Sunday, 4 March 2012

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively – Andre Deutsch, 208 pages

★ ★ ★ ★ ★  

A history of the world, yes. And in the process, my own. The life and times of Claudia H. The bit of the twentieth century to which I’ve been shackled, willy-nilly, like it or not. Let me contemplate myself within my context: everything and nothing. The history of the world as selected by Claudia: fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents. (p. 1)
Moon Tiger is yet another fantastic reading experience I owe to the BBC World Book Club podcast. It’s a book to be savoured, reread, underlined and experienced over and over, revealing something new each time. It is the internal monologue of Claudia Hampton, popular historian, who lies dying in hospital and composes in her head the history of the world – the history of her own life. Central to the story are her relationships: the complex, incestuous ties to her brother Gordon; the emotional distance between Claudia and her daughter Lisa; the unlikely yet lifelong on-and-off romance with entrepreneur Jasper; the strong bond with Hungarian artist Laszlo, who becomes a sort of surrogate son; and finally, the achingly brief love affair with Tom Southern in Cairo during World War II.

Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. (p. 2)
Claudia’s narrative is told from different points of view. The seventy-six year-old woman is just as much of a character in the novel as Claudia’s previous ‘versions’ at different stages in her life. Each ‘Claudia’ and the people she interacts with gets a say in the telling of the story, revealing the ultimate unreliability of the narrator. Gordon’s boring wife Sylvia, Lisa – the rejected daughter, and the frequently bewildered Jasper reveal that Claudia is caustic, stubborn, unyielding, and completely unwilling to adhere to convention. Intelligent, successful, and arrestingly beautiful, she is attractive but not well liked and certainly not fully understood – not that Claudia cares! She is certainly one of the most vivid and memorable heroines I’ve come across in literature, and I couldn’t help but like her.

No one, she thinks, has ever spoken to me like this before. I have never made anyone happy before. I have made people angry, restless, jealous, lecherous ... never, I think, happy. (p. 120)
At the very heart of the novel is Claudia’s biggest secret: her relationship with Tom, an Army captain in the African campaign of World War II. For a few short weeks, they enjoy happiness and peace neither of them had thought possible. Tom tentatively plans for a future together, but Claudia says nothing, and it’s as if she suspects somehow that Tom will eventually go out to the front and not come back. For the second time in her life (the first being wishing her annoying little brother dead), Claudia prays, but there is no answer, and Tom is killed. There is a child but, devastatingly, Claudia miscarries a little boy, which may explain her maternal relationship with wild child Laszlo later in life.

History: it enlarges me, it frees me from the prison of my experience; it also resounds within that experience. (p. 159)
This is no trite romance novel; Claudia recovers, goes on to take many lovers and have a child. She is often seized with a crippling longing for Tom, but never lets on and certainly tells no one the story. She lives the life that is perhaps better suited for her, going on to write wildly successful works of popular history, one of which is made into a film. Obsessively, she researches the mundane concerns of important yet in many ways commonplace individuals that go on to make history. She incenses academics, fires the imagination of the reading public, and fascinates and alienates at the same time. It is surprising, then, that there is no real partner for Claudia except her near-genius brother Gordon.

We confronted each other like mirrors, flinging back reflections in endless recession. We spoke to each other in code. Other people become, for a while, for a couple of contemptuous years, a proletariat. We were an aristocracy of two. (p. 137)
This complicated relationship is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Claudia and Gordon grow up together, challenge each other, share incestuous (or near-incestuous) experiences, and go on to become each other’s closest friends and confidants. They communicate without speaking, excluding everyone else from their conversation, and projecting an aura of an exclusive secret society. This confuses Jasper, saddens Laszlo, and unnerves Sylvia, all of whom feel extraneous and inadequate when Claudia and Gordon are together. There quite simply is no match for Claudia but Gordon; even Tom, from the reader’s perspective, does not seem quite enough for her.

Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. (p. 41)
Well-deserving of the Booker Prize it won in 1987, Moon Tiger is a powerful reading experience. The language captivates and tempts the reader back again and again to savour Claudia’s apt and thought-provoking turns of phrase. The war is described powerfully, believably and without the sentiment that deceptively similar stories such as The English Patient reek of. The characters are vivid and captivating, with the formidable Claudia as mistress of them all. To use a cliché, it’s an absolute must-read.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Sing you Home - Jodi Picoult

Sing you Home by Jodi Picoult, Hodder & Stoughton, 424 pages

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

There was no room in my marriage for me anymore, except as genetic material. (p. 44)
Zoe, a music therapist, and Max, who has his own landscaping business, have been trying to conceive for years, but to no avail. Zoe is desperate to have a baby, but Max is close to giving up and feels that trying to get pregnant has taken over their marriage. As the costs of IVF treatment spiral and tensions between them mount, the situation comes to a head when Zoe miscarries and Max, buckling under the strain, leaves the relationship. Max moves in with his married, successful brother, and founders in a fog of self-loathing and alcoholism. When his uncontrolled drinking leads to a car accident, Max experiences an epiphany of sorts, quits drinking and joins his brother’s evangelical Christian church which is led by the smooth, populist Pastor Clive.

In music, perfect pitch is the ability to reproduce a tone without any reference to an external standard. (...) In life, perfect pitch is the ability to know someone from the inside out, even better maybe than she knows herself. (p. 135)
In the meantime, Zoe does her own grieving over the miscarriage and reels from blow after blow from life: her divorce, the diagnosis of a thromboembolism, and finally endometrial cancer, which necessitates a hysterectomy. Zoe finds help and friendship in Vanessa, a school counsellor. Completely compatible, they eventually find their relationship has blossomed into love, and decide to get married. Much as she loves Vanessa, Zoe is hesitant to come out to anyone about their relationship – she feels it should be no one’s business but her and Vanessa’s. Luckily, she realises that coming out for her is not so much about identifying as a lesbian but about showing loyalty to her partner. Zoe finds a great deal of support in her mother, who is thrilled to see her in a supportive, functional relationship for a change.

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. There is no language to describe a betrayal this big. (...) ‘He’s trying to take away our baby.’ (p. 238)
Max, however, shares the bigoted views of his church, and sees Zoe’s relationship with a woman as an affront to his own masculinity. It is no surprise, then, that when Zoe asks his permission to retrieve one of the frozen embryos left over from their IVF treatment so that Vanessa can give birth to her baby, he allows his church leaders to escalate the couple’s disagreement to a highly publicised court case.
The church argues that being a lesbian couple makes Zoe and Vanessa unfit to become parents, and Zoe and Vanessa point out that Max – a very recently recovered alcoholic living in his brother’s basement – is in no position to be a father. The couple’s lawyer forces Max to reveal that he actually intends to give the embryo his brother, who is infertile like Max, so that he and his wife can raise the baby. Their argument is that this is even more of a non-traditional family model and, what is more, the biological mother would not be allowed access to the child because of Max’s homophobic views. With a conservative, nearly retired judge presiding, the scales of justice could tip either way, and drama mounts when we learn about Max’s affair with his sister-in-law and an accusation of sexual harassment from Zoe’s patient who also happens to be Pastor Clive’s daughter.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would recommend it as the discerning reader’s light read J As in other books by Jodi Picoult, weighty and relevant issues are explored with arguments from both sides being given voice. The Biblical rationale for the church’s disapproval of gay adoption is explained well, and it’s clear that although Pastor Clive and his cronies are far from the true spirit of Christianity, the rank and file of the congregation – people like Libby, Max’s sister in law – are mostly good people who try to follow scripture and love their neighbour. Zoe and Vanessa’s relationship, in turn, is fairly portrayed as a healthy, stable partnership where both women can thrive and depend on one another; it stands in stark contrast with Max’s needy, immature behaviour as a husband. It is clear where the author weighs in on the issue of equal rights for LGBT couples, and I hope most readers will also feel the same way, but the opposing side in the argument is given generous and fair treatment.
I have only two complaints. For one, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the ‘homosexuality is not a choice’ argument. Whether or not sexual orientation is genetically determined, it should not be viewed in the same light as cancer or disfigurement. The novel focuses very strongly on this argument, and the author comes close to saying that being gay is not Vanessa or Zoe’s ‘fault’, thereby playing into the evangelical Christian argument that homosexuality is ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’.
Secondly, my copy of the book included QR codes that linked to a website with music accompanying each chapter. It certainly is an innovative and fun idea, but unfortunately I found the music to be unpleasant if not absolutely dire! Insistent rhymes in the lyrics and high-pitched, piercing vocals made it very difficult for me to listen to, and I stopped after the first track. A real shame and a wasted opportunity, in my opinion.

