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  1. #21
    The Deluge

    I’d been putting off trying to articulate my thoughts on Adam Tooze’s masterful analysis of global history from 1916-1931, The Deluge, because, being so ignorant about that era, I wasn’t sure what I could say other than ‘read it, it’ll educate ya’, for fear of drawing incorrect or misleading conclusions from this densely detailed and nuanced appraisal of the post-WW1 political order. I’ll confess it was a struggle, but a fascinating one.


    Anyway, I read an article this morning about academics giving that lunatic George Osborne a shoeing about his desire to enshrine budget surpluses in law. It brought home one of my big take-aways from Tooze’s thesis, in particular this comment from the article: “77 of the best-known academic economists, including French economist Thomas Piketty and Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang, said the chancellor was turning a blind eye to the complexities of a 21st-century economy that demanded governments remain flexible and responsive to changing global events.”


    The thing is, it isn’t a 21st-century problem. It was a problem back in 1916, and it’s been a problem ever since and it arguably caused World War II. What was so eye-opening about Adam Tooze’s book was the extent to which the world’s economies were and thus are interconnected, how decisions made by banks and governments in the US and the UK, then, tragically, Germany in 1929, rippled across the world and back again, fuelling nationalism, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary fervour, the Depression etc. Decisions politicians make about their own economies in isolation never truly affect those economies in isolation.


    Because no economy, a hundred years ago or now, is in isolation, George.


    Tooze, in his introduction, outlines a key plank of what he believes went wrong after the war that was meant to end all wars, and it begins during it: (President Woodrow Wilson’s)“mission was to ensure not that the ‘right side’ won in World War I, but that no side did. He refused any overt association with the Entente. Only a peace without victory, the goal that he announced…to the Senate in 1917, could ensure that the United States emerged as the truly undisputed arbiter of world affairs. This book will argue that despite the fiasco of that policy already in the spring of 1917…this would remain the basic objective of Wilson and his successors right down to the 1930s.” They did not see supporting Britain and France as supporting ‘good’ but supporting rampant imperialists, in that respect no better than Germany, and actually more of a threat.


    What was interesting to read, later on, was Tooze’s belief that Wilson and the US in general was so scarred by its own civil war that it had a kind of genetic antipathy to the ‘imperialists’ of Great Britain, France and other powers on the ‘dark continent’. Arguably, the failures of the victorious powers to secure, with the US at their head, a lasting peace, lay in this antipathy residing in the world’s first superpower. For the first time in history, as Hitler, Churchill and Trotsky all realised fully, the US was bigger and stronger than any nation had ever been. They could no longer consider their place in the world without also considering their relationship to it. What rankled for at least Trotsky and anyone else that did not share its liberalism was that the US chose to exert its power through its economy and ideology, that it was using its power to establish a blueprint for the world’s social order and couldn’t be stopped from doing so. Yet insofar as it proposed to the world a desire to see it at peace such that free trade and liberalism could spread, and it had ample resources to achieve this, why did it fail?


    In the early part of the book it was interesting to see how this played out as World War I reached 1916 and 1917, when formally the US government was preaching non-intervention while Wall Street was independently lending massive amounts to the Entente to fund their war effort. In 1916 JP Morgan, principle lender in all this, apparently lent almost all the money the Entente spent on its war effort that year. This lending, and its impact on the US economy via its exports began to have such a powerful effect that the US was being drawn into the conflict regardless, and it was becoming clear which side, but it had nothing to do with US foreign policy. However, the US was, at the time, equally concerned about the strength of the British Navy and its empire as it was the Germans. The counterfactuals over these two years come thick and fast, particularly how close the US might have been to supporting Germany if not for a disastrous decision on their part to increase U-Boat attacks on US shipping. Even with a number of its ships being sunk, it took time before they fell into line with the Entente and started sending troops and supplies over the Atlantic.


    There are some fascinating minor facts that came out of this, such as some of the people involved in organising the allied supply infrastructures would later go on to inform what became the EU, for this was the first truly international logistics effort between European nations, alongside the US.


