Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A suitable boy

16 January 2017

A Suitable Boy (English and Spanish Edition)A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An extravaganza of a book about life in India, where the theme of young love struggles for air amid the flow of family life; parliamentary politics; land reform at village level; the legal fraternity; poetry, song and literature both English and Indian; and even the shoe trade. It is set in the early 1950s, when Partition and the political resistance to Colonial rule are recent memories, and covers the lives of four middle class families. Lata Mehra is a young woman whose mother is set on finding her a suitable boy. Three candidates emerge. Haresh is good hearted, industrious, smart but not overly imaginative. His former romantic longing for a Sikh girl was suffocated by social prejudice, so he has reluctantly turned to search out a sensible and socially approved marriage partner. Lata herself has a romantic longing for another man, Kabir, and his heart thrills for her too, but he is a Moslem and therefore unthinkable. That leaves Amit, rich, brilliant and charming, a successful poet, and yet rather sterile. The support cast is large indeed, caught up in many subplots; if you are reading a print version you may want to keep notes of who is who and where they appear. Many of the characters are very well drawn, such as the socialite Meenashki and Arun, the overbearing older brother of Lata. [Spoiler alert:] If social prejudice brought tragedy to star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet, here it bring mediocrity.

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Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times

7 September 2016

Cesare Borgia: His Life and TimesCesare Borgia: His Life and Times by Sarah Bradford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy in the 1490s-1500s, where the Renaissance is in full swing. This is the Italy of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (who are all mentioned). It is also swarming with prostitutes, a great many of them looking after the clergy. One lord “received ambassadors while lying in bed with his sister”. Another had both his wives murdered, raped his daughter and attempted to sodomise his son, but it was for heresy that the Pope excommunicated him. It is a world of warring cities and statelets, of intrigues and vendettas, poisonings, factional street fights and hired assassins.

To flourish in such circumstances required not just luck but extreme cunning, drive, courage, brilliance, and coolness under pressure. Enter Cesare Borgia, a man who became a byword for immorality: a man who “deliberately created his own myth by calculated acts of terror, veiling his life in a secrecy which gave his sudden brutalities and lightning moves added impact”.

In many ways Cesare fits the profile of a psychopath: abundant charm and charisma; the ability to read the feelings of others, without true empathy; the skills to act out deep emotions, without feeling them; the restless and reckless pursuit of new thrills, sometimes even against his overall interests. That said, his love for his sister Lucrezia appears to have been genuine (and not, as often supposed, incestuous). He was not a sadist. His treatment of the common people was no worse than that of his peers, and often better, since he took care to build support for his rule. Cesare Borgia was periodically interviewed by Machiavelli, and helped to inspire The Prince.

The book is a probing, thoughtful, weighty biography of this remarkable man. It is necessarily dense with names and the detail of events, which may be hard to keep track of. But it is well worth it for the fascinating accounts of the antihero’s subtle machinations as he draws on the power of his father, Pope Alexander VI, to navigate between the rival, predatory powers of France and Spain; to fend off Venice, then a strong independent power; and to try to establish his own united realm, under Papal authority, in mid-Italy.

His story reminded me of the Game of Thrones, and aficionados of that series take note: Cesare’s younger brother is Jofre, wedded to Sancia; the period has its own Red Wedding; and Cercei has interesting parallels to the blonde haired, “proud and cruel” Caterina Sforza, “noted not only for her beauty but for her courage and ruthlessness”.

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Love on a Branch Line

27 January 2014

Love on a Branch LineLove on a Branch Line by John Hadfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A tasteful and thoughtful comedy mixing myth, wish-fulfilment and English charm.

It is the late 1950s. Jasper Pye is an earnest young civil servant living with his mother, stung when various people, including a girlfriend of sorts, call him a bore. Just as his frustration peaks, he is commissioned to visit an odd little unit of Her Majesty’s Government based in a castle on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk – a wartime stopgap measure mysteriously prolonged. Ostensibly there to inspect it, his real, informal brief is to recommend its closure.

The locality is called Arcady, a strong hint that we will soon disconnect from the everyday flow of time. The last part of his journey is on a steam train, owned by Lord Flamborough, who has purchased the local branch of the line. Legless since 1926, the Earl lives on the train, travelling endlessly forward and back. His family’s motto is hic manemus: here we remain. Jasper alights at a station called Arcady Halt.

The unit is staffed by the stern-seeming Scot, Professor Pollux, his assistant Quirk, and their secretary, the young, plain, eager-to-please Miss Mounsey. They have long ceased doing any real official work. Closing the place might seem a done deal.

The problem is that Pye is slowly seduced by Arcady. For a start there are Flamborough’s three lovely daughters: the nympho Belinda, unhappily-married Chloe, and the virginal, too-young, but frenziedly romantic Matilda. They leave him very disoriented and hovering between desire and disgrace.

