bookspluslife

June 14, 2019

Book: The Edible Woman by Margaret Attwood

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:16 pm

imageI am (relatively) new to this author’s books. I first read The Blind Assassin and was hooked. Then (by pure chance and in no particular order) I tried The Robber Bride and found is excellent too.  In my eyes she could do no wrong and Alias Grace sealed the deal and I was in awe of her style.

Now, I still like those books; they are indeed excellent. My next book The Handmaid’s Tale, had some odd bits but by the end I liked that too. More than the story, it is the style of storytelling that kept me coming back for more.  Finally, this book showed me that like all other great authors, Margaret can also produce books that are very far from her best books.

 

This is weird and even the title comes up near the end of the book in a surreal scene. I do  not even know what it is a metaphor for.

Now, for the story.

Ainsley works as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes. Hates discussion of teeth by dentists. She is a roommate of the narrator Miss Marian MacAlpin. She works in an office on questionnaires.

 

Her friend Clara has just had a baby and her elder son Arthur is also a small boy. The story takes off when she goes interviewing (survey regarding a beer commercial) and meets a very weird man in his apartment.

 

She is friends with benefits with Peter and he seems to be in serious relationships and breakups while getting Marian to have sex with him in various places. Weird for a Margaret Attwood story indeed. It gets weirder. She runs away when she goes with Peter to meet her old friend Len and then hides under the sofa. I don’t even understand and at this point in time I am thinking two things : This is Margaret Attwood’s first ever book and she did not have the famed story weaving skills she later demonstrated in The Blind Assassin, Robber Bride etc. Or, maybe it is fully woven and she is deliberately feeding you piece by piece to keep you hooked, again like the stories in those two other books!

 

The story wanders. Marianne is proposed to by Peter and Ainsley plots to seduce Len, Marian’s friend, in a very calculated way so that she could get pregnant.

 

Marian meets the strange boy again in the laundromat and has more weird conversations with him. You can see the direction the story is taking but still it feels totally weird.

 

She is not very happy with Peter and bumps into the weird boy in a movie theater. She goes there alone to give space to Ainsley so that Len can ‘accidentally’ seduce her on a visit to her house. She is successful, in case you were curious.

 

At this point, very unusually for an Attwood novel, you feel totally disengaged with the characters. Now Marian meets the guy Duncan at the movie theater, goes to his house, cancelling a dinner engagement with her fiance to give him clothes to iron, listens to his totally weird concepts that would put even an ardent admirer off – never mind an acquaintance, and lets him seduce her. Makes absolutely no sense, even assuming her ambivalence with her current fiance.

 

She goes through life with weird feelings where she grows an aversion to meat. Now, I think this is the story of Marian growing apart from Peter and closer to Duncan but because of the total weirdness of the whole thing, this reads strange and definitely you don’t get involved with the characters as much in this one.

 

In addition, part I where Marian narrates the story and Part II where she comes in the story in third person, look like they were written by different people. I do not mean deliberately (which she does in The Robber Bride for example in a brilliant way) but in quality of writing. The second part feels more like the Attwood we know in the writing style but still lacking in the weight of the story.

 

And totally ridiculously, Marian starts developing aversion to one food after the other, does not like to be with Peter, goes after Duncan who is the weirdest person and does not care two hoots for anyone including Marian. The side story of Ainsley who first seduces Marian’s friend Lee while making him believe that he seduced her and how she did not want him after he helped her get pregnant but later discovered that the child needed a ‘father figure’ and so went after him are all – again uncharacteristically for this author – rather illogical and irritating.

 

And the ending? Equally bad. If you want to read Attwood, this is not the book you want to start with. In fact you can give it a miss completely.

 

2/10

– – Krishna

 

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June 6, 2019

Book: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:13 pm

imageFrom the title you would expect this to be a romantic story. You could not be more wrong. It aims to be a drama but after reading it, I do not know what exactly the author is aiming for. Whatever it is, she did not fully achieve it. It has its moments and like many other books, starts a bit strong but then just falls apart. Story first.

 

Two mutes in the town. An obese and dreamy Greek and a tall, intelligent looking one. The Greek, Spyros Antonapoulos, worked in his cousin’s fruit store. John Singer was his thin friend. He worked in a jewellery store across the street.  When Spyros falls ill and recovers, he seems to resent Singer’s ways. Also wants to wander out more. When they finally realize that he has gone completely mad, they have to put the Greek away in an asylum and it breaks Singer.

 

Now Biff Brannon runs a pub and likes freaks. His wife Alice and he do not have a good relationship. He notices Stinger in the pub, drinking alone.

 

Meanwhile an obnoxious drunk is making a scene in the bar and when he is captured outside and brought back, Singer agrees to take him to his, Singer’s, home as he now lives alone.