    One of the early counterfactuals relates to how closely the call for ‘peace without victory’ might have gained the credence it needed to overcome an Entente opposition so determined to win at all costs, to get a decisive victory despite the impact of this crippling the home economies. If Wilson had kept the US out of joining sides for just a few months, it would have been bolstered in its position by the Russians, whose revolution in 1917, almost at the same time, led to their own desire for a ‘peace without victory’, all the more stunning in its force because they had already lost hundreds of thousands in the war. For a country to effectively ‘write off’ its war dead for the sake of peace without victory, for a new world order, was a bold and progressive step, one unlikely to have been ignored in concert with the US position. The Russians were advocating abolition of the death penalty and removing restrictions on assembly and free speech. “It was making itself the most democratic country on earth.” It’s unbearably sad when, as someone so ignorant of history, I came across this, how pregnant with so much better possibility was the world’s future at certain critical points. The ennui with knowing how it would ultimately transpire was unexpectedly heartbreaking as I went along.


    The Russians could not surrender to Germany, despite such heavy defeats on that front, given successes in Turkey and the new nationalist fervour stoked by the revolution. Yet to engage in a truce with Germany would cut off the flow of credit and support from Britain, while allowing Germany to move its men fighting its eastern front to the west and likely deliver a victory as part of their massive counter-offensive, with the risk they would then turn back east anyway. The Entente would have struggled to endorse it because it might at least force the Russians into the German army, along with the considerable ‘food basket’ and coal that the Ukraine and Russia could supply. Yet the Russians had no desire to win the war for imperialist objectives. A peace without victory was needed.


    So, because the Russians offered a peace formula, a large part of the German SPD party that supported the war to defend Germany against Tsarist aggression was now suing for peace itself, in April 1917. Indeed, at this point, an Entente victory was looking unlikely, after a joint British/French offensive failed to break through German lines. Some French divisions then mutinied, while at home some Liberal and Labour MPs clamoured for the acceptance of the ‘Petrograd’ peace formula. The U-boat blockade was bleeding the allied forces dry on the continent, and food supplies to Italy had almost run out, the country beginning to starve, leading to rioting. Yet it was the German government’s belief that despite all this, the Entente, presumably in part due to Britain’s widespread empire, were still able to get enough boats through that the blockade would ultimately be futile. This boosted their own calls for peace even more strongly internally. The German Chancellor was dismissed and the Reichstag voted for peace. It was all just a few months too late.


    When the Petrograd peace formula came through, echoing Wilson’s own, it was too late for him to throw himself and the US behind it, though where his own peace without victory had failed, it would not just have become embarrassing to follow Russia’s lead and do a u-turn, but also because it would go counter to his own view that the US should lead the new world order. He saw Germany as dangerously imperialist and aggressive enough that a peace by force would be required, and had thus acted first.


    As Tooze says, had the Americans not joined the war when they did, had the Germans not stepped up their U-boat campaign (against internal opposition), had the Entente been more ready to sue for peace though it would mean declaring the world’s worst war futile, there may have been peace with Germany and democracy in Russia from 1917 onwards. The Bolsheviks, and later, Stalin, might never have got started. The steps to their power, and Lenin’s subsequent naked aggression and usurpation of the fragile democracy that Russia was birthing, are followed in much the same fascinating and tragic vein through the ramifications of the ‘Brest Litovsk’ treaty. I’d be typing the book out if I carried on, but now I revisit it to refresh these points, I’m once again carried away by it. The Entente, concerned about a pact that forced Germany and Russia together, as well as the US, who foresaw a pan Eurasian counter to their own global power, supported the Czech army that was fighting both Russians and Germans. This forced Russia into Germany’s arms, yet led to deep civil unrest in Russia due to the former Tsarist connections, and Lenin, to maintain control, effectively declaring himself a dictator, after being shot by leftists disappointed at the treaty. What comes across in this book is his and Trotsky’s ideological arrogance and the damage it ultimately did. In my notes I bolded ‘Lenin is a total dick’, which I’m sure sufficiently excoriates him in the eyes of the world…


    Here, in a microcosm, is an illustration of how the decision making and economic ramifications of them played in and out of how these nations engaged with each other. They are bound no less by such relations in peace time, as the rest of the book goes on to amply demonstrate. It explores the failures of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, the rise of fascism and of Chinese nationalism and how the Russians saw a great opportunity to shape it into a communist regime.


    Wilson was arguably right about the imperialist bent of Britain and France, from the Anglo-Iraq treaty of 1926 to the French bombing Syria and their Rhineland invasion in the late twenties, or the British occupying Istanbul and letting the Greeks assault Turkey’s interior. It was a view that even Hoover shared in his own way, with the US government time and again refusing to consider economic plans and security guarantees that could have altered the impact of the serious deflation of the early 20s and later the global economic collapse borne of the Great Depression.


