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7 Deadly Sins of Reading

I am grateful [or maybe not!] to Friendly Bookworm for nominating me for The Seven Deadly Sins of Reading challenge. Now, seven deadly sins I’m familiar with; I’ve been guilty of all of them in my time – and that goes back quite a long way. But of Reading? I’ve always thought of reading as a sin-free pastime, not like writing, where one can stir up all sorts of desires and emotions. Well, Friendly Bookworm, here goes for what it’s worth.

GREED Defined as: An intense and selfish desire for something.

What is your most expensive book?

Most expensive or most valuable? The book with the highest price tag in my current library is undoubtedly Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror by Ata-Malik Juvaini, translated by JA Boyle. I don’t remember the exact price now but it was around £75 I think. On the other hand, if we’re talking works rather than single volumes, my quarter-leather, gold-blocked edition of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings probably beats that. Most valuable? – a 1911 translation of Homer’s Odyssey. I’m going to hang on to all three!

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

most valuable?

WRATH Defined as: Extreme anger.

What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

I’m with Friendly Bookworm here – George RR Martin – but for different reasons. I read the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire and enjoyed the pace, the characters and the imaginative setting. I planned to read more eventually but then I discovered the series hadn’t been finished (and maybe never would be finished). I just hate series that go on and on!

iceandfire

 

GLUTTONY Defined as: Intense over-indulgence.

What book have you devoured over and over with no shame?

The Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov – all of them. Otherwise, no comment!

Foundation and Earth

 

SLOTH Defined as: a reluctance to work or make an effort.

What book have you neglected to read due to laziness?

I bought Darwin’s The Origin of Species about forty years ago. I started it many times but laid it down unread/unfinished until 2013, when I finally made it. https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/species/

 originofspecies

PRIDE Defined as: satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.

What book do you talk about most in order to sound like an intellectual reader?

Winnie the Pooh!! I know my intellectual limits. Or, maybe if I’m being totally serious, Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, which stretches them uncomfortably.

winniepooh

LUST Defined as: a strong sexual desire.

What attributes do you find attractive in male characters?

I’m not into men; please may I do female characters? Courage, loyalty, intelligence, humour and passion. I don’t shun beauty but I can do without if the other qualities are present. Among my favourite fictional women are Agnes (David Copperfield), Jeanie Deans (The Heart of Midlothian), Penelopeia (Homer’s Odyssey) and Lyra (His Dark Materials). But if we’re really talking lust here, then no contest – Eve-Lilith (in a literary sense only)!

lustful attention

ENVY Defined as: a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.

What book would you most like to receive as a gift?

This is a really difficult one. I think what I would like most is a copy of the The Shahnama (Shahnameh) by Firdausi in an English translation and illustrated with Persian miniatures. There are some versions on the market including the translation by Dick Davis, which is highly recommended in reviews.

shahnamSo if anyone wants to buy me a present . . . .?

****

 

 

Nightmares and Zombies

This is my third post on the black magic novels of Dennis Wheatley.

whdevil1Strange Conflict was Wheatley’s second de Richleau story of the occult, following The Devil Rides Out after six years. Written and set during World War II, it has a preposterous plot which involves the Nazis in black magic and has de Richleau and his friends (almost) turned into zombies.

German destroyers are sinking British convoy ships in the Atlantic and the British Admiralty wants to know how they get hold of the plans. De Richleau gets the job of unmasking the traitor, a task he sets about without getting out of bed. Apparently, when asleep, we all wander about something called the Astral Plane, meeting friends, lovers – even the dead. Most of us remember the journey only as mixed-up dreams and nightmares but the bold Duke can control and remember his exxperiences.

