beloved Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988, and the author  Toni Morrison went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. it was also 41st on this list of best books of all time. With that kind of resume you might think bookgroup was destined for disappointment due to exceedingly high expectations.

Not in this case. This book delivered. It is understandably famous. It uses what you could call magic realism, fantasy or supernatural elements, to bring the real horror of American slavery to life.

Probably like a lot of people I thought I knew enough about the slave era in America. I have a longstanding interest in the politics of equality and as a result I have a much brighter view of the 20th century and much darker view of earlier centuries than most. So my view of slavery based societies, and all pre-20th century societies, whether they are based on feudal, religious, traditional or colonial arrangements is very dark. I thought I had a clear eyed view of the evil seemingly ordinary humans are capable of when there is no oversight of, or accountability for, their actions.

This book made me realise my sight was not nearly dark enough. It also opened my eyes further to the community, family and intergenerational effects of such systems of domination and oppression – the impacts of these systems at the population level for generations afterwards.

A key message the book wants to send appears to be that the real inhumanity of the slavery system is that it forces people to be complicit in their own humiliation. They become self-loathing because they feel they are constantly making decisions to accept being abused and degraded, instead of dying or going mad. Even though their only choice is death or survival they feel survival is somehow morally the wrong choice. They feel they should choose to die rather than to be treated this way. The book seems to be saying that it’s creating this feeling of self loathing that is the real evil of slavery, because it explains the intergenerational dysfunction and disaster that follows slavery.

The power of this experience is communicated through the central story of the book which is very slowly revealed piece by piece. Having recently escaped slavery, Sethe (the main character) and her children are about to be recaptured. She chooses to kill her children thinking that is better than letting them suffer the way she has. She succeeds in killing her infant daughter but not the other children.

Reading of the horror inflicted on her, and the other slaves around her, its hard, impossible really,  to feel that Sethe’s choice was wrong. Nevertheless the book goes further, it says understandable or not, right or wrong, its an act with far reaching consequences. The murdered child becomes a malevolent ghost and eventually a malevolent flesh and blood person, created from the remorse of the mother.

It seemed to me that this scenario, and the ideas it encapsulates apply to all subjugated and brutalised peoples. It helps explain the African American experience that it describes, but also the experience of indigenous populations decimated by colonial peoples, as Intergenerational trauma. How can you feel you belong to a country, and communicate that belonging to your children, when in that country your ancestors have been treated so badly they choose to kill their infant children, to protect them from such treatment? When the pain of making that decision is so strong it has the power to create a flesh and blood ghost of remorse?

AS Morrison says in the foreword to the edition i read

that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience,

However the book also has some answers. If self loathing is the problem, self love is the solution.

Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh

Bookgroupers did have some problems with the book. They felt it was hard to follow because it jumps back and forth in time and refers to many different characters, especially at the beginning. They also felt the language was difficult in places, especially because of the unfamiliar accents and language at he beginning, and later because it has passages of unpunctuated stream of consciousness style writing. Several Bookgroupers also found the fantasy and/or supernatural elements confusing, especially who or what is Beloved – the flesh and blood ghost of remorse.

I loved it. If you feel like reading a genuine prize winning literary classic, this one is definitely worth the effort.



April 16, 2017 at 1:38 pm Leave a comment


White_Teeth_Tube_Map White Teeth by jamaican-english writer Zadie Smith won the orange prize for fiction and a bunch of other awards.

All Bookgroupers enjoyed this book which is very rare. Usually there are are at least some dissenting views. Sometimes the dissenting view is me but in this case I agree. I found this to be wonderful in many many ways.

Perhaps its most obvious virtue is that it’s an evocation of the rainbow society of modern London, circa the 1990s anyway. It was a terrific history of how that society came to be, including its connections to empire; a particularly persuasive history as it comes from someone inside that society – the author being a Londoner from a Jamaican family. Getting this insiders view of that society, rather than an outsiders perspective of how they thought it was, made it much more enjoyable.

Where I come from,’ said Archie, ‘a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.’
‘Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,’ said Samad tersely, ‘that it is a good idea.’

Even better though was that it managed to be funny and entertaining at the same time, so it wasn’t just an appeal to the readers conscience about racism and multiculturalism.

Lacking any name for the furtive rumblings that appeared in her lower abdomen on these occasions, Clara called it the spirit of the Lord.

In addition to all that it is a novel on a grand scale it multiple levels. At the level of plot it is an epic story spanning multiple generations of multiple families spread through many big moments in history including Indian independence, the end of WW@ and the fall of the Berlin wall.