    Off the back of this depression, Heinrich Brüning, the German Chancellor in 1930, began a train of events that, with another miserably missed alternate universe, led to Hitler’s Nationalist Socialists gaining power. Aristide Briand and Gustave Stresemann, a Frenchman and a German (both of whom would win the Nobel Peace Prize) advocated, in response to America’s intransigence on inter-allied war debts and reparations that were seen as damaging to European sovereignty, the idea of a European Union, but it collapsed. Brüning was looking to overturn the Versailles Treaty and, perhaps fuelled by the challenges of the negotiations around the Young Plan, which was an attempt to review and decide reparations for the war, his foreign minister, replacing the recently deceased peacemaker Stresemann, with a strengthening economy exporting to Russia and developing ties with Italy, decided to embark on negotiations with Austria for a customs union. So what, eh?


    It broke at least three post-war peace treaties while simultaneously being rather suicidal in the face of Briand’s proposals for a stronger Europe overall which would have given Germany a bigger export market. Instead the move, on the back of deflationary economic adjustments, led to an increase in domestic and international pressure, and Tooze views it as a sop to the far right. In Tooze’s view the French had opened their money markets to Berlin as a reward for its compliance/adherence to the Gold Standard for its currency. The US and Britain appeared not to care a great deal about the union, with the US view being this would surely only help consolidation of European states and reduce their fragility. But this antagonisation of the money markets and Brüning’s scathing view of the reparations payments was made because he was aware that with the US as a key debtor, and Wall Street wanting to see its creditors ensure they got theirs before the allied nations, Germany could reduce its reparations obligations. When Germany’s economy went into freefall, it soon became clear to Hoover and the allies that something had to be done to shore it up, and the US put forward a plan to suspend Germany’s war debt commitments, a plan ratified by everyone but France. I infer from the text, because of their 25% holding of the entire world’s gold reserve at that time, that they just didn’t want to, having been particularly sore about German reparations enough to invade Rhineland, at great cost to their own international credibility. This decision to ignore Hoover’s rescue plan incensed the international community, yet France could argue that it had made round after round of reparations concessions that weren’t matched by the US. In addition to the financial reparations “Again and again France had called for an international security system to replace the provisions agreed at Versailles. But this had been vetoed by Washington…With the stabilisation of the franc in 1926, the agreement to the Young Plan and the Mellon-Berenger war-debt deal in 1929 it had paid the price. Now, as a result of a crisis the Germans had brought upon themselves, America was unilaterally asserting its right to declare an emergency and overturn the rules of its own game.”


    By the time France agreed to the Hoover moratorium Germany’s financial system had collapsed and its banks were closed. Brüning’s reduction in reparations was achieved, but everything else was a catastrophe. With the disaster in Germany this apparently put pressure on the British financial system that ultimately led to its dropping out of the gold standard as it deflated its own currency to protect the British economy from huge cuts in government spending and support for a nation still recovering from the war. Once this happened, sterling and London in general being a key global currency and financial hub, the impact was felt all over the world, bad enough it caused banks to fail in the US (as a measure of its former influence this is quite shocking). The plunge in sterling and subsequent adoption of protectionist trade measures to protect the domestic economy was disastrous for its trading partners. With the pressure now gone internationally to conform to the gold standard and the strictures it imposed on its economy, Japan’s government came under increasing pressure to start spending on its military to counter the growing spending of China and Russia. Back in Germany, without currency reserves to stop runs on the mark, it could not sensibly, with the British deflating, expect to keep competitive in its export market and came under increasing pressure to leave the gold standard as well, but it could not do so because of the foreign debts, in particular the dollar debts to Wall Street creditors. As unemployment rose and its industry was hit hard, the German government lost an election on the back of Hitler’s pro-jobs rhetoric, sweeping him into power.


    As you can no doubt see, Germany’s financial decisions, ties to Italy and Japan’s massively increased military spending are all jigsaw pieces required for 1939.

    *

    Why have I regurgitated all this from Tooze’s book? I could have been playing Bioshock instead. I want to impart, to anyone bothering to get this far, through the examples at the beginning and the end of the period examined in The Deluge, what a profound effect it’s had on my view of Europe and the US and that it is worth reading if you want to understand the importance of staying in the EU, and of extending the United Nations, of trying to make these institutions work rather than denigrating and ignoring them.


