Saturday, 24 March 2007

Imperium by Robert Harris

I hate Robert Harris because his books are so damn good. I am gnawed with envy, feeling that he and I are quite similar people. He is one year older than I, and also went to Oxbridge, and I feel close to him in spirit. We have a shared outlook on history and a parallel sense of curiosity. Whereas my energy and time has been devoted into writing financial product essays, he has allowed himself to delve into more vivid subjects and in a more public way. I earn good money from a very private and specialised niche, while he researches and vivifies history, and has a much wider public fame. But it is evident that he has a knack for creating a good story which I have not proved in any way.

This book, ‘Imperium’ is about Cicero. It is fascinating and educative, bringing the reader back to one of the important foundation stones of European civilization: Ancient Rome. I was only vaguely aware that Cicero was a great orator, but knew little about his life. This book tells us the story, based firmly on history and his speeches, from 79 to 64 BC. Since Cicero lived until 43 BC there are evidently further books on Cicero to come. ‘Imperium’ is in two parts, the first mainly concerning his prosecution of Verres and his attainment of being a Praetorian. The second part concerns how he climbed the greasy and treacherous pole of Roman politics to being voted consul.

The plethora of characters is hard to keep up with, but key figures such as Pompey and Caesar come sharply into focus. It brings all those vague memories of Roman history and Shakespeare plays into clear shape. I feel far more educated and aware, after reading this book. So I am grateful – but still envious.

His other books, all of them thoroughly recommended, are ‘Fatherland’, ‘Enigma’, ‘Archangel’ and ‘Pompeii’.

God knows by Joseph Heller

God knows by Joseph Heller

This is a most enjoyable book, retelling the stories of King David – yes that David, the slayer of Goliath, the psalmist, the singer to mad King Saul, the war leader, the mourner for his rebellious son Absalom, the adulterer with Bathsheba, the father of Solomon and so forth.

The opening sentence is typically arresting: “Abishag the Shunammite washes her hands, powders her arms, removes her robe, and approaches my bed to lie down on top of me.” Look it up in the first book of Kings, chapter 1.

It is told in typical Joseph Heller style, with no linear chronology, and a seemingly haphazard order. But it all makes perfect sense. The reader is never baffled or confused – except to keep track of the many, many characters in the book. It brings the bible story alive, with abundant imaginative additions. It mixes King James bible sentences with modern English in a fizzing, amusing style. Heller also likes to use non-chronological information, such as David’s piercing critique of the Michelangelo statue of himself. Or his wish to send a wire, but then being reminded that the telegraph hasn’t been invented yet.

I like Heller: he is entertaining, erudite and profound. This brief paragraph may convey those three qualities: “The fault, I know, was not in my stars but in myself. I’ve learned so many things that have not been much use to me. The human brain has a mind of its own.”

If anything, this book ranks higher in my estimation than his most famous book: ‘Catch 22’. Maybe I should go back and read ‘Catch 22’ again to make a fair comparison. Another excellent book of Heller’s I would recommend is ‘Picture this’, which brilliantly combines the stories of Socrates and Rembrandt, with shewd observations on historical parallels between the wars of ancient Athens, Golden age Holland, Eighteenth Century England and Twentieth Century America.

The Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe’s rifles:

This is the sixth book in the chronological coverage of the fictional life of the British soldier, Richard Sharpe. It is the first concerning the Peninsular war (the earlier books dealing with his exploits in India); so it is a good place to start.

Sharpe is a ‘green jacket’ rifleman participating in the retreat to Corunna during the winter of 1809, before the victorious French army invading Spain. He and his small company of men get involved in a series of fights and adventures, culminating in the assault on the city of Santiago de Compostela.

It is a fairly straightforward adventure story, with exciting fighting, some love interest and several twists and turns in the story. There is good quality historical detail, the fruits of evident diligent historical research on the part of the author. I did not find the characters particularly deep.


