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Welsh Mafia

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Tell the truth and you don't have to remember.....

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-05-20

An Israeli-Canadian resident of Jerusalem who was my guide to the Old City when I was lucky enough to visit in 2019 and, strangely, recommended Mark Twain as an indispensable to understanding the welter of sensations poured down from the Temple, Wall and Mosques. Warning of ‘Jerusalem-syndrome’ there followed the most fascinating outline of world history within the square mile that my walking tour entailed.

Read in repose with the distance of a year, it was brilliant to be able to ‘break’ Twain’s Grand Tour with side-tracks into European history before diving back into the Holy City. All the essential non-essential departure points of our current Culture are here.…..where Lord Byron swam, why a Danish Prince born in Greece married the English Queen, the location of the Garden of Eden, the strange affair of the Jaffa Adams Colony…. England, France, Spain, but more indulgently Turkey, Syria, Greece and Egypt. I loved it.

Caveated with the ubiquity of hundred year old assurances played against New Millennium sensitivities, Mark Twain is never again going to be mainstream. But, nonetheless, this is a very rewarding and enjoyable read provided you take the time to travel the by-ways.

Five years of failure - a glimpse a glance a gaze

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-04-20

Colm Tóibín himself sets out very demanding ambition for this novel - to develop a picture of Henry James not through his voice but through his consciousness, to collate for our own glimpse every single thing that is seen noticed or felt, to work on the basis that the page is blank and not a mirror so giving no glance at the author - and, wonderfully, delivers on all.
Presence is given to Henry James by means that Tóibín has described as transferring sensibility to the imagination. The mix is stirred by adding density and texture to life, pouring on ample amounts of ambiguity to the central personality and brought to the boil on the basis of neurosis which via an implied fear of exposure is afraid to name the thing it is trying to describe.
While it sounds impenetrable, this novel is anything but. In the April lockdown sunshine ’The Master’ flowed easily between wonderful locations (Rye and the Protestant Cemetery in Rome now added to the list). Having fully inhabited and enjoyed the domestic, professional and travelling worlds of Henry James, I didn’t want it to end.

Blandness itself, just tinged with pink

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-04-20

Dedicated to a lesser known contemporary Scottish poet, Alan Hollinghurst’s cycle of linked episodes is not principally a narrative as much as systematic immersion into memories of memories. A poetic endeavour.
The founding myth is not shocking when butted against today’s societal mores - two young men frolicking in a hammock. What these opening passages illustrate is the now forgotten unknowability that envelopes their fumbling. This lost world is embodied in ‘Two Acres’ - Gradgrind’s Stone Lodge rather than smiling Love Island - and with some careful character twisting, amour’s mis-direction is in place.
Subsequent episodes play with the reader. The promise of a full peep under the tent is held and swept back and the sashaying canvas is dragged slowly in front of family, biographers and, ultimately, a scrap/book dealer until the residence and reputations lie in ruins.
Enough fact and geography to root the tale coupled with beautiful runs of inventive prose to underline Hollinghurst’s artistry, this is Jamesian-ism in an England that has forgotten The Master.

With a key to future memories....

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-12-16

It’s now very nearly thirty years - September 1987 - since my bout of Stendhal syndrome in the Sistine Chapel, three hours with a lump in my throat sitting staring up at that ceiling and around the walls wishing never to leave - having been back to that spot only once and having that spoiled by the crowds. Any opportunity to re-live the experience is one that I’ll not pass over - so, on that basis, I threw open the doors on this current best seller.

Initially, it’s hard to avoid falling into the brother Brown-town trap of reading Conclave like an Infernorous thriller and racing to find out whowunnit. And, there was for me a disappointment that, inevitably, the narrative is based on finding the arrière-pensée rather than the vérité of Moretti’s Habemus Pappam cinematic working of the same story. More than made up for, however, by my taking the opportunity between installments to view Michaelangelo’s works on line and relive a happy time in the long ago past.