 

He sobers up and realizes what a great help Singer has been. He finds himself a job. Mick is a girl who looks after her two younger sisters but is enthralled by classical music – Beethoven and Mozart.

 

You see that drunk sobered up and took a job but when you get to know him he yearns for Communism to take over America and preaches socialism to anyone who will listen – passionately and very angry when no one else understands.

 

Biff’s wife dies, and Biff feels bereft even though they quarrelled all their married life. Meanwhile, Mick’s brother shoots a neighbour’s pretty girl called Baby and hides in a treehouse. The whole story turns grave in a second, which is astonishing.

 

Mick’s brother George, known as Bubber runs away and is caught. Baby’s parents demand payment for all of Baby’s treatment and recovery and do not want to have Bubber arrested.

 

Meanwhile the doctor, a disciple of Karl Marx and a fighter for emancipation of the black people in the US, oblivious to the irony of Communism not recognizing race or creed, has two sons and a daughter, all estranged as his wife left him, struggles to keep the relationships with his children. He also befriends Singer, ‘as the only white man who understands the struggles of his people’.

 

Singer pines for Antanapoulos and goes and meets him in the asylum where he resides. We find Antanapoulos blissfully ignorant of how much Singer likes him. Now Biff has a ‘fatherly’ crush on Mick and Mick herself has a ‘daughterly’ crush on Singer who is unaware of all this.

 

Copeland loses it when his daughter Portia comes drunk and reports to him that Portia’s son Willie, who was jailed for disturbing the peace was unruly and was put in solitary and tortured by leaving him tied up in a cold room for hours. His legs. which had open sores, gangrened and both had to be amputated to save his life. He goes to see the judge and gets arrested and attacks the police in the station and is thrown in a jail cell.

 

When he is freed and also when Willie is back minus his legs, Singer and Jack go to visit them and Jack gets into an ideological argument with Dr Copeland about whether all mankind should be freed from the slavery of capitalism or just the black people from the hidden slavery that still exists in America. Pretty tame stuff.

 

The story tries to be poignant but to me none of the characters were expressing their real feelings or emotions and they all seemed to be playing a partly stereotyped roles. Could not get into the story or feel what they felt. Consequently the book did not make the impact it could have, given the cast of characters and the setting provided.

 

Mick grows an obsession with Singer – we are not told whether she has a romantic crush on him or simply an obsession like a father figure, but hinting vaguely at the former – and follows him around without him being aware.

 

Towards the end, in response to a suddenly shocking news, one of the characters dies – committing suicide and the rest of the book (just a few end pages) analyzes how each one of the other characters who had grown close to the dead person deals with it. This is about the only piece in the story where you kind of briefly sit up and take notice but it does not go anywhere further after that.

 

There are tons of loose ends. That in itself is not an issue since this aims at a realistic story but none of the deep impressions someone made on another character seems to drag you along. Is it all about the futility of life? Is it all about nothing in particular?

 

The story does not even stay in your mind after you close the book.

 

3/10

 

– – Krishna

May 1, 2019

Book: Death in the Devil’s Acre by Anne Perry

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:05 pm

imageA Breach of Promise and  Whited Sepulchers are two of her many books we have already reviewed. This features Thomas Pitt, the central detective in many of her stories.

Thomas Pitt is brought in to see the body of Dr Hubert Pinchin, a well to do man in an abandoned building in a slum.He was stabbed in the back but his genitals were crudely cut off.  He goes to break the news to the family but is also told by the medical examiner that there was another body on another jurisdiction that was similarly killed. The one, the police inspector at that station told Pitt was a pimp. But it also turns out to be the ex footman of General Ballantyne, who knew Pitt from a previous case (or in our case, a previous book from Anne Perry). General comes and identifies the body for Thomas, who is scorned by both the butler and the wife of the General when he tries to visit General’s house to get him to come for identifying the corpse.

 

We find that Christina, the daughter of the General herself strayed into high end brothels out of boredom with her straightlaced husband, whom the General seems to like. The mother who also says she had an unhappy marriage with the General himself, covers her daughter’s peccadillos up to avoid family scandals. The son is quite brazen in his talk around the dinner table (for those Victorian times that is) and has to be put in place several times. It is this kind of family drama surrounding the main characters that make Anne Perry stand out from other murder mystery writers.

 

When a third man of noble birth is also murdered (but not genitally mutilated like the first two), and Pitt struggles against complete lack of evidence, Charlotte takes it into her head to help him, and enlists her sister Emily Ashworth’s help. The go behind the back of Thomas who had warned them ‘not to meddle. But meddle they do.

 

In the midst of all this Alan Roth, the husband, follows Christina one day and finds that she has been visiting Devil’s Acre!  When he punches one of the men, word gets back to Pitt.

