Philip Roth – American Pastoral

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Endlessly reflecting mirrors

american-pastoral-book-coverPhilip Roth’s Pulitzer prize-winning American Pastoral is beautifully written, deeply disturbing and at times offensively misogynistic. It is also bitter, angry, sharply incisive about the frailty and illusion of the American Dream – and, heart-breakingly tender about the ties that bind us, particularly the love of a parent for their child, however wayward, however lost.

And, as well as all this, it is a fascinating series of challenges about the nature of writing and the nature of the writer. Roth throws down the gauntlet from the start, asking us not to forget that one of the central characters is his continuing alter-ego , Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman. The story we reading, presented by Zuckerman, into the life of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, Zuckerman’s childhood hero, is possibly Zuckerman’s invention. Certain events happen to Levov, but the reason they happened, the psychoanalytical unpicking of them, may be only the writer in the book (not to mention the writer of the book) shaping a chimera.

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, whose story Zuckerman tells, was a gifted athlete, an inheritor and emblem of the aspirational dream of America’s European immigrant community. Looking like a WASP, he is Jewish, his family, a generation or so back, by hard work, dedication and talent, rising in the Promised Land. Swede’s success at football, basketball and baseball, and his upright, hard-working personality have made him envied and adored, a kind of hero to others. One of whom is the slightly younger Zuckerman. Meeting again, in late middle age, it is now Zuckerman who has achieved fame, as a writer, and he is long past a time of adulating the seemingly much more simple character of a former sporting hero. Zuckerman in fact perceives the apparently settled straight as a die, unthinkingly patriotic, successful businessman, husband and father that Levov has become as a bit of a simp. The writer rather takes a position of intellectual, metropolitan, sophisticated arrogance. Though written in 1998, there are definite pointers and echoes here of the roots of our divided nation – both here and in the States, between the cultural intelligentsia and those who ‘seem’ as if they inhabit and engage with nuance less. Zuckerman indulges in various fantasies and theories, trying to worm behind the simple, satisfied persona Swede seems to represent. There are several writerly inventions Zuckerman engages in, each of which, again and again, proves wrong. Finally, Zuckerman, sophisticated in his cynicism, dismisses Levov

There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at……..He always was…..You’re craving depths that don’t exist……The guy is the embodiment of nothing

And then Zuckerman finds out how wrong, how very wrong he has been, and how he knew nothing of Swede, nothing of his life.

Swede had reached adulthood and maturity shortly before the end of the Second World War. Enlisting as a marine, trying to meet the manly, right, patriotic challenge of the war, he was still going through boot-camp training when the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. He took his desire to serve his country into the post-war world. A model citizen, her worked hard, had a developed awareness of social responsibility, married his childhood sweetheart, Dawn, entered and successfully ran the family glove-making business, and fathered a beloved daughter. Meredith, the daughter, was a teenager in the 60’s, at the time of the Civil Rights movement, resistance to Vietnam, and she became intensely radicalised, revolutionary. Merry, the apple of Swede’s eye, committed a shocking and violent act whilst still at high school, and then went on the run, hunted as a terrorist. Swede’s family, marriage, business and life suddenly shattered.

Belatedly discovering these events, Zuckerman then weaves this into story. He creates a narrative of motive, a narrative to ‘explain’ how this normal family, and privileged, loved child could have so violently changed. However……because of the constant reminders earlier in the book that narrator Zuckerman was inventing stories and sub stories which were wrong, Roth is reminding us that this too is narrative, story, invention. We know certain facts happened, but the interpretation of why Swede, Merry and Dawn got to where they did, may not be right. Zuckerman ‘blames’ a childhood event for Merry going to the bad – but the event is Zuckerman’s imagined narrative, and may never have happened.

     Patty Hearst kidnapping/Symbionese Liberation Army – a kind of sign of those times

Going forward, to after Merry has gone underground, is a deeply disturbing, highly misogynistic section in the second part of the book, with the introduction of a young Jewish woman who may have been responsible for Merry’s violent radicalisation. This is a section distasteful to read, and highly unsettling – are we being shown an unconscious misogyny, particularly towards Jewish women, which comes from Roth himself, through his alter ego as Zuckerman – or is the author placing himself firmly and consciously on a slab, for the reader to dissect Roth himself?

And then, at the point where the reader might think they have been able to negatively ‘get’ Roth himself, as the creator of all this, comes a section, where, after many years of searching for his vanished daughter in hiding from the law, Swede finds her, living in utter degradation, weirdly, most weirdly, transformed. This is a section of utter heartbreak, riven tenderness and almost unbearably painful humanity. Roth took my breath away in this raw exposure of all our suffering, poor, magnificent, broken complex humanity. Like Zuckerman with Swede, we get it wrong with each other, again and again.

American Pastoral rightly won its Pulitzer prize. It is not in any way an easy book; it is a greatly, painfully challenging one – by turns horrible, horrific, stony, violent, hating and hateful – and full of compassion and suffering. Published in 1998, looking back over a roughly 50 year sweep, it is far from dated, and seems horribly pertinent today.

I shall for sure, read more of Roth’s later work, though I am still, months after finishing this one, processing it.

