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real magic

Psychical research, or Psi, is a subject I think most of us are interested in, though perhaps without going so far as to admit any firm beliefs in it – at least not to our friends. Indeed, a cautious approach is advisable, this being a field beset with poseurs and frauds. But there are serious researchers too, and Dean Radin is one of them.

By Psi we mean things like ESP, Psychokinesis, Divination, Clairvoyance and Mediumship. His previous books, Supernormal, Entangled Minds and the Conscious Universe detail his careful research
going back over the decades of his long career. What’s always separated him from other writers on this subject though is a reluctance to fly his kites too high. He sticks with the research, with the methods, and most of all with the evidence. And the evidence he has published is consistently persuasive.

One of the fascinations in this field is the ingenious methods devised by researchers to tease out what could be genuine anomalous phenomenon, and to isolate them from other effects, be they error, wishful thinking, or simply fraud. At times I’ve struggled to bend my head not only around the extraordinary concepts Psi research explores but also the fiendishly elegant reasoning behind the experiments. As a result Dean Radin’s books are ones I tend to have to revisit from time to time just to see if I’ve got it right, that he’s actually saying and showing what I think he is.

In his latest book though, ‘Real Magic’, it’s as if he’s looked back over a long career, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of these careful, double blinded experiments, and he’s said: you know what? To hell with it, here it is straight up: Psi is real, now let’s talk about what that means.

Psi effects in the general population are imperceptibly small. There may be just the odd occasion when they flare up and produce an effect that is stunning, at least to the person involved – say dreaming of something that comes true, or knowing with absolute certainty something bad has happened to a loved one. But as with all skills, some people are better at it than others, with some indeed being naturally talented to a degree that inspires either awe or deep suspicion. And so it is with Psi. In certain individuals these effects can be very strong but the trick is knowing who those individuals are, and how you tell them apart from the fraudsters.

For most of us its probably safer to assume someone’s pulling your leg when they say they can read your mind. But that people can indeed sometimes read minds, is proven and has been for a long time. They can sometimes see into the future, they sometimes know who’s ringing before they pick up the telephone. The fact that for most of us these effects are very small can be disappointing, but this misses the point, that what even a fraction of a percentage deviation from chance when guessing those cards tells us, is that the universe isn’t what a couple of hundred years of materialism has browbeaten us into believing it is. It’s actually more like what the Perennial Philosophy tell us, what Hermes Trismegistus tells us, and several millennia of other esoteric writings, be they religious, alchemical, mystical, heretical or downright diabolical, that at some fundamental level what underpins the physical reality of the universe is consciousness.

Real Magic is one of Dean Radin’s more accessible books. If you want to immerse yourself in the evidence you’ll need to look back over his other works. But what Real Magic tells us is that psi research over the past hundred years is where the scientific method has looked at “Magic”, not trick magic, but ‘real magic’, and has concluded that actually those old world magicians, alchemists, shamans, mystics, and holy-men weren’t completely crazy after all. Through their esoteric traditions, they were pursuing effects and working with a theory of the universe, millennia ago, that science is going to have to come to terms with if it wants to advance beyond its current materialistic impasse.

But this is not to say we abandon reason, quite the opposite. The protocols observed in Psi research are among the most stringent because they have to be. It’s only by applying such gold standards in a notoriously murky field we can expect to make reliable progress. But one of the reasons this work is not more widely known is an abiding prejudice within the established scientific community, also it must be said among even moderately educated people in general who ape the sneers of their scientific elders and betters – and for the first half of my life I would count myself among their number. This is understandable. It is by far the safest option, when reading about Psi, to react with a smug expression and dismiss anything that questions the mechanistic, materialistic world view as “woo woo”. In doing so we seek safety in the prevailing paradigm, but close our eyes to the real magic of the universe itself.

Such prejudice is of course strongest where vested interests are concerned. Those  who persecuted Galileo refused even to look through his telescope. Similarly much Psi research is undeservedly rubbished by ignorant, sneering debunkers, including many otherwise serious scientific minds, who refuse to even look at the evidence. I looked at the evidence, and was persuaded to open my eyes a little.

Real Magic is a compelling read from a highly respected, unflappable, and very sober-minded researcher of psi – there are even some instructions on how to practice a little bit of magic yourself. But as with all magic, be careful what you wish for or you might just get it.