 

In addition, Pitt finds out that the doctor who was murdered has been helping the ladies of the night in Devil’s Acre have discreet abortions and that one of the owners of a brothel was supplying young boys to some rich customers, one of whom was also brutally murdered and his body dismembered in Devil’s Acre. When Pitt got a bit careless after interviewing another owner of a pleasure house, he is attacked by four assailants and stabbed but manages to escape. Charlotte is furious that he was so careless and put his life in danger recklessly.

 

Athelston, his bumbling boss of several books, asks him to ensure that he does not venture out without two other policemen as his escort.

 

In the meanwhile General Ballantyne flirts with Charlotte, thinking her as single. She goes to get some war papers and to try and find out if he knows anything. Confusingly, nothing is revealed.

 

When she finally makes a second visit, Christina is there and Charlotte sees her taking a gun and then Ballantyne and Charlotte follow them to a brother house and surprisingly she goes to the elegant house of Victoria.

 

The story ends abruptly, where everything is revealed suddenly in a couple of pages. And what is worse, you learn that Thomas Pitt had already (just) deduced that – with no explanation of how he did this miraculous feat.

 

Anne Perry always have a dual purpose. The first one is the mystery story at the centre of the plot and the second one, in this book, is to reveal the life in the red light districts and what it means to be a maiden of the night.

 

Frustrating end, not the best work of hers, but still entertaining.

 

5/10

–  – Krishna

April 28, 2019

Book: Blaze by Stephen King

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 3:32 pm

imageOK, the book was officially written by Richard Bachman but by now we all know that Richard Bachman was an earlier pseudonym for Stephen King, so I credit the real name instead of the abandoned pen name. If he was still writing as Bachman it would be one thing but if he himself stopped writing with that name, then I think we want to give him his due.  (And look at the book covers of the story now too!)

 

And Stephen King is also one of the most often reviewed authors here earlier. See for instance, our earlier looks at his Under The Dome or 12/23/63.

This is a nice, short book, but a very interesting one at that. It has an unlikely villain who is not very smart and is lost without directions but he wants to manage a huge heist by kidnapping the child of a very wealthy man so that he can claims ransom and retire for good. He planned this heist with the brain behind the scheme, George, his close friend and partner in crime. This man is a giant in physical form and a child in mental abilities. His nickname is Blaze.

Blaze is asked by George to hot wire a car – for the first time. We quickly learn the back story. Blaze is the stupid one and George the mastermind. He has plotted with Blaze to kidnap a wealthy child for ransom so that they never have to do any criminal activity – or work of any kind – for life. However the ‘George’ who instructed Blaze to hotwire and steal a car is already dead and Blaze has him in his mind. The child they plan to kidnap is in a house whose alam system was set up by George who worked for the security firm by day. Now Blaze decides to go through with it alone anyway.

 

Now Blaze was born big, named Clayton Blaisdel Jr. He lost his mother early but was very bright and well read, even though he was large for his age. Father’s abuse made him a moron and gave him the name Blaze.

 

Blaze tries (“as per the advice from mental George”) a small robbery to see if he is capable but then ‘forgets to put on the stocking over his face’ revealing his features to everyone present there. When he spends all the money on baby supplies he robs the same bank again.

 

Once he was sent to a family who took him only because he was big and can do chores around the house. But he was only good at splitting logs and when he killed a dog and broke some equipment, they ‘returned’ him to the orphanage. John, a boy he was protecting from bullies was happy to have him back.

 

Bumbling and fumbling, Blaze nevertheless manages to kidnap the rich man’s baby. The story alternates between old and new where Blaze earlier manages to run away with John to Boston after finding quite a bit of money in a purse. He is amazed at Boston’s size and bustle.

When they blow up the cash and come back, John drops dead of an illness within a couple of days.

 

Blaze slowly learns to care for the baby. He vacates his house for the boarded up orphanage just two hours ahead of police reaching his house, without knowing it.

 

In the back story, Blaze goes to a farm where a kind man gets people (young violent offenders including Blaze) into the farm to teach them skills so that they can be lured away from crime. Seeing Blaze drive the tractor with skill, he offers to keep him permanently in the farm. Just as Blaze had his hopes high, the man fell down, dead of a heart attack and Blaze had to return to Hettie House.

 

He makes another bumbling attempt to collect ransom through a public phone, even giving his real name and just went a short time before the police came to that phone. Due to a snow drift, he was lucky that all his traces were obliterated.

His back story is explained. How he moved from small cons and honest work to bigger cons when he met George and became his partner and how they played all harmless cons until George went to jail and got the idea of ‘one big con – kidnapping a baby for ransom’ so that they can get out of the cat and mouse game with police all the time and retire in a foreign land. How he got roped into it, how George pushed a dangerous man too hard in a card game and paid the price.

The affection Blaze developes for the baby Joe IV, is beautifully told and how he learns to care for it.