Radical Group of the times, The Weathermen, took their name from a line from this Dylan song as featured in the film Don’t Look Back

Finally I have been a long, a very long time coming to this one. FictionFan strongly, Author Philip Roth poses in New Yorkstrongly endorsed this, in her GAN quest, indeed naming it as The Great American Novel. I bought it, and there is sat on my bedside table for a couple of years. I think I had been too riven by other GANs to be able to handle further deeply uncomfortable, brilliant GANnish journeys. I got to it via a small subsection of my book group, who have embarked on some challenging American titles, and a slow, sectional read of them. This was my choice. Lacerating, and amazing, all together as FictionFan suggested, You can read her review

American Pastoral Amazon UK
American Pastoral Amazon USA

Amanda Craig – The Lie of the Land

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Something nasty in the woodshed………

I have long been an admirer of Amanda Craig’s writing. It has been a long time waiting between her last novel, Hearts and Minds (2010) and this one, The Lie of The Land. Illness, not writer’s block was the culprit.

This book, like the previous, is both literary and contemporary fiction: Craig uses the novel form to examine, indeed, the lie of the land – political, social, marital, plus the deliberate double meaning of the title, dealing, as it does, with a metropolitan family, supposedly one of the ‘haves’, in the middle of marital break-up who move out of London to the West Country. Lottie, an architect, and Quentin, a journalist, both recently redundant, are forced into putting their home up to rent, to generate income, and downsize to a cheap, mysteriously rock bottom priced rented property in Devon, till the property market recovers enough to sell their very des res London home.

Like all her books, this can be read as a stand alone, but dedicated Craig readers will as ever be pleased to discover that some of her characters pass through more than one book.

Craig is a writer who deals with serious, complex issues, but has a light touch, an incisive, crafted intelligence and wit in her use of language. Hence : this lovely contrast between how Lottie sees herself and her chosen profession, compared to Quentin, and his :

Waking with fortitude, living with compromise and sleeping with stress is normal for an architect in Britain….waking with optimism, living with laxity and sleeping without self-reproach is normal for a journalist

Craig is always a writer with intelligence and wit – and also with warmth and compassion.

Although we certainly have more sympathy with Lottie than with Quentin (who has, not to put too fine a point on it, been dipping his wick) challenges inevitably come to marriages with the arrival of children, and some of the difficulties between the two stem from how parenting changes the relationship between lovers. Trapped in a terrible place in their relationship, Quentin, Lottie and their family must struggle to find a new, and very different community in the country. There is suspicion, misunderstanding but also connections between locals and the incomers. Lottie throws herself more into making good connections than Quentin.

           Paddington Station, Gateway to the West Country

Wrapped up in a very topical narrative of unease, especially politically, between cosmopolitan cities and more insular, but also, perhaps, more rooted in longer lasting communities, country-dwellers, is also a subplot crime thriller, which begins to come more prominently to the fore, with devastating effect.

To be honest, the dramatic denouement of this (it is probably going to be obvious who the villains of the piece are going to be) was the weakest aspect, for me, and I did not always completely believe the credibility of the arch villain. However – I have never read a book by Craig which I would not want to recommend. She always has interesting, important things to say, and says them in a most interesting, entertaining manner. Intelligent page turning, with wit and pain along the way

I received this as a copy for review purposes from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published, UK and Stateside, in June 2017
The Lie of The Land Amazon UK
The Lie of the Land Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Death in Ecstasy

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The odour of not-quite-sanctity: Church as Country House Murder

So, continuing with my pleasant journey through Ngaio Marsh’s 33 Inspector Alleyn books, some of which I read in any old order back in the dim and distant days when my library carried a far wider range of books than they currently do. (Moans disconsolately that the Crime Fiction shelves seem to be filled with 50 Shades of Girls on Trains, and any number of the latest dismemberment of beautiful women by serial killers)

Back to Marsh, a much, much happier encounter, by a writer with her own clear voice, travelling her own journey, and not clonally copying

Death In Ecstasy is number 4 in the journey. It is a rare one, in that I am more aware of some of the mores and prejudices of the times – this one published in 1936 – which can be a little disturbing, unsettling or even, offensive to a reader of today. Though I do find Marsh, coming from outside the Establishment, and, moreover, from outside this country, has probably had a far wider exposure to more diverse humanity than some of the other ‘Golden Agers’ whom she is bracketed with. The specific discomfort in this one, a mild degree of homophobia – some of it passes as a kind of mildly spiteful camp humour, even delivered consciously by the gay guys – dancers, of course, but, a little more unsettling is Alleyn himself, Inspector Fox and Nigel Bathgate making disparaging comments – Bathgate describing one of the men as ‘loathly, nauseating, unspeakable little dollop’ – though I suppose that, as at that time, homosexuality was illegal, it would be a rare popular book (as perhaps, compared to more literary fare) who would positively present homosexual minor characters. At least Alleyn is less deliberate in his assessment, merely riposting ‘Horrid, wasn’t it?’ agreed Alleyn absently, – clearly thinking more fruitful thoughts about the crime investigation

There is, as is the case fairly often with Marsh, more than one investigation going on. The initial case concerns a murder taking place in a fringe, cult religious organisation. The journalist, Nigel Bathgate, a sometimes self-styled Watson to Alleyn’s Holmes, lives close by the mysterious charismatic church, and, on a bored whim, wonders what goes on in the building. He happens to witness a totally unexpected death, and quickly summons his friends from the Yard. And what a tangled web begins to unravel. With some nice nods to occultic quasi mysticism and unpleasant ideologies arising in Germany (as was indeed the case) the crime investigation begins to involve the usual suspects in murder cases – lust, sexual jealousy, greed, but there are various twists involved.