Sharpe’s Eagle:

This book follows the chronological events in ‘Sharpe’s rifles’, culminating in the historical battle of Talavera. It was, according to the author, the first he wrote about this character, and was his first attempt to make money from writing. I did not detect any amateurism or gaucheness in the writing.

The comparison that must be made is with Patrick O’Brian’s epic series of books about Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Cornwell’s books have more action, while O’Brian loves to dawdle over his story and delay the action in favour of character, conversation and many diversions. Cornwell’s books are good, but more ‘boy’s own’. Based on a small sample of two, I would currently come down on the side of O’Brian as my favourite.
But I am open-minded, and will read more in this series.

The pursuit of victory by Roger Knight

The pursuit of victory by Roger Knight

The sub-title of this book makes its content clear: ‘The life and achievement of Horatio Nelson’.

This is a monumental book, running to 874 pages. The biography itself ends on page 558, with the rest devoted to a chronology of Nelson’s life and background events, details of his ships, biographical sketches of other people, bibliography, notes and index. So it is a valuable reference book to sit on one’s shelf.

But would it gather dust? I have read it with interest, but will now rest it on my shelf, where it may indeed gather dust. There are other books to get on with.

Was it worth reading? Yes. Does it fulfil its title and sub-title? Strangely, no. In my opinion, Mr Knight, has created an unbalanced account, in his attempt to be comprehensive and dig out new things. I would have liked it to be shorter and more focused on the ‘pursuit of victory’ theme. Lots of detail about his trip to Wales or his purchase of a house in Merton is not essential. More on the battle of Trafalgar itself would be useful. Maybe Mr Knight felt all that could be said about Trafalgar had already been said. A failure of nerve on his part, maybe.

Nelson is one of those controversial characters who you could argue either was a puffed up, foolish, dangerous man or a military genius and national hero. There is enough meat in this book to take material for either case.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Saturdaym by Ian McEwan

It was something like 27 years ago that I bought a book of the young Ian McEwan’s short stories, called ‘Between the sheets’, with a suitably alluring cover. I was impressed by the cool, surgical, yet passionate style of his writing, but, somehow, never followed up on any of his other writings, until, by coincidence, two people asked recently if I had read his ‘Saturday’. I had previously read a good review of it, and slightly shamefaced at my lack of contact with contemporary British writers, I borrowed a copy and read it slowly and thoughtfully. The book deserves this approach, and would probably reward with extra depths on a second reading.

The cover of my paperback copy catches the opening chapter perfectly, with a view of the central London skyline, including the telecom tower and a comet-like streak across the night sky. That turns out to be a plane making an emergency landing at Heathrow, with an engine on fire. I doubt whether a stricken airplane would be allowed to traverse London, but everything else in the story is meticulously described. McEwan has learnt a huge amount about Neurosurgery, as he describes in his acknowledgements, without showing his research on his sleeve. The descriptions of the work of the main character, who is a Neurosurgeon, are fascinating, and a welcome departure from the usual self-involved world of arty people that appear to dominate British fiction.

Aristotle prescribes that the action of a good Greek tragedy must take place within the confines of one day, and McEwan chooses to submit to this discipline: an eventful Saturday in the life of one man, with his wife, children, father-in-law, mother, medical colleagues, squash partner and some criminals. There are a number of brilliant set pieces embedded in an artistic whole, such as: a description of a squash game, mediations on senile dementia, arguments about the war in Iraq, a description of am operation, a car crash and subsequent argument and so on.

McEwan dares to tackle very contemporary issues, and only time will tell whether it maintains its relevance and interest to future readers – but I think it will, for the book transcends the current news stories to deal elegantly, but not mawkishly or prescriptively with universal issues. The story hangs on the Matthew Arnold poem ‘Dover Beach’, and if there is a message it may be quoted from the poem: “Ah love, let us be true to one another!” McEwan is less downbeat than Arnold’s conclusion to ‘Dover Beach’, and presents positive reasons to preserve a (incoherent) faith and joy in life.