His nightly trailing of the suspects leads him to the (real-world) Caribbean where he, Rex Van Ryn, Simon Aron, and Richard and Marie Lou Eaton uncover the lair of a satanic master of the undead. There de Richleau battles with the villain on the astral, only too aware that he must defeat him before the drug in his friends’ bodies – and in his own – makes them slaves forever.

whdevil1Dennis Wheatley could – and did – do a lot better. Strange Conflict doesn’t measure up to the standard set by The Devil Rides Out and is, for me, nowhere near as good as The Satanist. Also, my recollection is there are much better reads among the historicals featuring the Duke de Richleau.

Maybe I’ll go and reread some of those!

*****

Hawks and Horses

shakes
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost
Of more delight than hawks and horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou may’st take
All this away and me most wretched make.

Though many readers will recognise the poem as Shakespeare sonnet number 91, this is not really a literary post but a musical one. I’m really looking forward to next weekend when I’ll be taking part with the choirs of Peterborough Sings! and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere of Hawks and Horses, a new choral work by composer Errolyn Wallen based on the sonnet.

http://www.errollynwallen.com/music

Errolyn Wallen is well known for Spirit in Motion, performed during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympic Games, and other dramatic modern compositions. Hawks and Horses is every bit as dramatic as any, and Shakespeare’s words, written more than four hundred years ago, seem to resonate even today in our somewhat materialistic society.

The piece will be performed for the first time on Sunday August 30 at St John’s Smith Square, London.

http://www.sjss.org.uk/events/errollyn-wallen

*****

This is REAL magic!

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

The+Night+CircusI was given this book as a present and began reading with no idea of what it was about. It engaged me within the first couple of pages and I finished it in three sittings.

‘The circus arrives without warning … It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.’

I suppose the best way to describe this book is ‘a fairy tale for adults’. Le Cirque des Rèves (circus of dreams), which opens from dusk to dawn, is a magical place where the artists do not rely on trickery to deceive their audiences but perform feats of real magic.

‘Prospero the Enchanter uses a pocket knife to slit his daughter’s fingertips open, one by one, watching wordlessly as she cries until calm enough to heal them, drips of blood slowly creeping backward.’

Hector Bowen, stage name Prospero the Enchanter, wagers his six-year-old daughter Celia in a contest of magic skill against Marco, protégé of his rival Alexander. We suspect at the outset that there is something not quite nice about this contest. Neither of the competitors has consented to it; they do not know initially who their opponent is to be, what is the precise nature of the competition, when it will begin or end, or how it will be judged.

‘[Celia] opens her own umbrella with some difficulty, and as she swings the canopy of black silk over her head, she and her umbrella vanish, leaving only drips of water falling onto the empty pavement.’

While the circus travels the world, mysteriously appearing and disappearing, thrilling audiences wherever it goes, Marco remains in London but connected to it through Isobel, the young fortune-teller. By means of a magical conduit, the fire in the circus courtyard, he can also exercise some control over its destiny. Celia meantime travels with the circus as its star illusionist, working her own magic to devise and improve the attractions.

‘ “How are you managing to keep everyone from aging?” Celia asks after a while.

‘ “Very carefully,” Marco answers. “And they are aging, albeit extremely slowly. How are you moving the circus?”

‘ “On a train.” ‘

Against the intentions of Hector and Alexander, Celia and Marco collaborate in building ever more imaginative tents and features. They fall in love and want to run away. But they cannot. Bound as they are, as soon as they think about doing so they suffer great pain. They begin to realise that their relationship can only end badly for one or other of them. The circus is a dreamlike place wherein they, Chandresh, his associates – architect Barris, fashion designer Mme Pradva, clockmaker Herr Thiessen and twins Lanie and Tara, – the contortionist and former ‘competitor’ Tsukiko and all the other performers are trapped in a time warp, never ageing. Asking too many questions can bring deadly danger.

Only Widget and Poppet Murray, born on the night of the circus’s opening, are growing older. They have their own subplot, involving Bailey Clarke, a relatively normal  boy who has broken into the circus for a dare. As teenagers, the three become firm friends, sharing stories and marvellous confections. Narrated in parallel with the main plot but in a separate time frame, their escapades add mystery and suspense to the whole. As the time frames coalesce, it gradually becomes clear that Bailey’s future is irresistibly connected with the future of the circus though the precise why and how are left until the final chapters.

