back to events in this one that it really is important to begin at the beginning.

Also, to get a different idea of John Connolly I read The Book of Lost Things, which is a stand alone fantasy book that does not feature detective Charlie Parker. This one belongs to a sub-genre, which one could call “the boy with sick mother who finds himself in another world” genre. Other books in this genre are The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.In my view The Book of Lost Things is better than the former but not as good as the latter.

I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews that I thought that John Connolly had seemed to be developing in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman, whose books started off spooky, like The Wine of Angels and Candlenight and gradually seem to be becoming mundane whodunits in the vein of Miss Marple. Connolly seemed to be going the other way, from mundane whodunits to spooky, but in reading Every Dead Thing I see that the spooky stuff was there from the start.

Another thing about Phil Rickman’s books is that they say quite a lot about the current ethos of the Church of England and the Church of Wales, and we mentioned other authors who had written in a similar vein — the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope, some novels by Ernest Raymond in the early to mid-20th century such as The Chalice and the Sword, novels of Susan Howatch such as Glittering Images, and, for a South African flavour, Expiring Frog by Elizabeth Webster.

For the most horrific and horrible horror novel we voted for The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. And for books that would have been better off without sequels, Duncton Wood by William Horwood (in the same genre as Watership Bown by Richard Adams), To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.

That’s about it for April 2019.



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.

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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?

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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.

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Death of the Mantis, a whodunit set in southern Africa

Death of the MantisDeath of the Mantis by Michael Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A whodunit set locally in Southern Africa.

Detective Inspector David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana CID is asked to help with the investigation into the murder of a game ranger in the remote south-western part of the country. When a Namibian geologist discovers the corpse of another Namibian visitor Detective Kubu suspects that the murders are linked, and goes to Windhoek to follow up. There are tales of an old treasure map, purported to show the inland source of the alluvial diamonds on Namibia’s coast. After checking other earlier mysterious deaths that had originally been thought to be accidental it seems that the Botswana police are looking for a serial killer who must be caught before he kills again.

I found it an enthralling story, perhaps because of the “local” angle. Most of the crime novels we get to read here are set far away on other continents. This one is relatively close, being set in neighbouring countries which we have visited.

Kang in Botswana, through which Inspector Kubu travels on his way to Windhoek, is 773 km from our house. For a whodunit fan in London reading about the exploits of Swedish detective Kurt Wallander by Henning Mankell, Ystad, where Inspector Wallander is based is 1343 km from London. I did read a South African whodunit a few years ago, What Hidden Lies (see my review here). But that was set in Cape Town, more than twice as far away as Kang in Botswana, and also further away than Ystad is from London.

The detective stories from Botswana that are likely to be most familiar to readers outside that country are the series that begin with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Be warned that this is nothing like that. These are not private investigators looking for lost pets and errant husbands. These are cops trying to catch a serial killer. I suppose one thing they do have in common, however, are that the scenes are well set, and the characters are well described.

As with some of the Inspector Wallander books, one of the factors in the killings is a cultural clash, in this case between Batswana cops and Bushmen. The first body is discovered by Bushmen, and they immediately become suspects. The only question I have about the authenticity of the setting is why so many of the character seem to have Zulu names. It’s not impossible, of course, but it does seem a bit disproportionate.

You can get an idea of what the countryside in the story looks like from our journey through the same country a few years ago — from Kang to Windhoek..

Anyway, I recommend it to whodunit fans in southern Africa, and perhaps those further afield might enjoy it too.

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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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Myths of the world

Myths of the World: A Thematic EncyclopediaMyths of the World: A Thematic Encyclopedia by Michael Jordan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I took this rather pretentiously titled volume out of the library in the hope of finding some interesting or useful information, but was rather disappointed.

I suppose I should have been warned by the slimness of the book; a book that size cannot really be called an “encyclopedia”, and indeed it wasn’t. A more appropriate title might have been “anthology” — a selection of myths that appealed to the author, categorised by particular themes.

Of course it is not possible to do justice to myths of the world in one short volume, but it could easily have been doubled in size without making it too unwieldy.

The accounts of the myths were also less than satisfactory. They were somewhat woodenly told. There were several ancient Greek and Roman “classical” myths, but I felt I learnt more about them from the 3-5 line descriptions in Pears Cyclopaedia. Chinese gods seemed to be a better bet for Chinese mythology.

Michael Jordan also appeared to suffer from a strong anti-Christian bias. He included about 3-4 Christian myths, but lumped them in with gnostic ones, which are utterly different, and the selection seemed pretty unrepresentative too. There was a section on dragon myths, but it did not include the Christian story of St George and the dragon, which is probably one of the most widespread, being popular from England to India, and from Murmansk to Ethiopia. Perhaps he regarded it as a legend rather than a myth, but there are many instances of overlap between them, and I think the story has enough overlap to allow it to be included in a book that claims to be an “encyclopedia” of myths.

The book was published a year or two before Google made web searches so much easier, so most of what the book can tell you can be found more easily and more comprehensively by searching the Web, but a good encyclopedia of myth would still be useful, because the problem with web searches is that you don’t always know what to look for.

The title implies that a reference book, but it is certainly not that. There’s far too much missing.

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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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