The story has to be judged on its own merits: an enjoyable romp through the Vatican pomp, which fleshes out an entertaining cast of Borgiagese pretenders to the Holy See, a fiction that pitches belief against science and amuses with a vision of the near future that is absolutely new Millennium contemporary - its white smoke from me......and an Old Pope screen adaptation, I wonder?

Returno to Torino

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 24-06-16

With a fifty minute bus journey each way and the prospect of a couple of hours to kill on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the end of Business Studies and the start of night school, the colourful cover of a 1977 paperback purchased from a now-gone bookshop on Nolton Street, Bridgend was my first encounter with this book. I’d forgotten what first fascinated me with Turin when I made a longed-for visit to that city, remembered some of the names and the streets and a general feeling.

Primo Levi’s writings are distinguishably Northern Italian, industrial, technical, chemical nuts and bolts - it is an Italy that makes things, that prides itself on calling itself an engineering nation and which looks for echoes of itself in the Works and workings of the Germany machine. The same as the South but different. Similar to the North, but again crucially different. Jewish, of course, and tragically and sickeningly apart from those Wartime neighbours - and there is no better or more arresting description of what it was to be alone as a group in a Europe that does not seem to want you and offers no respite. Poetical, by discovery, the exegesis of any atom of Carbon in Expressionist-standing for the whole of the living and dead world down to the final full stop.

Re-read forty years there is enough that is pedestrian in the prose to confirm that others, such as Eco and Tabucchi have surpassed in style - however, the ability to reach across the years with an undimmed bridge to the central humanity of this man. One of the essential writers of late twentieth century European literature, deserves always to be read.

2 people found this helpful

Reaching a higher plain

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-05-16

Here’s a book that I immediately had no hesitation in recommending to friends when I was only a couple of chapters in and in which Tom Bissell delivers a travelogue, a detailed exegesis of the Gospels an early Christian history, and an insightful reflection of current geopolitics. Along the way I was hugely entertained by the day to day practicalities of the Kyrgyzstanian webcam trade, the sanctuary offered by Dominos Pizza’s restrooms in the former Madras and the reactions of foot pilgrims achieving their goal at the courtyards of Santiago de Compostela

The central idea was immediately attractive. (I say immediately - although I’ve been annoying the kids for years having spent time in Turin Duomo di Torino - San Giovanni Battista when the Shroud was publicly displayed in 2000, wandering around Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin just off the Piazza della Bocca della Veritas in Rome, looking for the skull of St Valentine when the boys wanted ice cream.....linking the bones found in Amalfi’s Cattedrale di Sant'Andrea and St Andrew’s Edinburgh and reading and making a mental note to visit Sainte-Chapelle when they wanted to be on the beach). The delivery was informative and authoritative whilst never condescending, not like holiday Dad I'm sorry to say.

Tom Bissell’s take on modern day Jerusalem seen through the prism of Judas Iscariot would, in itself, make this book worthwhile - but he continues on through countries and early centuries....always fascinating and always provocative. I could easily point to the Toulouse excursion as another highlight - and then to have the added bonus of listening to readings from St John and the Acts of the Apostles afresh...whilst unearthing a cogent and coherent guide New Testament apocrypha just added another level of delight.

Not once did I find the unanswerable question lying somewhere down the blind alley of belief prove a distraction to my enjoyment of his writing - you bring to and take from this book what you want, or is that what you need! As stated to my friends from Chapter 1 - a great read and, an effortlessly great writer.

2 people found this helpful

Hey, Shosti......Nabokov and the CIA

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-03-16

Any personal consideration of this novel is driven initially by a comparison to David Pownall’s 'Master Class' which I saw in around 1983 at the Theatre Royal Newcastle. The pairing of Shostakovich and Stalin was, in that instance complemented with the appearance on stage of Zhdanov and Prokofiev. I remember thinking that the get-together was a fantastic pretense and a wonderful construct on which questions of artistic intention and integrity were played out with lots of laughs, some real reflection and great skill on the part of Trevor Cooper.