As ever, Marsh’s clear enjoyment of language, and her lovely, sometimes quite spiteful character drawing – as much down to her visual, artistic abilities as her writerly ones, plus her theatrical skills in crafting tight scenes are a delight :

Mrs Candour had wept and her tears had blotted her make-up again. Her face was an unlovely mess of mascara, powder and rouge. It hung in flabby pockets from the bone of her skull. She looked bewildered, frightened and vindictive. Her hands were tremulous. She was a large woman born to be embarrassingly ineffectual. In answer to Alleyn’s suggestion that she should sit on one of the chairs, she twitched her loose lips, whispered something and walked towards them with that precarious gait induced by excessive flesh mounted on French heels. She moved in a thick aura of essence of violet

Wonderful, cruel scalpel work, and I fear I shall be unable to view anyone whose girth really should have them avoiding heels, without inner snickering

To be fair, where Marsh assassinates, there is often good reason, and the reader is aware of characters who are unlovely at core. Though, as I work my way through her oeuvre, I am beginning to be a little more suspicious of some of the suspects Alleyn initially warms to

Meanwhile, for readers who share my liking of enthusiastic Nigel Bathgate, and his admiration of Angela North, enjoy him while you can, as his days are numbered as the series progresses. The in the Yard relationships are deepening, and also, as the series goes on, we learn more about Alleyn’s rather admirable personal life, and his close colleagues within the Police Force, not to mention relatives and others will mean that others will serve the purpose of foils, sources of alternative deductions, and a kind of sparring partner of wit and repartee. Shame I love all the developing friendships and other relationships, but will be sorry when Nigel is less central

Meanwhile given Marsh’s theatre history, I am more than sure that ‘Mrs Candour’ is a kind of nod towards Restoration Comedy, where often a character’s name will alert the audience to qualities that character does NOT possess, as is certainly the case here.

Death in Ecstasy Amazon UK
Death in Ecstasy Amazon USA

Roy Jacobsen – The Unseen

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Stoicism and endurance in Lofoten’s archipelago

Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, set early in the 20th century, is as bleak, spare and without frills, and as far from the shifting, rootless lives of modern cities as its chilly, austere setting suggests.

This is a book which moves slowly, inexorably, and at times cataclysmically : nothing happens except by natural, seasonal rhythms. The most expressive and dominant character is the landscape itself, particularly a tiny island homestead, Barrøy, settled and named by and for the family who fished and subsistence farmed it for a handful of generations.

Patriarch Martin Barrøy is reaching the end of his rule, lacking the physical strength to wrest fish from the icy waters, or repair a house constantly pounded by gales, torrential rain and driving ice and snow. His son Hans, married to Marie is the real head of the family Their toddler daughter Ingrid, barely 3, and Hans’ unmarried sister, Barbro are the only other residents on the island.

Covering a timespan of barely a couple of decades, the high dramas of human existence – birth and death, flowering and fading, are dealt with as they must be. These are lives of struggle, visceral and competent, intensely practical.

It took me some time to settle into fascination and absorption with the recounting of the minutiae of day to day existence – the fashioning of a jetty, for the better housing of the small fishing boats, the repeated destruction of the building by storms, the repeated rebuilding, the challenges of catching fish, drying, salting. Trading between the small islands and how the weather might make that impossible.

This is not a book which takes the reader into deeply expressive interior journeys of character. There is a taciturnity about almost all the characters, they do not discuss their feelings. They are do-ers, not describers. When they do speak, their language is archaic, a dialect, and they are given at times words to say which show some relationship to Northumbrian dialect. These are Norsemen and women, for sure:

“My word, hvur bitty it is. A can scarce see th’houses.” Hans Barrøy says:Oh, A can see ‘em aright.”
“Tha’s better eyesight than mysel’ then,” the priest says, staring over at the community her has worked in for the last thirty years, but has never seen before from such a novel vantage point.
“Well, tha’s never been hier afore.”
“It’s a good two hours rowin’.”
“Has tha no sails?” Hans Barrøy says.

So, right away, the reader begins to think about an isolation beyond isolation. The Barrøys must travel this long route to be able to trade their produce. Children need educating, and Ingrid, when she reaches school age, will need to make this journey to the larger island, and stay there, two weeks on, two weeks off, for the length of her schooldays. These are hardy people, daily battling with survival.

Winter, Lofotens, Commons, Pixabay

This is a strange book, in the end, alluring, seductive, alien. The Barrøys, all of them, have great dignity and authenticity. It’s strange, in some ways, to read a book where all the characters are in some ways so ordinary, so undysfunctional, so sturdy.

For those disinclined to read representations of dialect, the fact that these islanders are taciturn will no doubt be a relief. For me, the dialogue worked, the short, pithy rhythms of speech have a music, and I was taken by the way the characters met their real life challenges with fortitude and grit. In a strange, bleak way the book has a kind of life affirming quality – mainly because there is little sense of the kind of malevolence, deviousness and treachery in these lives, instead a community unsentimental, borne out of the necessity of struggle, daily, with environment. People must trust, and must be able to trust each other. Treachery comes from wind and water, but that too is respected, viscerally loved and sensibly feared

These Lofotens are clearly a wealth away from the tourist destinations they have become a scant 100 years later

I received this as a digital copy for review, from the publishers, via NetGalley. And I recommend it

The Unseen is one of the short-listed titles for the Man Booker International Prize

The Unseen Amazon UK
The Unseen Amazon USA

Manchester, Arena: In Sorrow, In Anger, In Despair : Searching for a way ahead

This is nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with faith, nothing to do with any kind of cause worth anything at all

It says nothing about humanity’s desire to leave a world in any way better for the generations which come after us. It does not resonate in any way with how life itself strives for better adaptation. There is nothing here of any rationale, nothing here of anything which might make us hope humankind has anything to admire, to desire to emulate about itself.

