Books

05 December 2017

The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1990



 

Like the previous two books about Jason Bourne, the third, and final, book in this series does not disappoint. It is fast-paced, intelligent, well researched and difficult to put down.

Bringing the story of Jason Bourne and the Jackal to a close was no mean feat with characters flung between the United States, the Caribbean, Europe and Russia. Once again David Webb is forced to ignore his better nature and become Jason Bourne in order to put an end to the Jackal. Until the Jackal is dead, David knows that neither he nor his family will have any peace.

At times I felt the story with its large number of strands and many characters had a tendency to become a little convoluted, but it was simply a matter of ‘going with the flow’. Situations that momentarily seemed to slip beyond my grasp usually managed to right themselves further along, and eventually all the pieces came together. The unbelievable became believable and, in the end, the story and its resolution was all that was important.

Ludlum is to be commended for his political and cultural awareness but most of all for his very great gift as a story teller.

Photo of Robert Ludlum from famousauthors.org

21 November 2017

Winter by Christopher Nicholson, UK, 2014


 




This beautifully written novel about a few weeks in the life of the author Thomas Hardy is a work of fiction based on fact. The story itself concerns Hardy, his second wife, Florence, and an amateur actress, Gertrude Bugler; the background is Dorset; and the season is winter. The style itself is reminiscent of Hardy's own books.  



During a cold, bleak winter in the mid-twenties, Hardy, eighty-four, is coming to terms with his approaching death; Florence, almost forty years younger, is wallowing in a sea of neurotic self-pity; while Gertrude, twenty-six, happily married with a small baby, is looking forward to playing the leading role in a London production of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The construction of the book moves between the thoughts, dreams and anxieties of each of these three characters - Hardy (in the third person) and Florence and Gertrude (in the first person).

Hardy is captivated by Gertrude, who is a flawless representation of the character of Tess as he has always imagined her. He may regret the age difference, but he completely accepts Shelley's theory of the ideal woman and how, during one's life, this woman can reappear in numerous guises. Hardy is not necessarily in love with the physical Gertrude but more with the essence of the girl - an essence that he has experienced many times (if sometimes fleetingly).

Florence, however, is too focused on her wasted and miserable life to even begin to understand her husband's fascination. Instead she complains about trees and cold and interminable damp and instigates the tragic climax of the story.

This is a wonderful book and, especially for fans of Thomas Hardy, is a definite must-read.



Photo of Hardy and Florence from The New York Times.
Photo of Christopher Nicholson from Amazon UK

07 November 2017

En droppe midnatt by Jason Timbuktu Diakité, Sweden, 2016


As it says on the front cover, this is an important book. Not only does it look at the black/white situation in American, it also examines the same situation in other countries, more specifically  Sweden. In translation the book could be called 'A Drop of Midnight', though I am not sure that it has been translated into English.

Jason has grown up in Sweden. He is neither black nor white - his father a black American and his mother a white European - and as he approaches middle age, he realizes that he does not know who he is. As a child he dreams of being white; as a young man he embraces rap and reggae and wishes that he was black. A brown man with a foot in both white and black worlds, he does not really know where he belongs.

Although the book examines his childhood and the bullying that resulted from him not looking like everyone else, the focus of En droppe midnatt is Jason's successful search for his identity. Travelling to America and connecting with relatives he slowly pieces together the family tree, which has survived despite the dark shadow of slavery. He gradually understands who he is and how he fits into the twenty-first century in a country that is just as far from his roots in America as from his original homeland in Africa.

At times I felt that the book became somewhat submerged in the network of small anecdotes about Jason's extended family, but at the same time I realized that these were the stories that gave the book its raison d'etre. As his aunt Juanetta says: If you constantly tell a child that he is worthless, lazy, ugly and a thief; if you beat him and treat him without respect, what kind of person do you think he'll become? What do you think he'll end up doing? We are that child. Four hundred years of abuse, pain and murder have made us what we are today. Beautiful, terrifying, dysfunctional and strong. (Page 175).

Diakité, known as Timbuktu, is a very well known rapper and reggae artist in Sweden.

The photo of Timbuktu is from Sveriges Radio

24 October 2017

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, UK, 2011



Where does the line go between sanity, insanity and eccentricity? Is our concept of 'normal' constant, or does it fluctuate? Is it possible to draw up a list of characteristics that then label a person mentally deranged or a psychopath?

In his book The Psychopath Test, Ronson begins by studying Robert Hare's check list for psychopaths. "Superficial charm, Pathological lying, Lack of empathy. . . '

As he studies the twenty characteristics, he begins to fear that he is surrounded by psychopaths even though, statistically, they account for only 1% of the population (and yet they account for 3% of all managerial and power positions). His research takes him from the UK to USA to Sweden; from mental institutions, to gaols for the criminally insane to new-age healing centres. He interviews diagnosed psychopaths and he talks to psychiatrists - in the end he decides that diagnosing a person on the basis of a check list can be extremely dangerous. The list negates the person, and the person may simply be eccentric.

He touches on the terrifying over-diagnosing of children with ADD, autism and childhood bipolar disorder, and how the pharmaceutical companies are pushing the trend. The word 'normal' has been erased and psychiatrists seek to label (and then medicate) the naughty, tired, eccentric, innovative child. Ronson admits that there are children with mental problems, but they are in the minority.