I leave you with the man himself:

 

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Unless you’re involved in espionage it’s unlikely you’ll ever know what that world is truly like. We can hazard a guess it’s not the glossy shaken Martini and fancy sports car world we see portrayed in the James Bond movies, that the truth is rather less glamorous. John Le Carre worked both as a spy and a handler in the early cold war years, and it’s this formative experience we trust lends such authenticity to his work. Coupled with that we have a unique voice, bleakly charismatic, like an old English folksong. When it comes to writing about spies, there’s nobody else I can take quite as seriously as John Le Carre.

The emphasis of your typical Le Carre spy story isn’t the gadgets, fast cars and guns but the people themselves and through this the revelation that spies are often deeply vulnerable, flawed, fragile individuals, chosen by their handlers for the ease with which they can be manipulated. Then there are the handlers themselves – in Le Carre’s world usually of a classically educated public school background, as is Le Carre. Then there are the people they work for, and of course the tiresome bureaucracy of it, and then the politics, the ambition, the vanity. In other words it’s a distinctly human world, rich in deception, duplicity and betrayal, and one in which people occasionally meet with a terrible end.

In the Perfect Spy, we are introduced to Magnus Pym, an intelligence officer working under cover of the diplomatic service who finds himself sidelined to a posting in Vienna which is a bit of an espionage backwater. The reason? For years, and secretly, his masters, but especially the Americans, have doubted his reliability, and suspected he might in fact be a double agent. When he suddenly disappears, the assumption is that it’s true, that Pym has been spying for the other side and has now defected. The chase is then on to catch him and limit any damage he might do. But Pym has not crossed over – yet. He’s gone to ground in a nameless English seaside town, where he pens his life-story for the benefit of his son, Tom.

As Pym’s story unfolds we discover a man of many layers and many faces – always an actor playing to an audience, always walking a tightrope of love and betrayal. The son of a con-man and a black-marketeer, even his upbringing was one of deception and spin, but as the novel unfolds we begin to feel the yearning in Pym, and the search for the one thing that’s authentic in himself.

Too deliberate and nuanced to be called a thriller, this is more like reading a piece of existential literature, with giant characters, impossibly conflicted and totally believable. Le Carre’s bleak world-view is as infectious as it is at times repulsive, and nowhere is that world view better portrayed than here.

Pym’s potential nemesis is his one time handler, Jack Brotherhood, sometime friend, most times bully and arch manipulator, a man so deeply intimate with Pym over the decades that Pym’s disappearance has led to him being sidelined in the investigation. But while the career types chase their tails, and the CIA with its vast resources muscles in on the hallowed ground of British espionage, it’s Brotherhood, the crafty old field hand, who painstakingly closes in on Pym.

The story unfolds mainly from two viewpoints, Pym’s and Brotherhood’s, but remember both of these men are  spies, which makes neither of them entirely reliable narrators, leaving the reader to bounce around between them in the most dizzying and fascinating way in the search for our own truth amid the smoke and mirrors. Thus, slowly, we form a picture of where Pym has come from, what it takes to be the perfect spy, also the baffling nature of what it is, exactly, that Pym has done, and of course, as the net closes in, what it is he’s about to do.

Often cited as the best of Le Carre’s many novels. If you’re not familiar with him, this is a really good place to start.

 

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solarIan McEwan isn’t always an easy read, often challenging in the depths he takes us, and at times brutal in his picking apart of human nature and all its attendant frailties. In Solar we meet surely one of his most monstrous creations, Professor Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate, author of the Beard-Einstein Conflation – something about light and really hard physics. He has a brilliant mind then, but he’s also a serial philanderer and insufferably vain, not an easy man to be around which is what I felt made this one of the more challenging of McEwan’s works, given the company he forces us to keep. Worse still, the third person perspective is kept entirely on Beard, so not allowing us even temporary respite in the intimate company of other characters.

Although at times darkly comic, I found Beard so loathsome, so pompous and amoral, I failed to find any of his scrapes funny, but for all of that I found the book to be a compelling read, which is quite a feat for an author to pull off. How do you get your readers to relate to an anti-hero like this? What is it that keeps us hooked, when surely we would much sooner part company? Is it anticipation of a spectacular comeuppance? Or do we long for a glimpse of a redeeming facet of character, or do we anticipate an incident that will cause Beard to finally see the light and achieve some sort of redemption?