The Magus by John Fowles

The Magus by John Fowles

The original book appeared in 1965, but the version I read was the revised edition of 1978. I had held off reading this well-known book for many years, because of the experience in my student days of first being mesmerised by his superb ‘The French Lieutenant’s woman’, and then being profoundly let down my his dreary ‘Daniel Martin’. This book grabbed and obsessed me, and messed with my mind, as the Magus (Conchis) does with the protagonist. If you embark on reading this book, I warn you that you need to make sure you have nothing else too urgent to do, for you will be hooked.

The story builds up with mysterious and tantalising hints, and the reader is eager to push forward into forbidden territory, possibly facing ancient gods and recent ghosts. There is a silky and frustrating sexiness to the events, like a series of temptations, which rise to a screaming crescendo. The book has many sub-stories told mainly by Conchis about his purported early life. These a fascinating stories in the own right, and seem to shed light on the current mysteries faced by the protagonist, but after a while we find we cannot trust anything. Conchis admits he lies, and then spins another tale, and sets another scene, like Prospero’s visions in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.

The problem for me is that the climax comes at least 100 pages before the end, and after that I felt the story drifted. I realised there would never be an explanation, though I accepted the ethos of the book that there will never be complete clarity or knowledge. It is just that the book lost its drive, and I found it an effort to complete.

Oxford by Jan Morris

Oxford by Jan Morris

This is a profile of a great city, by a most knowledgeable and fluent writer, who is obviously in love with the place. It is crammed full of quirky bits of information, mirroring the style of the town and university. The arrangement is unconventional, but ultimately comprehensive and effective. She covers topics such as ghosts, pictures, literature, empire, war, churches, music, architecture, history, university structure, fauna, flora, industry, politics, religion, food, eccentric characters, societies, science, sport and so on, in a vivid kaleidoscope.

I bought this book in Blackwells, in Oxford, on a visit back to my old university, when I attended a Philip Geddes memorial lecture. Wandering round the central streets, lanes and quadrangles reignited many suppressed memories, and I wanted to read a good description of the city to deepen the understanding of where I had spent three years. An act of typical nostalgia? Certainly this book has deepened my appreciation of the place, and I want to go back again soon.

By the way, Jan Morris is a superb writer, whose trilogy on the British Empire, ‘Pax Britannica’ is well worth reading. You will find the author’s name is James Morris – which was his/her name before undergoing a sex change.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This story is about three generations of historians delving into the history of Dracula (Vlad Tepes, ‘The impaler’). It mines the same vein as Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (referred to several times in the book), with greater depth and thoroughness. The book is obviously published to exploit the ‘Dan Brown’ goldmine of uncovering ancient secrets, mixed with lots of cultural references.

The early part of the book is intriguing and draws one into the story and theme strongly. One of the best aspects is the description of place, as they flit around Europe to Amsterdam, Slovenia, the Pyrenees, Istanbul, Oxford, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and so on. Indeed the book could be called ‘The geographer’! The academic aspects and the excitement of finding things in books and places is well executed. The line between history, folklore and pure novelistic invention is cleverly blurred. The writer is erudite, conscientious, intelligent and a good painter of scene and atmosphere.

However the bad points include the following:
a) The book is just too long, at over 800 pages. I felt it drag in the latter half, even though the story is supposed to rise to a crescendo. The author needs a severe editor to cut it down to about 600 pages. There are innumerable redundant descriptions which hardly add much to atmosphere and the story.
b) The characters are wooden and don’t work for me. Without that sympathy, the reader does not care so much what happens to them.
c) The endless coincidences become tiresome. Obviously every person met in a restaurant, on a train or in a library etc…. is involved in the Dracula story.

I would recommend this as a good read, and would be interested to hear other views on this book. I am not sure I would want to read it twice.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Regeneration by Pat Barker

I picked this book up from Oxfam, serendipitously. However I had certainly heard of the author, since she won the Booker prize in 1995. This is the first book in a trilogy, and I intend to read the others now.