All of that lies only within the hearts, minds and actions of those who came forward to succour and protect those who have been victims of an act perpetrated by deluded, aberrant, distasteful and irretrievably stupid, on every possible level, individuals

Children. Targetting children, a concert appealing to, particularly, young girls. A clearly deliberate choice, no doubt with the desire to provoke the deep distaste and revulsion that it does.

This is the worst our sorry species might be capable of – any who get sucked into these kinds of acts by believing they are following a ‘cause’ are deluded and in denial of their own true dark desires – these are the bullies, these are those who sublimate their own deep mental and emotional sickness and insufficiency by pretending to themselves that they are serving some greater purpose.

All they do is reveal the generosity, compassion, and humanity of those many others who rushed forwards to help, support, save, soothe, rescue, in all the ways they could.

We may not get to know the names of the admirable many, who remind us, in our helpless rage and despair, of what we can be, of what we want to be. But they are the ones I so surely need to focus on, and to hold like a beacon in my mind. They are the health and the wholeness.

Joel Dicker – The Baltimore Boys

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“Lives only have meaning if we can fulfil these three destinies: to love, to be loved, and know how to forgive”

I had been captivated by Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s first book, the runaway critically and reader acclaimed The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair – both a murder mystery/investigation and a book about writing, writer’s block and matters literary. So I was delighted to be offered his second as an ARC, here translated from the original French by Alison Anderson.

The Baltimore Boys stands as both prequel and sequel to ‘Harry Quebert’. The central character Marcus Goldman (the writer of Harry Quebert) looks back to the original genesis of his writing inspiration – his childhood, and his friendship with his cousin Hillel, and a less privileged boy, Woody – the Baltimore Boys, and in present time, he has already published ‘Quebert’ and, once again, is finding the process of writing hard.

Why do I write? Because books are stronger than life. They are the finest revenge we can take on life. They are the witnesses from the impregnable wall of our mind, the unassailable fortress of our memory

In fact, he has taken himself away from the distractions of the city (New York) to a quiet, suburban house in Florida, where his neighbours are affluent and retired, and nothing happens. He is in search of tranquillity to help the creative juices flow.

A chance encounter with a stray dog causes Marcus’ boyhood, as a third member of the Baltimore Boys gang, to come flooding back to him, as the dog’s owner is a significant figure from his past.

Marcus was the only son of the ‘Montclair Goldmans’ . His father Nathan was the less successful Goldman Brother. The star brother, and the one whom Marcus hero-worshipped, along with his beautiful wife Anita, was Saul. Saul and Anita were wealthy, golden, successful and admired. They and their only son Hillel were the Baltimore Goldmans.

However, as we discover, at the start of the book – the Golden Baltimores somehow became mired in tragedy. Jumping back and forth in time-frames from 1989 to the present day, Marcus is writing his past, his present, and, perhaps his future. This book, The Baltimore Boys, will be a celebration of the people he loved whose lives were less blessed than he thought, and will also be a way to come to terms with accepting loss, and broken illusions.

I loved ‘Quebert’ though at times I found it a little over tricksy. Baltimore Boys, despite all the jumping back and forth in time, seems a much more traditional progression – Goldman lets us know what he intends to reveal to us, before we ever get there – the books very first sentence, its prologue, tells us that in 2004 his boyhood friend, his adopted cousin Woody, is about to start a 5 year prison sentence the next day. We are then immediately taken to Part One, which begins in 1989, The Book of Lost Youth.

I found The Baltimore Boys intensely moving. Marcus, for all his acclaimed fame, has a kind of bruised, attractive diffidence, and a much greater warmth and integrity than he believes he has. This is both a love story, a loss story, and a celebration of the importance of friendship, and of family, those difficult, sometimes impossible ties between siblings and close kin.

And it is full of delicious observations. The back and forth time frames also pinpoint subtle and not so subtle changes in society

There was a time when astronauts and scientists were the stars. Nowadays our stars are people who do nothing and spend their time taking selfies or pictures of their dinner

Above all, Joel Dicker knows how to tell an old story, the rite of passage from child to sadder, wiser man, freshly and engagingly

The Baltimore Boys will be published in English on May 18th It has already been a popular success in the original French, published in 2015, and in Spanish translation.

The Baltimore Boys Amazon UK
The Baltimore Boys Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – A Man Lay Dead; Enter A Murderer; The Nursing Home Murder

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Golden Age Wit, Golden Age Murder, in different variations of closed, ‘ Country House’

Ngaio Marsh is the only Golden Age Crime Fiction author I genuinely adore. I have read her books intermittently, when lucky enough to find her in my local library, but she seems to have vanished from their shelves, pretty much, as these are now devoted to more lurid, modern crime fiction, and no longer seem to stock much ‘cosy’.

I don’t know whether it is because she begins writing a little later than Christie, Sayers or Allingham – mid 30s, rather than 20s, or because she came from outside the UK and outside the upper or upper middle class echelons which the other three came from, but I find her writing is less filled with some of the disturbing attitudes towards race and class which was certainly prevalent in the interwar years.