His final attempts to hide in a cave and increasingly panicked reaction when the FBI and police spread their dragnets, is also convincingly told. It is very sad to see his get deeper and deeper into trouble even though you instinctively know he is not a bad man by nature.

The ending is touching and you have the satisfaction of having read an unusual and beautifully told tale.

 

8/10

 

– – Krishna

 

April 26, 2019

Book: Die Trying by Lee Child

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:35 pm

imageAnother thriller from the Jack Reacher series.

 

Nathan Rubin tried to stop three people taking his car and was beaten to a pulp. He died later.

 

Jack reacher was helping a woman out who was stumbling but once they turn the corner, he is confronted by two men with guns pointing at them both. When they are carried in a van, Jack Reacher realizes that she is no ordinary woman by the fearlessness of her, even when handcuffed to Jack.

 

He guesses correctly that she, Holly Johnson,  is a government agent, new, and dedicated. He also realizes that she was the target of kidnapping but he happened to be there so they had to take him .

 

Now we learn that Holly is a FBI wizard who can uncover cleverly hidden financial improprieties in companies. When she does not turn up for the 5 PM meeting, her boss knows something is seriously wrong.

 

We learn that she is greatly intelligent, chose FBI work over investment banking which she was doing, and also the Defence Secretary’s daughter to boot.

 

The ‘Builder’ a fat man, is constructing a secret facility, and slowly killing all those whom he hired to build it so that he can keep this one a secret.

 

The FBI gets to see Holly abducted in the CC TV camera and they know three people kidnapped her. (One of them is Jack Reacher but they do not know him from Adam).

 

In a typically Lee Child move, Jack subdues and kills one of the kidnappers who came alone,unarmed, When he was chained to the wall and the kidnapper was trying to rape Holly.

 

The General is terribly anxious about his daughter. Meanwhile Jack realizes that Holly has been kidnapped not because she is FBI but because of her father.

 

When finally Reacher and Holly have reached a cabin in Montana, Holly is separated and . locked up in a room. The leader who comes in is assured but chains Loder (“He made five mistakes”)

 

We learn about the leader Beau Borken who has a grudge against US and wants to create a new nation in a well defended wilderness and twenty million dollars to back him up – got from a heist. There is a mole in there, Jackson, but Reacher deduces that there is one in FBI too. So Jackson is in danger of being exposed.

 

The story seems to sag a little bit before exploding into a typical Lee Child pace of frenetic action. First, Beau finds out what happened to the ‘missing’ kidnapper (presumably from the mole since FBI found out about all that – they in turn think that Jack is one of the kidnappers of Holly as they saw him in a CC TV footage in front of the laundry where Holly was abducted). He chains Jack and Holly, meanwhile, manages to remove one of the legs of the cot and kill the maid who came to give her food and gloated about how Reacher is going to die.

 

Reacher is chained to a tree and Holly finds the girl’s semi automatic outside the room and goes in search of Reacher. She threatens to kill herself and a panicked Borken offers him life (but not freedom)  if Reacher can beat Borken in a long range shooting match.

 

Borken manages to have somone shoot down a helicoptor and also gets to FBI on the edge of the forest.

 

Reacher manages to walk out and explore the place and learns of the missiles and also the plans to ‘the other place’. When he walks back, he walks smack into Borken who chains him to a chair and leaves him with three of his people with guns. In a true Lee Child fashion, Reacher gets out and also saves one of the FBI agents who was captured (McGrath) and was about to be crucified. There is a great scene where McGrath turns the guns against Reacher, his saviour and how Jack convinces him that he is on the good side.

 

Who is the mole who has been giving information to Borken, our suspicions are adroitly moved among the two remaining FBI deputies and finally the twist is good.

 

The end is amazing on how they overcome Borken, only to learn that there is an even bigger plot afoot and how they guess and foil it.

 

True Lee Child story. My only complaint is that it sags a lot in the middle with Holly and Jack being passively captive for most of the book before erupting in spectacular fashion. Yes, I get it. You have to build up the story but you have to have a bit of patience to wade through it to the good ending.

 

6/10

– – Krishna

Book: Heretic by Bernard Cornwell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:27 pm

imageThe story in the Grail Quest series continues, after  Harlequin and Vagabond

 

The British army has laid siege to a castle and the French troops are across the river with a large contingent come to help their compatriots trapped inside.

 

Thomas is there to defend the English army from the French forces. He is asked to go deep into enemy territory and ‘make noise’ so that Guy Vexille will come find him. Then he is to capture Guy and then learn where the grail is. A pigheaded plan if ever there was one.  \

 

Thomas goes as a friar to the city, gains entry and in the night gets his companions into the fortress in a thrilling scene. The heretic  of the title is a girl imprisoned there – to be burnt at the pyre for her heretic beliefs. Thomas captures the fort and claims it in the name of the Earl of Northampton and puts the priests who wanted to burn her in their place. A brilliant argument with the priest to disprove that she is not a pagan witch ensues.

