Review: Me and White Supremacy

I was attracted to this book by a favourable review and by it having been on the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was written by Layla F Saad, “who is a writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change. As a East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born in and grew up in the UK and currently lives in Qatar, Layla has always sat at a unique intersection of identities from which she us able to draw rich and intriguing perspectives.”

The book cover

You’ll notice the subtitle, “How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”. Before I opened the book, I didn’t expect to learn a great deal from it, but I do recognise my privilege, having grown up in an environment of private education. And I think it is fair to say that my mother and grandparents were racist. I never accepted my mother’s views, or the views of my Navy colleagues who were white, Southern officers. I felt they were wrong, but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t ‘call them out’.

Ms Saad’s book is very well organised. After several chapters which lay the groundwork very clearly and well, the book has a chapter-a-day format for four weeks. In each chapter, a particular aspect of white supremacy is described in depth. There is a chapter, for example, on white fragility in which the action is explained, examples are given, when it shows up, why it’s important to understand it, and some searching questions for the reader on his/her experience and understanding of white fragility. The reader is asked to write their answers in a journal. For me the number of actions which make up white supremacy is astonishing. Many of them, like tone policing, I never heard of before, but I could see how each action contributed to the white supremacy structure.

Toward the end of the book, Ms Saad begins to move the reader gradually toward action, with chapters like, You and Your Friends, You and Your Family, You and Your Values, You and Losing Privilege, You and Your Commitments. She lists a number of possible commitments. One, for example, is “I am committed to my lifelong antiracist education by . . .” There is also a section toward the end of the book that deals with how groups should work through the book together.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its persuasiveness. Ms Saad’s tone is friendly, factual, clear and certain. She knows what is wrong and how to correct it. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It should be required reading for every sensible white person.

Great Villains!

Marc Chacksfield has a post on Shortlist.com in which he identifies the 40 worst (or best?) villains in literature.

“As Editor in Chief of Shortlist, Marc likes nothing more than to compile endless lists of an evening by candlelight. He started out life as a movie writer for numerous (now defunct) magazines and soon found himself online – editing a gaggle of gadget sites, including TechRadar, Digital Camera World and Tom’s Guide UK. At Shortlist you’ll find him mostly writing about movies and tech, so no change there then.”

Marc Chacksfield

Marc says, “To have a hero, you need a villain. And in the annals of literary history, there have been some downright scoundrels, to put it mildly – as this best literary villains guide showcases. No deed is too dark, no action too despicable for this list of utter reprobates. You should feel very very glad that these dastardly characters are confined to the pages of the books that contain them.

1. Shere Khan (The Jungle Book) Author: Rudyard Kipling He had a tough start in life, being born with a crippled leg, and given a derogatory nickname by his own mother (“Lungri – the lame one”), but that doesn’t excuse Shere Khan becoming the villainous creature that he did. Scheming to disrupt the Wolf Pack and claim the life of young Mowgli, this evil tiger will stop at nothing to obtain his prey. A tough upbringing is no excuse you know (his Dad was probably quite nice).

2. Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem) Author: Arthur Conan Doyle The good detective’s arch-nemesis ruled the criminal underground of London and this evil mastermind was one of the few who actually rivaled Sherlock’s intellectual capacity. Ruthless, vindictive and remorseless, he will stop at nothing to destroy Sherlock. One critic has epitomised Moriarty as “crime itself”, whilst Sherlock himself describes him as the “Napoleon of Crime.”

3. Norman Bates (Psycho) Author: Robert Bloch A woman is found dead in Bates’ apartment. Bates is convinced it is his mother, but it is revealed that Mrs Bates committed suicide years earlier, taking her lover with her. In actual fact, Bates’ villainy is revealed in a dark secret: he was the one who killed his mother and her lover. His dissociative personality disorder causes him to assume the identity of his mother, Norma, who was the one who murdered Mary. Here’s the kicker: he stole and preserved her corpse, dressed up in her clothes and spoke to himself in her voice. Psycho indeed.

