Category Archives: Books and reading

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.

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For the Joy of Reading: Days Without End

I did not really expect Sebastian Barry to write a Cowboys and Indians novel, but that is what he has done.   But it is not that straightforward.   The cowboys are not real cowboys, driving a herd up from Texas or wherever to the railheads.   The story begins long before that era with people starving in Ireland and those who have the strength finding their way to the ships that lead them to the new world.   That is what happens to Thomas McNulty, the narrator of this story, and he ends up hiding from the rain under a bush in Missouri.   That is where he meets the love of his life, Handsome John Cole.

The second seminal event is the meeting with a Lakota warrior, Caught-his-Horse-First, and that in turn leads John and Thomas into the adoption of a Lakota girl, Winona.   [The Lakota are known to history as the Sioux, a name given to them by French-speaking trappers from Canada.   The name means cut-throat].   That is all the plot that you really need to know.

The story spans the Indian wars, the American Civil War, the death camp at Andersonville, the vicious racism of the post-bellum years in the Southern States, and it tells it all through the somewhat bewildered voice of Thomas McNulty.   The one constant is that Thomas loves John and Winona, the one as a husband and the other as a daughter.   They have to adopt many stratagems to survive as a family, one of which is Thomas, who is not very tall, disguises himself as a woman.

This is one thing that had never occurred to me.   Many of the dancing-girls in the saloons were boys.   There were so few women west of the Mississippi that the saloon owners had no choice but to employ pre-pubertal boys.   So, Marlene Dietrich’s song “Go, see what the boys in the backroom will have” in “Destry Rides Again” was not so far from the truth.

This is a truly entrancing story.   The language is extraordinary.   It has a beauty that will pierce your heart.   There are sentences of riveting power, my favourite being “The major’s as busy as Jesus at a wedding”.   Now you have to know this story, but if you do I guarantee that you will laugh.   It is that kind of book.   There are phrases and sentences that will take you by surprise, and make you laugh, although the story is tragic.

I cannot imagine that this story will find much favour in Trump’s America.  It is the story of the American Dream as nightmare.   It is not “Birth of a Nation” or “Gone with the Wind”.   It is much more like “Soldier Blue” or “Little Big Man” and these are films that very few people remember now.    It is a story of two genocidal events – the Irish Famine and the Indian Wars – and it tells of how three ordinary people coped.   Handsome John Cole, Winona and Thomas McNulty will remain in your memory for a very long time.

For the Joy of Reading: Judas

The title suggests what the subject matter is going to be.   So the first line that tells you that the story is set in the winter of 1959 takes you by the surprise.   Shmuel Ash is writing his thesis on Jewish attitudes to Jesus, and he has come to a dead end.   He does not understand the relationship between Jesus and Judas, although he recognises that without Judas’ betrayal there would be no story to discuss.   His problem is that Jewish writers from the first two centuries of the common era who mention Jesus say nothing about Judas, and that this tradition then continues throughout the ages.

Shmuel tries to resolve his academic problems by withdrawing from writing his thesis and taking a job looking after Gershom Wald, an invalid in a strange house in old Jerusalem.   Shmuel is hired by the old man’s daughter-in-law, Atalia, and for his board and lodging all he has to do if converse with the old man and to make sure that he takes his pills and eats the food prepared or him by a neighbour.

[I did wonder if there was any significance in Atalia being named after the Biblical Queen who murdered her way to the throne of Judah, and who was herself the victim of a murderous coup.   There is however no reference to this Queen in the story.   This does not mean that a literate Israeli audience is not expected to pick up this resonance, especially as Atalia is a private detective who spies on people.]

Gershom Wald is a combative, argumentative old man who does not have the strength in his legs to enable him to look after himself.   Atalia is a very private and very attractive woman who only wants transient relations with men.   This is because her husband and Gershom’s son was brutally murdered in one of the clashes of the 1948 war.   It is also because her father, Shealtiel Abravanel, was opposed to Ben Gurion’s vision for the creation of a Zionist state.   Oz must have chosen the name Abravanel for his fictional characters because it is an extremely distinguished name in the Sephardic Jewish community.   It helps to make his point that there was an alternative to the aggressive nationalisms that arose in nineteenth century eastern Europe, of which Zionism was one.

