Archive for the ‘on my bookshelf’ Category

This was one of those novels I’ve been thinking I should read, but never got around to it. I was thinking it might be a bit heavy, the kind of story it was advisable to read the Spark notes first. I found it on the shelves of a charity bookshop, still in pristine condition, never opened. Clearly, others had felt the same way about it. But I tried the first paragraph, felt we might get along, and decided to take it home with me. I’m glad I did.

I don’t know Steinbeck very well. I found his prose sparse, but he uses it to create an overall structure of great beauty. This is a long novel, covering three generations, and the characters have a powerful authenticity. Set in the Salinas valley, California, it opens around the time of the civil war, and takes us through to the first world war.

Actually, I like to read a book like this without first cribbing from the Spark notes, or online reviews. A serious novel will speak to a reader in different ways, as they take from it what resonates with their own psyche. Afterwards, I find it useful to skim the notes, see what I missed and usually – fair enough -it’s quite a lot. But what we seem to agree on here is that it is a story very much concerned with the idea of good and evil. It draws on Biblical themes, namely the story of Cain and Abel.

Read as myth, Cain and Abel has various interpretations. Basically, the brothers Cain and Abel make a sacrifice to God. Abel’s sacrifice is welcomed, and he enjoys good fortune. Cain’s is rejected, for no reason that is ever explained. So, Cain is angry with God, and jealous of his brother. Eventually, he kills him. Steinbeck takes this scenario and works it into the relationship between our hero, Adam Trask, and his brother, Charles. He does it again through the relationship between Adam’s sons, Cal and Aeron. Genesis has a great deal to say about the human condition. Philosophers and theologians have been arguing over it for millennia. Steinbeck’s conclusion is that while there is evil in the world, it is never inevitable we shall give ourselves over to bad ways. Though we are born with a certain nature, one we can perhaps do little about, we do have a choice in the way we conduct ourselves, morally.

Estranged from his brother, Adam moves to California with his new wife, Cathy, and buys a ranch. He has inherited money from his father – a convincing bullshitter who manipulated his way into the heart of government. Both Adam and Charles suspect the money to be embezzled. On a neighbouring ranch are the Hamiltons, based on Steinbeck’s own family. The partriarch is Samuel, who befriends Adam, but senses something strange about his wife. Adam employs a Chinese cook and general dogsbody, Lee, who is also disturbed by Cathy’s strangeness and, it turns out, with good reason.

Cathy is actually a monster. She has left a trail of destruction in her wake, including the murder of her parents. Skilled in the arts of sexual manipulation, she has worked as a prostitute, and a blackmailer. Fleeing from a near fatal beating at the hands of a man she underestimated, she reinvents herself and manipulates her way into marriage with Adam, as a means of escape. Adam is blindly in love with her, but knows nothing of her past. She bears him twins, but it’s uncertain they are Adam’s. She makes it plain she has no interest in being a mother and a ranch wife, and tells him as soon as it is over, she will leave him.

This is a dramatic opening. By the time of Cathy’s flight, we have a cast of well fleshed out and fascinating characters. Adam is in love with a ghost, unable to see Cathy for what she is. Sam Hamilton, a wise and sympathetic man, is struggling good naturedly with the stony ground of an infertile ranch. Lee, my favourite character, speaks to most people, including Adam, in pidgin, because that’s what everyone expects from a Chinese. But with Sam he lowers his guard, and reveals himself to be a well-read, articulate and erudite. We get much of the philosophical and psychological thrust of the novel from conversations between Lee and Sam. And then there’s Cathy, a terrifying creation. She has not an ounce of redemptive potential, yet she remains throughout a deeply fascinating character.

This is one of those big novels whose world you can enter and live in, and I didn’t want it to end. I found its style accessible, and seductive enough even to keep me away from the phone. It’ll take you places you might not want to go, but you’ll feel all the better for having done so. Steinbeck is, of course, considered to be one of America’s finest writers and, from reading East of Eden, it’s plain to see why.

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In the later 1890’s, the writer W Somerset Maugham was living in Paris, where he made the passing acquaintance of the occultist Alistair Crowley. The two did not hit it off, as might be surmised from this, Maugham’s 1908 novel, in which Crowley is lampooned as the repulsive “magician”, Oliver Haddo.

Having read a few of Maugham’s later stories, I began this one thinking it was going to be a deeper read than it turned out to be, and that’s a useful lesson in itself. Just because a story is an old one, written in a twiddly style, doesn’t mean they’re all going to be as literary as a Dickens or a Thackeray. It’s a mistake I often make, instead of just sitting back and enjoying what was intended as a much lighter ride, albeit in period costume. Maugham tells us he was probably trying to emulate the style of his contemporary, the popular French writer, Georges Du Maurier, in particular his successful novel “Trilby” (1894).

For our hero, we have Arthur Burdon, a well-to-do English surgeon. Then there is his fiancée, the rather too porcelain-beautiful Margaret Dauncey. We also have her friend, the confident and somewhat mannish Susie Boyd. Then there’s Burden’s fatherly mentor, Dr Porhoët, a retired surgeon and lifelong scholar of the occult. On an evening out in Paris, our friends encounter the larger than life figure of Oliver Haddo. He latches onto them, and they can’t shake him off. He’s intent on demonstrating his occult knowledge and magical powers, in the face of their scepticism. Margaret finds him particularly repulsive, while Burdon thinks him a charlatan and a liar.

