Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: Mine to Keep

This is a jolly life-affirming romp through murder and mayhem, with a lesbian love story thrown in for good measure.   This is a thriller, but it is not a mystery.   You know who the villain is from the first page.   There is not even a question about whether the villain will be dealt with by the feisty lesbians.   Of course he will.   The thrills come because you do not know how they are going to do it, and you do not know whether or not there will be any damage along the way.

There has certainly been damage.   Erin and George and Thea have all been damaged, but as that is the nub of the story I am not going to say any more.   Eddie, the villain, is damaged.   He is clearly insane, and you know that from the first page.

This is not a profound investigation of the human psyche.   This is a book that sets out to be fun, and which succeeds in its objective.   It is a good read.   You will want to know what happens next.   You will care about the characters.   What more could you really want?


For the Joy of Reading: Gone Are The Leaves

This is an extraordinary book in so many ways.   Anne Donovan is a marvel.   She has created an entirely believable world and a story which is a puzzle inside a mystery surrounded by an enigma.   It is a story about love, family, inheritance, treachery, ambition and revenge.   It is set in late fifteenth century Scotland, probably in the reign of James IV.   This is not stated.   It is hinted at.    There is a strong king with whom it is best not to fall out.   The port for the entry of Scottish goods into Europe is Bruges (which was the staple port, by treaty, for Scottish goods in the reign of James IV) and one of the characters, the Master, was a patron of “the greatest artist in the world” who designed flying machines.   The name Leonardo da Vinci is not mentioned, but the reference is there.   It is even possible that the Master’s daughter was the model for the Mona Lisa.   This again is not stated and it may be my imagination running away with me.   I, however, think not.   All this is hinted at.    It is not stated.   That does not matter.   It does not detract from the storytelling in any way.   It is just that I like to know the chronology and setting of novels of this kind.

The narrator clearly is Scots.   She tells her story in Scots.   But her name is Deirdre, which is a Gaelic name.   She also has a friend called Grainne, another Gaelic name.   There is no definite location given for the setting of this story.   There are indications that the story is set in the west of Scotland, but we are not told where.   It is probable however that it is set somewhere near Glasgow and the boundary between the Gaelic-speaking world and the Sassenachs.   [I choose my words carefully here because the Gaelic word means “Saxons” and I do not wish to refer to English speakers.   That has too many connotations which would be wrong in the context of this book.]

The story is set in a period when the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France had practical consequences.   The wife of the local Lord is French, and this is something that has political consequences.   She has a very rich relative, the Master, who is heirless and she wishes to make an advantageous marriage for her daughter in order to secure the inheritance.   The narrator, Deirdre, gets caught up in these machinations, when she falls pregnant.   Her lover, Fielamort, is a boy soprano who is then castrated to preserve his voice.  That is the engine for the whole plot, and to give any more away would be to spoil the story.

There is however one more thing that needs to be said.   The writing is beautiful.   Do not let the fact that it is written in Scots put you off.   You will understand it.   If it was not written in Scots, it would not be poetic, lyrical language.   It would not have the ring of the Border Ballads.   It would not have the simplicity and power of Robert Burns.   This is a book that will sweep you away with the power of its storytelling.   As the wind takes the leaves, let yourself be carried along by this story.

For the Joy of Reading: Anna Karenina

The first thing to be said about Anna Karenina is that no-one is going to be surprised by her fate.   It is too well-known.   We can blame Greta Garbo for this.   But the book does not end there, which may take people by surprise.   The second surprise is that the book is not about Anna Karenina, although she plays one of the central roles.   It is about Konstantin Levin or, at least, as much about him as it is about Anna herself.   These are the two round whom the whole story revolves.