‘ “I don’t want to win,” Marco says. “I want you. Truly, Celia, do you not understand that?”

‘Celia says nothing, but tears begin to roll down her cheeks. She does not wipe them away.’ 

Somehow Celia and Marco must escape their fatal contract, but to do so has to involve magic of a spectacular, never-before-performed kind. And Bailey has his part to play in that too.

After reading a couple of black magic novels by Dennis Wheatley and recently watching (again) the two films of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I should have had my fill of wizardry. As it turned out, I had not nearly enough!

The Night Circus is wizardry of a whole different kind – a magical tale brilliantly told by a writer with her own magical imagination.

***

A Valued Opinion

watchmanA few days ago, I wrote a short review of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set A Watchman.

Before reading the book and writing the review, I had made a determined effort not to read what others were saying about it. Having caught some of the press headlines, and noting their negativity, I feared that if I read other reviews I would be influenced by the opinions expressed therein.

I have since read several, good and bad. However, for a really balanced commentary on the novel and its morality, I finally turned to one of my heroines of the literary scene, Ursula K Le Guin.

Mrs Le Guin – I hope both she and Miss Lee will forgive me mentioning it – belongs to the same generation as Harper Lee, which, it seems to me, gives her a unique perspective and with it perhaps more right to comment on the work of a contemporary than anyone else. In it, she includes some personal thoughts about being a citizen of the Southern States.

You can read the full text of Ursula K Le Guin’s review on this link:

http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Blog2015.html#102Watchman

I recommend it to fans of both writers.

***

The Satanist

by Dennis Wheatley

whdevil1This is my second post on the recently-reissued novels of Dennis Wheatley.

For me, The Satanist is by a margin Wheatley’s best black magic story. As well as being an edge-of-the-seat adventure, it utilises a theme that has always had a fascination for me – the sometimes uncanny relationship between identical twins.

The chief characters are Barney Sullivan, a minor Irish peer and Mary (Margot) Morden, who each in their own way are working for the British Secret Service. Barney is fighting soviet communism while Mary is seeking revenge for the death of her husband, murdered in a ritual satanic killing. Their objectives bring them together at a seance that is cover for something much more sinister – a coven of black magicians headed by the handsome but ruthless ipsissimus, the satanist Lothar Khune.

Lothar’s twin brother Otto is a nuclear scientist with the British government and Lothar “overlooks” him to steal rocket technology. The implied equating of the Soviet Union (whatever one might think of communism as a political philosophy) with satanic powers is one of the more ridiculous subplots in the book, the hot and cold love affair between Barney and Mary a more predictable one. Nevertheless, there is no denying the energy with which Wheatley develops the ideas and uses them to drive his plot forward to its climax.

While Barney tries to safeguard Otto’s knowledge, and protect the man himself from the enemy, Mary, careless of her own safety, joins the black magic circle and becomes the satanist’s mistress. The forces of good and evil finally confront one another on a mountain in Switzerland, where it seems the epic battle can play out in only one way – a victory for the man who can control the elements.

I didn’t enjoy The Satanist on second reading (or was it my third?) as much as I remember doing a few decades ago. I already knew how it would end. Moreover, I think I have become less tolerant of racial, religious, sexist and political prejudices as the years have gone by.

Dennis Wheatley’s novels are littered with such prejudices, presented as “normal” and “acceptable” to the mid twentieth century reader but abhorrent to most of us today (I hope!) in the twenty-first. Sometimes too, he is guilty of political overload as he seeks to develop background for his plots. The fantastic element in his black magic stories often stretches credibility, though it is is nothing when compared to the more extreme fantasies of modern times.