Belinda makes a playful reference to Freud, whose symbolism is never far away: the mother, Lady Flamborough, keeps whisking Jasper away to attend to her flowers; the Flamborough family has only married within its own extended ranks for generations; and then there is her husband’s severed legs.

The residents of Arcady are lotus eaters. The Lady has her floral borders and beds, the Lord his steam train and jazz music, while others have sunk into the honey of cricket, alcohol, collectables – fixed and narrow desires like Flamborough’s branch line.

Myth plays an important role, but nothing is laboured in this delightful book.

Sometimes bravery is needed not to face hardship, but to take the leap into joy. That, I think, is the true challenge Jasper faces.

In 1994 the book was adapted into a four-part series, which was very friendly to the intentions of the book, though there are subtle differences in the ending.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

24 November 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The setting is England 1806, with the Napoleonic war in full swing, but this England has an unfamiliar back history. In the Middle Ages powerful magicians had walked the land, with the north ruled for centuries by the strongest of them, the Raven King. But magic faded with the first stirrings of modernity, and the adepts with it, leaving only scraps of writings and apocryphal tales of what had been – and a sorry lot of aspirant magicians. Some of these would-bes-if-they-could-bes are gathered together in the opening scene.

Soon we encounter the old, dried-up, small-hearted, bitter Mr Norrell, who unfortunately is marked for greatness: he is the first true magician to appear for hundreds of years. The early part of the book records his clumsy rise to high places, as he puts his magic to the service of England’s rulers and their wars. But to his consternation another true magician appears on the scene, the young, witty and personable Jonathan Strange. They stalk each other throughout much of the story.

The tale is told with dry humour, in a style reminiscent of the period.

It is strengthened by many strong characters. Norrell’s hard-headed servant John Childermass is one; another is the shabby street-stall magican Vinculus, repeatedly exposed as a fraud yet puzzlingly hard to dismiss out of hand; their encounter makes for one of the best chapters in the book. Then there is Strange’s charming wife Arabella; the strong-willed young beauty Lady Pole; a vain, sinister fairy known as the Silver-Haired Gentleman, whose “natural manner seemed to be one of extreme self-congratulation”; and Stephen Black, the black servant of Lady Pole’s husband.

The prior history of England is slowly built up through extensive, tongue-in-cheek footnotes. There is a wildness in the old magic; it scares Norrell but intrigues Strange. This drives some of the plot. But meanwhile Lady Pole and Stephen Black are caught in a dark spell that compels them to dance every night in a fairy court, and spend each day in deep depression; when Lady Pole tries to speak of it she talks only nonsense.

This is a wonderful book. The magical setting is rich and convincing and entertainingly described.

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Old Filth

28 January 2012

Old FilthOld Filth by Jane Gardam

Eddie Feathers was an accomplished and admired judge and, before that, solicitor, working in Hong Kong before retiring to Dorset. The engaging title of the novel was his nickname within the legal world. In his private life, however, he was a monumental underachiever, living within a shell of icy dignity, married to a decent but (towards him) passionless wife. They have no children.

The Justice had been dealt a colossal injustice in his developmental days. The old filth of his past emerges as he reminisces in late life, and revisits old locales in both mind and person. Times sequences are chopped about in the novel, as they are inside Old Filth’s head.

His personal story is caught up in the emotional sterility of the Empire. He had been born in Malaya, his mother dying in childbirth, after which his father, emotionally smashed by WWI (like one of the fathers in Flight of the Maidens) ignores Eddie’s existence. The boy is allowed to wander as he will, flourishing amongst the local Malay children, mothered by a warm local woman – until the age of four, when Auntie Madeleine (a female type found so often in Gardam’s books) engineers the Right Thing and has him returned to England. Here his other aunties pocket the financial allowance for his upbringing and farm him out to bargain-rate care and joyless, heartless family life as one of many Raj Orphans.

It is not all bad. In his teens he is taken under the wing of the rich Ingoldby family, living with them and treated (well not quite) as one of them. His learning and his moral system are shaped by Sir, a stuffy closet-gay headmaster of a boarding school. He emerges somehow with a charisma that endears him to women throughout his life, but nothing within him resonates when they offer love.
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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2

28 January 2012

Bad DirtBad Dirt by Annie Proulx

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bad Dirt is the second volume of Wyoming Stories, and for me it did not reach the same heights. In Bad Dirt there are more departures from realism and more use of the folksy yarn, less of the sharp love for the land, less capturing of character. Three stories stand out for me, each focusing on a different demographic. ‘What kind of furniture would Jesus pick?’ tells of a rancher gradually ground down and reduced to disarray, along with the whole state of Wyoming. ‘Man crawling out of trees’ describes the experience of a middle class couple from the East, and their growing unhappiness, set against the sometimes fairylike beauty of their surroundings. The ‘Wamsutter wolf’ deals with trailer trash.

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