In Julian Barnes’ novel the focus is entirely personal, built around a series of historic events rather than a single pivot. Its a more natural choice for a novel, of course, and these days its great to be able to quickly interrogate the British Pathé archive viewing the arrival of Shostakovich in New York as described and do the background checks on Nicolas Nabokov and the CIA.

Entirely satisfying? Not really. Unlike The Sense Of An Ending there is no sense of an edge in that, where historical facts are blended into the narrative, there is no clear cut between that inventive narrative fiction and documentary. That impacted my reading of the latest effort from a great contemporary novelist - not to say that the novel represents beautiful clear writing stopping off at all of the important emotional and intellectual points along the way to enjoy the view. A struggle between 4 and 5 star stuff although I am sure that the author didn’t trouble himself with my tape-measure considerations. A victim of his own high standards in this case, perhaps and emblematic of its subject.

4 people found this helpful

Routed in the land...flies in the mind.

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-02-16

The idea of this book is very attractive, to collect and collate the various terms that define our understanding of the old/current world around us through the peculiarities of language passed down in near history.

I was very happy with this and very interested - although not entirely satisfied in the way in which the promise was delivered through. The ‘falling short’ for me was that the individual characters who were used to deliver the message - a Lancastrian musician being one example - seemed to lack depth of characterisation and, where offered, their link with the land seemed at times tenuous. This, of course, from me as anything but a son of the land - albeit, a Welsh and Irish heritage does give one a sense of entitlement when it comes to the wide-open spaces in the world of nature-spirituality.

What was enlightening, was the worrying news that so many common-place words now have no place (and are they so common?) with the youngest literate generation that we currently have in our care. If nothing else, the stir that this caused me was justification enough to read this work - but, to be fair there were lots of small pleasures along the route (Tyneside to South Shields, south along the river on a daily commute as it happens).

3 people found this helpful

The grand loop....a Mongolian Circle of Life?

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-02-16

The imperative to pick this one up was an article that I read in a Saturday Review section of The Guardian, where it was listed as one of the school reading books on the list of the Eton head of English - well, if its good enough for them, its worth a look for me.

As in the past, one of the most satisfying parts, if not the most satisfying, is the discovery of new voices in the most unexpected of places. And this saga certainly fits that bill.

Its a simple, complex tale where the progress of life under the Mao marching cosmos is contrasted against Tengri-observing herding population of Inner Mongolia. Inevitably, there are continual references to the underlying ways and rhythms - but Big Life and Little Life are beautifully sketched out and the metaphor of the Wolf is worked but not over-worked.

This is a long book which needs continued attention (lots of prep!) but there is no effort to sustain attention since it is well written in translation. I was thankful for the recommendation - privileges flow from those who are prepared to work for their education, a universal principle as much at home in super-charged China as on the playing fields of Eton.

Nudge, fudge - think, think!

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-02-16

Taking an oxymoron as your starting point, the anticipated route would be explore the apparent contradictions and show that from the thesis and anti-thesis there can be a synthesis that is something greater than the original parts. At least that's how Carlo Marlowe had it.

In the first instance I’d have been re-assured to see any evidence whatsoever for the existence - let alone the validity - of ‘Libertarian Paternalism. Our recent history lurches from one corporate scandal to covert operations emanating from one state after another.

Their central posit (whilst following the American way of liberally making nouns with founding-father verbs of our common language) is the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice, as well as the implementation of that idea. When and where did this ever happen?

And what follows then is the application of the term ‘Architect’ to those who write the questions on which algorithms are programmed. It is enough to know that this most modern of dating-site drivers, derives from the name of the mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was part of the royal court in Baghdad and who lived from about 780 to 850 to confirm that a ‘Choice Architect’ is simply a grandiose common-place and an affectation served to flatter those who see themselves as the subject of this treatise.

And who are these targets - Whitehall Mandarins, Central Bankers, State Department Heads.....well, er..no....Pension Plan administrators, School Admission administrators - functionaries rather than our commissaires .

Bureaucracies do not speak unto Power - Power is delivered through the minutiae of everyday life...that’s the big idea that’s missing from this work.