The story is based on a true event, which I already knew about from my university studies of war poets, when the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote a public letter protesting about the conduct of the war in 1917. Sassoon was sent to an Edinburgh hospital and encountered Rivers, an Army Psychologist. The book centres on these characters, with the focus shifting more towards Rivers towards the end. It explores their personalities, views and the relationship between them, in which they influence each other. But the book brings in several other characters, vividly describing the horrific war experiences that had shattered them psychologically.

Other real life characters come into the story, such as Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. I feel that there is a slight artificiality and ‘researched’ element in some of the episodes. In the end, I felt the book was somewhat episodic, and did not fully hang together. Particularly I did not get under the skin of Sassoon himself. The book veered away from him, finding more interest in the other diverse minor characters.

What I particularly remember is the love story about Prior, one of the patients, and Sarah, who works in a local ammunition factory. This was the strongest and most intimate human story.

This is a compelling book, which kept me reading in my room in the Imperial Hotel, as I struggled with jet lag. A bad choice of book for such circumstances, since it hardly helped me sleep peacefully, leaving vivid images of war in my brain!

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I decided to buy this book after seeing the film ‘Capote’ on an aeroplane. The film was intriguing and alerted me to the literary figure of Truman Capote, about whom I had only been vaguely aware, but largely ignorant.

He is evidently a skilled and eloquent writer, with a very organised, perceptive mind. The writing is unobtrusively efficient and of great clarity. The multiple murders and the characters behind them are explored with compelling curiosity.

But…

This is ultimately a grisly story, and the characters profoundly sad. There is nothing to lighten the atmosphere. It is hardly a light read. It is not a pleasant experience. Despite admiring the literary merits of the book, it became a harder and harder task to pick up the book and go on. It depressed me, and I flitted off to other books (as I often do). However, after 6 months, I confess I still have not finished the book. I have not summoned up the courage to read the last 30 pages, covering the execution of the murderers. I don’t feel the need (yet) to make myself more melancholy and face the final horror in Capote’s unflinching prose.

Holy War by Karen Armstrong

Holy War by Karen Armstrong

A few years ago I read the author’s ‘Islam – A short history’, which was very enlightening and balanced. This was a book I picked up at JF Kennedy airport on the way home, to understand more about religious conflict (a vital theme in this 9/11 world). I class this as an important book, but not necessarily a classic.

It is certainly a very erudite and eloquent book, though the freight of facts is overwhelming. The approach is purportedly to adopt a balanced triple perspective on the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims, who have all pursued ‘Holy War’. However, I detect a final sympathy, or at need championing of, the Muslim point of view. This is fine, and probably a necessary counter-balance to our Western ignorance and prejudices. The reminder is salutary that the Christians, in the crusades, certainly were important progenitors of the problems in Israel/Palestine.

There are illuminating shifts between history 1000 years ago, and the more recent conflicts in the region. The book was written prior to 9/11, which is only covered briefly in a new foreword. However it is, none the less, relevant.

I have a complaint about the shifts in speed and coverage. Certain things are swept over quickly and covered by assertion, without much proof or detail – a sort of ‘fast forward’ mode. Some important events are not satisfactorily explained, such as why Richard the Lion Heart did not press on to Jerusalem. Then at other times she dwells for pages on certain events and people – such as the religious visions of the first crusade and the character of Saladin, which become somewhat tedious. So the book lacks a consistent pace and structure. It could also be pruned more to keep the main themes in front of the reader’s mind.

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

If you want to understand Newton’s contribution to science and human progress, I would highly recommend this relatively short book (under 200 pages, but with an extra 80 pages of notes and references) – though I am not acquainted in detail with any other book on Newton. This is the kind of concentrated biography I like to read, not bloated, obsessively-detailed tomes.