Anna is a nineteenth century Russian aristocratic women.   Although she lives a luxurious life, she has no real power, except to make mistakes.   Once she has got pregnant by Vronsky, she is entirely at the mercy of her husband.   The child, Annie, is legally his because she is married to him, and nothing that she says to contrary will alter that.   She cannot divorce Karenin unless he agrees, and he refuses.   She cannot have access to her son, Seryozha, accept by surreptitious means unless Karenin allows it, and he does not.   And she has no confidence in Vronsky although she runs away with him.   She, as an older woman, cannot believe that a younger man will stay in love with her.   She has no reason for this, except that he does not devote his whole time to her, and insists that he should fulfil what is expected of him as an aristocrat and a landowner.   This undermines their relationship and leads inexorably to the railway station.   Tolstoy, however, has not written a feminist novel.   The role of women, as described in Anna Karenina, is marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.   The only important time that a woman has power is in deciding whether or not to accept a proposal of marriage.   She can, also, decide on whether or not she should take a lover, once married.   But the one thing that she must not do, if she wishes to remain acceptable in society, is leave her husband and run off with her lover.   Lovers are to be kept in the background, and propriety has to be maintained.   Falling pregnant by a lover puts a woman beyond the pale of what is allowed, unless the husband accepts the baby.   Karenin accepts the baby, but Anna runs off with Vronsky and the child.   This seals her fate in society and also, ultimately, in life.

The other central character is Konstantin Levin, an aristocrat who is trying to live without oppressing the peasantry.   This is more than a little difficult because the whole of the Tsarist system of government was based on doing exactly that.   The reforms of Tsar Alexander II have been introduced, including the abolition of serfdom, and a decade later the nobility are struggling to come to terms with the implications of this action.   Some of them do not succeed mainly because they do not even attempt to modernise.   Levin does try and much of the book revolves around his efforts to modernise farming methods on his estate.   If that sounds boring, it is not.   It is an essential part of the story.   Tolstoy, through Levin, is grappling with the needs for Tsarist Russia to change.   Levin’s bewilderment, honesty and integrity are the moral root of the tale.

Nor is Karenin the monster that he is made out to be.   He married a wife some twenty years younger than him.   As a civil servant in the Tsarist bureaucracy, marriage was expected of him and his marriage to Anna Arkadyevna Oblonsky brought him significant political allies amongst the princely families of Russia.   What is strange is that there was only one child, Seryozha.   This suggests that the physical side of the marriage ceased existing.   Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly Oblonsky, has numerous children.   But when Anna becomes pregnant by her lover, he forgives her, makes sure that she is looked after during childbirth and also during her subsequent puerperal fever.   It is only when Anna humiliates him by running off with Vronsky that, encouraged by Countess Lydia Ivanovna, he seeks the consolation of religion and, specifically, the advice of a medium.   He refuses Anna a divorce for two reasons.   First, he will not lie and say that he has committed adultery and, secondly, he will not bring scandal upon the children, Seryozha and Annie.   This is a man caught in the social mores of his time, who drowns under the tides of convention.   It is difficult to think of him as sympathetic but he is not a monster.

There is one other thing to be said about Karenin.   His work involves him in deciding the fate of the racial minorities in Russia.   This means the Jews.   We are not told on which side of the argument Karenin found himself, just that he was opposed to the ideas of his colleague, Stremov.   The argument would have been about the introduction of pogroms.   The last two Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II were responsible for pogroms.   But the book is set in the reign of Alexander II.   As I have said, we are not told Karenin’s view, but we know what is coming, and we know that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was published by the Tsarist secret police in the reign of Nicholas II.   So perhaps Karenin is a monster after all.

Vronsky is a young graduate of the military academy in St. Petersburg, and is expected to make a name for himself.   We meet him at a party where he is flirting with Kitty, the youngest of Anna’s sisters-in-law.   At one of these parties, Vronsky meets Anna and is smitten.   The two of them fall in love.   This is unfortunate because Kitty and her mother were expecting Vronsky to propose to Kitty, and Kitty turns down a proposal from Levin on these grounds.   But Vronsky does not propose.   He forms a liaison with Anna, and eventually makes her pregnant.   Kitty is devastated.   Her mother takes her abroad so that the rebuff can be forgotten.   Levin eventually proposes to Kitty a second time, and this time she accepts.   Anna and Vronsky, meanwhile, have fled abroad, taking the baby Annie with them.   Vronsky is expected to make his way in society, and expects this himself.   Anna, of course, as a scarlet woman, has no place in society until she secures a divorce and then marries her lover.   Vronsky, like Levin, turns to estate management to establish his place in society and he is very successful at it.  This success puts a strain on his relationship with Anna as she begins to feel more and more isolated and also uncertain about their relationship.   This is the heart of Anna’s tragedy.

