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John Self "www.theasylum.wordpress.com" (Belfast, NI)

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Lighthousekeeping
Lighthousekeeping
by Jeanette Winterson
Edition: Hardcover

71 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lighthousereading, 4 May 2004
This review is from: Lighthousekeeping (Hardcover)
If ever a book warranted the over-used (and usually optimistic) critical phrase "a return to form," Lighthousekeeping is it. After the brilliant but dense and closed Art & Lies (of which Winterson now says "It was written at a time when I was looking inwards, not outwards ... sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't"), the patchy Gut Symmetries and the (in my view) atrocious The PowerBook, Lighthousekeeping - supposedly the beginning of a new cycle in her writing - is a breath of sea air.
As a new cycle in her writing (she says her first seven novels were a complete cycle in themselves), it doesn't half look a lot like the old one. But this is to be expected: all writers revisit their old turf throughout their lives: as Martin Amis said when pre-empting such criticisms of Yellow Dog, "the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn." So Lighthousekeeping retains Winterson's abiding interest in love ("the greatest human achievement"), storytelling ("Trust me. I'm telling you stories"), the multiplicity of history, parentless children and boundaries of desire, but puts them in the service of something lighter and brighter than we have seen from her probably since Sexing the Cherry.
The story is narrated by Silver. Silver's gender remains undeclared through most of the book, as a ten-year-old child, which I thought was an echo of Written on the Body where Winterson did the same thing, although I have never been able to read the narrator there as anything other than a woman, and a Jeanette-shaped woman at that. Anyway towards the end we discover that Silver when fully grown wears a bra, so we can - probably - put paid to that theory. Silver is orphaned when her mother, roped to her to climb the slope to their home, falls.
"Up she went, carrying the shopping, and pulling me behind her like an after-thought. Then some new thought must have clouded her mind, because she suddenly stopped and half-turned, and in that moment the wind blew like a shriek, and her own shriek was lost as she slipped.
"In a minute she had dropped past me, and I was hanging on to one of our spiny shrubs - escallonia, I think it was, a salty shrub that could withstand the sea and the blast. I could feel its roots slowly lifting like a grave opening. I kicked the toes of my shoes into the sandy bank, but the ground wouldn't give. We were both going to fall, falling away from the cliff face to a blacked-out world.
"I couldn't hang on any longer. My fingers were bleeding. Then, as I closed my eyes, ready to drop and drop, all the weight behind me seemed to lift. The bush stopped moving. I pulled myself up on it and scrambled behind it.
"I looked down.
"My mother had gone."
And so Silver ends up, via the obligatory narky old maid character, living with Pew, keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew, of course, is blind, and may or may not have lived for hundreds of years. He keeps Silver entertained by telling her stories, mostly of the 19th century clergyman Babel Dark (no shortage of symbolic names here, no sir), who visited Cape Wrath and knew Robert Louis Stevenson and betrayed his wife with a scarlet (literally; the old Winterson obsession with redheads is back too) woman. The lighthouse is a richly suggestive symbol itself of course: "a known point in the darkness", part of "a string of lights" on "the coasts and outcrops of this treacherous ocean."
But for all its open-to-interpretation symbolism, Lighthousekeeping, like most of Winterson's books, doesn't really leave you in any doubt about where the author is coming from. She still values love over all else ("But today, when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions. What I remember is love - all love - love of this dirt road, the sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a café").
But what is missing in Lighthousekeeping is the bitterness and ranting - one might almost say raving - against consumerism, tourists, heterosexual marriage, other people, which increasingly marred everything from Art & Lies onward. It seems then that Winterson has, miraculously, found a way to express - and boy can she express; only now when looking up these quotes I have been diverted and diverted again by endless brilliant phrases among the pages - her passion for the life she loves without turning it into an attack on Everything Else. Where before she could be a marauding mob brandishing torches of naked flames, burning things down (albeit asking questions at the same time): now she is a kindly light, still bright and powerful enough to be seen for miles but under control, a known point in the darkness of so much contemporary fiction.