This book is written in a clear and direct way, without being patronising or simplistic. It is a masterpiece of brevity and explication, but pausing to describe characters and the surrounding history and locations with almost poetic impact. One comes away from the book dazzled by Newton’s genius and innumerable achievements, and puzzled by the mystery of how he rose above being the neglected son of an illiterate Lincolnshire farm worker. Nature or nurture or freak?

It is impossible to sum up his achievement. Simply I allude to these I can remember:
a) inventing infinitesimal calculus;
b) establishing laws of motion;
c) writing a comprehensive description of gravity that enables us to predict the movements of planets, comets, tides and many practical aspects of the physical world;
d) separating physics from metaphysics, and so laying a key foundation stone of modern rational science;
e) analysing light and inventing instruments to study and use it;
f) reforming the currency;
g) even his odd pursuit of alchemy engendered many techniques and discoveries in chemistry and biology that have advanced science.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

This is one of Margaret Atwood’s latest novels, short-listed for the Orange prize in 2004 and the Booker prize in 2003, she having written 10 novels before this. I have only read one other ‘The blind assassin’, which I rate extremely highly, as I do this. I would not like to compare and choose between them, for they are very different.

‘Oryx and Crake’ is a dystopia. The author has evidently taken many cutting from newspapers and magazines to weave together facts and to stimulate her imagination about possible ghastly futures. The main thread is about genetic engineering, and it seems horribly plausible. The links to current news stories was highlighted today as I heard the radio talking about scientists applying to use human DNA injected into cow cells – or something like that – to develop stem cells for research. This story takes utopian and over-powerful scientists and their genetic experiments to an apocalyptic extreme; plausible and sobering.

Oryx is the nickname of an Asian girl used in the sex industry and discovered by the main character on the internet. Crake is his friend, and brilliant scientist, who creates a new race of ‘children’. Things spin out of control, but the denouement is brilliantly crescendoed. The book starts after everything has gone wrong, with civilization as we know it gone, and the climate radically changed. Through time shifts the past events are brought closer to the present to explain why things are as they are. Only later do we realise what a ‘Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail sausage’ is.

This is a deeply disturbing and relevant book. It literally kept me awake at night and invaded my jet-lagged dreams.

The winter king by Bernard Cornwell

The winter king by Bernard Cornwell

‘The Times’ review quoted on the back cover uses the phrase “spellbinding realism”, and I think that is apt. Cornwell has ploughed a new furrow in historical fiction, by covering a period virtually untouched: the so-called ‘dark ages’ between the withdrawal of the Romans (410 AD) and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon civilization in the 7th Century. (Some people erroneously think of the dark ages as extending to 1066 – a false view of history). These are called the dark ages due to the scarcity of textual or archaeological evidence.

Cornwell (of the Sharpe novels) gets us imaginatively under the skin of life in those times, focusing on the Romano-Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia in the south west of England, fighting desperately against the Welsh and the advancing Saxons. The story is kept moving, and is compelling and believable. Yet it is mixed with vivid descriptions of battles, magic, love and daily life. The author has had to fill in many details from the sparse historical evidence from his imagination, and succeeds with a gold medal.

This is an Arthurian novel, so in this respect it follows a long tradition The ‘winter king’ is Arthur, but not the romantic figure from medieval romance, but a realistic Celtic warrior defending the kingdom, as told from the viewpoint of Derfel, one of his leading soldiers. Characters such as Merlin and Guinevere are brought in – but again believable and solidly drawn characters. For those who love the aura of those distant, tough times (as I do) this is an attractive novel. It will appeal also to those who like ‘The lord of the rings’, though it has no dwarves, elves or orcs.

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

This is the second novel in an Arthurian trilogy, following ‘The winter king’, which I read last summer.