The two men exchange increasingly barbed insults, which eventually come to fisticuffs, in which Haddo appears to come off significantly the worst. But it’s clear from here what a dangerous character he is, as he begins to exact a terrible revenge on Burdon, one in which Burdon’s scientific scepticism is going to be tested to the limit.

So, the story starts out as a portrait of fin-de-siècle Parisian life, at least as lived by the well-heeled. Then it sets us up with a couple of lovers who we just know are going to have a hard time of it. To which end things take a sinister turn, with Margaret apparently falling madly in love with Haddo, and unable to help herself – by dint of Haddo’s avenging occultism – then running off with him, and leaving poor old Burdon a bewildered and broken man.

What is it that makes a so-called magician tick? We might offer self belief, bordering on insanity, even a psychopath, possibly. But if a man really were to possess all the powers of the occult Oliver Haddo boasted of, what would be his ambition for them? Well, for Haddo, it was the creation of life, in the form of a so-called homunculus – a small human-like creature. Such homunculi occupied the imaginations of the early alchemists, and nineteenth century writers of horror a great deal – the creation of life by magic being to usurp the power of the gods. Margaret’s unfortunate fate as a component in Haddo’s unspeakable experiments along these lines then is the impetus that drives the story – the Hitchcockian “torture the heroine” ruse. It’s a romantic thriller, then, with a sudden turn into the realms of horror. What’s not to like? Well,…

I’m glad I read the book, and have certainly enjoyed catching up with Maugham, who I’d not read at all, until recently. But I think where the novel failed for me is that we were supposed to like Burden and his young lady. He is presented as a pillar of scientific rigour, a trustworthy, no nonsense upper class Englishman, a man you’d not hesitate to let near you with a surgeon’s scalpel. The trouble is I didn’t like him at all, Margaret neither.

Oliver Haddo, was wonderfully penned as grotesque, deeply sinister and thoroughly unredeemable. The confident Suzie had the potential to be by far the better heroine, perhaps due to her more modern outlook. Her energy and curiosity, were the main engine in the attempt to foil Haddo’s repulsive ambitions, and it was her gadfly spirit that finally brought the luckless Burden to his senses and had him finally do something other than licking his wounds and being stoic in the face of his misfortunes. Modern reviews of the story are mostly positive, and it’s certainly worth seeing what you think. For myself, it was an early book from a writer trying to find his way, and who would go on to win considerable success with other works. In later life, Maugham was also lukewarm in his affections for it, claiming to have forgotten all about it, his more mature eye finding it now “lush and turgid”.

There was one vociferous critic, writing in Vanity Fair, by the name of Oliver Haddo. Clearly, Crowley had recognised himself. In that respect at least, Maugham landed a direct hit, and unlike poor old Burden, went on to suffer no particular harm, as a consequence.

Rex Ingrams made a film of it in 1926, vaguely recognisable as being based on the novel, gloriously melodramatic, and actually quite scary. You might think it would have vanished from sight, but is, of course, on YouTube.

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My thanks to fellow blogger Ashley for his mention of this book, which I was inspired to read over the Christmas and New Year period, and what a wonderfully hopeful message it offers. Indeed, what better way to start the New Year than with an entirely fresh view of humanity, that if we could only realise our true natures, so many of the problems plaguing societies the world over would be solved.

Sounds too good to be true? What is this magical formula? Well, it’s a simple idea, and not particularly radical. It’s an idea backed up by centuries of data, yet somehow conveniently ignored. What is it? Well, it’s simply that most human beings, deep down, are not self-seeking individuals with scant regard for the welfare of others. They are decent, and will go out of their way to help you.

An aircraft crashes on takeoff. Do people panic and make a mad stampede for the doors? Or does everyone help each other, make sure everyone is okay and gets out alive? If asked, we’d say the first scenario, the mad selfish panic, is the most likely outcome, because that’s what happens in the movies. And the media is daily full of examples of the selfish, indeed the downright nasty natures of our fellow beings – so be on your guard because all strangers are out to get you, trick you, scam you, or at the very least get ahead of you in the queue for the door. But, in fact, studies show we’d be wrong, that it’s the second option we’d most likely observe in reality. By far the majority of people really would help one another, even at the risk of their own lives.

Rutger Bregman is an historian, a left leaning intellectual, and a powerful advocate for a Universal Basic Income. His YouTube TED talk “Poverty isn’t lack of character, it’s lack of cash” is up to nearly four million views. His opinions regarding the positive nature of human beings are at times counter-intuitive, to the extent of being hard to swallow, and he triggers much invective from the right-leaning. But his argument runs that our “intuitions” have been poisoned by the media we consume, that the data alone should be convincing enough, and he draws upon several fascinating examples to illustrate his point.