Shmuel’s view of Judas is that he was the first Christian.   This Judas did not see Gethsemane as a betrayal because he believed that Christ would come down from the cross and confound his enemies.   When this did not happen, Judas’ belief was shattered, his faith destroyed, his life made worthless.   Similarly, Abravanel is presented in the book as someone who was a leading figure in Zionism, but who came to believe that there were other ways to create a Jewish homeland than the creation of a state.   He is forced to resign from the governing bodies of Zionism and puts himself in internal exile, a sort of solitary confinement in his own house.   Atalia and Gershom move into the house, following the butchering of her husband.

This is a book about the nature of betrayal, about the relationship between Jews and Christianity, and it all goes back to Judas and the argument that he is the archetypal Jew in Christian theology, and that he is the root cause of anti-semitism.   I think that this overlooks the anti-semitism that was rife in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.   It also overlooks the fact that the two most anti-Jewish of the Gospels are those written by Matthew and John, both of whom were Jewish.   It is, however, an argument that needs to be examined.

The betrayal at the heart of this story, however, is characterised by Shealtiel Abravanel.   Has he betrayed the Zionist ideal by his rejection of the State of Israel?   There will be those who give the kneejerk response of saying that of course he has.   There will be those who excoriate Amos Oz for suggesting that the opposite is possible.   I am not sure from this story where Oz’ loyalties lie, and that I think is the point.   The author is not telling us what to think, he is challenging us to think.   Some people will find that seriously disturbing.

I would urge you to read this book, and to think very seriously about the possibilities that are laid out before us.   It may be essential to the peace of the world to understand what the author is trying to get us to understand.

For the Joy of Reading: The Golden Legend

This is an extraordinary book.   It is extraordinary in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin.   So I thought that I would start with the obvious and work forwards from there.   Nadeem Aslam is a master of the craft of writing.   His choice of words is exquisite.   His construction of sentences approaches the immaculate, which is as good as it could ever possibly get.   Like the Ancient Mariner, he knows how to seize the attention of his readers and to make us listen until he has finished his story.   And what a story this is.   It is spellbinding.   It is riveting.   Whether you emerge sadder or wiser depends on your ability to listen and to understand.   You will not emerge from this tale unmoved.

This is an uncomfortable tale.   I imagine that there are many people who will be extremely unhappy with it as it brings things hiding in the shadows into the light.   It begins with Massud and Nargis setting out from their home to join a group of people carrying by hand rare and valuable books along the Grand Trunk Road in Zamana from the old library building to the new.   It begins with a story of renewal and a message of hope.   An American is driving along the same road and two young men on a motorcycle attempted to rob the American at gunpoint.   He opened fire and in the ensuing fight Massud is killed, as are both the robbers.   This is when the story enters the depths of hell.

The American claims diplomatic immunity, and the Pakistani military want the families to accept payment in compensation for the deaths in accordance with Sharia law.   But an extremist fundamentalist group want the families to reject compensation so that the American can be executed.   The original leader of this group was killed by a drone attack in Waziristan, and his widow, Aysha, and his son, who lost both his legs in the same attack, have returned to her father, who is the Imam of a mosque in Zamana.   Her brother-in-law and his gang of militants have also come to the mosque.   Aysha has begun a clandestine relationship with Lily, a rickshaw-wallah and a Christian, whose daughter Helen is being taught by Nargis.   There is one further character to introduce and that is Imtiaz.   He is a young man who has fled from the Indian Army in Kashmir to learn how to fight.    He ends up in a training camp outside Zamana, and he runs away from there.

It is not my task to tell you how all these stories interlock.   That you must discover for yourself.   The themes of the book however are quite clear.   This is a book about corruption.   There is the corruption of seeking wealth, that allows justice to be bought, that allows people to buy their way out of trouble, where influence is for sale.   There are also the two sides of this corruption process, those who are prepared to be bought and those who are prepared to buy.   But there is a much deeper corruption – that of the soul.  Nadeem Aslam explores the roots of this kind of corruption – anger, hate, humiliation, feelings of powerlessness, persecution and despair.   Nadeem Aslam explores all of this without being judgemental, although I think it is clear for whom ha has sympathy.