    I hadn’t expected it to be this gripping, to watch with horror as time and again peace was snatched away at the brink of treaties, how those who won the war ended up no better off than those who lost it, how they were all, anyway, bound up together. Tooze sees the peacemakers, these internationalists like Briand and Stresemann, J.M. Keynes and even Lloyd George at one point, not as idealists, but, given how interconnected the world is, the ‘higher realists’. It’s a lovely phrase, reclaiming away from cynics the ongoing and very real value of speaking nation unto nation.

  2. #22
    The Girl With All The Gifts

    I’ve not personally overdosed on zombie movies/games/books/TV shows/tee shirts etc. but because the rest of the world has, I’ve got a second-hand kind of weariness of it, so much so I have tried to avoid it. I’ve done the odd George Romero, loved Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, but then I’d had enough.


    I was thus in the glorious state of not actually knowing that The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R.Carey, is a book set in a world overrun with zombies. I didn’t know what Melanie, the young protagonist, was, as the blurb was thankfully vague, but don’t worry, it’s not a big spoiler.


    So anyway, imagine my delight when I couldn’t put the damn book down.


    This is a zombie novel with a great big heart and a conundrum. Why are so many people zombies in the classic moronic sense, and why are some, like Melanie, full of empathy and good at quadratic equations?


    Soon enough the story becomes about Melanie, her beloved teacher Miss Justineau, a scientist and a couple of soldiers forced on the run. The big heart comes from Carey’s great characters, who, despite being somewhat stereotypical (the kind teacher, the cold scientist, the hardened sergeant, the nervous rookie) nevertheless have their flaws and ‘soft sides’ exposed through their travails. It’s effortlessly done, and you’re rooting for the whole not-so-merry band all the way along. Melanie’s presence, exemplifying this unique take on the zombie mythos, adds a delicious tension between them, as well as her own unique struggle as she learns and then has to deal with what she is. Indeed, they are all challenged by her, and it should be obvious to most readers that there’s a clear message here about prejudice, ignorance and humanity more generally.


    Though I do have limited reading in the genre, I thought Carey’s ’cause’ of the zombie plague was engaging and fairly plausible and it is critical to their challenges and the highly satisfying and surprising conclusion.


    The other interesting thing about the novel was the narration itself. I didn’t sense a consistent voice but the character of that voice came across as though it was a mate telling you it all down the pub; the narrator doesn’t come across as typically dispassionate. It reminded me of Wolf Hall, the sense of the narrator being one of the characters telling their story in the third person. It certainly lent a warmth to the storytelling here, and as with Mantel’s book, you feel a bit closer to the characters where this technique is adopted and it led to some lovely phrases: “(strings) wrapped loosely around and around the little corpse as though the rat had decided to try to be an octopus then hadn’t known how to stop” and “Melanie thinks: when your dreams come true, your true has moved. You’ve already stopped being the person who had the dreams, so it feels more like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago.”


    There are plenty of beautiful phrases like these throughout the novel that elevate it without clogging it up. I felt there was one off note later on in the book, a scene with one of the soldiers, of which I’ll say no more but it did so stick out like a sore thumb I’m still wondering what Carey was thinking, but that aside, I don’t hesitate to recommend it to you for a gripping summer read.

  3. #23
    The Goldfinch. The Liars' Gospel

    “if our secrets define us, as opposed to the face we show the world: then the painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am. And it’s there: in my notebooks, every page, even though it’s not. Dream and magic, magic and delirium. The Unified Field Theory. A secret about a secret.”

    Theo Decker, the protagonist of Donna Tartt’s brilliant novel The Goldfinch contemplates the way Carel Fabritius’s painting of the same name has dominated his life, a complicated connection beginning with the shocking opening as his mother is killed in a terrorist bomb blast in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their hometown of New York. He escapes with a ring given to him by a dying man – to take to an old furniture restorer – and his mother’s favourite painting: The Goldfinch.

    His life takes its turns from there, Theo trying to keep the painting hidden, a paranoia about it, and a passion for it that almost drives him mad. We come to know the people who, in his mother’s absence, will dominate his life: his gambler of a father; his friend Boris, a kindred spirit that he spirals out of control with in the bleached out and desolate sands of a Vegas suburb; a girl who is the love of his life from start to finish; the furniture restorer whose great kindness is not so well repaid, and a wealthy Manhattan family.

    He slides through his adolescence and into an adulthood addicted to pills, wrestling with depression, until he receives some shocking news which precipitates his being drawn into a criminal underworld half a world away.