When I picked up the book and read the first five or six pages, I felt burdened with trying to remember the events and characters of the previous novel. It was a mental effort, but the effort was rewarded as I persevered. The author quickly developed a new energy in the story, with an early climax, as the narrator, Derfel, claims the hand of the beautiful Ceinwyn, on the very night of her betrothal ceremony to Lancelot. A second story of Merlin’s search for a cauldron carries into the core of the book, and I was hooked again.

The reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends is bold and original. Cornwell develops a complex, believable world, which I judge to be a major achievement. That world is replete with good characterisation, lovely descriptions of nature, shocking violence, convoluted events and conflicting loyalties and political compromises that make it very realistic.

The ‘enemy of God’ in the title is Arthur himself. The growing Christian faction in the country calls him an enemy of God because he has pagan beliefs, or at least refuses to persecute the pagans. The book has a fascinating anti-Christian tone that possibly reflects the views of the author himself. Certainly it gives a very fresh re-interpretation of history and the Arthurian legends, which traditionally paint Arthur as Christian.

The meaning of recognition by Clive James

The meaning of recognition by Clive James

Clive James writes articles and essays, and earns money. He tours the country giving talks about life and promoting his books (as I attended in Brighton last October), and earns money. Then he publishes his essays in a book, and earns money again. What a lucky man!

But what a brilliant, erudite, judicious and witty man too! It is positively frightening to read his essay ‘No way, Madame Bovary’, in which he does a critique of a) Madame Bovary by Flaubert, b) a new translation into English by Margaret Mauldon and c) a the introduction to that translation by Professor Malcolm Bowie. What is frightening is the detailed and precise knowledge James has of the original French. So he is able to discourse on Flaubert’s style and intentions and to nit-pick errors in the nuances of the English translation and to stab the Professor in the back for being too much of a careless cheerleader.

Clive James is a show-off. But you cannot deny that he has a lot in his brain to show off. He has evidently learnt French and Italian to a high literary degree (both modern and medieval). He claims to have learnt Russian and Japanese as well, and I would not like to challenge him on those claims. He has a fantastic memory (or a skilled method for retrieving information). He has read virtually everything and the range of subjects he covers would outshine a whole season of Mastermind contestants. He churns out aphorisms and conundrums in every sentence, if he is so inclined. He perceptions are laser-like and convincing, whether he is writing on Formula One, Australian poetry, British Politics, Terrorism or whatever.

He shows off in such an endearing way, such as his boast about how many books he has in his private library: “My apartment is on the sixth floor of a warehouse conversion in the Butler’s Wharf area south of Tower Bridge, and I have already been advised by the mortgage surveyors that if I add many more books to my library the day will inevitably come when the beams under the floor will give way and my whole apartment will collapse into the apartment below, which will in turn collapse into the apartment below that, and so on until about fifty people are wedged into the underground car-park with plenty to read while they await rescue.”

I am so far behind the wide-ranging Mr James that there are several chapters about which I know nothing of the subject matter, so reading his review of that novelist/ poet/playwright/artist/film would be futile. So I skipped several chapters. Perhaps I will come back and read them in a decade when I have mugged up of the subjects.

There is a Borges-like vertiginous feeling that comes over me here. The layers of words are overwhelming, suggesting a metaphorical collapse of meaning and purpose akin to Clive James’ book-laden apartment. He had written an essay about a someone else’s review of a film, which is based on a book, and here I am writing my own review of his review, and inviting you to send your opinions and responses back. Amusing and glittering though it is, I find myself in a self-referential artistic world much of the time with James. But there are still examples of very direct contact with the real world, such as his searing essay on the Bali bombing. James’ only weapon is words, but maybe those are ultimately the most powerful weapons.

The angry island by AA Gill

The angry island by AA Gill

Mr Gill has published a series of essays which I presume he previously published in newspapers or magazines, though he does not admit it. In contrast with Clive James (see previous review), he narrows the focus to an exploration of the English nation / people. There is a reasonably wide spread of topics within that binding theme. His basic thesis, revealed in the book’s title is that the English are an angry people, or at least working continuously to repress the anger beneath.