Aslam’s other theme is those redeeming qualities in all human life, hope and love.   They pervade this story.   In many ways, they are the root of it.   As I have said, it is an extraordinary tale.   It manages to be realistic and uplifting at the same time.   Nadeem Aslam is one of the extraordinary writers of our time.   He shows us the world as it is, but insists that there is hope.   His is a voice against despair.   His is a voice of humanity, of hope, of love – and the greatest of these is love.

For the Joy of Reading: The Lost Brotherhood

Harrison Hickman introduces us to a world that has survived calamity.   The central point of his story is that the world has collapsed into chaos.   A visionary leader, Lady Joanne, tried to ensure the triumph of good.   Twenty-four brotherhoods were formed to keep the world safe from harm.   At the start of the book, only one of these brotherhoods – the Epsilon Brotherhood – is left.   Benedict Nettlefold is an Epsilon Commander who has fallen victim to the power politics of the Brotherhood, having made a dangerous enemy in an influential Epsilon figure, Dr. Philip MacIntyre.  Then the Epsilon Brotherhood detect something strange in the atmosphere – black light – and the Epsilon King, Christopher, decides to send a team to investigate.   Benedict Nettlefold is called back from obscurity to lead the team because he is a skilled soldier, and Dr. MacIntyre is appointed as the medical officer.

That is all the plot that you need to know.    What follows is carnage in the best traditions of a Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov story.   There is treachery, villainy, massacre, murder, sex, developing love affairs and all sorts in the 185 pages of the story.   The question at the heart of the story is a simple one: who will win?   Of course, the reader wants it to be Benedict Nettlefold, because he is the hero.   It would be more honest to say, though, that he is the anti-hero.   He is a sort of Jack Reacher figure, caught up in a war and having the super-weaponry that is available in a science fiction novel.

What you have to do is suspend your disbelief, do not worry about whether or not the science is accurate (I have no idea) and just enjoy the ride.   I think you will do that.    It is an adventure story.   Think of a young Harrison Ford in the Benedict Nettlefold role.   That should give you an idea about what you are going to get.

One thing, however, has to be said.   The production values are not good.   I doubt that anyone actually proof-read the book before publication.   There are numerous spelling and other mistakes throughout the book.   This is not the kind of slapdash, haphazard, sloppy work that I would expect to find.   A new author, trying to establish a name, does not deserve this kind of treatment.

Despite that, the book is fun

For the Joy of Reading: Inside Apartheid’s Prison

Raymond Suttner is a remarkable, extraordinary man.   He will disagree with me completely about this, and will argue that my analysis is deeply flawed.   But I will stand by what I have said.   He is a white South African.   He could have chosen to live a privileged life.   He could have chosen to ignore the political situation developing around him.   He could have chosen profited from apartheid.   He could have followed the same path as millions of his countrymen, benefitting because of the accident of his birth and the colour of his skin.   He did not choose to do this.

Raymond Suttner will argue that he was one of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of white South Africans who took the decision to challenge apartheid.   He will argue that the day-to-day suffering of millions of black South Africans were worse than what he went through, because it was their daily experience.   He will argue that he followed the example of men like Denis Goldberg and Albie Sachs, the former spending 22 years in prison and the latter losing his right arm in an assassination attempt.   All this is true.   But it does not make any difference to one fundamental fact – he did not have to choose this path.   He did not have to do it.   He chose to do it.   That is what makes him an extraordinary, remarkable man.

This is a memoir.   It is an account of how he survived two terms in gaol, the first being a set term sentence and the second being detained without trial during the states of emergency in the 1980s.   During his first arrest, Raymond was physically tortured by the security police to get him to reveal information about his comrades.   He did not do this.   But he also deals with the mental torture of incarceration, especially during his second period of imprisonment, when there was no indication of a release date.