4. Count Dracula (Dracula) Author: Bram Stoker Vampire lovers of late might contest this one, but Count Dracula is the ultimate blood-sucking villain. Different from traditional Eastern European vampires, Dracula’s charm is what makes him all the more villainous; enticing victims by seducing them, only to inflict a fatal bite.

5. Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon) Author: Thomas Harris Not only a psychotic murderer, Hannibal Lecter took it one more step too far by sinking his teeth into cannibalism. Having been consulted as a psychiatrist by the FBI on a series of murders, Lecter helps agent Will Graham through the case before revealing that it was him who committed the crimes. Following a lengthy incarceration in a mental facility, Lecter is approached by Graham to catch another culprit by the name of the Tooth Fairy; Lecter finds him and leads the murderer to Graham’s home, with an order to kill him and his family.

6. Captain Hook (Peter Pan And Wendy) Author: JM Barrie He’s got a hook for a hand, he’s a pirate, and he hates Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. There you go. Apparently, he’s also apparently the only man who Long John Silver ever feared. He loathes Peter Pan for hacking off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile, as well as for Peter and the Lost Boy’s innate moral goodness. He captures Wendy, challenging Peter Pan to a final duel. He gets an ending that is well and truly deserved.

7. Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda) Author: Roald Dahl Children’s books get all the best villains, and Roald Dahl created more than most. The worst of a despicable bunch is Mrs Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. A cruel sadist who hates children (ideal for a teacher), tortures them in a glass-and-nail-filled cupboard known as “The Chokey” and torments her nicest member of staff, Ms Honey, Trunchbull is a true bully, and a fantastic villain.

8. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) Author: Ken Kesey A true monster of a woman, Nurse Ratched is every hospital nightmare rolled into one ultra-villainous character. Ruling over a mental institution with absolute power, she uses fear, humiliation and brutality to abuse her vulnerable patients – at least, until Randle McMurphy arrives. Next time you have a slightly cold, unfriendly nurse remember – it could be a whole lot worse.

9. Annie Wilkes (Misery) Author: Stephen King Mentally unstable Annie takes Paul Sheldon in after he breaks both his legs in an accident. As the writer of her favourite novels, Wilkes’ reveals a psychotic obsession for him and his books, taking him hostage, subjecting him to psychological and physical torture and forcing him to write his latest novel how she wants it. It’s also revealed that she’s an infamous serial killer. She stabs a state trooper with a wooden cross and runs him over with a lawnmower, after having chopped Sheldon’s foot off with an axe, setting it alight with a blowtorch.


10. Bill Sykes (Oliver Twist)
Author: Charles Dickens A cruel and vicious man, a criminal and murderer, Sykes’ lawless behaviour leads him into a life of destitution and immorality, taking up with a prostitute and carrying out petty crimes. Despite Nancy’s love for him, Sykes brutally murders her when he thinks she has betrayed him. The murder is especially graphic and gruesome, especially for a Dickens novel.


11. Sauron (Lord Of The Rings)
Author: JRR Tolkien Tyrannical ring bearer Sauron’s insatiable lust for power provides the foundation for his villainy in the Lord of The Rings trilogy. Desperately seeking the tenth ring in order to bind the magical power that surrounds it, Sauron will stop at nothing to achieve his evil goal, including torturing the little critter Gollum to find the missing ring’s whereabouts. He’s the all-seeing eye and a source of true evil and villainy to the arbiters of good.

12. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) Author: Bret Easton Ellis To call Patrick Bateman a villain is probably underplaying it a little. A wealthy and successful investment banker yes – but also a violent psychopath, whose hobbies include drug addiction, murder, rape, cannibalism, mutilation and necrophilism. Of course, whether or not any of the violent acts described actually happen or are just figments of his own imagination is open to debate, but this is his story and he is the undisputed villain of it, so in he goes to the list.