Friday, 3 February 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lioner Shriver, Serpent's Tail, 468 pages

★ ★ ★ ★ ★  

As soon as I heard the interview with author Lionel Shriver on the BBC World Book Club podcast, I knew I wanted to read We Need to Talk About Kevin. And when I finally did, I found it resonated with me and moved me more than any other novel ever had. The effect was just as powerful, if not more, on the second reading. An incisive examination of the age-old nature vs. nurture issue, the novel addresses themes such as parental responsibility, the mother-son relationship, and most importantly, the choice of becoming a parent in the first place.

I saw it coming for nearly sixteen years. (p. 114)
In a series of letters to her absent husband, narrator Eva Katchadourian recounts the upbringing of her son Kevin, attempting to find the reason why one Thursday he locked several classmates and a teacher in the school gymnasium and shot them dead with a crossbow. As a product of a culture where mothers are held most accountable for their children’s actions, Eva examines her own conduct and dissects her troubled relationship with Kevin. She attempts to decode Kevin’s personality and his world view to find a reason – any reason – why he was moved to commit such an atrocity. Eschewing traditional counselling, Eva analyses Kevin and herself in writing, both as a form of therapy and as a self-inflicted punishment. As we follow Kevin’s story and see harmless pranks evolve into pure, calculating evil, we are forced to wonder whether he was born that way, or whether his and Eva’s toxic relationship warped his personality, and thus Eva’s account cannot be trusted. Frustratingly, but also ingeniously, the novel does not provide a clear-cut answer, and the reader is left to make what he or she will of the “evidence” recounted in Eva’s letters. Left reeling from the emotional turmoil in the characters’ lives, the reader is dealt one final blow when the secret behind Eva’s letters is revealed.

Just about any stranger could have turned up nine months later. We might as well have left the door unlocked. (p. 60)
Having read the book years after the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings, the most relevant issue to me was that of the choice to become a parent, specifically – a mother. With candour absent from I think any other book addressing the issue of parenting, We Need to Talk About Kevin gives voice to the fears and concerns of many women who hesitate about having children, or indeed do not want to take this step, but feel pressured on various fronts to give in and fulfil this biological function of the female body. Eva clearly and honestly expresses her own resentment at her societal demotion from the moment of conception and being reduced to a biological function: I felt expendable, throw-away, swallowed by a big biological project that I didn’t initiate or choose, that produced me but would also chew me up and spit me out. I felt used. (p. 61). She describes how Kevin, “Mr. Divide-and-Conquer”, drives a wedge between her and husband Franklin, putting an end to any time spent alone together and forcing them to take sides in the “war” over his upbringing. Lest anyone assume that Eva is being petty and selfish, it is worth naming just a few of the horrifying incidents Kevin was involved in, if not directly responsible for: a preschooler tempted into scratching her eczema till she drew blood; spraying Eva’s study – painstakingly wallpapered with maps of all the places she’d visited before quitting work to become a mother – with indelible blood-red ink; throwing bricks at cars from an overpass; loosening the wheel lock of a neighbour boy’s bike; triggering a schoolmate’s eating disorder; falsely accusing a schoolteacher of sexually abusing him; and most horrifyingly of all, the loss of his sister’s eye in an incident involving drain cleaner. Every word and action appears aimed at making others, particularly his mother, feel intensely uncomfortable: wearing ridiculously undersized clothing that practically cuts into his flesh, uttering incisively critical and brutally honest statements at socially awkward moments, even masturbating loudly at home with the bathroom door open.
Franklin, who appears to love not so much his son as the idea of having a son, a happy family, does not notice – or pretend not to notice – Kevin’s antisocial behaviour. He flatly dismisses Eva’s concerns and assumes the fault is all hers, for being a cold and unapproachable mother. It’s true, Eva did not initially want to be a mother, and approached the role more as a challenge than as the fulfilment of a heartfelt wish. She admits to feeling nothing for Kevin immediately following his birth and many years after. But it’s also true she gets no response from Kevin, who rejects any affection and stubbornly feigns disinterest in everything and everyone. Eva’s experience of motherhood is dramatically different when little Celia – trusting, affectionate and sunny – is born. Indeed, she admits in her letters that she decided on a second pregnancy just to see whether happy parenthood is possible, or whether she is just inherently unable to love a child. Clearly, she isn’t.
Eva may not like or even love Kevin, but she has an inkling of how he sees the world, and the reader, if not Eva herself, can easily spot the similarity between some of Eva’s and Kevin’s opinions on society. She has a strong if not constant feeling of the misery and pointlessness of human existence, and has more faith in evil than in goodness: In truth, we are bigger, greedier versions of the same eating, shitting, rutting ruck, hell-bent on disguising from somebody, if only from a three-year-old, that pretty much all we do is eat and shit and rut. The secret is that there is no secret. That is what we really wish to keep from our kids. (...) Kevin must have felt so fiercely cheated. (p. 170). And indeed, Kevin appears to respond best to Eva when she is honest with him and does not disguise any unpleasant truths, including the fact that she does not like him. Tragically and disturbingly, the closest moment they share is when Eva finally snaps and hits him, making him fall and break his arm. Real love shares more in common with hatred and rage than it does with geniality and politeness, she notes. For two seconds I felt whole, and like Kevin Katchadourian’s real mother. I felt close to him. I felt like myself – my true, unexpurgated self – and I felt we were finally communicating. (p. 232).
Franklin’s cheery, supportive comments ring false to Kevin, and he does not hide his contempt for his father in a TV interview in the years following the tragedy he caused. Although he stubbornly hides it, he appears to actually respect Eva for seeing through his act and striving to know the real Kevin, instead of just defaulting to a socially dictated pattern of parenthood. To Eva’s surprise, in the interview Kevin vehemently denies that Eva was a bad mother, and speaks highly of her accomplishments as a travel writer and businesswomen, mentioning that he used to sneak off to the bookstore just to see her travel guides. And when the camera pans to one side, Eva spots on Kevin’s nightstand in prison – a photograph of herself...
As a reader, I cannot say whether Kevin’s killing spree can be said to be a result of his toxic relationship with his mother. All I know is that their relationship is a tortured one, based on a vicious cycle of mutual rejection and refusing to admit that one needs – if not exactly loves – the other. This strife may not have informed Kevin’s actions, but it must have influenced him in some way.
There is no simple answer to the nature vs. nurture problem, neither in the novel nor in real life. As Eva puts it, whereas the likes of Franklin look to children to find the answer to the meaning of life, it’s Kevin who has posed [her] Big Question. (p. 301). The one answer the book does provide is in the open, honest expression of fears and misgivings about having children, which many people share but are shamed into concealing by accusations of selfishness and superficiality. Kevin’s example may be an extreme one, but it can’t be denied that giving birth is exactly as Eva describes it: an almost foolhardy act of trust that boils down to letting a stranger into your house.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The House of Doctor Dee - Peter Ackroyd