The story charts his misanthropic ambitions in the field of synthetic photosynthesis, a process aimed at providing a limitless source of energy from sunlight. But his patents are based on research stolen from a junior colleague, and his motivation appears to be no more than self aggrandisement rather than the moral imperative of actually saving the planet. Indeed when challenged about the likely interest in his work in the face of opposition from the oil and gas lobby he quotes the approaching inevitable climate catastrophe with glee as a guarantor of his inevitable success, as if even God were on his side wrecking the planet to suit Beard’s ambitions.

Of course things don’t go smoothly and, over the years of his egotistical excesses we witness the slow disintegration of the corporeal man, his decline into ever greater depths of slovenliness and physical decrepitude. It was a challenge to understand what it was in Beard that his long line of lovers found so attractive, other than the hope they might be the one to finally rescue him from himself.

Beginning in the cold, cash-strapped breeze-block labs of British academia, in the year 2000 and ending in 2009, in the fierce heat of a privately funded New Mexico solar farm, Beard’s past misdeeds finally gain sufficient momentum to catch up with him. So, what will become of him? Will his obnoxious ego keep him one step ahead of calamity yet again? Will he find true love? Will his creaking frame give out on him before he gets to prove to the world, finally how appallingly and ruthlessly magnificent he is?

Loved it.

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flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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the outsider

The Outsider is another thrilling read from one of Britain’s best known, best selling authors. It’s filled with intrigue, betrayal and danger. It’s also his autobiography, and as such is especially interesting to other writers. Even writers like me.

I mean – how the hell did he do it?

He wrote his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, because he was down on his luck and needed the money. I was once in a similar bind, stuck in a job that was shedding its workforce year on year. It was only a matter of time before I was potted. I needed an exit, and fast. So I wrote the Singing Loch and posted it off in naive expectation. It was rejected at every turn and has never made a bean.

The story of how the Jackal was published illustrates how getting picked up by the big-boys takes more than just a good manuscript. All writers come to this conclusion eventually. What we do about it comes down to sheer grit and self belief, or we decide not to bother and do something else. Me? I avoided the potting, and have never needed the money. Fair dos.

Fluent in five languages, he was flying Vampire jets with the RAF at 19. He began a career in journalism, got mixed up in the Nigerian civil war, at odds with the official pro Nigerian line. He’s been shot at, mortared, strafed by a Mig, and more than once fired by the BBC. He’s been an occasional odd job man for HM’s security services, and was once seduced by an amorous Stasi agent who was supposed to be tailing him. Politically well to the right of centre, outspokenly traditionalist, Conservative, and euro-sceptic, Freddie and I are clearly not natural bedfellows but, through his stories at least, I find him good company.

So anyway,… the day of the Jackal was hacked out under pressing financial circumstances, then did the rounds, but like the Singing Loch it got nowhere. Unlike me, Forsyth weighed up the situation and reckoned you had to skip the publisher’s slush pile and find a direct way to the top otherwise you were stuffed. Through his circle of contacts, he established nodding terms with an editor, sufficient to bluster into the guy’s office one day on pretext of a social visit, oh and – while I’m here what do you think of this? The result was a three book deal. The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War made up the other two. Forsyth was suddenly a professional novelist making a lot of money.

The lesson for other would-be writers here is obvious. Simply dropping your manuscript through a publisher’s letterbox, the odds of it getting far enough up the chain of command to make a difference are about the same as coming up on the lottery. You  need good contacts and a lot of brass neck. For those with both the talent and the connections, it’s still possible to make money from your writing, but for those without, the choice is smashing your head against a brick wall, or self publishing.

The title, “The Outisder” refers to a particular frame of mind that always puts one outside events, makes us an observer of life and a withdrawer to the silence of a closed room, and the space to think, to write. That’s me too, but not all writers are known as writers, our outsiderly ways forgiven on account of the tangible goal of the next best-seller. Some of us aren’t even known as writers at all.

My life’s path rarely takes me out of Lancashire, let alone Britain. My vision is macroscopic, seeking a life and interest in the parochial details of the humdrum. No guns, no knives, no steely eyed assassins, nor beautiful Stasi agents. Yet I am a writer. I can’t help it. More than that I am a novelist, in so far as I am a person who writes novels, though I’d never say so out loud. I suppose it’s that “success” thing, and how you measure it. No sense calling yourself a writer to people’s faces without anything tangible to show for it, like maybe be a best seller or two, and a Jag on the drive to prove your net worth.