    The book succeeds so resoundingly because of Tartt’s detail; storytelling that immerses you utterly in Decker’s life because it is so vividly nuanced, rich. It is mahogany-hard in its realness, autobiographical almost. But Tartt goes much further than tell a story. Decker’s journey, his surfeit of feeling and rich reflection on his regrets, his pain and of course, most vividly his love, progresses into an almost dream-like finale where he comes to contemplate the nature of self and the notion of a continuum with art. To what extent did the painting represent him, its subject matter a rich metaphor for his life? What is our relationship with immortal works of art? I’m sure Tartt intended this introspection on our behalf as the finale ploughs its deep philosophical ground. This is an unforgettable book.

    *
    “Losing one’s faith is so very like gaining it. There is the same joy, the same terror, the same annihilation of self in the ecstasy of understanding…One has to lose one’s faith many times before one begins to lose faith in faith itself.”

    I include here my thoughts and my recommendation for The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman because it shares with The Goldfinch a fabulous immersion and a narrative that raises, indirectly here, its own deeper questions. Alderman has delivered a pungent, flinty Jerusalem you can taste and smell and it empowers her stories of Jesus and those around him; stories about his mother, Judas, Caiaphas and Barrabas. These bit players in his life are here given their own rich lives, each capable of leading a novel in themselves, each to varying degrees touched by who Jesus was. By immersing them so vividly in a land and time of which so little is really known – Galilee and Jerusalem being backwaters in the Roman Empire as far as its own historians are concerned – Alderman’s research and fine prose gives an almost ‘photo-realistic’ quality to their lives and their passions. The book is ambiguous in respect of the theology, neutral as a camera or a historian would be in depicting Jesus debating, or the riots against the Romans. These are powerful vignettes against a violent backdrop simmering with the threat of rebellion.

    Having read the eminent historian E.P.Sanders’ life of Jesus which stripped away the fervour of the Gospels’ message for the reality of the time, there is the same maddening question for us reading this fictional treatment of the world around Jesus as there are for the historians attempting to piece together the origin of Christianity. Why, of all those who proclaimed to be the Messiah, did this man, little known and little mourned in his own lifetime before a relatively modest number of disciples, catch fire in the minds of those who heard his word so that, only a few hundred years later, he had conquered Rome? It is, incidentally, a kind of great revenge, this subsequent deification, that creates the book’s most satisfying twist, as it sets itself against the more literal and darker advocate of Jews under the Romans’ heel, Barrabas, Jerusalem’s principle gangster.

    Alderman creates a beautiful and quite, well, christian moral out of the aftermath of the book’s critical scene, where Barrabas and Jesus face Pilate in order to determine their fates. What we know well enough is that the course of history was decided with the outcome of that conversation. Alderman finds a unique angle from which to create an account of that fateful event; a beautiful, masterful dialogue that seals the fate of the world.
    Last edited by Caragula; August 11th, 2015 at 12:55 PM. Reason: formatting

  4. #24
    H is for Hawk

    Helen Macdonald has opened her soul, and unlike most of us, is able to articulate its pain and its healing with a beautiful and haunting power.


    H is for Hawk is a memoir that weaves her grief over the loss of her father with her training of a goshawk, but it also follows the life of the author T.H.White, including his attempts to train a goshawk, his account of which became a book in its own right.


    But the weaving of this memoir goes deeper than that, as her reflections expand out to contemplation of the nature of belonging and identity. These thoughts are coextensive with her interpretation of The Goshawk and White’s struggles with the titular hawk as symbolic of his inner turmoil; a psychoanalysis of White and the forces of his parents and his homosexuality on the man he became, and the actions in which those formative experiences and predilections would later, destructively, manifest.


    It is a moving book, a wrestling with grief and depression, a desire for annihilation of the self in the ‘everpresent’ of nature, the goshawk’s pure and timeless purpose. Macdonald flees people and all the trappings of her life, sheds them, and gives us a mesmerising account of the journey there and back.


    The book is a vigorous argument for the importance of good prose. Great prose has always thrilled me, and H is for Hawk is overstuffed with it:


    ‘The light that filled my house was deep and livid, half magnolia, half rainwater. Things sat in it, dark and very still…There were imperceptible pressures…Something else was there, something standing next to me that I couldn’t touch or see, a thing a fraction of a millimetre from my skin, something vastly wrong.’