The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd, Penguin Books, 277 pages

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

When we start looking for eternity, we find it everywhere.

A strange, complex book, neither biography nor historical fiction, but rather a writer's impression of John Dee and his strange work. Dee, a 16th-century English alchemist, is perhaps best known for having been Queen Elizabeth's personal astrologer and before that for serving time in the Tower under Queen Mary under the suspicion of treason. Ackroyd's unusual account of Dee's life recounts these facts, as well as information about John Dee's impressive personal library, his work as a mathematician, as well as his later interest in the occult, which included seances aided by a crystal ball. It is the supernatural that dominates the novel, and creates a strong and mysterious connection between Dee's 16th century London and the city in the present day, where Matthew Palmer, "professional researcher", inherits a house that once belonged to Dee. John and Matthew's stories are told in parallel; as Dee's ambition spirals out of control and he becomes more and more entangled in experiments with the paranormal at the expense of real human relationships, Matthew investigates the strange history of the house and the disturbing events that took place there, from the 16th century all the way through until his father's residence in Dee's old house. Along with Matthew, we learn about Dee's recipe for creating a homunculus - a miniature creature that resembles a human, grown by means of alchemy and magic - and his theories on the existence of a mystical, underground London which has been concealed from human knowledge since the time of Atlantis. Both characters undergo a transformation; Matthew, who starts out as a reclusive but perfectly ordinary historian, taps into the dark side of his personality under the strange influence of the house and the ghosts that seem to inhabit it. John Dee, on the other hand, appears to re-live the story of Doctor Faustus, as his wife's death makes him realise the importance of genuine human connections and the folly of seeking knowledge purely for the sake of power and ambition. It is not altogether clear how, but the characters gradually develop an awareness of one another and even appear to communicate across space and time at the novel's conclusion.