Marsh’s background was not particularly privileged – her father was a bank clerk. Her first passion was art and theatre, and she initially came to the UK in the late 20s from New Zealand, setting up an interior design shop. The first of her Inspector Alleyn books was published in 1934, though she had written it prior to her return to New Zealand in 1932. Beginning to write as the Depression takes hold, coming from another country, coming from a more ‘rogues and vagabonds’ outsider culture, perhaps all made for a slightly less jaundiced view of ‘people not like us’

Whatever the reason, although certainly her detective is crisp and aquiline, cool and educated, impeccably well-read and all the rest, he seems to be more at home in a wider social class, and is rather more of a team player, less the solitary, eccentric, maverick. He is also, to my mind, deliciously funny in a self-deprecating way. Part of the joy of Alleyn is that he doesn’t work alone. Relationships develop, both professional and personal, whether between him and those in his team – especially Inspector Fox (affectionately called Brer Fox by Alleyn) but also he inspires affection in his ‘plods’ and he trusts them, too – or, others whom he has friendships with, and who undertake, at times, investigations on his behalf.

I have begun to track down the books, in sequence and, true to form, downloading the first three – the 1934 A Man Lay Dead, and her two 1935 books, Enter A Murderer, and The Nursing Home Murder, I could not resist starting and finishing this at a running read, as the developing characters were a delight

Marsh’s first book is classically A Country House Murder. A young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, 25, is setting off with his older cousin, sophisticated, womanising Charles Rankin, to his first ever aristocratic country house party, at Frantock, Sir Hubert Handesley’s welcoming home. Handesley is cultured, good fun, and a renowned host. His gatherings are the last word in to die for. But, as the title suggests, death will be literal, not merely a figure of speech. Handesley’s gatherings always iinvolve games, and one of the most popular is ‘Murder’, where one of the guests will be designated the murderer, and once the pretend deed is done, everyone tries to discover who the murderer is.

Except, in this case, it really happens, and there are several possible culprits, and almost everyone has a motive. Sexual, monetary, not to mention political – a background of a secretive Russian society, and a mysterious vendetta, possibly involving a betrayal or two. Greed, sex, sexual betrayal, power.

Enter Marsh’s Detective – the wonderfully light touch, un-plodding, Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn can inspire a kind of adulation in those younger and older. Although his work brings him, of course, in touch with villains, and he has to suspect everyone, he seems to genuinely also like humanity. If he has a fault, it might be that he often warms as much to the perpetrators, in the likeable qualities they have, as well as he might warm to those without a murderous secret to hide.

Alleyn is both a sharp mind, and an ‘following an instinct’ detective – although he inclines most to the rational, and is wary of his instinct.

He also (hurrah!) likes women a lot – as people, and is particularly keen on intelligent, bright, forthright young women – and not as sexual fodder. Alleyn, when we meet him first, is a bachelor, without love interest on the horizon, and, in this book will form a working friendship with a man and a woman who will appear again in other books in the series

At his first appearance he was a bachelor and, although responsive to the opposite sex, did not bounce in and out of irresponsible beds when going about his job. Or if he did, I knew nothing about it. He was, to all intents and purposes, fancy-free and would remain so until, sailing out of Suva in Fiji……And that was still some half-dozen books in the future”

Marsh, in the introduction to this trilogy

The structure of the book (and indeed, the first 3) falls into 3 parts – the set up and dramatis personae at the ‘House Party’. Part 2, Enter the Detective, and the questioning and sifting of evidence. Part 3 – the reconstruction – very like the third act of a play, Alleyn nails the perpetrator by running the reconstruction, with a twist.

The second book Enter A Murderer, published in 1935, takes place in another kind of ‘closed society’ – in this case, it is theatrical, Marsh’s own roots. The setting is a West End production of a murder mystery play. Alleyn, together with the journalist Nigel Bathgate are in the audience of this hot theatrical hit. The lead actor is a chum from Bathgate’s University days. In front of the audience, in the middle of a highly dramatic scene where murder is being dramatised on stage, a real murder happens. Cue a wonderfully campy theatrical feast. The actors consummately act their ‘types’ in real life, as much as they do on stage :

Arthur Surbonadier called on Miss Stephanie Vaughan…and asked her to marry him. It was not the first time he had done so. Miss Vaughan felt herself called upon to use all her professional and personal savoir-faire. The scene needed some handling and she gave it her full attention.

‘Darling’ she said, taking her time over lighting a cigarette and quite unconsciously adopting the best of her six-by-the-mantelpiece poses

Its not just the lovely wit of Marsh, especially exemplified by Alleyn, the plotting is fiendish and fun, the genre itself is affectionately poked fun at by those investigating and those being investigated, the solution satisfying – and Alleyn himself also has compassion for those caught up in the events.

Book 3, The Nursing Home Murder also features Bathgate and Angela North his fiancée, whom we met in an earlier book. Bathgate, and Alleyn’s slightly strange almost hero worship father/son relationship is a real delight, as is Alleyn’s friendship with sharply intelligent Miss North. This book also returns to the political world of Book 1 – Russia, and a revolutionary society working towards the Proletariat Dawn, are set against draconian measures going through Parliament. The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’ Callaghan, a man with some secrets to hide, is pushing a bill through the House. He has received several death threats. He is also very unwell and in a pretty lifeless marriage.