13. Humbert Humbert (Lolita) Author: Vladimir Nabokov Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, uses wordplay and humour in his writing, whilst also seemingly expressing regret for many of his actions, but the fact remains that he is a paedophile, taking the young 12-year-old Dolores, aka Lolita, and leading her into a life of abuse at his hands. Nabokov’s genius lies in making us almost sympathise with him – but he remains a undisputed villain.

14. Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) Author: J.K. Rowling A foe so fearsome that people are scared to say his name out loud. ‘You-Know-Who’, ‘The Dark Lord’ and ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ are some of his more snappy nicknames, but we shouldn’t joke, for Rowling herself described him as “the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years” – that’s pretty evil. Harry Potter’s nemesis and a psychopath with a skull-like face, red eyes and snake-like slits for nostrils, he’s unlikely to win any beauty contests: a vile and villainous creature all round.

15. Iago (Othello) Author: William Shakespeare Iago, the scoundrel, hates Othello so much that he tricks him into believing that his wife is having an affair with his Lieutenant. The sneaky devil plans a vendetta against him, driving Othello to kill his own wife. Noted as one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, Iago possesses carefully nurtured qualities of deception and manipulation. You might not shake in terror if you met him in a dark alley, but if you’ve wronged him, you’d pay.

16. Alec D’Urberville (Tess Of The D’Urbervilles) Author: Thomas Hardy “I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad, in all probability.” Evidence: he takes a liking to innocent, country bumpkin Tess, entices her into his home and forcibly steals her virginity in the mist, branding her impure. He then manipulates her into thinking her one true love isn’t returning to her. But it’s fine because Tess gets her own back in the end. Doesn’t make him any less of a bastard though.

17. Long John Silver (Treasure Island) Author: Robert Louis Stevenson One legged pirate Long John Silver was the first man to instil fear in Captain Flint. A manipulative and fearful pirate, Silver gains the trust of protagonist Jim Hawkins, only to reveal himself to be the leader of a mutiny, planning to murder the ship’s officers once the treasure is found. Jim catches Silver murdering Tom, one of the crew’s loyal seaman. Gives pirates a bad, if not rather fitting, name.

18. Kevin (We Need To Talk About Kevin) Author: Lionel Shriver That Kevin is the sociopath behind a school massacre should be evidence enough for his villainy. He also hates his mother, manipulates a girl into gouging her eczema affected skin, and it’s implied that he is behind an accident in which his sister loses an eye. Not exactly the makings of a President. His remorselessness is eerie as his mother visits him in prison, trying to understand why he killed all those children. His lack of justification is chilling – a testament to his truly villainous qualities.

19. Nils Bjurman (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) Author: Stieg Larsson This guy could possibly be one of the worst (or best) modern super villains. After the guardian of Lisbeth Sander becomes seriously ill, Nils Bjurman is assigned as her new guardian. He is a sexual sadist who manipulates Lisbeth, only allowing her access to her funds if she performs sexual acts. After a horrific rape scene (which Lisbeth tapes as collateral), Lisbeth gets her own back by tattooing “I’m a sadistic rapist pig” on his stomach. A loathsome villain at his best.

20. Cathy Ames (East Of Eden) Author: John Steinbeck Described in the novel as a “psychic monster”, and having a “malformed soul”, it’s safe to say that Cathy Ames is a high-ranking villain. From a young age, it is clear that Cathy is sexually depraved, causing harm to anyone she holds a relationship with. She manipulates men by using her promiscuity and sexual identity against them; she accuses two young boys of raping her as well as leading her Latin professor to suicide with her wily ways. Perhaps one of the worst events is Cathy’s attempt at a primitive abortion using knitting needles. When she fails and gives birth to two sons, she feels nothing for them. She poisons her beneficiary and turns her brothel into a sadistic sex den.

I suppose we might want to revise the order in which these villains are presented, maybe dropping some and adding a few others, but this list makes an interesting starting point.