The book is, as Ronson suggests, 'a journey through the madness industry'. It is well written; there is humour and insight; and for a non-fiction book it is difficult to put down. Ronson presents his findings, and lets the reader make up his/her mind. I personally found it frightening from the perspective that there are obviously so many psychopaths in high places (and this could be an explanation for the sorry state of the world), but I also found it disconcerting that although psychiatrists are hell bent on diagnosing they do not always get it right.

A diagnosis of mental illness can be bad enough, but a wrong diagnosis can be life destroying.


Photo of Jon Ronson from TED.com

03 October 2017

All that Remains by Patricia Cornwell, UK, 1992


All that Remains is filled with many unexplained murders, intrigue and suspense, which is usually the right combination for easy reading when entertainment, and not intellectual analysis, is the main focus.

Over a period of several years a number of couples are found dead in out-of-the-way locations, their cars abandoned and no clues as to the perpetrator and/or why he/she would have done such a thing. But then the daughter of a very powerful woman goes missing, and rumours begin to circulate that government agencies could be involved.

At times the storyline demands a significant leap of imagination, and at times real life is left cowering on the edges of the pages, but this is, after all, part of the deal (that is to say, entertainment over and beyond everything else).

Patricia Cornwell has written many crime dramas where forensic science plays a major role, and while the details can be somewhat gory the main thrust of the story is usually logically, if somewhat imaginatively, presented. 


 Photo of Patricia Cornwell from The Telegraph

19 September 2017

Independent People by Halldor Laxness, Iceland, 1934



Covering almost 600 pages, Independent People is not a book to be read in one sitting, and, even if it were possible, to read the book in such a way is not to be recommended. This is a book that has to be digested slowly. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century it is not a happy read: the abject poverty of the lower classes compared with the relative comfort of the ruling classes was definitely not isolated to Iceland, but in Laxness' book the hunger and the misery is played out against a harsh, cold, unrelenting landscape.

Born in 1902, Laxness is writing about a period he actually experienced, in the environment where he grew up, and the book exudes a definite feeling of authenticity. I would even go so far as to guess that parts of the book are autobiographical or, at least, semi-autobiographical. In other words, Laxness has obviously referred to his own experiences and to those of people he has known when writing the book. For example, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, he mentioned his grandmother in his acceptance speech and commented on how close she had been to him. He went on to say that she had always stressed upon him the importance of respecting those who hold a lowly position in the world and that he should never ill-treat animals. In the book Bjartur's mother-in-law says practically the same thing to her grandson Nonni.

Revolving around Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the book delves into the concept of independence versus the dependence that is the lot of the lower classes. Gudbjartur, or Bjartur as he is called throughout the book, spends eighteen years slaving for the landed gentry so that he might be able to buy his own piece of land and become independent. After an introduction that gives some historical aspects to the story the actual novel begins with Gudbjartur, newly married with Rosa, on his way to take up ownership of his plot of land in an isolated part of northern Iceland.

Life is not only grim, it is unbelievably awful, and Bjartur's fixation with being independent means that he cannot, and will not, accept any kind of help from anyone. This attitude did not endear him to me, in fact I found him extremely irritating, and as the story proceeds it is frustrating to see how he hurts those closest to him. Until the very last pages of the book, he seems to be completely devoid of any kind of emotional connection with his fellow man; though perhaps it is to his merit that he does finally let go of his stubbornness and his fixation on independence to be able to experience a deep emotional connection with another human being.

This is an amazing novel, beautifully written and wonderfully orchestrated. The descriptions of the landscape and the climate are so magnificent that I froze through most of the book. A subdued kind of humour acts as a foil to the serious theme of the book while historically it gives a very good picture of the social situation in Iceland in the early part of the twentieth century.

Definitely not a book to be missed.

Photo of Halldor Laxness from Encyclopaedia Britannica

05 September 2017

The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Australia, 2005





This is a beautiful book, intelligently written. Grenville’s wonderful attention to detail results in a myriad of small word paintings, each of which add yet another layer to our understanding of both early nineteenth-century London and Sydney. Not only can we see the sights, we can also smell the smells and feel the textures. We become immersed in the places; we become part of Grenville’s narrative.


The book centres around William Thornhill, who, after winning a reprieve from hanging for a minor thieving offence, is sent to Sydney town with his wife, Sal, and their small child. It is obvious that the family feels that it has landed at the end of the earth, but William, relieved that he is still alive, sets about to turn the situation to his own advantage. For William, his entire focus is set on owning a place of his own. For Sal, her focus is set on returning Home.


Photo of Kate Grenville from The Age


When Thornhill lays claim to one hundred acres on the shores of the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, he can see his dream taking shape. But there are others who were obviously there before him - people who do not worry about farming the soil but who seem to manage anyway. Thornhill and the other settlers along the banks of the Hawkesbury want the others gone.

ABC Splash
While it is obvious that Grenville’s sympathy is with the indigenous people, she is simply the fact presenter, and the reader is left to make up his/her mind. It is somewhat thought-provoking that while Thornhill and the others suffered inhumane treatment when living in England, once emancipated they gradually assume similar characteristics to their earlier tormentors. Their eagerness to finally be able to own something and, thereby, to achieve some degree of social status, put them in direct conflict with a people where the idea of personally owning anything, especially land, is completely incomprehensible. With hindsight we can wonder if things might have worked out differently had there had been less painful baggage on the part of the ex-convicts and a more understanding, less ignorant, attitude on the part of the people in charge. Unfortunately, we will never know.