O Callaghan is rushed to hospital seriously ill, having delayed taking action on his health until he collapses. This is of course, well before the foundation of the NHS. O Callaghan does not survive his emergency operation. It becomes a distinct possibility that the death was not the result of leaving things too late before seeking medical intervention, and more likely that someone within another closed little world – the private hospital itself – might have hastened the shuffling off of his mortal coil. There are those with personal motivations – the usual; sex, money, revenge and there are also those who might have political and ideological motivations. Some of the thinking around ideologies being debated in the mid-30s make their way into this.

I thoroughly enjoyed my immersion into the first 3 of the Alleyn mysteries, and look forward to further progression in due course

I got this on Kindle download. It’s not a completely seamless, and error free digitisation.  There are some annoying paragraph and line hiccups, but no missing text. The price of the succeeding volumes rise quite sharply – there are 33 Alleyn books, published in 11 sets of 3 – and I have noted reviewers continue to mention some formatting problems. I’m intending on tracking down marketplace sellers and second hand, for the most part!

This collection also included an earlier short story by Marsh, not at all in the detective genre. As it involves a little girl in her bedroom on Christmas Eve I was really pleased when she heard footsteps outside the door that there was no need for a detective! It was a sweet and touching story.

Marsh’s books were turned into a BBC series with Patrick Malahide as Alleyn. It is one I will not be watching – not because i have any objection to Malahide;  it is more, that, searching for a sneak You Tube of a couple of the titles here, I find the adaptation has played fairly fast and loose with her books, transposing the third book to after the second world war, instead of between the wars – a quite different dynamic, and introducing what is hinted at in Marsh’s introduction, as occurring ‘some half-dozen books in the future’ into the first episode, thereby also eliminating a favourite character of mine, who ought to take a professionally assisting task, and demonstrate that Alleyn can form friendships with attractive young women without irresponsibly bouncing! I think Marsh might have turned me into a purist, on behalf of her engaging books!

Ngaio Marsh Collection 1 Amazon UK
Ngaio Marsh Collection 1 Amazon USA

Rebecca Mascull – The Wild Air

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Hat Trick In Three

With her third novel, the Edwardian set The Wild Air, Rebecca Mascull has done what she did in her two earlier novels – found a way to hook the reader’s heart to that of her central character, so that the reader absolutely cares about their journey, roots for them and, in this case, I was left feeling quite violent towards the prejudice and spite encountered by our quiet, shy, plain protagonist: one with the courage of a lion, hidden beneath the exterior of a mouse.

It is the first decade of the twentieth century. Cordelia (Della) Dobbs is the third daughter of a bitter, retired, theatrical star. Her charismatic father was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and his stage days are over. Della’s older sisters are beauties, one has gone on to success in the theatre, the other has made a good marriage. Her younger brother is favoured and golden. Della is the family mouse within a vibrantly extrovert, flamboyant set. A bit of a disappointment she does not have the pulchritude, the talent, the artistic creativity, the obvious personality, wit or intelligence to shine out in this family where everyone possesses at least one of these gifts.

Della likes quietness. In a family of extroverts where everyone is glittering and shining all together, there is no point in trying to outshine, or be loud enough or flamboyant enough to command attention. Della stays quiet, helpful, useful. But she does have her own talent – practical, kinaesthetic, a listening gift and passion for mechanics : how things work. Unfortunately, the time is not yet ready for female engineers. And, there is something else. Della is fortunate to come under the protective wing of her great-aunt Betty, newly returned from the States to her North East origins. Betty, a plain-speaking, adventurous woman with a similarly ungraceful, unfeminine appearance, had set out, aged 40, with her younger brother, an engineer, to the New World. Betty had married a practical man, and lived happy with him until his death brought her homewards. And Betty was fascinated by the new challenge and daring of flying. She had seen the Wright Brothers. Betty, with her strength, earthiness and willingness to ignore the constructs of graceful, eye-fluttering femininity, instead, to find her own ways towards being a strong person, a strong female person, becomes a mentor and encourager, helping Della to find her own ‘star’. Della is in love with the idea of flying. And female aviatrixes, though rare, are there to be aspirational role models

Hélène Dutrieu, aviatrix, 1911

I have to admit that my surrender to Della was not as ‘upon the instant’ as it had been to her earlier ‘sisters’. Feisty Adeliza Golding, from Mascull’s first book, The Visitors, and the wonderfully intelligent scientist, Dawnay Price, from The Song Of The Sea Maid, eccentric, flamboyant personalities both, had snaffled my interest in their stories from the off.

So, courageous for Mascull to explore this far quieter girl and woman, this introvert. Della proves, though, to be ‘still waters run deep’ She is the person in the corner of the room you don’t notice at a party, the mousy one, until by chance you discover this overlooked one has a wealth of story to tell, and a life of more strangeness and fascination than you could dream of.

One of the many facets of Mascull’s writing, which I admire hugely, is her heart and her kindness. There is tenderness here, a kind of respect for the integrity of her invented characters. She is not someone who seems to force her characters into some structure and shape. More, a sense of the author’s creation revealing themselves. Della, true to her quieter nature, takes time also to reveal herself to the reader – but she is absolutely authentic, both in her quietness and reticence, and in where she soars (literally!) when she discovers where her true North lies.