For those of us who have never had to endure such a thing, it is extremely instructive.   You simply do not think of the importance of going for a walk or a run, because this is something that you can choose to do at any time.   You do not think of the importance of socialising or choosing to be alone, because this is your choice.   You do not think that seeing a bird, or hearing birdsong, is important because you can hear it all the time.   you do not think that there is a problem in deciding what to have for lunch because, as an adult, it is your choice.   There is so much that you simply do not think about because it is normal.   There is nothing normal about being in prison.   And being a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa meant that your visits were restricted, your letters were censored, your access to news was limited and you had the warders’ taste in music and radio programmes inflicted on you.

I have heard many people talk about the experience of being a political prisoner in South Africa.   Raymond Suttner has made it very real because he deals with the minutiae of daily life in a very small, enclosed community.   And just because you were all political prisoners, it did not mean that you had to get on with each other.   This book makes that very clear without going into the petty details of any disputes between prisoners.

The most moving section is his account of his time in solitary confinement.   This was partly a deliberate decision by the apartheid authorities, and partly the result of his being the only white detainee in the prison.   There was apartheid even in the prisons in South Africa.   White prisoners and black prisoners were not held in the same sections of a prison, even if they did get to meet occasionally because of mistakes by or the laxness of the warders.

This is a remarkable account of the sacrifices that people made in the struggle against apartheid.   It gives you an idea of what the survivors of political imprisonment went though.   Reading it is a salutary experience.

For the Joy of Reading: No Dominion

For those of you who have been waiting for the last book in the “Plague Times” trilogy, this will not come as a disappointment.   In the book, it is seven years since a plague killed millions of millions of people, leaving the survivors struggling.   The last book “Death is a Welcome Guest” ended with Magnus and his adoptive son, Shug, arriving on Orkney and being greeted by Stevie Flint, the heroine of “A Lovely Way to Burn” – the first book in the series.   Seven years later, Shug is a surly teenager, doting on Willow who was found as a child on an Orkney farm hiding under a bed that held her dead parents.   Something had gnawed at the parents.

This is a book about survival, about rebuilding a society after a disaster of unimaginable proportions.   It is also a book about what people are prepared to do in order to survive, and about how a catastrophe of this kind can unhinge some people.   It is a book about how easy it is to destroy the fragile veneer of civilisation, and about what happens afterwards.   It is a book about the vulnerability of humankind, and how, despite everything, we will struggle to find a way to live together.

The survivors on Orkney have reverted to subsistence farming, where the need to get in the harvest takes precedence over everything else, and where strangers are viewed with suspicion and fear, because they may be bringing the plague back to the islands.   So when an unknown boat sails into the harbour at Stromness, the islanders go into full alert until Magnus vouches for one of the strangers, Belle.   Even then, the strangers have to be quarantined to make sure that they are not infected.   Then disaster strikes.   A baby is kidnapped and the strangers along with some of the Orkney teenagers disappear, including Shug and Willow.   Stevie and Magnus set off in pursuit.   The rest of the islanders remain behind, both to get the harvest in and because they are fearful that this could be a lure to make them vulnerable to attack.

What follows is a journey through hell, as Stevie and Magnus make their way south to Glasgow in pursuit of the teenagers with the baby.   And it is on this journey that we meet people struggling to find different ways to survive.   The problem is that it is the people with forceful personalities who take the lead, and causes all sorts of conflicts that I am not going to tell you about because that would spoil the book.

This may all sound very grim, and that is because it is.   This is not just a dystopian future, it is a post-apocalyptic future.   It is just that the apocalypse is plague, not a nuclear war so there is some chance of rebuilding a viable society.   There is some kind of hope.

Louise Welsh is very good at persuading you to continue reading.   This book is a page turner.   Louise Welsh knows how to write a thriller.   She does not hesitate from telling the reader that things can be very nasty indeed, but she also writes characters that you care about that you want to survive, that you want to get through the mess.   You want Stevie and Magnus to succeed.  You want Willow and Shug to go back to Orkney.   You want everything to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.   It is just not going to happen.

The message of the Plague Times Trilogy is that we will survive, we will pull through, but it will not be the best of all possible worlds.   It will not be an idyll.   It will be very hard, and that it is best that we do not go there.   If only our political leaders would read this trilogy …………