 

In the meanwhile the French Count, who is annoyed that the British dared to capture the castle, meets a priest and learns of the fact the the Grail may be (unknowingly) somewhere in his possession and is determined to get it before anyone else does.

 

The Cardinal makes a fake Grail cup and sends it to be ‘found’ in the place where the real one is rumoured to be. The assistant, Charles, is supposed to use Guy Vexille to find the cup and if he did, kill him and take the cup back. If not, kill him anyway and take the fake cup back. Either way the Cardinal will be the one who declares the find, and his path to Papacy would be cleared.

 

The French prepare an ambush for Thomas and his crew. When the hidden English archers not only defeat them and also capture Jocelyn, the tide turns. But a priest who tortured Gienvieve and later, a Bishop come and plant fear in the hearts of Christian soldiers (and also Robbie) that Thomas is doomed, he is forced to flee with no part of the ransom with Gienvieve.

 

Jocelyn sends two people to murder the ailing uncle so that he can become the Count and make Robbie – and himself – rich. The succeed in killing the count but at that time, Thomas was being looked after by the Abbot Blanchard, who has a mute abbot cure Gienvieve after she is hit by a crossbow quarrel in a fight. As she recovers, Jocelyn, who is now the Lord of the castle behaves brutally to everyone and sends Guy Vexile to look for Thomas in the monastery. There is a lovely scene where Thomas sees them literally the last minutes and hides under a pile of skeletons and human bones with Gienvieve.

 

They escape and are almost killed by outlaws and in a great scene manage to barely escape. Guy Vexilles people come a split second too late to catch him.

 

He goes to the fort to be among friends and Jocelyn and Guy Vexille go there to kill them all in the hopes that he has got the grail. When the brother of the monk goes with the fake grail to ‘claim to have found it’, Thomas finds and kills him and ‘discovers’ the grail through Gienvieve.

 

The final war is amazingly told and the ‘twist’ in the grail, even though I saw it coming way before it happened, it is still nice.

 

This was supposed to be a trilogy and so the story ends in a neat finish which is satisfying, but recently Bernard has written a fourth book in this sequence. I am curious about what that entails.

 

However, this is a very entertaining and lovely story, even though the author admits that almost the entire story of this book is fabricated, unlike his usual fare which has a historical fact in it.

 

8/10

 

—  Krishna

Book: Have you Eaten Grandma? by Gyles Brandreth

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:21 pm

imageThis book brings to mind that great book on punctuation by Lynn Truss ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves‘.

The subject matter is the same. Both authors are passionate about the correct use of both the English language and the punctuations. Both have even chosen a title that illustrates what an absence of a punctuation or a presence of a punctuation at an unnecessary place can do to the meaning of the sentence.

The author of this book is an actor, former MP, writer (as you can see from this book) and a television personality. He is a stickler for  the correct use of English and he gives funny examples of what happens when you get a punctuation wrong. Apart from the title,  there are other examples described early in the book as in ‘Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog’ on a magazine cover, no less; ‘We are going to learn to cut and paste kids!’ on a school computer.

He also talks about viz (The word that is used to mean ‘as follows’ usually). The origin is videlicet, literally ‘permitted to see’ – Latin of course. It is shortened as viet, which in shorthand looks like viz. So the spelling itself became viz in print.  Nice!

He goes through the obligatory sections of each punctuation (period, comma, semi-colon, colon, the curious em-dash and en-dash and how it differs from the garden variety dash) in turn giving nice examples and some asides (old ones like ‘The santa’s little helpers are subordinate Clauses’) which are funny. But I am trying to determine how it would help you if you have already read ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ and I really cannot put my finger into anything specific.This is a fun read too, if you love the language but if you want to understand  correct usage of punctuation, either one would do.  The other one is a bit funnier, in my opinion.

Like the other book to which this will be invariably compared, there is a section devoted to each punctuation mark. There is some new material here. In plurals, Gyles delves into word origins – etymology – of why a particular plural is different from just adding an ‘s at the end of singular. That is nice. But when he goes into spelling and spills pages after pages of mnemonics (not very useful to a lay person like me) it gets to be tedious to read.

 

Probably the best chapter in the book is on apostrophe, which he describes well. A lot of gems here : the author has stuffed a lot of interesting linguistic history in this book. He talks about how come Cholmondeley is called ‘Chumli’. Featherstonehaugh is called ‘Fanshaw’ Marjoribanks as Marchbanks and Wriothesley as Ridley.

 

And fun to read are three different meanings just based on where and where not you place an apostrophe for ‘ Those things there are my husbands’.  

There is a lot of recycled jokes and fun poems on English but still they are good to read, even if you have come across them before.

 

The US English vs British English is nice too – He goes through the common mistakes that people make; he also goes into the internet abbreviations. Nice to read.