Books About Race and Anti-Racism: ‘Surging’

An article with the above title, Porter Anderson, appears in the June 16 issue of Publishing Perspectives.  Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair’s 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives.

Porter Anderson

Excerpts from the article are as follows:

“A demonstration of how responsive the US marketplace can be to a national crisis: Have a look at Amazon Charts‘ nonfiction listings.

Normally updated on Wednesdays, these titles are showing No. 1 and 2 in both the charts’ Most Sold and Most Read categories to be, respectively White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019), respectively.

Those two titles went onto the list two and three weeks ago, respectively just after, and one week after, George Floyd’s death for which former police officer Derek Chauvin now is charged with second-degree murder.

And just out a week ago, on June 9, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Macmillan/Henry Holt) is the timely new release from Stacey Abrams on voter suppression.

On the list of potential vice-presidential candidates for the Joe Biden ticket, Abrams’ book arrived with eerie timing last week–just as Georgia (where she has run for governor) went into a primary-election meltdown of voting-machine failures and waiting lines between four and eight hours long.

More from the Amazon Charts, Most Sold in nonfiction–and the timing on many of these, most on the list for one or two weeks, indicates the drivers to which publishing’s content is responding:

I think it’s pretty remarkable the extent to which writers and publishers are responding to a national crisis as evidenced by the dominance of these non-fiction works on the Amazon Most Sold List.

 

Would Be Authors Bombard Publishers with Manuscripts

There is an article by Yohannes Lowe in The Daily Telegraph of June 1st with the above title.

Yohannes Lowe works as an apprentice for The Telegraph and won the National Council for the Training of Journalists apprentice of the year award in 2019.   He says, “I have always enjoyed talking to people and finding out about their personal stories.  That interest combined with a hunger for current affairs, made journalism a natural fit. But with no formal writing experience, I took up a teaching assistant role after graduating from university in 2017.  It did not last more than six weeks.  I then looked for reporting jobs. An NCTJ apprenticeship was vital for training me in the basic skills of the profession, allowing me to be competent in a national newsroom with little formal experience.  The apprenticeship, which included regular teaching sessions at PA Training was great as it taught me to write shorthand quickly and the basics of media law and court reporting.”

Yohannes Lowe

The article says, “Budding authors have been inundating publishers with manuscripts during lockdown, with dystopian novels being among the most commonly offered.  The time freed up by working hours from home has given many aspiring authors more hours in the day to finish off their book proposals.

Avon, a commercial fiction division of HarperCollins, has seen ‘unagented submissions’ increase threefold between March and May compared with the same time last year.  They have received a large number of crime and thriller novels from writers who are drawing their inspiration from their pandemic-induced social surroundings.  Literary agents, which represents writers and help send their scripts to publishers, have also seen a growing trend for dystopian themes.

Sarah Revivis-Smith, a fiction reader at the Eve WhiteLiterary Agency, said, “I would say we’re seeing lots of people working out their fears of the current situation through dystopias, with submissions that either explore Covid-19 overtly or have an unknown virus or disease spreading through humanity.”

The UK’s publishing industry reached record sales of £5.7 billion in 2018, consolidating its position as the  globe’s top book exporter.

Literary agencies are expecting even more manuscripts to flood in by autumn from those who started in late March.

Sam Copeland, director of RCW literary Agency, which boasts Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro among its published authors, added: “Submissions have continued to be relentless during lockdown, increasing from around 80 a week to 100 . . . I am expecting that number to rise again still further, though, with all the people who have been writing their novel in lockdown.  ‘I have had the odd Covid quick book in, funny books, that sort of thing, and some canny authors have tried  twisting their pitch to reflect the lockdown.  But I think the main rush of Covid books is still to come.'”

The Popularity of Poetry

There is an article, “Poetry Sales Soar as Political Millennials Search for Clarity”, in the January 21 issue of The Guardian by Donna Ferguson, which I found interesting.   Donna Ferguson is an award winning freelance journalist specialising in finance.  (Perhaps she knows something about literature, as well.)