But life is also about understanding what you’ve got, changing what you can if you feel you must, and making peace with whatever you feel you cannot. I think few men would object to being seduced by a greater number of beautiful women than has been the case, but being strafed by a Mig? That would probably have been the last straw for me, followed by a one way ticket back home to the quiet and comfort of my Lancashire bolt-hole. Nope. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s most striking, throughout reading Forsyth’s life story, is his confidence, his courage and his total self belief. In addition to his obvious talents as a writer, that’s how the hell he did it.

 

 

 

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100 year old manA quirky title for a quirky book.

Set in Sweden, the story opens with Allan Karlsson on the eve of his hundredth birthday. He’s recently moved into an old folks home, having blown his own place up with a stick of dynamite – it was an accident and a long story, which we get to eventually, but for now Allan can’t abide the thought of attending the party that’s being organised in his honour, so with moments to spare, he climbs out of the window and heads for the bus station.

He has no clear plan, but then such is the story of Allan’s long life – no clear plan, yet a series of outrageous events that has seen him at the pivotal moments of twentieth century history, often on the wrong side of it, and armed only with his native wits and a happy-go-lucky optimism to see him through. The story is at times darkly humorous, at times absurd, Allen’s engagingly quirky insights into the true workings of the world providing the punchlines along the way.

The story has been likened to Forest Gump and the fortunes of a naive simpleton similarly turning up at iconic moments of (American) history. But although Allan’s outlook on life is refreshingly uncomplicated, and completely accepting of whatever simply is, he’s definitely no simpleton and is at times ingenious in his understanding and outwitting of authority. Also, unlike Gump, his adventures take in the entire sweep of world history, gathering the globe together and presenting it to the reader as a complete basket case.

Following his escape and arrival at the bus station, Allan, by a mixture of outrageous chance and mild indignation, manages to relieve an incompetent motorcycle gangster of a suitcase containing a small fortune in cash, then makes off with it on a bus. He doesn’t know about the money yet and is rather hoping to find instead a decent pair of shoes to replace the carpet slippers he’s currently wearing. What follows is an incompetent chase given by both the bad guys and the supposed good guys, Allen managing always to keep one step ahead, though mostly without trying and leaving an unwitting trail of mayhem in his wake. Along the way he picks up an eclectic mix of friends, accomplices, and an elephant!

But this is just one side of the story. The other side is the story of Allen’s life-long adventures in the world where he has been instrumental in The Chinese Revolution, the Russian Revolution, helping to invent the atomic bomb (for both the Americans and the Russians), in the death of Stalin (a stroke brought on by exasperation), saving the life of Winston Churchill (unintended consequences) in the complete destruction of Vladivostok (a diversion that went better than expected), and in the Korean war. He has befriended presidents and dictators, escaped torture and execution and all without a passion for anything except an occasional drop of the hard-stuff.

Allen’s romp through history presents the world’s leaders as incompetents, poseurs, megalomaniacs and fools, in pretty much the same light as Allen’s contemporary encounters during his flight from more petty scoundrels, self important officials and violent motor-cycle gangsters – all of this I suspect only half in jest. The plot is utterly insane, but magically engaging, the story as a whole suggesting the world itself, its pivotal moments and its key players cannot be described in any other way than utterly absurd.

One of Allen’s few penetrating observation on power and politics, to his one time companion, Einstein’s lesser known look-alike half sibling, the eternally dim Herbert (don’t ask): “the nearer you get to the top, my friend, the better the food and drink!”

Endearingly mad. And very glad to have discovered it.

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enduring-love.jpgI find Ian McEwan’s novels accessible on a number of levels, like the skins of an onion. You can read him superficially as the writer of intriguing and imaginative stories peopled by entirely believable characters, or you can peel back a few layers and read more deeply about the whys and wherefores of the human condition. And you can keep on peeling back as deep as you like, or in some cases as deep as you dare.

With Enduring Love though I stepped in a puddle early on, was completely wrong footed, possibly because of my own inner workings, but partly also on account of some quite deliberately laid plot red herrings that had me thinking too deeply, or not,.. maybe.