But this is not just a book about tragic personal relationships.   This is a book about Russia.   It cannot be read in 2017 without us, the readership, having knowledge of what was to come.   The book ends around 1877.   We know this because Vronsky volunteers to fight in the Serbo-Turkish was of 1876-78.   This was the war in which Serbia finally asserted its independence of the Ottoman Empire.   Forty years later, the Tsarist monarchy collapsed in revolution.   Nearly all the main characters – Vronsky, Levin, Stiva (Anna’s brother), Dolly and Kitty could have lived to see the overthrow of Nicholas II.   Seryozha, Annie and the other children certainly would have done so.   Tolstoy did not know this, but we do.   We know that the people in this story are like the passengers on the Titanic, not knowing about the approaching iceberg.

For me, reading this book, the future cannot be ignored.   Indeed, through Levin’s brother, Nikolai, Tolstoy actually shows us something of this future.   I found it difficult to read this book without thinking of it as a metaphor for the fate of Tsarist Russia.  Of course, it is not because that would require Tolstoy having the ability to predict the future.   He made some very good guesses.   There is even a sort of Rasputin figure in the medium who wins the patronage of the Countess Lydia Ivanovna and then Karenin.

I suppose that I have at the back of my imagination the idea of the elderly, bearded, dying Tolstoy on the railway station at Yasnaya Polyana as a sort of prophet, a Jeremiah denouncing the follies of the Tsarist regime, spitting fire with his last breath.     It is a seductive image.   It may even be an image that Tolstoy wanted to project.   “Anna Karenina” is the crucible of that image, the starting point.   It is a novel of extraordinary power.   It is a novel that you will never forget.

For the Joy of Reading: That Was a Shiver

This is a difficult book.   By that, I do not mean that it is not worthwhile.   That is precisely what it is: worthwhile.   It is simply that James Kelman demands that you should stop and think about what he has written.   This is a book about the confusion of human life.   For instance, at the moment I know precisely what I mean by that last sentence.   You, however, will probably think that I mean something else.   And a third-party reading it will probably have another, completely separate idea of what “the confusion of human life” actually means.   That is at the heart of these stories: the “noise” between what we think we have said and what other people think we have said.   In these stories, that is especially the case between men and women.

These are also stories about what it is to be a man.   The title story “That was a Shiver” sets this out for us in a bleak manner.   Robert and Tracy, a Glasgow couple, are going out shopping in the Barras, the covered market, on a Sunday.   They are not young any more, but they certainly are not old and decrepit.   They go their separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch.   We follow Robert.   He is quite comfortable, mooching around.   Then you learn things about him.   He does not like carrying bags in case he has to use his fists.   He was in the army, where he became a champion boxer.   Then he was in prison.   He thinks of himself as a hard man, but realises he is not as hard as he was.   He is fearful of young men because he is not as hard as he was.   But he is defiant.   He is willing to take on all comers.   He may not be as articulate as a Shakespearean tragic hero, but the meaning of what he is saying cannot be doubted.   He is belligerent.   He swears a lot.   He is in your face.

It should be said at this point that if you are uncomfortable with the use of “bad” language, then this is not the book for you.   Robert talks in the language of ordinary working men in Glasgow.   If you do not like it, then this is definitely not the book for you.

When I say that you cannot mistake his meaning, I mean that you cannot mistake the aggression.   He is an alpha male facing down younger rivals.   He is nostalgic for his younger self, and recognises that he is not the man that he was when he was younger.   He is uncertain.   To me, his aggression is a cover for his fear, but it might be that this behaviour has become engrained in him.   It may be that he behaves like this because it is a survival strategy learned over the years.   It may be both.   Who knows?   Certainly not me.

These stories have a theme of a man dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties of life.   They deal with male insecurities whether they are about sex, status, strength, money – a man’s place in the world.   They are about the nature of manhood.   They are brilliant.   You should read them.


For the Joy of Reading: Dare Not Linger

This is the long-awaited second volume of the autobiography of Nelson Mandela.   It has been put together from what he had written before his death, and from his notes.   It has been edited with great skill, devotion and commitment by Mandla Langa, the author of “Lost Colours of the Chameleon” and a number of other books.   Here, I have to confess that Mandla Langa has been my friend for more than thirty years, since he came into exile in the UK following the Soweto Uprising of 1976.   During that time, Mandla took a leading role in the cultural activities of the ANC, and I was one of the chair-people of the London Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.   The first time that I met Nelson Mandela was, with Mandla and others, at Madame Toussaud’s in London when his waxwork was being unveiled.   So that is my colours nailed to the mast.   As someone who was closely involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and in some of the events described in the book, I cannot be described as a neutral observer.