At the level of ideas, it combines this geopolitical history with the personal and family history of the characters to illustrate how things work and why they work the way they do.

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made

Despite all these many virtues the strongest feature of the book may be at the level of its characters. They are interesting, funny, believable, frustrating, realistic and romantic. A Jamaican Jehovah Witness mum, an adulterous pious muslim Bangladeshi dad, genius children and London wannabe teen rapper gangsta boys. All brought to the page with real spirit and love, and enough attention to detail that makes them completely believable despite their oddity.

She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.

Highly recommended


April 16, 2017 at 11:52 am Leave a comment


The-Corrections by Jonathan Franzen won the national book award in the US and was a finalist in the pulitzer.

Bookgroupers agreed the writing was great but many people felt it was unnecessarily long due to the inclusion of many tangents that went on for pages. The book is peppered with little essays on obscure topics such as the demise of American railways, metallurgy, and Lithuanian internet scams. These are all presented as back stories to one or other of the book’s characters but they rarely serve any real purpose in helping the reader understand those characters, or the overall story. They seem to be included for the the benefit of the author rather than the reader or the novel.

Similarly the book includes a lot of references to academic discussions of feminist and postmodernist philosophy, and name checks lots of the well known writers in those disciplines. But once again it achieves nothing within the novel, the purpose appears to be to persuade the reader that author has read this literature, and nothing more.

In addition to these frustrations with unnecessary length, Bookgroupers also found it hard to care about the story because they felt many characters were deeply unlikable. I thought it was hard to care about because its just a middle-class family drama where nothing particularly interesting happens. Its a very familiar world and I found it hard to see the point.

However, we all agreed that some of the writing beautiful and insightful. For example, there is a description of what it is like to have Parkinson’s that really makes you feel like you understand. I found reading this passage to be a very powerful experience. In places like this it was easy to agree that the writing was wonderful, that the author is some kind of genius capable of great insight and understanding, and the book is deserving of its fame.

However, for me these moments were too rare. Over 15 years pos -publication the book feels like a product of its time and place and class. It’s an exploration of a lot of ideas which were widely discussed, and considered important, by middle-class academic people across much of the Western world in the 90s and early 2000’s. It does have some great passages in it, like the one on Parkinsons, but I think there is a better explanation of its success.

At that time of its publication in 2001 the current obsessions of the literary book reading class in the Anglophone world were exactly those addressed in the novel.

How relevant it is now, at a later time, or to anyone who is not from that class and did not live through that period, Is questionable?

I would recommend it if you want a crash course on the academic feminism or the postmodernism of the 90s without having to go to university or read a whole lot of incomprehensible 20th century French philosophy. Or if you have an evening coming up when you will have to spend some time with academics from the humanities,. you could read this book and pick up all the right attitudes, the language they use, and some of the names of the writers and philosophers they will refer to, and manage to fit right in.

However, if your aim is to read a good book, i’d try something else.


April 16, 2017 at 9:32 am Leave a comment



Leaves-of-Grass might be the most ambitious and arrogant book you will ever read, and surprisingly the most successful. In it Whitman is self consciously trying to create a nation, America – and many argue he succeeds. But if the nation inside the heads of many Americans is the one Whitman wrote, unfortunately the nation resting on the southern half of the continent of North America is not.

Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection. It was first published in 1855, but Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400′.

A very good, and short, American review written in 2005 reflects many of my thoughts about american attitudes to Whitman.

With the upcoming 150th anniversary, America’s poets and critics have found unmediated love for our most American poet, the man who came to shape our ideas of nationhood, democracy, and freedom.

Incredibly to me  it seems Whitman not only shaped American ideas, he knew that is what he was doing, that was his aim, and he was prepared to declare this ambition at the outset, apropro of nothing, and when he was nobody. Imagine writing this in your first, self published, collection of poems – he is so arrogant he reckons he is doing us a favour by allowing us, rather than some hero, to read his stuff.

Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

And he is so ambitious that he doesn’t just want to write a vision of America – he wants us to know that is what he is doing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.

Americans say ‘it aint bargain if you can back it up’. IF so Whitman wasn’t bragging. Reading Leaves of Grass you can see why Whitman is considered America’s poet – not only because he says he is, but also because everything he says is now reflected in how Americans talk about themselves.

The book reads like the invention of the idea of America. It helped explain for me why some (most?) Americans and some Europeans seem so in love with the idea of America. Never having been there, I have not understood why these people speak of America in the way that they do – as the home of the brave and the free, the last resort to desperate, and so on. To me it has always been a failed and fading imperial overlord, rife with inequality, and the source of much of the world’s violence and dysfunction, rather than the home of the free.