The modern reader should try to see past these negatives. Do that with The Satanist and you’ll find an excellent nail-biting thriller.

whdevil1

 

*****

 

 

Go Set A Watchman

by Harper Lee

A Review

watchman

‘It had never occurred to Jean Louise that she was a girl: her life had been one of reckless pummeling activity . . . she must now go into a world of femininity, a world she despised.’

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The event sparked a year-long boycott of the city’s buses and led the way towards fairer civil rights.

I am often confused by American politics  – and sometmes irritated too, I have to confess – yet surely only the most ostrich-headed of my fellow Britons can have failed to hear the story of Rosa Parks.

Racial tension had simmered in the Southern United States for a long time. An organisation called the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colo[u]red people) had been active in the US for nearly half a century and were responsible for bringing several cases of injustice to the attention of the Supreme Court, which had ruled against Southern States’ laws in some landmark actions. In 1944, it had ruled in Smith v Albright that ‘white primaries’, voting arrangements that excluded black people, were illegal and in 1954 it ruled against racial segregation in primary schools. In 1956, Alabama banned the NAACP from operating within its borders, a state of affairs which prevailed for a further two years

It must have been around the time of the Rosa Parks incident that Harper Lee began writing Go Set A Watchman, and it seems to me some understanding of  the historical background is essential to a full appreciation of the novel.

Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, on vacation. It is her fifth such visit since moving to New York but we already suspect this visit is going to be different. Whereas she has previously travelled by air, this time she takes the train, which gives a whole new perspective to the isolation of her home town.

‘Maycomb County was so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilections over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’

Maycomb may not truly have changed so much but Jean Louise begins to see it with fresh eyes. People are different. Her lawyer father, Atticus, whom she has always looked up to and adored, has become chairman of the Maycomb Citizen’s Council, an apparently racist organisation devoted to preserving segregation. Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who brought her up when her mother died young, appears to be treating her more as a stranger. Even her childhood sweetheart, Henry Clinton, Jean Louise no longer sees in quite the same way as before. Bitter about her father’s apparent transformation from champion of justice to racist, she pours out her feelings of disgust and betrayal to her uncle, who does his best to set the record straight.

‘There was nothing whatever wrong with [the Rev.] Mr Stone, except that he possessed all the necessary qualifications for an accountant: he did not like people, he was quick with numbers; he had no sense of humour and he was butt-headed.’

watchmanJean Louise’s childhood and youthful memories of how things were, both charming and funny, form a considerable part of the book, as Harper Lee portrays her as tomboy, embarrassed teenager on her first date,  still mischievous undergraduate, and as a woman coming of age to realise the world is as it is – not as she would like it to be. Though life and love will never be the same again, Jean Louise reaches an understanding, an acceptance and a realisation that real change only comes about by real effort, not by wishful thinking.

‘ “Jean Louise,” [Dr Finch] said dryly, “not much more than five per cent of the South’s population ever saw a slave, much less owned one. Now, something must have irritated the other ninety-five per cent.” ‘

Go Set A Watchman is a bitter-sweet novel about race and class, one that has as much relevance today as when it was written sixty years ago. There are some minor discontinuities in the narrative – the divisions between the NOW and the THEN are not always clearly defined, – nevertheless I think the work establishes Harper Lee as one of the outstanding writers of last century. I feel sure that Jean Louise’s life journey is Harper Lee’s journey too, one that most of us make at one time or another in our lives. It is not always a comfortable experience to discover that, perhaps, we are all bigots, each in our own way, and it’s not always a matter of skin colour.

I know that critics have compared Go Set A Watchman with Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird, not always favourably. However, I was determined to pay the critics no attention and to read no reviews until I had read (and reviewed) the novel for myself. Having now done so, I regard such comparisons as contrived and pointless, as much about lingering doubts over the worth of the latter novel as about the quality of the former. One might as well compare apples and oranges.

The other day, someone who has not read To Kill A Mockingbird asked me which novel they ought to read first. Honestly, I have no idea – why not toss a coin?

I’ll now go and read some of those other reviews.

*****

 

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