    This is early on, the depression taking hold. There are beautiful juxtapositions here – a light that is wet, a light within which sit dark things, something barely a millimetre away that is also vast. These juxtapositions make us giddy, they define a wrongness in the house around her that is a symptom of the depression she is slipping into, when, as I can attest, the world in its entirety seems wrong, not just distant. It is the choice of description here, the avoidance of cliché, that works to draw the parallel out of my own feelings. A more generic description would fail to engage. This description, my mind’s consumption and decoding of it, is precisely the activity required to create the resonance between her feelings and feelings I remember having. But this applies to the whole book. My engagement and emotional involvement stem in significant part from her ability to describe some quite esoteric memories of childhood such that they triggered memories I’d forgotten about but also shared.


    More than once in the last week or so I’ve walked into the office and for fully fifteen minutes tried to disentangle myself from her story in order to start my day.


    Here’s a snip regarding the man she’s buying the goshawk from retrieving the box with it inside from his car:


    ‘A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook…Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle…and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury…My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel.’


    Then there are gorgeous turns of phrase, almost beyond count, such as:
    ‘She breathes hot hawk-breath in my face. It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone.’


    Much of the book then, revolves around her growing relationship with the goshawk. While her memoir fills out around the day to day of her life as she vanishes from society to encompass her thoughts on White and her own mental stability, she writes captivatingly about the hawk, its predilection for play, its states of mind and its savage power. On top of everything else, there’s an education about training hawks in here, not to mention sociocultural musings on the history of falconers and austringers (the name for goshawk trainers particularly). There are many threads to this weave of memoir yet the result is vivid and readable.


    Later on Macdonald wonders about the nature of ‘Old England’, and how it is really only a construct, a sop, something simple we can put upon the objective past to make us content about it and thus pine for it:


    ‘Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard…We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and wipe the hills of history.’


    Her musings on England are both her own and her wondering to what extent White’s view on such things was. Much of what she writes of from her own life she explores with regard to his. They are musings informed by her wandering in the countryside and her coming to know one part of it intimately, that part she hunts with Mabel, her hawk. It is the classic ‘landscape as collective memory’ that is being explored in this book along with so much else of her heart. The journey of Mabel’s training, the triumphs and failures, she paints as stemming from but also revealing to her what it is that’s wrong with her, what her own state of mind is. Training Mabel seems to be a tackling and overcoming of her perceived flaws – neediness, being overprotecting, nihilism. These are all reflected somehow purely and transparently in the hiccups she has with training the hawk. Ultimately, Mabel delivers the means of a resolution.


    Macdonald’s honesty, her passions and her brutally scrutinised flaws are clearly exposed in this book. It’s a self-awareness and a depth of feeling that’s so much more profound than so much else I’ve read. It doesn’t surprise me she can suffer so much. Knowing this book is ‘true’ is what made it so moving, that and her exquisite ability to express this truth. I followed her story and its helical mirror in T.H. White’s story with gratitude and admiration.

  5. #25
    The Children Act

    I’ve written here about my miserable realisation I wouldn’t read more than a couple of thousand books in my lifetime, if I really went for it. I thus struggle to read more than one or two books by any author because there are so many more authors to read. How could I read another Philip K Dick while I’ve not yet read The Odyssey?


    Nevertheless, I keep returning with relish to Ian McEwan. With The Children Act I delight once again in his sublime prose, but also the gossamer feel of the stories. From The Child In Time, through Atonement, to On Chesil Beach he balances whole lives on the point of a pin, a moment in time, fates curling away like skin through a peeler from their previous trajectories. Whether it’s *that* moment in On Chesil Beach or the ‘next moment he’s vanished’ horror of The Child In Time, the glance between Joe and Jed in Enduring Love or, now, The Children Act, where a boy’s life is determined by a song and a kiss, McEwan revels in the delicate nudge of circumstance, a butterfly effect culminating in dragging great anchors through the deeps of his characters.


    I’m always in awe of his mastery of the form, an ability to surf entire lives in a page, and yet also find the simplest, most right words to depict particular events. Early on, High Court judge Fiona Kaye is facing her husband’s accusation that she is frigid:


    “‘It’s been seven weeks and a day. Are you honestly content with that?’…Seven weeks and a day also had a medieval ring, like a sentence handed down from an old Court of Assize.”


    With characteristic efficiency McEwan tells us a lot about Kaye’s husband from his noting their lack of sex to the day, as opposed to a more vague ‘It’s been weeks’. But, though it’s the third person narrator, the thought that is triggered by this is perfectly right for Fiona herself, being a judge, McEwan limiting himself to the allusions that would keep with the character herself.