The opening is dramatic enough – innocent strangers drawn suddenly together by a bizarre ballooning accident in which the protagonists leap onto the ropes of a fast ascending balloon in order to save the lives of the balloonist and a child tossed senseless by freak winds. The balloon passengers escape but the would be rescuers hang on to the ropes a moment too long and are carried upwards, each then letting go as the ground falls away and their nerve fails, landing shaken but unhurt – all except for one man carried too high and hanging on until the last, when he falls to his death.

Had all rescuers hung on, the death might have been prevented, or they might all have died. Who knows? But with this opening scene McEwan raises questions about our fallibility and how the every day actions of innocent people can have profoundly disturbing consequences for both themselves and others.

The main protagonist – one of the would-be rescuers – Joe Rose, is a science writer and a deeply rational man. He’s also conflicted, not just by the incident and his involvement in it and his feelings of guilt at the man’s death, but by his job which he has come to see as a parasitic profession when what he really wants is to be a scientist doing real pioneering work instead of just writing up the discoveries of others. After the accident, another of the rescuers, Jed Parry, a young man of almost messianic religious beliefs, begins to stalk Joe, speaking of loving him and wanting to bring Joe to God.

This is where I was legged up by the story, suspecting Joe Rose of being that most sneaky of plot devices, the unreliable narrator, and Parry’s obsessive stalking as basically an invention of Joe’s, that Parry’s coming was in effect a manifestation of Joe’s unresolved inner spirituality come to break his rational materialism which was souring his life. Anything else and the story would for me have simply been a thriller – about an unhinged stalker and how nobody believes his victim until it’s too late. This seemed a little too prosaic, so I congratulated myself on spotting the deceit early on.

More fool me!

Parry leaves frantic messages on Joe’s answer machine – but Joe deletes them so he cannot offer them as proof of Parry’s maniacal fervour. Parry writes long letters to Joe, but Joe’s wife remarks the handwriting is similar to Joe’s. Parry waits, rain and shine outside Joe’s apartment, but always slinks away when there is a chance Joe’s wife might spot him. Joe complains to the police but, like his wife, they think he’s deluded – no one else has seen Parry.

In this light we view Joe’s dogged pursuit of the facts only as an accumulation of evidence of his own dangerous unravelling. As his paranoia deepens, the cracks begun to show in his marriage – he irrationally suspects his wife of an affair, they argue, fall apart. Finally, convinced of the possibly imaginary Parry’s malign intent, Joe acquires a gun.

But then it turns out Joe was right all along, the we, the reader, Joe’s wife and the police were all wrong, that Parry was outrageously – though not altogether convincingly – real and dangerous, taking Joe’s wife hostage and ushering in a tense thriller-like finale.

Hmmm,… weird!

You’ll find lots of revision notes and crib sheets online about Enduring Love. This suggests it’s been pored over quite a bit by critics and lit students over the years. They’ve turned it inside out torn it apart line by line for its essential meaning but I can’t find any that work with the premise Parry’s stalking was imaginary. The Enduring love of the title, the notes tell me, can be seen as the enduring love of Joe and his wife who eventually muddle through to a happy ending, also the love that Parry professes for Joe, but I’m confused by both of these since the former pretty much fell apart except for a rather unconvincing end-notes denouement, while the latter was clearly delusional.

What would have made more sense to me was for the enduring love to have been that of the love of God Parry professed to be bringing to Joe, that in spite of Joe’s hard headed rationalism, there was something of the spirit abiding all the while in him, in all of us waiting, enduring, attempting all the while to temper his egoic materialism, which his wife described at one point as the “new fundamentalism”. This was a novel about the conflict for the soul of mankind, the fight between materialism and spirit, however you want to define it, and then suddenly,… it wasn’t. Joe’s ego, his materialism, scientific materilaism won out to an altogether more bleakly trite conclusion.

Okay, I was wrong about much of what I read, but then there’s a lot about literature I never got, at least according to the Spark Notes and my grade D “O” Level in the subject (Ha! The fools). Still, should we always accept verbatim what others think? It depends who they are, I suppose. It can be useful as a guide when mulling over a piece of work, but I find the critiques are better read afterwards, in case they colour our expectations too much and render us blind to what our own minds are capable of taking away. I can only say there’s something deeply strange about Enduring Love, but that’s no bad thing.

A terrifically engaging book that really made me think! I got a lot out of reading it, even though it turns out most of that, like Parry’s fervour, was delusional in the end.

 

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