This is a startling thesis and proves quite amusing and fruitful. Doubtless it helps sell the book to both foreigners and the English themselves (who are interested in perceptions of themselves, similarly to the Japanese). Gill himself is Scottish - or partly. He has genetic roots in Scotland and lived there before coming to England. He professes to hate England, but chooses to live here. Maybe he is the angry one, suppressing it or letting off steam through these essays.

He is evidently clever, educated and good at writing, but he pales beside Clive James. His essay on humour picks up a Jamesian style, which is one of the lighter parts of the book. But a bitterness and bias takes over too often for it to be very enlightening or enjoyable – especially for an Englishman like myself. The other voice I notice coming through is a Jeremy Clarkson tone, when he launches into a ranting series of extreme statements. (I half read a book of Clarkson articles over Christmas, but eventually threw it in the bin and have not bothered to review it).

There is an interesting tension in his true position, since England and the English evidently fascinate him. He cannot help himself in admitting the stunning achievements of the English, revealing the Scottish chip on the shoulder regarding their neighbours. Maybe he has deflected his hidden admiration by re-labelling English energy as anger.

The book became tiresome to me, so I diverted to a lighter book (see ‘The adultery club’ review below). Finally I felt I was being endlessly insulted by an intelligent drunk. It made me angry.

The Adultery club by Tess Stimson

The adultery club by Tess Stimson

This is the kind of book one impulse buys in an airport departure lounge. I bought it in the Gatwick North terminal on the way to Courchevel. The title is arresting and the marketing blurb on the back promises lots of bonking. Harmless entertainment?

There are plenty of in-your-face descriptions of bonking, which I will leave to your imagination, though they are fairly obvious. A quibble I have is the notion the authoress has about a man’s ability to immediately develop a rock-hard condition in his trousers at the drop of a hat, or should I say the glimpse of an inch of female thigh. Or is that just me being emotionally/physically retarded?!

The story is about a man aged in his forties who commits adultery, when as the back cover says “Sara Kaplan, a bright, vivacious young lawyer, explodes into his life like a sexual hand grenade.” The eternal triangle.

Before you sneer (yet surreptitiously purchase it for your next beach holiday), let me state that the book has some very good elements. If the authoress can cut out the clich├ęd raw sex and avoid the atrociously happy ending, she could develop into an excellent writer.

First a lesser point: She has a wide vocabulary, and turns out original and witty phrases in the midst of the dross.

Second, she employs a clever narrative technique of revolving the first-person point of view in each chapter between husband, mistress and wife. Some key scenes are repeated, down to the level of the conversations word-for-word, interspersed with internal monologue of the narrators’ thoughts, revealing amusingly different interpretations of what the characters do and say. This technique explores the gulf that appears in how people misunderstand and misread each others’ intentions. Out of this triangle of views, the personality of the wronged wife becomes the most interesting, complex and sympathetic.

The third good point is that the story takes a dark and painful turn 2/3rds of the way through, when the wife discovers the adultery. The adulterous husband and mistress sink into a hell of immediate conflict and radically isolated social position, when they discover their sexual activities are the only binding glue in their relationship. This section of the book is more gripping for the reader than the bonking / secret philandering parts. I wish the book had sunk the adulterous pair further into the inferno, to make a more satisfying end for the reader.

Pagan mysteries by Edgar Wind

Pagan mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind

Gathering dust on my bookshelf for 26 years, this book was bought whilst at Oxford in June 1980, as attested by a note inside the front cover. I recall buying it to improve my knowledge of the iconography of Renaissance paintings, following a vivid holiday to Florence the previous year. Quite why I picked this off the shelf and read it now, I cannot say, but it surely proved useful on my recent holiday to Rome.