One of the motives behind the civilian bombing campaigns of the second world war was the already discredited theory it would inflict such terror in the minds of the population, the state wouldn’t be able to function. London would empty, the country would become ungovernable, and fall apart. However, the lesson of the blitz was that, in spite of the most appalling loss of life, life went on, the population adjusted to the new normal – terrible as it was – and their resolve deepened. And this was not a peculiarity of the British character, either. The same thing happened in Germany, under allied bombing, and in Vietnam under American bombing, and it’s happening now in Ukraine.

There is nothing better for forming bonds of fellowship, and bringing out the finest and the bravest, and the most altruistic in human nature than adverse circumstances. So the mystery is why our societies are organised on the assumption that we’re all greedy, dishonest, and self-seeking. It’s an urgent question, too, for this pessimistic, and endlessly competitive view of human nature has brought us to the brink of disaster, with massive levels of poverty, and inequality.

Bregman boils his thesis down into ten rules that he says we should all follow, to put things right:

1) When in doubt, assume the best in others.

2) Life is not really a competition where there must always be a loser. The best scenarios are where everybody wins.

3) Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Ask them first. Their needs may be different to yours.

4) Do not simply empathise with the suffering of others. It’s useless and you’ll go mad. Be compassionate instead.

5) Try to understand others, even if you don’t get, or even like, where they seem to be coming from.

6) Love your own as others love their own, while remaining conscious of the love others have for their own. This will close the distance between us, and allow us to see others more as we see ourselves.

7) Avoid the daily news, and all push notifications from social media – they only serve to distance us from others. If you want current affairs, read in slower time from journals – monthlies, weeklies, for a more considered analysis. Ditch the news cycle.

8) Don’t punch Nazis. Meaning, don’t lend your own energy to the provocation of others, and resist the trap of cynicism regarding the fallacy of the entrenched nature of human folly.

9) Don’t be ashamed to do good.

10) To be truly realistic about the facts of human nature, we must discount the myth that most people are a bad lot. They’re not, and the facts bear it out. So, be true to your nature, offer your trust and act from the goodness of the heart.

But who among us has the courage? To be street-smart is a badge of honour – how not to get bushwhacked, or scammed, or mugged? We must basically expect the worst from strangers. We teach stranger danger to our kids. How dare we not? There is, after all, an epidemic of violence and crime against our persons. Or is there? Are we not simply being taught to fear?

Bregman tell us that, yes, of course, showing trust, we will occasionally be taken advantage of, but it’s a mistake to allow ourselves to become poisoned against the rest of our fellow man as the result. Reflecting on his message, uplifting as it is, I doubt I have the courage to live all ten of those rules, even though my own life experience does bear out his thesis. I have fetched up more than once as an innocent from the sticks, in Liverpool, a town that has the reputation – in the media at least – of the wild west, and each time I have been aided by perfect strangers, with genuine heart and feeling. But my transactional experience with people also suggests that, although a person’s primary instinct may be open and altruistic, if they are given any excuse for thinking they have been slighted, they will turn against you very quickly.

A very uplifting read, from a fascinating author.

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If a novel was ever written for a writer, this is the one. Blisteringly satirical, it tells the story of a writer, Willie Ashenden, and his relationship with another writer Alroy Kear, who is tasked with writing a glowing biography of the recently departed, the venerable, and much revered writer Edward Driffield. A lot of writers, then. Ashenden knew Driffield in his earlier days, when he was not so revered, and indeed despised by polite society, on account of his lowly origins and his marriage to his first wife, the vivacious, promiscuous and prolifically unfaithful Rosie.

Most reviews I’ve read focus on the story of Ashenden’s relationship with Rosy. Her free spirit and even her promiscuity are written up as a refreshing poke in the eye for a stuffy, class-ridden society that rejects truth in favour of appearances. Personally, I found her rather shallow and cruel, the sort of girl who would break an honest man’s heart. But there’s much more going on here than that.

The inspiration for Edward Driffield was the then recently deceased novelist, Thomas Hardy. Alroy Kear was the writer Hugh Walpole. The novel caused a scandal, and broke the friendship between Maugham and Walpole, who recognised himself in it at once. Hardy’s widow, his second wife, and guardian of Hardy’s saintly legacy, was equally put out. She had a friend pen a novel by way of revenge, called Gin and Bitters, under the pseudonym of A Riposte. It was subtitled “A novel about a novelist who writes novels about other novelists.” Thin-skinned, Maugham took the hump and threatened to sue, preventing publication in the UK. Naturally, I’m on the look-out for a copy, but this is a rare book.

Anyway, besides trampling his fellows into the dirt, Maugham focuses a caustic eye upon the business of writing itself, or rather the business of books and publishing, which is really the story of the relationships between writers, critics and publishers, and how appallingly these literary types treat one another in order to get anywhere. And the book does this by being in itself an example of a writer – Maugham – trashing the reputations of other writers, both dead and living. Maugham denied all of it at the time, and his denials, given in the introduction to my edition, are plausible, but whatever the truth, I dare say the publicity did him no harm.

I’m very fond of Hardy, but agree with Maugham, he had a taste for the melodramatic. Walpole I know from his Herries series of books, and agree he could be terribly long-winded, one memorable description of a person’s hat taking more than a page, though these indefatigable efforts did little to actually impress the hat in my memory. That said, he produced four Herries, books and I stuck with all of them, and gladly, so he must have been doing something right. Nor does Maugham spare himself from ridicule, painting himself as his alter ego, Ashenden, a highly cultured, but rather unlikeable and self-entitled snob.