The Impressionist
The Impressionist
by Hari Kunzru
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skin, Deep, 22 April 2004
This review is from: The Impressionist (Paperback)
I loved The Impressionist. It's set in the first quarter of the twentieth century and tells the story of the first twenty-odd years of the life of Pran Nath Razdan. The book opens (though we don't know it yet) with his conception, and then takes us to the Indian city of Agra, where Pran Nath is the coddled and spoiled child of a high-profile lawyer. Pran Nath is an uncommonly beautiful child, with fairer skin than anyone else in his family - which it turns out is because his father is not his father at all. This is discovered just as Razdan pere dies, and Pran Nath is thrown out of the household and left to make his way in the world.
And make his way he does, by adopting different guises and roles, ultimately masquerading as an orphan Jonathan Bridgeman, where he studies at Oxford and goes off on an anthropological expedition with his sweetheart's father to Africa. The sections of the book cover one "identity" each, and it's notable from the first change that Pran Nath never really makes the decision to change his role himself: his impressions are thrust on him by fate. This is an early indicator of what becomes glaringly apparent as the novel progresses - that Pran Nath, Pretty Bobby, Jonathan Bridgeman or whoever, has no character of his own. He is a void at the centre of the novel. Clearly this is deliberate, or at least understood by Kunzru, as we learn from this passage, where our hero watches a real impressionist on stage:
"The man becomes these other people so completely that nothing of his own is visible. A coldness starts to rise in Jonathan's gut, cutting through the vodka. He watches intently, praying that he is wrong, that he has missed something. There is no escaping it. In between each impression, just at the moment when one person falls away and the next has yet to take possession, the impressionist is completely blank. There is nothing there at all."
Nonetheless this emptiness at the centre does mean it's hard to see The Impressionist as more than a high-class entertainment, despite its occasional probes into racial acceptance and social satire. Still, high-class it certainly is, and quite simply one of the best-written books I've read, word for word, in ages. Kunzru has a real way with novel little expressions, none of which I can trace now of course to cite in evidence, but take my word for it that the book is never dull or hackneyed in its 500 pages. And Pran Nath's blankness is amply balanced by the richness of the surrounding characters - I was constantly finishing little vignettes into the characters' pasts with a smile on my face of pure satisfaction. (The relating of a form of futures trading in a primitive society is particularly original and brilliant.) Even characters who only appear in a few lines have a curious vividness:
Rising up behind the main hall, the glasshouses appear like a miniature crystal palace, glittering in the sunshine. Mesmerized, Jonathan is approaching them across the back lawn, when a voice bellows out, stopping him dead in his tracks.
"Boy! BOY!"
He wheels around to find a red-faced man leaning out of an upstairs window.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?"
"Going -"
"What?"
"Going -"
"WHAT? I hardly think you should be going anywhere over the grass. Regard! What you have wrought!"
Jonathan looks down, and sees that his shoes have left a trail of little bruises on the sleek green-striped surface.
"Lawn!" shouts the man. "Parents, masters and senior domestic staff only! Exceptions! Prefects on Sundays! All upper-form boys on Founders Day between two and four in the afternoon! Now get off!"
Gingerly Jonathan steps onto a gravel path. The window is slammed shut. He thinks for a moment, takes out his pocket book and writes: further demonstration of the significance of lawns. Englishness seeps a little deeper into his skin.
However I expect that the absence of human interest from the central character's blankness will stop The Impressionist from becoming the Corelli/Birdsong-level word of mouth hit that it richly deserves to be. Nonetheless Kunzru is a talent to watch who will, I hope, go on to do even greater things.


Norton Internet Security 2004 (AntiVirus, Firewall, AntiSpam, Privacy, Parental Control)
Norton Internet Security 2004 (AntiVirus, Firewall, AntiSpam, Privacy, Parental Control)

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything You Need, 28 Mar 2004
I almost didn't buy Norton Internet Security after all the negative reviews below. However I see that most of them relate to problems upgrading from existing Norton software. All I can say is that during installation, you are warned several times - on screen, in the read me file and even in the packaging - that you have to uninstall older versions before installing this package, and that if you don't do that your system will lock up. So if you ignore that then I guess you take your chances.
Personally as someone with limited PC knowhow, I found the installation straightforward and the whole package a lot more unobtrusive than McAfee Firewall, which I used to run before this. It hasn't even given me any problems with my broadband connection unlike McAfee. Basically it does everything for you, and I take my hat off to the Norton nerds. If you've got a fast, new machine and you want comprehensive protection, look no further.