However, reading Whitman i discovered where these people get their ideas from. He creates a very appealing vision of America as a democratic and equal society. It is a progressive, optimistic and individualistic vision.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I found it very revealing and helpful to be reading this at the time we did –  in the wake of the Trump election. American politics, for my whole life time, seems to have been a progressive movement away from equality and freedom towards the rule of the many by the few. To me the Trump election was just another, admittedly extreme, step in that direction. So I have never understood America’s rhetoric about itself, and never less so than on the election of Trump.

But this book really helps explain the mismatch between rhetoric and reality. In stark contrast to the direction of modern American politics, in Whitman’s America there is a place for everyone. Everyone is equal and everyone can be who they want to be. If that’s the image that Americans have  of their country I can understand some of their attitudes and their talk.

However I find it impossible to match this vision, beautifully expressed though it is, with the reality that I’ve grown up with on my TV screen. All the images that have saturated my life show no connection to the beautiful ideas vividly evoked by Whitman. So while Whitman helps explain American rhetoric, he does not help explain American politics or American society.

On the contrary, both are even more difficult to understand after reading their national poet. You would think all politicians and activists would need to do is quote Whitman to make an opponent realize they’re heading down the wrong track but clearly that is not enough.

The word might be mightier than the sword but it seems the dollar is mightier than both.

Whitman seems to have been spectacularly successful in his huge ambition of creating a vision for a country. Americans have not only bought his vision, they have run around telling everyone about it, proclaiming how great is, even claiming to use military force to export it around the world – but they have failed to live it.

Reading that vision in the 21st century seems like an accusation rather than a celebration.

“The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)

Do you know so much yourself that you call the meanest ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and
the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?”

Excerpt From: Walt Whitman. “Leaves of Grass.” iBooks.


April 16, 2017 at 6:46 am Leave a comment



Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is written in written in the same stream of consciousness style  as James Joyce’s Ulysses. This makes it  difficult, tedious, to read at times. However, if you can carry on you are rewarded with plenty of meaty issues, many of which are very relevant today. The big ones are mental illness, and what some people might want to call identity politics but i what would say is questions about ‘how does one live’? questions about class, love and sex.

The book has quite a bit of interest for literary types as well. It was 40th on this list of best books of all time, and this review points out that it is 50th in The Guardian’s list of best novels of all time, and its very autobiographical of Woolf’s life.

The blurb for the episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast about Mrs Dalloway says

First published in 1925, it charts a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a prosperous member of London society, as she prepares to throw a party. Writing in her diary during the writing of the book, Woolf explained what she had set out to do: ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity. I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense.’ Celebrated for its innovative narrative technique and distillation of many of the preoccupations of 1920s Britain, Mrs Dalloway is now seen as a landmark of twentieth-century fiction, and one of the finest products of literary modernism.

The feedback from Bookgroupers was not quite so positive. Many struggled with the style style. Whilst the style may have been innovative for its time it is no longer innovative 100 years later, but it remains difficult to read. The sentences are rarely correct. They can be short or long, and the punctuation is eccentric or absent. However, one book grouper offered some good advice which is to read it all as if its all dialogue, because it is all dialogue. its all what psychologists today would call self talk, the characters talking to themselves inside their heads.

While it is difficult to read there are many many lines in it that are wonderful which definitely make it worth the effort. A couple of my favourites

hanging flower-baskets of vague impropriety.

As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within.

It is important to note that although it is a often compared to Ulysses due to the stream of consciousness style; it is set in a different class, different gender, different country and different sexuality. I feel this makes it very relevant to a present day reader because it deals with matters that are very real for present day urbanites in the well developed world.

In particular i think its very interesting because you can see it as a challenge to the identity politics of today, and also to our popular romantic notions about love conquering all and being true to oneself.

it is a challenge to these notions because the characters in this book do not make the same decisions that equivalent characters in present day hollywood films and sitcoms would. This challenge is all the more powerful because the novel is very autobiographical, that means it is being written by someone at the time they were actually facing these decisions, not someone just imagining what its like.

The story is essentially three middle aged, and well to do, brits in 1923 looking back at the way their lives have evolved following their teenage love triangle. Not a particularly steamy one, obviously, as they were upper class brits. Peter loved clarissa, but clarissa loved sally, and sally, kind of loved them both.

But unlike hollywood, clarissa did not marry either of them. Peter was all smart and head strong, impulsive, he wanted to change the world. Sally was shiny and smart, charismatic, and one night she kissed clarissa on the lips.