Although first published in nineteen-thirty, the book should still find resonance, not least among the contemporary generation of us so-called independent authors, who might be thinking, smugly, we have risen above this messy fray. But we haven’t. Not really.

As Maugham says:

The critics can force the world to pay attention to a very indifferent writer, and the world may lose its head over one that has no merit at all, but the result in neither case is lasting; and I cannot help thinking no writer can hold the public’s attention for as long as Edward Driffield without considerable gifts. The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choices not from among the unknown writers, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the bestsellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.

What Maugham is pointing out here – albeit a to a future audience he could not have conceived of – is that while we might easily bypass the big publishers with our use of online media, without the massive machinery of attendant critics, hacks and reviewers singing our praises, our works are no better than those he describes as falling stillborn.

The commercial book business is a messy one, says Maugham. There is much back-stabbing and hypocrisy. Its writers can be vain, jealous creatures who will court approval and posterity at any price. But it’s from this milieu the great and lasting works must necessarily be chosen. By contrast, a book, self-published, might gain only modest altitude, marketed within the humble means of its author. But without a whole industry standing up on its behalf, no matter its merit, it falls into the void when compared with those conventionally published works, regardless of their actual merit. And that’s a sobering thing, one the independent author should digest before ever setting pen to paper.

As I have written elsewhere, there is likely a good reason my own books did not tickle an editor’s fancy, and I am at peace with that. I self-publish, but the only marketing my stories get is in the margin of this quiet backwater of a blog. So it comes down to the sort of writer you want to be. My books have not, and will not change the world, but they have changed me. They have held me together over the years, provided direction, and they have introduced me to ideas I would not otherwise have entertained. More, I believe my life would have been all the smaller for not having lived a good part of it in the imagination.

So, whilst not the most in-depth review of a book on my bookshelf, I hope I’ve been able to capture at least what most impressed itself upon me, as a writer of sorts, reading about a writer of another sort, gleefully and ruthlessly sending up writers of a similar sort. Whatever kind of writer you are, I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending time in the company of Cakes and Ale.

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I was drawn to this book on the strength of Anthony Doerr’s previous work, the Pulitzer prize winning “All the Light We Cannot See“, which I enjoyed very much. Cloud Cuckoo Land is another complex labyrinth of a novel. It is intricate, puzzling, occasionally infuriating, but also compulsive and deeply rewarding.

It jumps back and forth between the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the Korean War in the 1950s, the USA in the 40s and the present day, then also to a near future onboard a spaceship, the Argos, containing a volunteer crew from a climate ravaged earth. The crew are travelling to an exo-planet that may support human life, a journey that will take almost six hundred years, and of course which none alive at the time will ever see.

What links each of these threads is another story, the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land, an imagined “lost” text by the ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes. The story tells of a humble shepherd who is tired of his lot but has heard of a utopian land in the sky, built by the birds. Since only a bird can get there, he visits a witch who promises to turn him into a bird, but things go wrong, and he ends up as a donkey, then a fish. He suffers every hardship imaginable, but refuses to give up on his desire to reach Cloud Cuckoo Land. Finally, he becomes a bird, but must face one last test before being admitted,…

Diogenes’ fictional book is first rediscovered in a fragile state by one of our earliest protagonists Anna, in Constantinople, who escapes the siege, and smuggles the book out with her. Eventually, her husband, a humble ox-herder takes the book to Italy, so it might be preserved, but it’s essentially lost again in the archives, only to be rediscovered by researchers in contemporary times. But by now it’s in such poor condition it takes modern technology to reconstruct its pages, though sadly with many words missing, and the pages jumbled up. Posted online as an international treasure of public interest, its cause is taken up by the humble octogenarian, Zeno Ninis, who attempts a translation and a reconstruction of the plot. To this end he enlists the help of a group of schoolchildren who work the story into a play. But on the night of its performance, they are disturbed by the young, autistic Seymour, who is intent on making an explosive statement regarding our mistreatment of nature. Although the main story jumps about in time, the ancient text is revealed in linear fashion as it passes through the hands of the various protagnists, so acting as a kind of temporal compass, preventing us from getting lost.

It’s onboard the Argos, through the eyes of a young girl, Konstance, we learn of the global catastrophe she and her fellows are escaping. The Argos is controlled by an A.I. called Sybil, whose memory contains a record of everything ever written, and which is accessible through a virtual reality experience akin to entering the ultimate library. There’s also a kind of 3D Google Earth one can visit to see what life was like back home, just prior to the calamity. Konstance is aware of the story of Diogenes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land through her father, who has been telling it to her, but she can find no copy of it in Sybil’s memory. As she searches for it, she pieces together the mystery of the translation by Zeno Ninis, and closes in on a final startling revelation regarding the voyage of the Argos itself.

