We are Sailing

21 08 2016

The Shadow-Line: A Confession by Joseph Conrad

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‘A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed through my veins and gave me such a sense of the intensity of existence as I have never felt before or since.’ Written in 1915, The Shadow-Line is based upon events and experiences from twenty-seven years earlier to which Conrad returned obsessively in his fiction. A young sea captain’s first command brings with it a succession of crises: his sea is becalmed, the crew laid low by fever, and his deranged first mate is convinced that the ship is haunted by the malignant spirit of a previous captain. This is indeed a work full of ‘sudden passions’, in which Conrad is able to show how the full intensity of existence can be experienced by the man who, in the words of the older Captain Giles, is prepared to ‘stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience’. A subtle and penetrating analysis of the nature of manhood, The Shadow-Line investigates varieties of masculinity and desire in a subtext that counterpoints the tale’s seemingly conventional surface.

Classic Conrad this and the storytelling doesn’t disappoint. Superbly written as ever and with a really powerful depiction of life at sea this really is very good indeed.

 

four stars





Carving it up

14 08 2016

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

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A novel about the hundreds of tiny connections between the public and private worlds and how they affect us all. It’s about the legacy of war and the end of innocence. It’s about how comedy and politics are battling it out and comedy might have won. It’s about how 140 characters can make fools of us all. It’s about living in a city where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street. It is Jonathan Coe doing what he does best — showing us how we live now. “Coe is among the handful of novelists who can tell us something about the temper of our times”. (Observer).

Not his best but this sort of sequel to the brilliant ‘What a Carve Up’ is still pretty good. The interconnectedness of it all is perhaps stretched too far but it is good fun with lots of satirical critique of the way we are plus some added and surprising spookiness.

stars-3-5





Istanbul (not Constantinople)

7 08 2016

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

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Carleton Myatt meets Coral Musker, a naïve English chorus girl, aboard the Orient Express as it heads across Europe to Constantinople. As their relationship develops, they find themselves caught up in the fates of the other passengers and drawn into a web of espionage, murder and lies…

An entertaining entertainment from Greene which I had somehow overlooked before. Espionage, murder and lies indeed. Good stuff.

stars-3-5.





An Alternative Axis

30 07 2016

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

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America, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. The winning Axis powers have divided their spoils: the Nazis control New York, while California is ruled by the Japanese. But between these two states – locked in a cold war – lies a neutal buffer zone in which legendary author Hawthorne Abendsen is rumoured to live. Abendsen lives in fear of his life for he has written a book in which World War Two was won by the Allies. . .

Despite the TV adaptation hype (I think the Amazon series is rather different from the book) this is well worth a read. The alternative reality is sketched out very credibly and with lot of rich detail. The alternative possibility to this – a different reality in which the Allies won the war – may or may not be real.

 

stars-3-5.

 

 





Western observation

23 07 2016

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

 

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First published in 1911, Under Western Eyes traces the experiences of Razumov, a young Russian student of philosophy who is uninvolved in politics or protest. Against his will he finds himself caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing directed against the Tsarist authorities. He is pulled in different directions – by his conscience and his ambitions, by powerful opposed political forces, but most of all by personal emotions he is unable to suppress. Set in St Petersburg and Geneva, the novel is in part a critical response to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but it is also a startlingly modern book. Viewed through the ‘Western eyes’ of Conrad’s English narrator, Razumov’s story forces the reader to confront the same moral issues: the defensibility of terrorist resistance to tyranny, the loss of individual privacy in a surveillance society, and the demands thrown up by the interplay of power and knowledge.

With a new BBC adaptation of The Secret Agent screening it looks like Conrad might be coming back into fashion. Maybe, maybe not but Under Western Eyes is an outstanding book whichever way you look at it. Certainly as good as The Secret Agent it feels surprisingly fresh and modern and, as the blurb above notes, addresses some big issues which are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Recommended.

 

four stars





Bon voyage!

16 07 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

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Rachel Vinrace embarks for South America on her father’s ship and is launched on a course of self-discovery in a kind of modern mythical voyage. The mismatched jumble of passengers provide Woolf with an opportunity to satirise Edwardian life. The novel introduces Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of Woolf’s later novel, Mrs Dalloway. Two of the other characters were modelled after important figures in Woolf’s life. St John Hirst is a fictional portrayal of Lytton Strachey and Helen Ambrose is to some extent inspired by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Rachel’s journey from a cloistered life in a London suburb to freedom, challenging intellectual discourse and discovery very likely reflects Woolf’s own journey from a repressive household to the intellectual stimulation of the Bloomsbury Group.

This, Woolf’s first novel, is very much about self-discovery as the blurb here suggests. There is not a huge amount to get excited about here but the writing is excellent and Rachel is an interesting lead. Well worth a read.

3 star





The colonial good guy

9 07 2016

A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd

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Escapee from suburbia, overweight, oversexed … Morgan Leafy isn’t overburdened with worldly success. Actually, he is refreshingly free from it. But then, as a representative of Her Britannic Majesty in tropical Kinjanja, it was not very constructive of him to get involved in wholesale bribery. Nor was it exactly oiling his way up the ladder to hunt down the improbably pointed breasts of his boss’s daughter when officially banned from horizontal delights by a nasty dose …

Falling back on his deep-laid reserves of misanthropy and guile, Morgan has to fight off the sea of humiliation, betrayal and ju-ju that threatens to wash over him.

The improbably named hero Leafy runs from difficulty to problem to disaster and they keep stacking up for him as he stumbles from one mess to another. No-one comes out of this particularly well as the whole colonial edifice begins to crumble. Sharply observed and with plenty of comic scenes, some of which are extremely funny, it is certainly an entertaining read.

 

 

stars-3-5








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