Lanoe Hawker’s (First World War flying ace) No 1611 Bristol Scout 

I read, a year or so ago, a fictionalised biography of another aviatrix, Beryl Markham. What disturbed me about that book, was that the author had to some extent played fast and loose with the facts of Markham’s life, for her ‘faction’. Something which leaves me with a kind of distaste. It is, I think, another mark of Mascull’s integrity that though she might take specific achievements and stories from the history of real people as a starting point or inspiration for her fictions, she does not mangle the authenticity of real lives for her fiction. Della is not Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson or any other ‘real’ aviatrix, bent into Mascull’s story. Della is Mascull’s genesis, but she grows into her own shape. Something magical happens when an author so clearly ‘listens’ to the arisingness of their creation.

If you want your heroes to be full of ‘flashing eyes, floating hair’ and mesmerise you with their magnetic charisma, Della may not do, but my advice would be, stay patient and wait for her to find herself, to reveal who she is, as she discovers that for herself.

Now, I will not deny that there were some aspects that I struggled with. The book has a prologue, dated 1918, but the sequential story begins in 1909, with Della in her mid-teens so, clearly the First War is going to be a major factor. I will not reveal spoilers of course, but there are sequences of some letters, written by a couple of major characters in the book, which had my disbelief unsuspended, and thinking ‘surely………..this could not have got past the censors’ Mascull is, however, meticulous in research and, for the benefit of the interested reader tells us what is true, and where she might have stretched truth into invention. I was quite startled to discover that whilst of course censors would always do their work on anything which might reveal position, military details etc, there were letters which did get home where soldiers did reveal their fear, grief, and despair to loved ones. Although most letters were much more ‘chipper’ than the writers felt, in order to avoid alarming their loved ones, some were far more honest, and escaped censoring.

The beautiful, elegant, Blackburn Monoplane

My other challenge is that The Wild Air is much more ‘Romantic Historical’ than Mascull’s first two books, and romance is more central to the trajectory of the story. One of the genre shelves I never visit in my local library is ‘Romance’ though of course relationships, including romantic relationships, tend to be a crucial part of many if not most of the books I love. There is a very pure, whole relationship which is a central one. Perhaps it is a mark of a certain cynicism in me that felt a little like ‘Mills and Boon’ about that, and I am more comfortable reading relationships which have a dysfunctionality. I needed to lay that cynicism aside, Mascull, as said earlier, is an honest writer, and allows her characters their honesty too. I had been more comfortable with the more intellectual, greater thinking complexity of Adeliza and Dawnay, which inevitably gave a certain – tangle – to their relationships. The central driving relationship in this book is where there is a great expressed emotional honesty happening, and perhaps this leads to a clearer trajectory and clearer mutuality. The conflicts here are conflicts caused externally, not internal conflicts. And, I guess war itself creates a kind of ‘cut to the chase’ intensity.

Mascull is a wonderful crafter of language itself. Now, curiously, I found myself underlining less ‘soaring prose’ in this book than I had in her other two. And, reflecting on this, I think this was also the expression of an authenticity in her writing – Adeliza and Dawnay were both highly expressive characters of brilliance, wit, flamboyance, so of course they are going to express themselves in stunning fashion. Della, as noted is a quiet person. She speaks far more plainly, less elliptically, less in metaphor. So, of course, even though Mascull is ‘third person’ narration, the think through will be through that quieter, more plainly speaking persona :

Della talked aloud to herself. She did that when it was marvellous and she revelled in the complete wonder of flying, the secret joy of it. Or when it was bad. When the mist came down or the wind got up something terrible and she was fighting the weather in order to come back alive

Adeliza and Dawnay would, I’m sure have expressed the above in fizzing expression, I would have been underlining passages of beauty all through. Della does not have that voice. Again, I come back to thinking about Mascull, who, here, does not astound the reader with her own beautiful, poetic, expressive voice – because it would not be Della’s.

Authenticity.

So, having thought through what I mainly loved, and what (and why) I struggled with, I can only raise my 4 ½ stars to 5. Mascull has done it again.

I had one slightly strange thought, an elemental one, as I read this : Mascull’s first creation, Adeliza, found her passion in earth – deaf-blind, it is initially through engagement with what grows – and through ether, the spirit, intangible world. Dawnay connects through water, for Della, that earthed, practical soul, the growth and destiny is airborne. What next……..I do hope not an arsonist!

I was extremely happy to receive an arc, via the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, shortly before Christmas. A fantastic start to my 2017 reading year

However………as the book will be published on May 4th, I have held back publication of my review till towards the end of April. In fact, this week marks a blog tour of Rebecca Mascull’s book, and I am eagerly looking forward to other bloggers’ impressions. Mascull’s writing always presents possibilities for interested and passionate reader engagement.

I shall be searching out other reviews and they should appear as clickable links in the ‘Catching My Beady Eye’ widget, on the right hand margin

The Wild Air Amazon UK
The Wild Air Amazon USA

(Alas, I have discovered that ‘other’blogging platforms’ don’t easily transfer over to the Post I Like Widget, so you will have to find your way to other reviews yourselves, from the addresses given above!)

John Marzillier – To Hell and Back

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A wise, thoughtful, compassionate and skillful book about PTSD revealed through the words of those who have experienced this.

It’s funny how synchronicity works. Because I read Noel Hawley’s highly recommended Before The Fall, which I highly recommend, and which features a small boy who suffers a profound traumatic event, and clearly would be diagnosed with PTSD, and because I have a professional interest in the subject, I was reminded that John Marzillier, a British clinical psychologist and later, psychotherapist had written a book on the subject.