For all the complexity of its structure, I found the story accessible. As with his previous novel, I found the prose beautiful, while maintaining a page turning urgency. There’s a clear warning about the climate emergency here, about the vacuity of the materialism that’s driving us to ruin, about our almost wilful blindness to everything we are risking by our inaction, but there’s also a dig at the techno-utopians who see a solution for us in the stars, instead of trying to solve the problems of a dying earth by righting our own wrongs here and now.

The story of the shepherd ends with him dissatisfied, even amid the luxurious perfection of Cloud Cuckoo Land. He discovers at last that what he wants more than anything is to return to the life he had as a humble shepherd, with all its vexations and imperfections. The moral of that one is that what we already have is always so much better than what we are forever, and so desperately, seeking elsewhere.

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Oh, I really hated this book. Every sentence was like grabbing hold of barbed wire, or like someone spitting in your eye. No wonder it’s been so widely read, so critically praised and canned in equal measure, so talked about for the seventy years it’s been in print.

The story concerns Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boy recounting his drop-out from an American Prep School. It’s just one of several he’s been ejected from for failing to apply himself. We begin with news of his latest misstep, then follow him through just three days of his return home to yet another disgrace. Caulfield is clearly damaged, but not by his parents, who seem decent enough, the way he tells it, though it’s clear he despises them simply for being adults. Indeed, Caulfield despises just about everyone he mentions.

The adult world, according to him, is peopled entirely by “phoney” characters. His peers are morons, girls are whores, or simply dumb. Even smart girls are dumb. Smart guys are pains in the ass. Only his younger sister, Phoebe, is spoken of warmly, she and his younger brother, Allie, who died of leukaemia. Or, come to think it, any kid who is still of the age of innocence amuses him, and does not provoke disdain. His older brother, a successful Hollywood writer, he calls a prostitute for selling out. Oh, yes, Caulfield’s alienation is total, and one is cautioned from offering him a guiding hand, because he’d be sure to slap it away, accuse you of being phoney, dumb, a pain in the ass, or a pervert, for even trying.

When I picked this book up, I wondered if I was too old to be reading it, having read it was a set text at many a high school. I don’t know, I’d hate to be set the task of reading this at any age. But the older you are, the more you’ll be thinking this kid’s a gonner, and there’s no redeeming him. Maybe that’s my problem, and the book is challenging me to deal with whatever it is in myself that has me so irritated about it. Even as a teenager, though, this book would have annoyed me. My own sense of alienation at that age was nothing like this. My background wasn’t as privileged, I suppose. It was peopled by working men, who either worked or their families starved. There’s nothing phoney about that. Yes, all right, the adult world was, in some ways glossed over with a kind of veneer that kept everything shiny, and moving along, but which wasn’t real, but I felt the adults knew it wasn’t real, that they didn’t call it out because that would have crashed the world. Teens like Caulfield would rather crash the world anyway. Kids like Caulfield are dangerous.

But not all adults are phoney. Some are like angels. I have a list of them from my own growing up, and I know I owe them. None were dumb or pains in the ass, or perverts, either. But Caulfield lacks the sensitivity to recognise an angel, and respect it. His arrogance blinds him, and his manner suggests he’ll always be immature. It’s hard to feel compassion for someone like that. I don’t know if Salinger intended this or not. His world was not mine, and I resent him for suggesting the world was more like his, than mine.

From the way Caulfield talks, Allie’s death was a possible trigger for his delinquency. It was a tragedy, a sad thing to happen, and it affected his mother deeply, but he can’t relate to that or, perhaps more accurately, he refuses to see it. He can’t see past his own anger and alienation. I really hated him. I made it half-way through his moan-fest before setting the book aside, and I said: “so long, kid. Your whining bores me.” I believe this is not an uncommon reaction.

But the really irritating thing is I picked it up again, thinking there must be some sort of revelation, or at least a point to the endlessly immature, foul-mouthed rejection of – well – just about everything. Somewhere in the mess of his mind, one thing must surely light him up and turn him round.

Delaying his journey home, he gets into tetchy exchanges with taxi drivers. He checks into a seedy hotel, attempts to look grown up in nightclubs, gets beaten up by a pimp after a disastrously chaste encounter with a prostitute. He talks big, a child on the edge of adulthood. Is he going to pull through and grow up, or is he always going to be a child, even when he’s an old man? I suspect the latter, but really, Salinger found a way of making is so that I really didn’t care.

One of the few generous things he does in New York is buying his little sister a rare record, which he knows she’ll treasure. But after a drunken night in a bar, he ends up dropping it and breaking it. Instead of throwing the pieces away, he puts them in his pocket, not sure why he’s doing it. That’s fairly typical of the book, that in the midst of Caulfield’s interminable whining, Salinger throws in an acutely poignant observation that stops you in your tracks, makes you think you’re getting somewhere. Then, just as we think we’re finding our feet, off we lurch again down another dark, urine scented alleyway.