This was not an easy read, nor a pleasant one at times. I found myself increasingly repelled by Matthew, who appears to devolve into a crazed, animalistic creature as the power of the house and Dee's work sucks him in. He urinates and defecates outdoors, kills a bird with his bare hands and has extremely brutal sex with a woman encountered on a nighttime walk. It is as if he is unwittingly tapping into the dark powers that Edward Kelley, Dee's evil accomplice, wanted to harness to create the homunculus. In parallel with Dee's change, Matthew also grows to realise the importance of human relationships as he reconciles with his estranged mother and lets go of the memory of his twisted father; when confronted with a vision of the homunculus, he rejects the dark impulses it represents.

As my dislike for Matthew grew, I found myself gradually warming to the character of John Dee. Initially haughty, proud and emotionally dead, he is truly transformed and sees the error of his ways. When his father dies, all he can think of is trying to tease out clues from him about a possible buried treasure; in contrast, when his wife lies dying as a result of Kelley's scheming and maybe even poison, Dee cares for her tenderly and admits that his immense library and hard-won knowledge is worthless when he faces the prospect of losing his lifelong companion. His inner change is reflected in two contrasting visions he experiences in the aftermath of the strange seances he and Kelley undertake. The first is an image of a world without love, which includes a bizarre and unsettling scene of the queen conducting a postmortem on John Dee's own body in front of him, taking it apart piece by piece in a travesty of a medical investigation and then hungrily consuming the raw flesh. The second is a scene set in an Eden-like garden which represents knowledge gleaned not from books and experiments but from nature and the study of mankind; there, his companion is his late wife, who advises him to stop his mad quest for power and ambition.

The House of Doctor Dee is a strange, convoluted book that flits between modern-day events and something that is certainly a version of what John Dee's life may have been, but definitely does not claim to be a historical account of the past. Compelling at times, tedious and repellent as others, it's not a novel I can form a definite positive or negative opinion about. It's definitely one that had me wondering at the author's sanity. I don't regret reading it, but I can't say I fully enjoyed it.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeannette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, Random House, Kindle Edition

★ ★ ★ ★ ★  

I have a memory - true or not true?
Back in 1985, Jeanette Winterson burst onto the literary scene with her semi-autobiographical first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The heroine, Jeanette, grows up in the Northern town of Accrington, the adopted child of two evangelical Christians: her meek, introverted father, and his wife, the towering, larger-than-life madwoman she refers to as Mrs. Winterson. In a house where the Bible is the only acceptable reading material, Jeanette squirrels away paperbacks under her mattress and, when Mrs. Winterson finds and burns them, resolves to start writing her own books. The desire to escape the confines of impoverished, industrial Accrington grows in Jeanette, especially after her love affair with another girl is discovered and Mrs. Winterson, along with her fundamentalist church, quite literally attempts to exorcise the 'demon' of lesbianism from her. Finally, given an ultimatum, she chooses freedom and her sexual identity, and Mrs. Winterson kicks her out with the parting words, "Why be happy when you could be normal?"  

I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is 'true' and what is not 'true' in Oranges . (...) I can't answer these questions. Twenty-six years later, Winterson revisits her autobiography to fill in some of the missing gaps in Orangers. What emerges is a far sadder account of a deprived, sometimes violent childhood, and an adult life fraught with the lingering insecurities of someone rejected first by her teenage birth mother and then by her dysfunctional adoptive mother. In spite of the profound grief conveyed in this book, it is no misery memoir. Winterson emerges triumphant from a horrific bout of depression triggered by the end of a long-term relationship and the search for her birth mother that began with an adoption certificate found amongst her late mother's belongings. She describes regaining confidence in her ability to love and be loved, and a guns-blazing return to creativity. Stubbornly (and quite rightly) proud of her accomplishments, in Why be Happy, Winterson is as uncompromising and in-your-face as ever about the importance of art, language and education as sustenance for the soul in an increasingly utilitarian, consumer-driven society. Why Be Happy may be a more sombre and detailed version of the events first described in Oranges, but it holds no more claim to being 'true' than Winterson's first book. It hardly matters whether Mrs. Winterson's varicose vein really ruptured when Jeanette returned home and reasserted her identity as a lesbian, or whether it is possible that Jeanette's father could have slept through an air raid in which the house around him was reduced to rubble. Ultimately, to enjoy Winterson's work is to savour the elegance of language, drink up the writing like a fine wine and let yourself go enough to feel some of the same passion that inspired it.