This book approaches those events of the 1994 first democratic elections in South Africa and the first few years of the transition process from the perspective of Nelson Mandela.   That is what makes the book fascinating.   Nowadays, people regard it as some kind of miracle that Mandela was able, during his Presidency, to end the years of conflict in South Africa.   It was not.   It was the result of very hard work and of a deep political understanding of what needed to be done.   It was Nelson Mandela who did that.    This book is an analysis of that process, of the threats, the dangers, the angers and resentments that had to be negotiated so that South Africa did not descend into civil war.   It describes, from the inside, what was a remarkable achievement.   But it was not a miracle.   It did not come out of the blue.   It came about because Nelson Mandela understood what had to be done, and then found ways of achieving it.

The first threat came from those who did not want to participate in the election or who were pretending that they did not wish to participate in order to gain an electoral advantage.   The threats came from the extreme white right wing and from Chief Mangosuthu (known as Gatsha) Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party.   Neither threat was negligible – they could have led to civil war.   It needed Nelson Mandela to exercise a great deal of skill and patience to neutralise them.

It was Mandela who steered South Africa through the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (AWB) attack on the negotiators at the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the massacres at Bisho and Boipatong, the assassination of Chris Hani, the AWB attack on Bophuthatswana and a host of other events.   It was Mandela who persuaded General Constand Viljoen of the Freedom Front that his organisation should register to take part in the election.   It was Mandela who contacted Buthelezi and, despite opposition from recalcitrant in the ANC, such as Harry Gwala, set about asking the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the elections.   At many times, and especially following the murder of Chris Hani, South Africa was on the brink of a civil war.   It was Mandela who avoided all these disasters.   It was his leadership that made the difference.   To find out how, you must read the book.

Of course, Mandela did not achieve any of this on his own.   There were many people who assisted him.   There were many more who were persuaded by him.   There were some, like Robert Van Tonder and Boere Weerstand Beweging, who refused to be persuaded but they were few and far between.   Fortunately, Mandela was able to neutralise them, but not enough to prevent them killing people with the bombs that they exploded during the election campaigning and on the election days themselves.   Of course, it was a collective effort but it was Mandela who provided the leadership.    That is now generally acknowledged.   That is part of the story of this book.

Nor did the danger pass with the election.    I distinctly remember standing there in South Africa House in London on 10th May 1994, wondering whether the South African Air Force would strafe the guests at the Presidential inauguration.   That this did not happen was partly because my imagination was over-active but also partly because Mandela had convinced the generals to give the new South Africa a chance to survive.    There was a huge effort that had to be put into nation-building, and this is what Mandela made the theme of his Presidency.   He made huge efforts at nation-building, in creating a constitution, in establishing the role of Parliament, in establishing the role of the traditional leaders in a democracy, and in transforming the state.

These are the themes of the chapters that take up the tale following Mandela’s swearing-in as President.   Most important, however, was the theme of reconciliation.   Mandela however was careful not to let people off the hook.   He was the driving force behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   He made it necessary for apartheid officials to state clearly what they had done before they could be granted amnesty.   It was difficult.   There were people who refused to apply to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they knew that any evidence against them had been destroyed.    There were people who did not believe in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they wanted the perpetrators to be prosecuted and go to prison.   Mandela recognised that this was not going to happen because the burden of proof was on the prosecution.   He sought a way in which the relatives of victims could find out what happened to their loved ones.   It proved to be cathartic.   There were some, like Craig Williamson, who were not penitent, but the recognition of the grief of so many did help the healing process, or, at least, that is the argument that Mandela would have put forward.

The last chapter is about Mandela on the African and the World Stage.   Mandela served as an honest broker for his continent.   He was able to help resolve the difficulties in countries such as Rwanda and Zaire.   He was able to resolve issues like the prosecution in relation to the Lockerbie bombing.   He was feted throughout the world.   My particular memory was of Mandela’s State Visit to London in 1996, where he not only spoke to both Houses of Parliament but visited the black community in Brixton.