I had been moved and beautifully taught much in another book by him, The Gossamer Thread, where he explored his wide journey of development as a practitioner, and the deep exploration, refining, and ambiguity in human relationships that happen throughout all our lives, within and without any kind of formal therapeutic setting, simply because human beings are complex, and so each and every encounter between self and other is fraught with – an endless possibility.

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry: Promoting the charity Heads Together to open up discussion of mental health issues

So, I started to read the in some ways, more geared towards the practitioner, slightly more left brain, slightly less poetical/metaphorical To Hell and Back: Personal Experiences of Trauma and How We Recover and Move on. And during my reading and reflecting period, mental health, particularly linked to the experience of dealing with psychological trauma, suddenly became positive news, due to Prince Harry, and also Prince William, speaking openly about the deep, hidden effects caused by their mother’s death. Public figures speaking out in such a way, honestly, – particularly public figures who are, not being rude, part of the Establishment rather than famous for flashier, sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyles, not to mention ‘reality TV’ famous only for being famous ‘stars’, will be listened to more seriously.

Expression of emotion is more common, and I would say, generally a good thing, with the exception of the artificial stimulation of emotion in reality TV shows!

But, he also cautions against those who assume it always IS the right approach to bare the suffering soul:

Is avoiding talking about feelings always wrong? I do not think that one can or should make such a categorical statement. So much depends on the context and the person, not to mention their relationships with family and close friends and on timing

Focusing on a wide range of traumatic single events – Marzillier in this book is exploring the kind of ‘out of a moderately clear blue sky’ unexpected and traumatic event, rather than, say the trauma of repeated brutal events from early childhood – the author looks both at the unpredictable horrors caused by acts of deliberate chosen malevolence, and the impersonal ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’ of major accidents like train crashes due to mechanical failures. Marzillier was, for many years, employed by Thames Valley Police, working with those who have to deal with traumatic events, which arise out of the nature of their work – police, firefighters, army personnel, ambulance personnel. The professionals have to maintain a distance from their own natural ‘alert! Danger! I am under threat! autonomic nervous system response of flight, fight, freeze or dissociation which is our physiological survival response. The fact that they are trained to do this, and have techniques to use, cannot ever completely over-ride that ancient animal response, and this kind of ‘trauma is my 9-5, day in-day out worker’ may well find health problems which arise out of the continual overriding of the normal response to danger – get out of here!

How people feel and behave once they are out of danger and the traumatic event is over is a product of the intensity of the experience itself, the nature of the person and the context – that is, what their life is after the event

As in his previous book, what most blazes out, necessarily and importantly, is Marzillier’s artistry, his compassion, his flexibility and his open-ness to meet each individual he interviews for this book, making space for a joint exploration of their stories. Time and again he cautions against the single fix-it approach to PTSD – and, indeed, to the single, fashionable diagnosis of the condition. There may be other mental and emotional health issues experienced by someone who has been in a ‘traumatic’ situation, and other approaches, other diagnoses may need to be made. Don’t jump to a PTSD conclusion, he cautions.

It is a mistake to sweep all post-trauma psychological reactions into one simple category, or to assume that if someone shows PTSD symptoms then nothing needs to be done but treat the person’s PTSD

At the heart of this book, is the often stated central idea that whatever ‘the diagnosis’ says, that it is a unique individual with all their individual personality, history, belief systems and social networks who is receiving the diagnosis, and there CAN be no ‘one way’ of treatment. As in Gossamer Thread, Marzillier stresses it is the relationship between practitioner/clinician and patient/client which actually matters MORE than any ‘specific’ method. Sure, the practitioner must have relevant skills which can work in this field, and preferably, the flexibility and skill to acknowledge that ‘their’ skillset may not be the right one for THIS client at this point. Marzillier even acknowledges that treatment approaches which lie outside his particular belief system and training, DO work for some people, – with the right practitioner. He is extremely open-minded, whilst being at the same time, a scientist by training.

This book has a lot, highly relevant, to say to both the clinical psychologist and the ‘energy worker’ working in this field.

It is a marvellous book, serious, analytical, warm, open minded and hearted – and, always important, beautifully written, and authentic – he has allowed the individual voices of the many people he interviewed in this book – those who had experienced events, and been diagnosed with PTSD – to recount their stories, and the different treatments and outcomes. These are not, in the main, ‘his clients or former clients’ . They are people who chose to respond to a general request made ‘public’ when he was planning on writing a book on this subject.

To Hell and Back Amazon UK
To Hell and Back Amazon USA

Aside

Announcing a blog tour – Rebecca Mascull – The Wild Air

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Rebecca Mascull, an author I much admire, has her third novel out early next month. And, to whet your appetites, there will be a blog tour (me too!)

I shall be eagerly reading other reviews, interviews and so on, and will certainly be featuring them on my Posts I Like widget, but these are the blogs and these are the dates:

Rebecca writes literary historical novels with strong female characters. This one is about an aviatrix, and set prior to, and encompassing, the First World War. She always researches meticulously, so just when you might think ‘surely THIS couldn’t have happened at that time, you will find yourself surprised and educated.  The Wild Air has a much more introverted, central character than the ones from her first two novels, but she is as interesting, layered, unique and entrancing as ‘The Visitors’ Adeliza Golding and Song of the Sea Maid’s Dawnay Price.