Donna Ferguson

“A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.  Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.

“Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”  (It’s interesting that at least one poet is able to make a decent living.)

“Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”  He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.

“In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.

“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”  People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”

“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”  Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said.

Could this mean that millennials want existential emotion in their novels?

 

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

As a particular fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other pieces by Mark Twain, I thought that this would be a particularly good book to which to listen, so I down loaded it from Audible and my wife and I started listening to it.  She lost interest almost immediately, but I carried on to the bitter end.

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clements, (1835-1910), an American writer humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer.  His obituary in the New York Times, called him “the greatest humorist this country has produced”, and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been called “The Great American Novel”.  He worked as a miner in California and as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  His pen name is the call of the leadsman on a riverboat reporting two fathoms beneath the keel of the boat – a safe depth of water.

Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee begins with the protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up after being hit on the head in early medieval England near Camelot, the mythical King Arthur’s kingdom, in an environment of chivalry, knighthood, slavery, serfdom, domination of the Catholic Church, and an autocratic ruling class.  Hank competes with Merlin, King Arthur’s great sorcerer, using nineteenth century technology to win the kings favour and become ‘The Boss’, the second most powerful man in the kingdom.  Secretly, Hank introduces gun powder, the telephone, hydraulic pumps, electricity, etc. behind the scenes in Camelot.  The average citizen of Camelot is depicted as a gullible illiterate, ready to believe the most improbable presentations.  Knights are hardly chivalrous, kings are tyrants and magic is everywhere.  Hank is challenged to joust with various knights and he defeats several by lassoing them, and the rest by shooting them with a pistol.   Eventually the church causes a revolt against Hank which results in a war of knights with swords and spears against Gatling guns and electrified fences, where the victors, except Hank, succumb to disease; Merlin puts Hank under a spell for 1300 years and then is electrocuted.

The novel is a satire of the romanticised views of chivalry in the middle ages; it is also an attack on the mysticism and the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  The concept of time travel as a sub-genre of science fiction is significant in that it was followed almost immediately by several other novels.

I found the novel boring, probably because I have no romantic notions of knighthood and chivalry or misconceptions about the role of the Church which require correction.   There is one passage which lists just the names of a large number of knights.  I found it beyond credibility that a single nineteenth century engineer could build a ‘modern’ infrastructure in the iron age in only a few years.  Twain also mistakenly refers to steel armour well before it was invented.  Apparently Twain had a falling out with Sir Walter Scott who wrote romantic novels about chivalry and on whom he blamed the start of the American Civil War for Scott’s promotion of distinctive titles.  The story seems to have no unifying plot, but meanders from one set of circumstances to another at the whim of Hank Morgan.   The characters are largely one-dimensional, with the exception of ‘Sandy’ (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise).  I found myself asking repeatedly, “What’s the point?”

Forget about the Connecticut Yankee; go with Huckleberry Finn.

 

Review: Me Before You

My wife and I listened to this audio book on our way back to London from Sicily.  I had selected it because I thought my wife would like it, and because its author, Jojo Moyes, contributed a lot of money to a program to help illiterate adults to read.  (My way of saying ‘thank you’!)

Jojo Moyes was born in 1969 on Maidstone, England.  She attended Royal Holloway, University of London and City University for a post graduate course in journalism.  She worked for The Independent newspaper for about ten years.  She wrote three manuscripts of novels that were all rejected.  With one child and another on the way, she was writing her fourth novel, which she decided would be her last if it were rejected.  Wikipedia says. “After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published. She continues to write articles for The Daily Telegraph.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin.”  It has sold fourteen million copies world-wide, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.  Moyes would later write two sequels starring Louisa Clark, the protagonist of Me Before YouAfter You in 2015 and Still Me in 2018.  “Moyes lives on a farm in Essex with her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, and their three children.  She enjoys riding her ex-racehorse, Brian, as well as tending to the numerous animals on her family’s farm, including Nanook, or ‘BigDog’, a rescued 58 kg female Pyrenean mountain dog.”