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it–a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling

It was the best moment of Clarissa’s life but she still chose Richard. Both Sally and Peter thought he was a stupid non-entity, but she still chose him over peter. Likewise Peter went off to India and married other people and Sally married some lord or other and had ‘five enormous boys’.

The moral challenge in all this for the modern reader, if you think identity politics is a good idea, is that its hard to read the book and not agree that they actually made good decisions even if you want to think they are all traitors to themselves. Maybe love does not conquer all? Maybe being out and proud is not always the answer?

However, it may be that I am only seeing that in the book because i am reading it in middle age. Perhaps had I read it as a teenager I would have taken away a completely different message. Maybe I would have seen them all as looking back with regret? i doubt it though. It seems to me the book is saying they made the right choice.

This reading of the book is supported, kind of, by the real life version of the book. Clarissa can easily be read as Virginia Woolf herself and Sally Seton as her lover Vita Sackville-West, and Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway is Virgina’s husband and publisher Leonard Woolf. Although Virginia did kill herself in the end she left a note to Leonard which concludes ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’

it seems to me there is a message to all teenagers, or wannabee teenagers, about that favourite teenage line – be true to yourself. It’s an argument against that line in that it says you can be true to yourself but you might still be unhappy and die, whereas perhaps the better choice is life. That’s the choice Clarissa made and it’s the choice Virginia made for a long time until she could not sustain it

Love destroyed too. Everything that was fine, everything that was true went. Take Peter Walsh now. There was a man, charming, clever, with ideas about everything. If you wanted to know about Pope, say, or Addison, or just to talk nonsense, what people were like, what things meant, Peter knew better than any one. It was Peter who had helped her; Peter who had lent her books. But look at the women he loved–vulgar, trivial, commonplace. Think of Peter in love–he came to see her after all these years, and what did he talk about? Himself. Horrible passion! she thought. Degrading passion! she thought,


February 18, 2017 at 9:40 am 1 comment



The Scarlet Letter by  Nathaniel Hawthorne is perhaps the most successful book I have ever read because I had heard the phrase the scarlet letter; i had heard the name Nathaniel Hawthorne; i am familiar with the idea that puritanical religion represses children and adults, and dispels joy from the lives of communities; I’m also familiar with the idea that there was a time when people said thee and thou a lot, and that a little later, in the 1800s, people went in for beautifully flowery and ornamental language, for people prior to the 20th century this was deemed literary, the longer your sentences and more complex their construction, the cleverer you were; but I had no idea that all of those things, the title, the name of the author, its message, and the language in which it is written, come from this book like ‘a glimmering light that comes we know not whence and goes we not wither’, to borrow a famous phrase from the book itself.

It is hard to imagine a greater success for a piece of art than this; for all its elements, the arguments, style, artist’s name, and work title; to become so pervasive in a culture that you do not even have to be aware of it, much less to have actually seen it, to be familiar with the world it created. That is the situation for me with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Scarlet Letter.

It is hard to believe a book published in 1850 could include so much that is so deeply relevant to our own time. Reading it brings revelation after revelation. The setting is a town of religious zealots, in a misogynist society, persecuting a young widow for having a child. The story is how that woman and her child, and all the different people in her community react to and deal with this persecution as it continues over the years.

Although it is written in the first half of the 1800s, a time that could be described as pre-modern, and tells a story set 200 years prior, in a almost medieval world, it does so in such a clever way that it creates in the mind of the reader, without the reader noticing, the modern world. It does not preach or speechify, it just tells the story, but nevertheless all the messages that we are familiar with from the post WW2 era of the 20th century, about individual rights and freedoms, are clear and loud.

The characters and all the interplay between them is so beautifully captured and articulated that it alone would be enough have me raving as i am. However there are two key elements of the book that make the book systematically subversive, whilst appearing outwardly to be upholding the Victorian values of the times in which it was published: these are the scarlet letter that the woman must wear as punishment, and the child that caused this brand of shame.

This scarlet letter is intended to be her punishment for life and the writer makes it clear that the character feels that. It is a bright red A, for adultery, that she must wear on her bosom for life. There are long passages about how she continues to be treated years later, how isolated she is day after day year after year. These passages make it clear she feels the letter is the ultimate punishment, because she is so alone even in the midst of people, however they have another impact on the reader: they make you hate the town; they make you understand the power of ostracism; and the barbarity of a legal system based on religion.

To me though that is only one subversive aspect of the scarlet A, and not the biggest. The truly subversive aspect is that she finds a way to use this instrument of punishment as her salvation. She embroiders the letter so beautifully it becomes not only her 24/7 brand of shame but her 24/7 brand. An advertisement of the quality of of her workmanship. She transforms her life sentence into a life long source of income. She achieves economic independence. Something no other woman in town enjoyed.