This book is about the contribution that Mandela made during his Presidency to the healing of the wounds caused by apartheid.   It is a book about the contribution of one man.   He was not a saint.   He made mistakes, which are discussed in this book and which he himself recognised.   It is an important book because it discusses how an icon dealt with the issues in front of him.   It discusses how he became an icon.   It is a clear assessment, based on the writings of the man himself, about the contribution that he made.

For that reason it is astonishing, and that is why you should read it.


For the Joy of Reading: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Where to begin?   This is, I suppose, a story about survival, except of course in the long term we do not survive.   Anjun does survive.   S/he is a Hijra and the Hijra life is all about survival.   Dr. Azad Bhartiya does survive and he is a hunger striker.   Khadija does survive and she is a guerrilla fighter.   Tilo survives and becomes a teacher.   But so many do not survive.   Miss Jebeen the first does not survive and neither do her parents.   They are killed.   Amrik Singh does not survive, and nor does his wife or his three sons.   He kills his family and then commits suicide.   Some die of natural causes.   Some are murdered.   That is the nature of war.

And this story is about a war: the war in Kashmir.   It is a dreadful war.   It has been fought, on and off, since the partition of the Indian sub-continent seventy years ago.   Arundhati Roy, however, is quite specific.   This is not just about the war in Kashmir.   It is about the war, as she describes it, of the rich on the poor.   It is about Union Carbide and the disaster at Bhopal.   It is about the mining companies driving indigenous people out of the forests.   It is a war about the confrontations between ideologies and religions.

It is hardly surprising that an environmental campaigner of more than twenty years would take such a view.   Nor is it surprising that an anti-apartheid campaigner, as I am, would not be disturbed by it.   It is a view, however, that many people will be uncomfortable with, and will find upsetting if not downright objectionable.   It is something that the reader has to deal with if that person is going to enjoy this book.

Another factor that a reader from the western world may find difficult is that this is a book that is firmly embedded in Indian culture.   And I mean, very specifically, not the culture of the Indian takeaway, but the culture of India.   The opening chapters of this story are set in the Hijra community.   Hijra are transvestites, transgender and even hermaphrodites.   They do not really fit any understanding that westerners would have of such words.   Their presence at weddings for instance is thought to be a blessing.   This is not something that we in the West can really understand.

There is a great deal in this book about the Mughal and pre-Mughal cultures of India, about Urdu poetry and about the stories of India.   [The Urdu poetry thankfully is translated].

So why would you read this book?   Because it is a beautiful story, told with a great deal of passion.   Because you will like the characters, or most of them anyway, and you will want to know how their stories unfold.   Because the writing is skilful, and the use of English is extraordinary.   Because you will learn something about the world.

I am not going to say that this is an easy book to read.   But I would say that it is one that you should read and enjoy.

For the Joy of Reading: The Man Who Died

I couldn’t put this book down.   It was compulsive reading.   From the moment that Jaakko Kaunismaa discovers that he has been poisoned, I wanted to know who the murderer was and why the crime had been committed.   There are plenty of obvious choices.    There are plenty of possibilities.   His Wife?   Her lover?   One of his colleagues?   One of his business rivals?   It is probably easier to identify the characters who could not have done it, like his Japanese customers, but even they could have paid someone to do the deed.

This is a classic whodunnit?   There is one difference.   Because the poison is slow acting, the victim can investigate his own murder.   Jaakko, of course, has no idea about how to do this, and leaves a trail of destruction behind him   There are red herrings galore (or should that be red mushrooms?   Jaakko is an exporter of mushrooms to the Japanese market.   Jaakko makes discoveries about the people around him, which may or may not be relevant to his murder.

He becomes obsessed with saving his business from whoever it is that has murdered him, whatever their reason is for doing this.   To say very much more would be to hint at who the perpetrator is, and that would spoil the fun of reading the book.   As the story progresses, some of the possibilities will be eliminated, but the complexities of the possibilities will increase.

This is a well-written, witty, perceptive story about how we respond to impossible circumstances.   The one thing that is certain from the beginning to the end of this book is that Jaakko has been murdered.

Read this book.   I think you will enjoy it.