    His sentences are pared down to their essence, there is no fat. The power comes from what he chooses to describe with those sentences. Near the end, as Kaye plays a duet with a colleague at a party, McEwan applies a very gentle pressure to the moments, the most delicate of hints that there is a wrong coming, barely more than a change in the air, a taste in the mouth. It’s all that’s needed to hold you to the pages as the end nears, your immersion in the moment of the events playing out is subconsciously preparing, anticipating a payoff.


    The novel is short, deceptively deep: Kaye, the High Court judge, is ruling on a Jehovah’s Witness, a minor, refusing a blood transfusion without which he would die, the challenge for Kaye resting on an assessment of his ‘Gillick’ competence, his only being three months from eighteen complicating the judgement. It sits in parallel with Kaye’s confrontation of her husband’s marital frustration and infidelity. His journey is practically off camera, and thus two dimensional, pathetic even. She is the lens for the breakdown, for the ebb and flow of hate and annoyance, despair and longing that the threat of the end of their marriage triggers. Everything about her feelings and the gaps and interconnects between her and her husband, the inching through a stalemate back to something more, feels right, feels solid. It’s only because I try to write books myself that I know how this seemingly effortless ‘rightness’ is far, far from effortless. The true quality of his work lies in how brilliantly and fully realised his characters are.

  6. #26
    Total Recall 5/5 easy!

  7. #27
    The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell

    The title of David Mitchell’s marvellous book almost fully encapsulates it, as all its characters, deathless or otherwise, serve its dominant theme: the misery of ageing.


    The book is split into decades, charting the life of Holly Sykes from the teenage heartbreak that makes her flee her home in Gravesend in 1984 to her cancer-ridden old age on the Irish coast in the very convincing near future dystopia of 2043.


    Her life is bound up in a sort of supernatural war, which, you know, spoilers, the first hints of which is seeded very early on by her younger brother Jacko giving her a picture of a maze which he begs her to memorise in case one day she needs it…


    Very soon afterwards, the supernatural events impose themselves as she becomes formally, albeit superficially, embroiled in this war. This world of the magical hidden behind the ordinary is of course familiar territory ploughed by many other novels. Two my favourites in this oeuvre, and therefore strong recommendations, are Weaveworld by Clive Barker and The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub.


    As with Cloud Atlas, this is many peoples’ story, and with each decade comes a different narrator, among them a cocky and amoral Oxbridge type called Hugo Lamb, Holly’s war journalist husband and a once adored and now faded literary novelist Crispin Hershey.


    The war is explained and progressed from the perspective of these and other characters, but, this being David Mitchell, it’s the detail of their lives, almost short stories akin to his revered ‘Russian Doll’ novel, that absorbs. The ‘main thread’ of the war finds its way into their lives at various points, but is never there consistently through each of them. We’re effortlessly jetted around the world through their lives and more importantly through their eyes. Despite their differing life experiences they nevertheless share almost identical reflections on the awfulness of ageing, whether it’s Lamb’s reflections on a decrepit and senile but once upon a time ‘bon vivant’ that he visits, to Hershey’s withering self-disgust as he assists the world in its heaping of indignities on his once proud reputation – a cliché of a loveless upper middle class marriage and spoiled kids followed by years of heavy drinking and professional spite and envy on the literary circuit. Each of them finds a kind of redemption, and I like that Mitchell has varied both the outcome and the impact of it for each of them.


    Of course, in saying that the novel is structured so as to be like a series of short stories with beginnings through to ends, that contribute fully and seamlessly to the story arc of a novel while each separately explores the same theme across successive decades, illustrates amply Mitchell’s formidable and layered storytelling. That he’s able also to convincingly immerse us in past, present and future, in locations as diverse as Syria, Japan, New York, Kent or the Alps only adds to the wonder of a book that needs to feel big, dealing as it does with the ramifications of his invented metaphysics. This is a war spanning millennia that is imminently coming to an end, the combatants of which, again, to avoid spoilers, clash directly over the proverbial (not literal) fountain of youth.


    As with his other novels, including my still favourite The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I could not put this book down. It’s gripping, full of heart and just pure storytelling, so get lost in it this February, when all else is rain and runny noses.

  8. #28

    "Thirst" by JD Shaw

    "Thirst" by JD Shaw is an all too human story that engenders both disturbing and hopeful feelings, all the more so in the plausible reality of this speculative fiction. Oh, and you might want to have a glass of water at hand while reading.