The Child of the story is also used in a thoroughly subversive way. She asks innocent child questions in an innocent child way about the treatment she receives from the town, including the towns’ children. This is a very clear device for getting the reader to ask those same questions, including the biggest question of all: what did this child do to be treated this way? Obviously there is only one answer: the child did nothing, and the treatment is immoral no matter in whose name, or by whom, it is done.

This is arguably the whole point of the book and one of many reasons why it is a very worthy member of many lists of the best books of all time, for example, it came in at 16 on Goodread’s list of the popular literary canon, and why I would highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a classic. As  this review in the atlantic it is ‘alive with the miraculous vitality of genius’.

There is one caveat to add though based on the experience of Bookgroup, which is that many book groupers struggled with the first chapter.  These bookgroupers made a good case that it is long, has no story, appears to have no discernible point, and is written in the archaic verbose style that i have emulated to some extent in this review. All that is true. In addition, the contents do not relate to or impact on the story, they just purport to tell the story of the circumstances under which the author found the old documents on which he based the story. As a result i would recommend that if readers have an edition that includes this introductory chapter that they skip it, and return to it if motivated to do so at the end.

I don’t think this would be contradicting the author’s intent as the introduction is actually called ‘introductory – customs house’ and is not numbered. The real first chapter, ‘the prison door’ comes after it. So its clearly a separate piece of writing.

However, for me personally this introductory chapter was a real delight. It purports to be written in early 1800s whereas the story that follows describes what took place in the same town, Salem, of witch hunt fame, two centuries earlier in the 1600s. The introductory chapter describes the author arriving back in his home town to take up what in a former time might have been an important role – head of the customs house down in the docks on the harbour. But times are changing, and the customs house is not what it used to be or will ever be again. He documents the occupants of the customs house and their customers, and puts it all in the context of the colonial past and the rise of the newly emerging systems of democracy law and trade in the US of the early 1800s, as they displace the old ways of tradition, seniority and customary practice. To me it felt like reading the birth of the modern world, like watching the election of 45th President felt like the end of the modern world, the end of science and democracy, and the return to the medieval order of superstition and unfettered power.

What ever your thoughts on the introduction, the real joy is the book itself.

February 12, 2017 at 4:33 am Leave a comment


hello one on one

Hello goodbye hello (also known as one on one) by craig brown is a remarkable feat of both clever writing and detailed research – from an unlikely candidate. An english guy better known as a comedian and satirist.

The detailed research  involved is astonishing. All of the 101 meetings described actually took place, and the account given is very detailed despite this all the details are historically accurate. These details, including exactly where, when and what was said, in these meetings has been are pieced together from descriptions of the meetings included in the biographies and autobiographies of the participants. its astonishing he was able to read so many biographies and bring together snippets from all of them to create these factual fly on the wall style accounts.

The cleverness is multi-layered. Firstly its a description of 101 different meetings, and each between two different people but each story flows from the previous story because one of the two characters in the preceding meeting always appears in the subsequent meeting. Its a remarkably clever conceit from which to construct a book. Secondly each of these meetings is described in exactly 1001 words. Why an author would choose to impose such a discipline on themselves is impossible to say, but its impressive. Finally the observations are very acerbic, insightful and funny. They hold these people, some quite beloved  of the books readership, up to ridicule using very plain descriptions of the facts, and often their own words.

However, don’t be deceived by the rather high brow trappings of the research and cleverness. In he end it is a piece of celebrity pop culture. Admittedly the celebrities from an era before the kardashians and brangelina, but still  they are celebrities – pop stars movie stars politicians – and therefore the book fits comfortably in the world of woman day and hello magazine. In that sense its perhaps only really interesting if you are interested in celebrities.

Nevertheless it does have plenty to recommend it to rest of us: its universally scathing of the celebrities described, which makes it a lot of fun to read; its a rare insight into the worlds of these people, a scary vacuous world, but perhaps all the more interesting because of that; and the writing is absolutely clear and precise, a real lesson to everyone both for the craftsmanship of each sentence and the vision displayed by the overarching structure.

So if you love reading about celebrities, especially pre-kardashian, ones you will love this. If you are already convinced they are all empty-headed egotists you might get less from it. However, certain baby boomers could still do well to read it as it does not spare the ridicule for some people still cherished by that generation – patti smith, frank lloyd-wright, leonard cohen, phil spectre – they all come off looking like outrageous idiots. I enjoyed it for that reason, but not enough to read the whole thing.



September 22, 2016 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

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