Towards the end of the book, after making no progress at all in this odyssey of angst, Caulfield turns up late at night, at a former teacher’s home – the apparently sympathetic Mr. Antolini, one of the few adults Caulfield doesn’t feel too bad about. Salinger reserves some of his wisest lines for Antolini:

“I don’t want to scare you,” he said, “but I can clearly see you’re dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause,…”


“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

At this point, I was thinking old Antolini was finally going to turn our problem child around, that at last we were in good company, but then Salinger throws in a peculiar and somewhat ambiguous act that has Caulfield fleeing Antolini’s apartment, thinking the guy was making sexual moves towards him. As a plot development, I found that deeply puzzling, and not a little insulting. An unsympathetic adult is a phoney, a sympathetic one is a pervert. Well, to hell with you, Caulfield.

In the final scene, we have Caulfield take Phoebe to the park where he watches her riding on the carousel, and him close to tears, but from happiness, he tells us. Like most commentators, I agree the whole book was a lament for lost childhood. After all, the title, “Catcher in the Rye” is the main clue here, it being a reference to the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ thro the Rye”, and a line Caulfield tells us he mistakes as reading: “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” and he pastes it onto a fantasy image of thousands of kids playing amongst the tall rye in a field, bordered by a cliff, and Caulfield the only adult who has to catch the kids, and prevent them from falling over the edge, thus symbolically sparing innocence, preserving childhood, his childhood.

And that would be that except for one brief closing chapter that shows us Caulfield in a mental hospital, from where he’s been relating the whole tale, and a suggestion the psychiatrists are trying to straighten out him, ready for going back to school. But good luck is all I can say. As a kid of his age, I would have given him a wide berth, same as now. All teens feel a certain sense of alienation as adulthood approaches. I know I did, but Caulfield’s state of mind was, frankly, terrifying.

A good book? Well, it’s still in print, and it definitely provoked a reaction in me. That’s art, I suppose. But I still hated it.

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The Razor’s Edge mostly concerns Larry Darrel, an American youth who has returned home from the first war. He’s expected to pick up where he left off, marry Isabel, his childhood sweetheart, and take up a position in business with his best friend’s father. His future looks set, and he’s well-placed to move into monied, and fashionable society, partly also by virtue of Isabel’s well-connected socialite uncle, Elliott Templeton.

But Larry’s experience in the war has changed him, and he sets off instead on a journey of self discovery that takes him through Europe and India, leaving Isabel to marry his best friend, the lovable but ultimately dull “Gray”. Maugham plays himself, popping in and out of the various characters lives, and thereby updating us on their progress, as the years pass.

On the surface, it sounds a bit dull, but Maugham draws his characters well and has us believe in them. Although a major thread of the story, Larry’s gradual path to a kind of enlightenment is delivered with a light brush, especially when compared with the lavishness heaped upon Elliot Templeton, who’s outrageous snobbery, tempered by his kindness and devotion to his family, nearly captures the entire book. Templeton’s highly strung obsession with the socialite scene, with matters of taste and position, are however, the perfect contrast to Larry’s gradual, happy impoverishment.

As for Isabel, although superficially happy with her marriage, money and the trimmings of her social position, she has never stopped wanting Larry. She simply couldn’t bring herself to be a part of the humble life he’d chosen, and when Larry resurfaces after many years looking set to marry Sophie, a broken drunk of a girl from his and Isabel’s past, no matter how reformed Larry claims Sophie to be, Isabel is determined to thwart the match by fair means or foul.

There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s one that lingers for a long time afterwards. We realise by the end we’ve become part of Maugham’s world, sat with him at the pavement café’s of inter-war Paris, attended Templeton’s fastidiously crafted society parties, and hobnobbed with the continental aristocracy. What the main characters all have in common is they are seeking happiness, Isabel through a good marriage, Gray through the making of money, Templeton through the recognition of his social prowess, and his exquisite tastes in fashion and art. And then there’s Larry. Larry’s path is the hardest of them all, unlike the others, not even knowing exactly what it is he’s looking for. He walks the Razor’s Edge, the title coming from a line in the Kathe Upanishad:

Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, difficult to traverse.

But as we follow Larry’s path, we see him grow, become grounded and at ease with life and himself. By contrast Isabel, still bound up with the material trappings, grows brittle for the choices she has made, and ever desperate for the man she loves, while Templeton, ageing yet forever striving to keep up with the times, fears being sidelined by the high society of which he believes himself to be king.

A little daring for its time, sexually frank, Maugham even ventures so far as profanity, though delicately, and in French. But what we also have here is the portrait of a lost world, the story taking place mostly in Europe of the 20s and 30s, a world that was swept away, even as Maugham was writing about it, and so lucidly.

It was the subject of two film adaptations, the first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power, the second in 1984 with Bill Murray, but I can recommend neither. I’ve not read Maugham before, and I’m told this isn’t the best place to be starting, it being rather towards the end of his canon, but I found him nevertheless good company, and an engaging storyteller. A bestseller in its day, I thought it was a terrific read, its message as fresh now as ever, which only goes to show how little we’ve advanced, that while the wise know full well the material life is a dead end, most of us simply can’t help ourselves. Besides, anything else is a path so hard, and so narrow, few have the mettle, or the balance for it.