    The story is set in the vast Australian outback, nearly a century beyond climate tipping points in a time called The Failing. The protagonist Harry Sinclair travels the fringes of an ever-expanding Australian desert, haunted by the consequences of his past and beset by the resulting human behavior. In his travels, among others Harry meets a naïve young man Finn that both aggravates and countervails his blunted disposition. Given the circumstances of their meeting, will any good come of it?

    Beyond being caught up in the story, as a writer I was intrigued by the author's wordsmith skills in moving the story along smoothly, and the construction of overlapping twists and turns that keep one turning pages.

    But one example of the writing skill is the snippet:

    "His mind baulked like a frightened beast, knowing, at last, it had been cornered, that flight was now futile. Finally, he thought, finally after all this time, it has caught me. He fought a shuddering sob. His mind reeled and he felt tears build. Desperate not to be overwhelmed, he breathed out slowly, and the flood of anxiety settled a little ..."

    This is especially a book for the emerging adults of this world, but old dogs will appreciate it as well.

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  9. #29

    Review of Back to the Garden by Clara Hume

    Life is like water moving from sky to land to sea in an eternal cycle, picking up and discarding all in its path in creating anew. Alas in our time spans we tend to focus more on the immediate, getting on day to day as we must, not the overall cycle of cause and effect necessitating adaptation, that is until the die is cast.

    This life affirming, speculative fiction book is a journey, harkening back to paths chosen, and forward to possibly better choices. Along the journey there is foreboding and tragedy mixed with perseverance and hope, all entwined in an engrossing storyline. The author is clearly no johnny-come-lately to writing.

    I could write on and on about what I saw in this book, but we each see things somewhat differently. To highlight any particular aspect of the story I might well do you and the story a disservice. Thus I'll leave you to your own page turning journey, confident you'll find in the adventure much to captivate your interest. Bon voyage.


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  10. #30
    Lavie Tidhar - The Violent Century

    This is a story about superheroes in the second world war and beyond, a counterfactual fantasy.


    At first you will rightly think of Watchmen and X-Men but Lavie Tidhar has created something here that is more bleak and more noir, as though the X-Men had been re-told by John le Carré.


    It centres on two British superheroes, Fogg and Oblivion, who, after gaining their very particular super powers, are recruited into the secret service in 1936. Perhaps sparing us, in the broad canvas of such characters, ordinary names, Tidhar gives all these men and women names that resemble their powers, Fogg can manipulate fog, Oblivion causes just that to whatever he touches. Spit, she spits bullets. I never quite got my head around why Mrs.Tinkle was so named, but maybe you can enlighten me


    We learn that a ‘Vomacht wave’ spread out across the world, in 1932, the result of german scientific research, and was responsible for converting a small percentage of all humans to each having a particular super power. The nazis called theirs the ‘Ubermensch’ of course. This was a single event, the only superheroes in this world were effectively ‘born’ in the thirties, diminishing in number as they are hunted down and used or killed by the various superpowers in the decades afterwards.


    What follows however is a narrative in the present tense that flips back and forth between the various events in the past and the present, as Fogg is summoned to the ‘Bureau for Superannuated Affairs’ (the British division that employs and monitors these superheroes) and is questioned about a sequence of events at the end of the war. At its heart, beating throughout the novel, is a love story. ‘The Old Man’, who heads the bureau, teases out of Fogg a secret that he’s kept for decades, and the flash backs and forwards layer up the events and the relationships between the characters, from their first meeting to their present day ennui. What Fogg is hiding fuels a very satisfying finale.


    Through the eyes of Fogg we see these super-people moulded into what their nations or their ethnoreligious group (in the case of the Jews) needed them to be, in both the War and the wars that followed, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.


    Fogg serves an interesting double purpose given his power permeates the very feel of Paris, Transylvania or Belarus. This is no cartoon, it’s like The Third Man in prose, all shadows, mist and snow. The British ‘watch’, working out of sight. The Americans are all spandex and six shooters, the Russians similar. These are stereotypes knowingly manipulated, and these are people who, as you would expect, deal with the huge changes to their lives caused by the Vomacht wave with varying degrees of success.


    I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it for the treatment of superheroes in a counterfactual world that, like the best superhero stories, such as Alan Moore’s treatment of Miracleman, show us that pure power is a shallow thing, much more a curse than a blessing.

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