Yes, the stories are dangerous, [Mrs. Winterson] was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, Vintage, 512 pages
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

An intriguing fictional account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's real life campaign to clear the name of George Edalji, an English-born, Indian solicitor sentenced for the Great Wyrley Outrages, a series of vicious attacks on farm animals in rural Staffordshire. The events themselves, their background and their consequences are told alternately from Arthur and George's points of view, giving insight into their surprising similarities as well as cultural and personal differences.
Conan Doyle emerges as a truly larger-than-life character: successful doctor, athlete and eventually the famous writer we now know him to be. Although he resents being confused with Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation, Arthur feels partly duty-bound and partly personally compelled to use his deductive powers to prove George's innocence. The case is brought to his attention as he fights apathy and depression following the death of his first wife and a crisis in his feelings for his mistress. The challenge of detective work proves to be his salvation, reinvigorating the middle-aged writer and bringing back his zest for life. In spite of his foibles and eccentricities, the biggest of which is his dysfunctional, pseudo-chivalrous attitude to women (he and his 'mistress' remain in a purely platonic relationship for a decade, and he vehemently opposes women's suffrage), Arthur's keen intellect and generosity make him a profoundly  sympathetic character. A touching illustration is his kind conduct when acting as a celebrity judge in a strongman competition: seeing the winner walk off alone with no money for accommodation, he puts the athlete up in a hotel room for the night.
George is the physical and in many ways psychological opposite to Arthur. Slight of stature, extremely near-sighted and highly literal-minded, George is a "nerd" by today's standards and considered odd even in his own time. The son of a vicar, with whom he continues to live well into his twenties, George leads a sheltered life and appears supremely naive and innocent. He holds the highest standards for himself and others, refusing to attribute his social isolation and eventual conviction to racial hatred. Indeed, his refusal to view himself as any different or lower in status to white Englishmen verges on denial. But like Arthur, George has the logical and (seemingly) objective, detached mind of a detective. Having heard of Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes stories, he appeals to the author to help demonstrate his innocence. Interestingly, although he deeply appreciates Arthur's help, George also recognises that Conan Doyle's defence of Edalji is just as flawed and derived from conclusions based on circumstantial evidence as the original indictment. The vivid portrayal of these two eccentric characters is the main selling point of the book. The novel really comes into its own when Arthur and George eventually meet to exchange ideas about the case and discover each other's similarities: a keen intelligence, a mutual passion for justice, and a love of order and routine in life. Another fascinating part of the book is Conan Doyle's heated exchange with Captain Anson, Chief Constable of Staffordshire, who reveals hitherto unknown facts about George and maintains that he must be guilty. Ultimately, we hope that George is innocent and, like Arthur, want to believe it. But nothing is certain, there are no credible witnesses to the crime, and no one knows what happened; to this day, the Wyrley Outrages remain an unsolved mystery. It's not the solution but the detective work involved that brings satisfaction, as Arthur himself discovers. Getting to know the two characters through their own subjective points of view is a detective story in itself.
I rated Arthur and George 4/5 - overall, a fascinating story with well-depicted characters with a slightly disappointing ending which emphasizes Arthur's obsession with spiritualism.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Why This Blog

The true reason [for reading] remains the inscrutable one – we get pleasure from reading. It is a complex pleasure and a difficult pleasure; it varies from age to age and from book to book. But that pleasure is enough. Indeed that pleasure is so great that one cannot doubt that without it the world would be a far different and a far inferior place from what it is. Reading has changed the world and continues to change it. When the day of judgment comes therefore and all secrets are laid bare, we shall not be surprised to learn that the reason why we have grown from apes to men, and left our caves and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and given to the poor and helped the sick – the reason why we have made shelter and society out of the wastes of the desert and the tangle of the jungle is simply this – we have loved reading.

Reading is one of the most profound and lasting pleasures I have ever known. Like all 'recovering', i.e. lapsed, Catholics, I devote far too little time to pleasure, and can't help feeling slightly guilty when I do indulge. I tend to rush through books, wolfing them down like chocolates secretly eaten on a diet, barely remembering the characters' names when I'm finished. But with the new year comes a new resolution - to read more, and savour each book, giving it the attention it deserves. Each one will get a review and a rating, both purely subjective, of course. If anyone reads this, enjoy, and happy reading in 2012!