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Living responsibly in an unfinished world

The idea of a purpose to the universe, and our individual place in it, has mostly lost out to a rational world view that relegates the whole of creation to an accident of nature. The only mystery left is how consciousness can arise from within a system of physical matter. This is called the hard problem, but lately there has arisen a breed of fundamentalist scientistic thinker claiming to have solved the problem by claiming consciousness does not exist. We only think it does, and by doing so, we are trying to make more of the cosmos than there really is. How depressing! The only miracle is how we do not all go mad, when faced with such pointlessness.

But there is a view that such scientific fundamentalism is actually dangerous, and in this book, Gary Lachman argues we urgently need to move ourselves back to the centre of the cosmos, and realise our role as its caretaker, before it’s too late.

As in all his other works, Lachman writes as a champion of consciousness. He assures us that not only is consciousness real, it is primary, and he reminds us of the reasons for such belief with the aid of a tour through a long history of ideas and thinkers.

While the scientific consensus has moved towards an ever more hardened and eliminative position, as if drawing the shutters on the light of consciousness, other thinkers have been trying to keep them open, and to let the light back in. The book opens with the Jewish, Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun. This views creation as imperfect, that man’s place, man’s purpose, is one of seeing to its ongoing repair.

The world is always going to hell in a handcart, have you noticed? But it could always be worse. We might feel we cannot affect significant change in the world, as individuals, but if we all did the little bit of good that we know, and feel, personally, then the world would be changed. This might sound twee, but as we work our way into the book, we begin to see the profundity of the concept. The question arises, though, what is good? Can man decide, rationally, and make laws to define it? Or is the idea of good something that comes from within, and an inherent property of a fundamentally conscious universe? Or is it neither? Is it not so much an action or a prohibition anyway, as a way of seeing, and being?

Another powerful idea is that of evil, and the perennial question: why does it exist? Here Lachman turns the argument around and asks instead: is evil, or rather an amoral “might is right”, “survival of the fittest” world, not the default position? And if so, why is there good in the world? His answer is that in all of evolutionary history, there was no “good”, until man came along.

There are so many references here, so many springboards for further thought and study, it’s difficult to know where to start, but one of the more striking quotes comes from the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who says: “we live in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope.” The suggestion here is that the universe is an experiment in existence, an experiment that would be pointless unless carried out under difficult conditions. Similarly, it would be equally pointless if all hope were extinguished, for then we would be justified in taking the nihilistic position, simply giving up and lowering our necks to the block, bowing to the axe of an irresistible evil. But the world is not like that. It is always on the brink,… and we work, argue and even at times fight to keep it in balance and moving forward.

This is an idea also reflected in the work of Gurdjieff who once remarked that the earth is in a very bad place in the universe, almost the worst… that everything we do is difficult and costs a great deal of effort, but it may be the only place where we can get things done.

At this point we encounter the work of Ian McGilchrist, whose book The Master and his Emissary, describes the differences between the left and the right brain hemispheres, and the types of attention they each bring to the world. The right hemisphere is geared towards observing reality with a kind of patient, broad brush attention, while the left is geared more towards control and manipulation of details. As an example of this we’re given the grain of sand in which the poet Blake, in an extreme right brain mode of attention, sees a whole world of wonders, but which, in left brain mode, others might see more as being insignificant, or worse, an annoying piece of grit in your shoe.

The kind of attention we must bring to bear in order to realise the good within ourselves, is of the right brain variety. The act of Tikkun, or repair, then, is not so much a specific act, or an intervention, but a way of looking at something while we are doing it, and it doesn’t matter what it is we’re doing. It is the kind of attention we employ that’s the important thing, because the kind of attention we direct at the world, determines the kind of world we encounter.

In the Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist argues that the right brain is the proper, natural master. It is like a King who must rule a nation. The King has a broad grasp of many things, but favours and retains no specifics. When he needs to pay closer attention to something, he deploys an emissary, the left brain, to deal with the details, to summarise, and report back for the King to act wisely. But as time has passed, human consciousness has evolved in ways that have allowed the left brain, the emissary, to dominate. We have become immersed in details, we drown in them, and can no longer see the broader picture. Thus, the kingdom suffers as the scientistic emissaries shut the King out, and work against him, decrying him as incompetent, and fuzzy minded. The prediction of this kind of thinking, should it come to dominate, is pretty much the kind of world we have now, one that denies the very existence of consciousness, and treats people as objects, as dumb machines, to be exploited, dominated, controlled.

Returning then to the idea of “doing the good that we know”, this sense can only arise in us with a right brain dominance, also when our basic needs are met – food, shelter, warmth, intimate relationships,… once all these things are in the bag, so to speak, the way becomes open for a person to self-actualise, to become, in the words of Abraham Maslow, more “fully human.” Then the sense of what is good arises spontaneously from a kind of intelligence of the heart.

Of course a great deal of harm has been done by people imposing their ideas of good on others, but the more fully human “self-actualisers” tend to be less concerned with other people, and seek instead to apply their instinctive sense of the good in their own struggle to develop. And such development leads to the conclusion that while we are in the cosmos, in a physical sense, we are not entirely of it. Metaphysically, we are “outside” of it, looking in.

When we study the works of early civilisations, in particular their art, there is a sense that they did not differentiate themselves from their environment, or from nature, that self consciousness was as yet nascent. Their art is curiously two-dimensional, and child-like. Only later do we see a change taking place, and art separating man from his world by the use of perspective. The world and nature becomes “object” and through our sense of separateness, we start to wonder about our place in it.