Indeed, I saw and studied one of the paintings discussed in detail: ‘Sacred and profane love’ by Titian, located in the Galleria Borghese. It shows the same young woman twice, one sitting, gorgeously dressed beside a well, while the other ‘self’ is virtually naked, and half standing beside the same well. The author explains the symbols and iconography of the picture at length, as part of his broad theme of explaining pagan (i.e. Greek/Roman mythology) in Renaissance art.

Edgar Wind is a very academic writer, and on many pages the notes occupy more space than the main text. It could be better written, and made more accessible. There is no biography of Wind, but I think he was an Oxford professor. However the fascination of the subject matter makes this a valuable and unusual book. One can learn a tremendous about about mythology, symbolism, history, humanism and so on through this book. Some sections are obscure, seemingly addressed to other academics, but some chapters, such as the description of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ are wonderfully revealing. The meaning of that picture is totally obscure, unless one is initiated into these mysteries. The deep meaning of the word ‘mystery’ is also explained here.

This book will awake your appetite for many aspects of art and philosophy – maybe more as a reference book than as a sit-down read.

Life of Pi by Yann Martell

The life of Pi by Yann Martel

I found this book in a box, whilst tidying my daughter’s room, and appropriated it. I recall having given it to her as a present several years before, but there was no evidence that she had read it through to the end.

The story concerns a boy who finds himself on a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal Tiger in the Pacific ocean. The sinking of the cargo ship on which he and his family are emigrating to Canada from India does not happen until page 97. Prior to that, his family and youthful enthusiasm for all religions (simultaneously believing in Hinduism. Christianity and Islam) are sketched in, as well as describing the zoo which is father keeps in Pondicherry. The explanation of the presence of the tiger on the lifeboat is that his father was looking after a large number of the zoo animals on the ship to take them to Canada.

The boy, Pi, is initially terrified of the tiger on his small boat; afraid of being attacked, after it has eaten an orang-utang, a zebra and a hyena. He wonders how he can kill or otherwise dispose of the tiger, but realises that his best plan is to keep it alive and to dominate it, as a tiger-tamer does in a circus. This he achieves with great courage and resourcefulness. They both survive a 227 day journey across the ocean to Mexico.

Pi is a modern day Robinson Crusoe, in a more confined space, obtaining food and drink for himself and the tiger. The realism of the descriptions of how he catches fish, distills water and tames the tiger are rivetting and admirable. More than that, the book is suffused with a sense of humour that makes it a pleasant book. The humour overlays a grim reality of incipient death and a stuggle for survival.

The situation on the lifeboat with the tiger subtly starts to become an emblem or parable of the human condition. We see that nature is red in tooth and claw. We realise that one creature must catch, kill and eat another in order to survive. We perceive of each of us (or humanity as a whole) being a speck in a vast universe. Against these things human intelligence, ingenuity, humour, spirit and will-power are the essential weapons.

The last chapter of the book is richly comic, with two Japanese officials (from the maritime ministry) interviewing Pi, the survivor. They cannot believe that the tiger existed. The reader also starts to question whether the tiger existed. According to Pi, it simply jumped ashore and ran into the Mexican jungle, never to be seen again. The officials press Pi to tell the ‘truth’. He comes up with a short and horrifically cannibalistic account of his time on the boat. This involves no animals, but human beings who kill each other. This may seem more plausible to a third party, but not to the reader, who has lived with the tiger in vivid detail for two hundred pages.

The point of the parable is highlighted by a key question just before the end, posed by the religious Indian boy, Pi: “ So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

Both Japanese officials agree that the story with animals is better. The short alternative story of murder and cannibalism is not a reality we want to live with. Better to have a tiger on the boat than look into the dark human heart.

Mr Okamoto says “The story with the animals is the better story”

Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

In a gentle way I guess that Martel is suggesting that we can live better, survive better, by having a belief in God. It was more than human qualities that enables Pi to survive. He acknowledges that he would have died on his own. Keeping the tiger alive kept him alive. Martel is not preaching, but adopting Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ argument that there is nothing to lose from believing in God.