 

Some gems are hidden  in the middle of the book too. He talks about homonyms. Wether, he informs us, stands for a castrated sheep, whence comes bellwether, which is the leading sheep with a bell around her neck.

Nice collections all along. Gyles is a lifelong collector, we realize as we read the book. Almost all are nice except (at least for me) the mnemonic section which was an uninteresting technique to remember the correct spelling and the rhyming Cockney which made no sense at all.

 

The little grammar lesson at the end also was interesting, to me.

 

7/10

–  – Krishna

April 19, 2019

Book: Britain’s Europe by Brendon Simms

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:35 am

Britians Europe.inddThis is a history of Britain and takes on an entirely different viewpoint from the other historical fiction. It argues that almost all of the actions of Britain – including the building of its famous empire and the giving away of the empire in the forties and fifties  – stem solely from the perspective of British security in Europe during the turbulent times of European wars and even thereafter, in the post WW II set up of the world and Europe.

And the author provides very convincing arguments in support of his viewpoint. So, it is definitely a book worth reading even if to consider a completely different viewpoint of British and European history than the one we are accustomed to.

On top of that, the timing of this book is interesting. This was written when James Cameron made his monumental decision to subject Brexit to the referendum but before the vote had already taken place (when most people were convinced that Brexit would never be the choice of the majority in the referendum. 

What are Brendan’s main points?

Brendan Simms argues that Europe is an inalienable part of Britain and has always been. In addition, it was also written in 2016 when Brexit was just something that they started talking about. It has a lot of interesting information and persuasive argument and I think that Brexit supporters will hate what it has to say!

 

He talks about England and how it was always concerned about threats around it. Not just from French, whose territories English kings occupied, not just the Vikings who almost overtook the entire England before Alfred the Great put a stop to it (which is beautifully fictionalized in the Saxon Series from Bernard Cornwell from ‘The Pale Rider’ onwards) but also its backyard of Scotland and Wales, which had to be subdued to prevent it collaborating with its enemies farther away.

 

England was richer per capita from a long time and had an independent parliament for long. From before Magna Carta times, really.

 

There are other interesting facts in this book. For instance, I did not know that Richard I was given the sobriquet ‘Lionheart’ not by anyone in Britain but by a French poet by the name of Ambroise. It was given in admiration for his part in the Crusades, which united all of Europe against ‘the infidels’ – language similar to today’s militants against the very Western society that used it heavily in the past.

 

 Also England was the first country in Western Europe to limit the royal power, have a powerful parliament and also to have advanced rights. It was the first country to translate and use the Bible in the local language (English) and first to challenge papal power and their right to collect taxes, arguing for national sovereignty in the collection of taxes.

 

The loss of France and the threat from Philip of Spain who wanted to conquer all of Christendom to form one huge empire prompted England to support Protestant piece of Germany. Even the colonization of the New World by the Quakers is to create another piece of land where Protestant faith can grow without obvious threats – not for any economic reasons, argues the author. It is fascinating to find that Charles lost his life and the monarchy in England because Parliament was opposed to his extravagant ways to defend England. The merchant class, who wielded political power, were loath to pay for the battles abroad with no tangible results to show for it.

 

What also comes across is that England was bitterly opposed and concerned about the rise of the French King Charles XV!, because, his victories over other countries would spread Catholicism to the previously Protestant nations and so gave all the help it can in terms of money and people to thwart such attempts. German states and Austria were beneficiaries of these support. It is interesting to note the religious dimension to the conflicts, even as pious statements about ‘All Christiendom should unite against the Turkish threat to Christianity’ were being mouthed by almost all these countries.

 

Also interesting is the contention by Brendan, the author, that the need to protect England required intervention in European wars, for instance containment of the French and Spanish aspirations for a pan European empire under them, as well as protecting Scandinavia and Germany, which were Protestant against the threat of Catholicism taking over, threatening both the religion (Protestant) and the way of life (as Catholic emperors will want to restore absolute monarchy in Britain, negating the hard fought gains of Parliamentary rights). These expenses necessitated taxes (including the taxes on tea) that precipitated rebellion in the US, and also Ireland, India and other places. So, in a way, the seeds of the American War of Independence were sown in European power play!

 

Napolean was a major thorn on England’s side and England helped other countries counter him for the same reasons as above.

 

You are taken through a more familiar territory of the First and Second World War as well as the independence of British colonies, which is a more familiar territory. It is interesting to read that when England declared war on Germany, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were in favour but Ireland remained neutral. I did not know that!

 

Also, did you know that faced with the Nazi threat that seemed to be sweeping everything in its path in its spread, Churchill offered to merge France and England into one country to combine their might to offer resistance? (I assume that this proposal went nowhere but if it had come to pass, what would that country be like today? )

 

The other thing surprising is that when England was successful in its application to join EEC (as the EU was known as then) – after twice being rejected by France – England was enthusiastic but Scotland and Northern Ireland were not very interested! In Brexit today, it is exactly the opposite! Interesting comparisons today.