Objectifying the world has had its downsides, and may yet bring us to self-destruction, but the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, and there can be no return to earlier, pre-conscious modes of thinking. Evolution does not run backwards, so the task facing us is both critical for our own survival, but also for the cosmos, since, in a sense, we are the eyes and ears of the cosmos waking up to itself. If we stuff it up, the cosmos, as we know it, and therefore as it knows itself, will cease to exist.

The way ahead appears to be to achieve a greater understanding of the powers that we have. This means re-orientating ourselves back to the centre of our personal universe, to become more fully human, then to recognise and to do the good that we know. We bring the kind of attention to bear that we would like to see reflected in the world.

A thought-provoking and uplifting work, broad in scope but engagingly written. Fully referenced and with a lifetime’s worth of side reading.

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In dark and uncertain times, it’s a pleasure to find a book as unremittingly positive, and as (literally) energising as this one. Wim Hof is famous for his feats of extreme endurance, like running up Everest wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, climbing Kilimanjaro in record time, without the normal acclimatisation to avoid altitude sickness, and for sitting encased in ice for periods that would kill a lesser mortal. Not surprisingly, he is also known as the “Ice man”.

Wim Hof claims no special physiology. Medical tests confirm he is not a freak of nature, and he tells us anyone equipped with his methods can achieve the same thing. Moreover, his methods are simple, and they are not “secret”. Any search of the Internet will reveal them. They are based upon his own life experiences, and his researches of ancient eastern techniques. For example, there are stories of Tibetan monks who sit in the freezing cold, and dry out wet cloths upon their backs by the generation of internal heat. It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented, but has left researchers stumped. It’s that sort of thing, Wim has taken on board, honed it to its essentials, demystified it, and applied it to astonishing effect in his own life. While few of us would feel the need to emulate Wim Hofs feats of extreme endurance, the implications for general health and well-being are equally profound.

The method does not require years of seclusion in a Tibetan Monastery. Rather, it involves a daily regime of breathing exercises, followed by exposure to cold water – say a cold shower every morning. The book outlines the exercises, its applications, and some testimonies from satisfied practitioners, but in the main this is Wim Hof’s personal story, and writes like a force of nature, is inspirational, and comes across as infinitely compassionate. He speaks of his early childhood in Holland, and his drop-out culture youth, among communities of squatters. He speaks of adult tragedy, his love of family, and his mission, which is to pass on this same infectious passion for life.

But is he too good to be true? Inevitably, perhaps, many have thought so. Journalists have sought him out with the aim of exposing him, but have ended up becoming converts. His collaboration with various scientific institutions also adds rigour to his claims, and has further silenced cynical naysayers, though his feats still defy conventional wisdom on how the body works, and what it should be capable of.

The difficulty most of us have with any “method”, however, is making the time, or having the motivation, or just the sheer courage, and I for one have yet to take the cold water challenge. That said, my own studies and practice of Qigong lead me to have no trouble endorsing at least the breathing techniques, which seem like an effective précis of the many methods I have encountered over the years.

The aim of breath work, like this, is to dramatically increase the oxygen content of the blood. Breath is, literally, the stuff of life, it is oxygen, it is the Qi of the Chinese, the Prana of the Hindu, but the western lifestyle means we are often living under stress, which interferes with the breath, restricts it, which results in a permanent state of hypoxia, and a resulting chemical imbalance, which leads to inflammation, to immuno-deficiency, and to all manner of sickness. We gradually acidify. Attention to the breath redresses the balance, boosting oxygen intake, and gradually resetting the dial so to speak. Reading this book has reinforced the answers to the questions my own practice of Qigong posed over the years.

Whilst at pains to provide a rigorous backing for its claims, there is an undoubted hippy, new age vibe to the narrative, and Wim’s language is never far away from the mystical – at least in a secular, new age kind of way. Some readers may find this off-putting, but this is not written as a sterile medical textbook, it is the document of a man’s life, his achievements and his passions, told in his own words, which makes his story all the more readable, and I warmed to it at once.

Wim Hoff: I’ll tell you what I do. I follow my inner voice and listen to what it tells me. I trust my soul sense and let it guide me. I ignore, as best as I can my ego. I know it’s going to be cold in the morning and that those first few seconds in the cold water are going to be unpleasant because my ego tells me so. But my inner voice tells me to bloody get into that cold water,…

We’ve all heard that voice. For now mine’s not urging me under a cold shower in the mornings, though with electricity currently at nearly 30p per Kilowatt hour, I can see the benefits to my pocket, if not also my health. It once happened by accident, a guest house shower suddenly running ice-cold, and the shock of that was so great I gasped for breath, staggered out, and nearly fainted. Wim does suggest, therefore, you go easy on yourself to begin with.

Altogether, a very engaging and informative read. I gained such a lot of knowledge from it, answering questions I’ve had for a long time about breath-work, and it effects on physiology. And yes, I’m sure a cold shower would wake me up in more ways than one, but at the risk of sounding cosseted, I’m happy to take it one day at a time.

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I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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