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a romantic novel, but it is also a tragedy on a serious, controversial subject: euthanasia.   The protagonist, Louisa Clark, aged 27, an attractive girl from a small, historic English town and an ordinary, lower middle class family, is laid off from her job working in a cafe and takes a job as a carer for a quadriplegic 35-year-old man, Will, who was injured in an accident, is wise, good-looking, worldly and was enormously successful in business.  He isn’t sure he wants to continue living in his present state.  There are many other characters: Louisa’s parents and sister, Will’s parents and sister, Louisa’s boyfriend, Will’s girlfriend, and a medical carer.  It is a long book: 512 pages, and the listening time is 16 hours.

The book is certainly addictive; it is difficult to put it down.  Apart from the first chapter which begins rather slowly, the book is electrified with wave after wave of emotional crises, all quite real and believable.  There are job crises, romantic crises, existential crises, financial crises, personal crises.  The dialogue and the scene-setting is very good indeed.  Also impressive is the medical research that Ms Moyes must have done to make this novel as believable as it is.  The central characters are all clearly defined, and their development is entirely credible.  The only criticism I can offer is that one becomes somewhat emotionally fatigued reading the novel.  Could it have been a little bit more memorable and effective if it had been a hundred pages shorter?

If you’re a reader who likes emotional roller coasters, this one is definitely for you!

Review: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

This book was recommended to me by an Italian friend of mine, who particularly likes non-fiction.  It was written by Penny Le Couteur, PhD, who, the back cover tells me, “teaches chemistry ad Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada.  She is the winner of the Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, and has been a professor for over thirty years.  and

Jay Burreson, PhD, who has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for chemical compounds in marine life.  He is also general manager of a high-tech company.”

The title of this book is based on the unproven belief that the clothing of Napoleon’s officers and soldiers in his Grande Armée may have fallen apart during the extreme cold of the winter of 1812, following its retreat from Moscow.  One observer of the army’s retreat noted that it appeared like “a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes”.  The buttons on the uniforms of the Grand Armée were made of tin, a metal which changes into a crumbly, non-metallic grey powder at low temperature.  Could crumbling buttons have led to the defeat at Moscow, and the extreme hardships of the retreat?  If the army had been equipped with brass buttons, might it have been victorious at Moscow, and moved on east, capturing all of Russia?  If so, Russia and all of Europe would be a different place today.  In 1812, 90% of the Russian population were serfs, who, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, could be bought and sold by their owners.  Might Russia have been recreated in the image of France?

There are seventeen chapters in this book: one for each special molecule or group of molecules.  In each chapter, the elements making up the molecule are identified, as well as the structure of the molecule.  If the molecule occurs in nature, the efforts made to synthesize it are discussed.  But, most interestingly, the impact of the molecule on human history is described.  Here is a partial list of the molecules: pepper, nutmeg and clove, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glucose, cellulose, silk and nylon, dyes, the Pill, molecules of witchcraft, salt.  For example, in the case of the spice molecules, they stimulated an enormous growth in world trade and exploration.  Ascorbic acid prevented scurvy, making long voyages possible.

While there are plenty of chemical formulae and equations in the book, one does not have to be a chemist to understand the evolution of each molecule.  The text is user friendly, understandable and clear.  The authors are at their best when they describe the impact of each molecule on history, using facts, examples and statistics.  In the introduction, they confess that they had to narrow a larger list down to seventeen.  One has to wonder what they left out, but it doesn’t really matter because the general point about the power of chemistry on humanity has been made. One must wonder what the future will bring.

As I read the book, some of my high school chemistry came back to me, and in this sense, I may be an atypical reader, but I would have liked a brief chemical tutorial on how the structure of a molecule is determined, and on how individual molecules work on human beings.  There are excellent discussions on salt and soap, but for some other molecules, this is discussed only superficially.