 

Margaret Thatcher was backpedalling and was worried about European integration handing power back to Germany. Tony Blair was very pro Europe.

 

Slowly it dawns on you that the unification has always been through a crisis and sudden. UK was formed due to threat from Prussia and France. US was formed due to the fear of states that got independence of interference from foreign powers – England, France, Spain and others. Where this alliance was not forced (India, South America, China) foreign powers were able to play one against the other.

 

Add to it that the unification (of any country, state and others) is the necessity to trade one group’s (city, clan, district) sovereignty for security and in the absence of any imminent threat of war, the sovereignty gains importance – witness the breakup movements all over the world, including UK, Canada and many others.   No gradual unification scheme in the absence of existential threats has ever worked.

 

So the EU project, which wants incremental integration, and consensus to decide everything is doomed from the start – or so the author argues, persuasively. He also points out that the threat from foreign powers is real. A resurgent Russia and does not respect known international boundaries (according to the author), China’s projection of might in its backyard, the retreat of democracy and rise of strongman politics all over the world means that the EU breakup at this vulnerable moment would spell doom for British security.

 

Interesting stuff to read. Makes you think, whether you buy this argument wholesale or not.   

A great read.

8/10

– – Krishna

Book: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:24 am

image.jpgIf you have read Thomas Hardy’s books, you know not to expect any romantic comedies, or indeed, any happy endings. This book is no different. He has written another sad story, and again, like all his other books, this one is interesting and holds your attention as well.

 

Jack Durbeyfield, a layabout who is uneducated, learns from Parson Tringham that he is descended from knights. It goes to his head and he goes home in a carriage he could not afford. Tess, the daughter, goes to a dancing ball and is disappointed that a rich boy who came in did not choose her to dance with.

 

Meanwhile, her mother dreams of the nobility and riches and how a distant relation will adopt Tess and give her a rich husband. Tess will have none of it. When the husband drinks copiously and is unable to go to the market to sell the hives, Tess decides to go herself with her brother Abram but meets with an accident that kills the horse on the way.

 

Mother sends her to d’Ubervilles where she seems to fall into the clutches of the son Alec, who has evil designs upon her. He pretends to be his mother (in a letter) and ‘offers her’ a job in his farm. Her parents force her to take it.

 

When she is trapped alone with Alec, Tess is raped and loses her virginity. She comes back home and isolates herself for several months. Finds work in the fields.

 

We also learn that she had a baby after that single encounter (described as ‘he placed his cheek on hers’ and that is all, though the implied meaning is full intercourse) and it dies, devastating her, since she was very fond of the baby.

 

It always amuses me to read the old time usage of English which reads totally differently in the language of today. For example what do you think of a portion of the description of a field :  “Presently there arose a clicking sound like love making of the grasshopper”? It is not what you or I would think. Thomas Hardy is talking about the courtship sound of the grasshopper. Amusing.

Tess leaves for another big dairy town to start a new life. Again, you hear of St Augustine’s comments : “Thou hast counselled a better course than thou hast permitted”. You remember his other famous words : “ O Lord, make me chaste but not yet”? He seems to have been the Oscar Wilde of his times in humour!

 

Now a gentleman called Clark falls in love with Tess and wishes to marry her. Though she is in love with him, due to her past, she says no without giving a reason.  Finally, she marries him and then faces situations where her past was almost exposed. She also learns that one of the maids in the farm tried to kill herself since that girl did not win Clark. She reveals all to him in their honeymoon suite.

 

That kills his ardour completely and they decide to live separately. But in the night he sleepwalks, carries her and puts her in an open cabin. They separate the next day and go their separate ways.

 

Not being able to cope with their parents’ disapproval, Tess lies that she will soon  be reconciled with her husband and walks out. Working her way through menial jobs (since the money and allowance arranged by Claire was given away to support her parents) and goes to a harsh farm where Marian, her ex farm-mate now found a place. She also wears torn clothes and shaves off her eyebrows to make her look ugly to repel young men’s advances.

 

She is shocked to find that the owner of the land is the man whom Clare slapped for being disrespectful to her and he ensures that her life is miserable. When Izzy reaches that place, Tess hears from Marian that Izz was asked to go with Clare to Brazil and decides to go see his parents to plead with them to have Clare take her back. When she reaches the town, she finds that their family is already talking ill of her (overhears it in disguise) and also comes across Alec, who now is a fire and brimstone preacher who visits the same village.

 

He sees her and renounces his faith and comes after her. Asks her to marry him but she rejects him saying that she is married and he does not seem to think it matters as her husband seems to have abandoned her anyway.

 

Her sister comes to inform her that her mother is unwell and when she goes to attend to her, resigning her position at the farm, she helps her mother recovers but her father suddenly passes away. They decide to leave for another city but when they are stranded without accommodation again Alex offers a home for them. She refuses but her mother forces her to accept the help.

 

Izzy and Marian, who also came back because the work in the farm was too harsh, write to Claire asking him to ‘go save his wife before she is taken advantage of’ before they depart to a new farm to work.

 

Alec comes to persuade hard Tess that her husband is not going to come back.

 

Finally when Clare comes searching for her, he finds her living with Tess. She sends him away, heartbroken, but when Alec derides her and talks harsh words about Clare, she kills him with a knife and both Clare and Tess run as fugitives.

 

The book ends soon thereafter. A good classic, not difficult to read, and satisfies.

 

6/10

– – Krishna

April 16, 2019

Book: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:41 pm

imageI started this knowing that it is a murder mystery and I expected it to be a nice read to pass the time. I did not expect it to be quite this good. It slowly draws you in and immerses you thoroughly into the story.

You end it with the full satisfaction of having read a book that is made gripping by the story and also the power of the author’s narration of it. Quite impressive.

A girl tries to run away from home and is stranded in the middle of nowhere when her van breaks down. The preface stops here until two thirds of the way into the story, where it links up with the main thread.

 

A girl is fished out of a river and they fear it is Hattie. The inspector is a friend of Hattie’s father.

 

Meanwhile, Peter resents that his wife has to go to a village to look after her invalid mother, Esther, who refuses to go to an old age home like normal people. What is more, he had to give up his job to move with her. He starts to resent his wife and his mother in law, who seems to be everywhere, tying them down and also does not appear to like him to boot.

 

Hattie does not seem to like her boyfriend but is kind of taken with the new teacher in school.

 

The story flits between the past and present – in the present, the detective realizes that she had had consensual sex just before her death.

 

Peter is the teacher in Hattie’s school but he feels more and more repulsed by the village ways of Mary – how she kills chicken with no thought at all – and they are growing apart – fast.

 

The online relationships between Peter Lund and Hattie, without each knowing about the other which goes from shared interests to cyber sex and how Hattie suddenly realizes that the LitGeek she was talking to (as HollyG) was none other than Peter and how she reveals herself to him through a prearranged dress in a drama rehearsal are beautifully told and you see the escalating confusion that Peter is under – and how seriously Hattie pursues him,  with growing tension in us, the reader. Very well developed. He tries to shun her doing the right thing, but she seems determined.

 

All the while you go back to post death of Hattie and you realize she has been murdered and thrown in the river and the detective looking into it is a personal friend of the father is another nice touch. The storytelling sparkles.

 

Even the intro where Hattie tries to run away and is rescued by a friend is told very well.

 

My god, the story develops beautifully and the two worlds of Peter and Hattie are narrated with a skill reminiscent of the Gone Girl. Devastatingly beautiful is the juxtaposition of Del  the principal investigator (after Hatties body was found) who is also a personal friend of Hattie’s parents – a long time friend. The background of Del also comes slowly into focus – his vietnam war days and then right upon his return, his wife walking out on him, getting a divorce  and later dying of cancer after remarrying, living with a new husband for several years and begetting children.

 

Nice narration and great development of the story. From Peter completely struggling to do the right thing, from Peter being astounded to see that the person who he was chatting and getting close to on the net is really Hattie, to how he pushes her away because she is underage, to how she relentlessly pursues him to how he is tempted due to his rapidly deteriorating family situation to how he even then has sense enough to wait until she becomes an adult…. It is just brilliant.

 

We watch Peter slowly descending into giving in to the attraction even if every bone in his body warns that it is wrong and to how he finally even goes as far to arrange the secret trysts for them to meet.  

 

When he finally threatens to push Hattie away to stop the madness, she  threatening to expose him to everyone. You start to wonder if he has a motive. Then his wife drops a bombshell – she would rather not go back to a big city and then another – she is pregnant. Peter now tries to cut Hattie off.

 

The story brilliantly escalates to a climax after the final performance of Macbeth where Hattie is found dead, and weaves between plausible scenarios. It even goes to a place where Peter meekly accepts the guilty plea even though, through his reminiscences, he remembers that he did not kill Hattie. Amazing story, beautifully written, the real killer (though a bit contrived?) revealed a bit dramatically.

 

Suspicion keeps falling between several people, with the grief and shock of Hattie’s parents showing, the final scene where Peter realizes his final fate, everything is done so well.

 

Yes, this is not an intellectual tale but a mystery book that reads well and captures the emotions of all the three narrators who tell the story in an alternating fashion, even with different time spans – Hattie herself, the teacher, and Del, the sheriff who is also a close friend of Bud, Hattie’s father. Lovely to read.

 

9/10

–  –  Krishna

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