The Singing Detective [DVD] [1986]
The Singing Detective [DVD] [1986]
Dvd ~ Michael Gambon
Price: 12.41

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skin, Deep, 18 Mar 2004
This is the greatest achievement of Dennis Potter's wildly uneven career. For every original masterpiece like Blue Remembered Hills or Brimstone and Treacle, there was a self-indulgent stinker like Blackeyes or Cold Lazarus. But there is only one Singing Detective. I watched all six-and-a-half hours in two days: it's magical and gripping.
Everything about this series just *sings*, from the towering performance by Michael Gambon, spitting with one breath and simpering with the next, to the production values which hold up remarkably well in a digital age (with the exception of the contemporary scenes outside the hospital, all big hair and red earrings, monochrome decor and 5-inch floppy disks - if you can remember those - but we can put those to one side and just think of it as a period piece within a period piece). But what holds it together is Dennis Potter's zinging way with words and images, which can mix clever Kubrickian cut-shots (Marlow the singing detective waving to his audience / Jim Carter as Philip's dad waving his train away silently, in the saddest scene in the whole series - which also shows that Potter knew when to drop the words) and the ability to make a two-minute word-association game knuckle-whiteningly gripping.
The themes and elements are ripe and raw - sex and spies, goons and whores, suicide and adultery - but it's rarely explicit (as the content rating on the box shows: "Sex/Nudity: Infrequent, mild": sorry, guys). This makes it all the more astonishing that the show should have been greeted in 1986 not only as anything other than a transforming masterpiece, but as a piece of filth by 'Dirty Den,' as campaigners and newspapers had it. (The DVD includes extracts from Points of View giving these barbarians the permanent shame they deserve.) One can only presume, sadly, that they just lashed out at what they didn't understand, because it's complex stuff all right, with three or possibly four worlds running in parallel and occasionally interacting, particularly when the contemporary characters start saying things on cue from Marlow, and his fictional characters enter the real world...
In an age when we are asked to celebrate the anodyne and remember with delight and irony the formerly awful, it's a joy to be able to see something that truly stands up and lives up to its reputation almost 20 years on - and indeed, because of the lack of serious competition now, towers higher than ever before. Probably the finest drama series ever made.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 5, 2012 4:41 PM GMT


Xplosiv Zork Grand Inquisitor
Xplosiv Zork Grand Inquisitor
Offered by Satsumo
Price: 7.96

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Challenge, 27 Feb 2004
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Zork Grand Inquisitor sure is a challenging game! Does anyone have a walk-through for how to get past the "Start Game" screen?
...Yes, that's right, Zork Grand Inquisitor doesn't run on Windows XP despite Amazon's assurance in the product details that it does. Not even when you run the Windows 95/98 compatibility wizard. Which is a shame if that five star review below is to be believed.
So be careful before you part with your pennies.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 24, 2009 8:33 PM BST


Jennifer Government
Jennifer Government
by Max Barry
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Max Potboiler, 22 Feb 2004
This review is from: Jennifer Government (Paperback)
By page 20 of Jennifer Government, I was bitter with envy - why didn't I write this book with all these great ideas? He's the same age as me after all... From the central conceit that the USA has taken over (in a business rather than military sense) almost every other Western country, through the notion that people will be named after their employers in such a capitalizt (sic) future, to the idea of marketing trainers by shooting teens who wear them, to make them seem more desirable - Max Barry just has originality to burn. Even the rhythmically pleasing title had me drumming my heels in merriment.
By page 70 I was looking askance over my shoulder, blushing with embarrassment for the fellow. Full of all these ideas and he can't write for toffee! Goodness me, on a sentence by sentence level this book really is terrible. It started when I got the feeling Barry wanted us to feel emotional at the murder of a teenager, who up until then had been just a selfish spoiled idiot designed purely to make a satirical point. And as the book goes on, it becomes clearer that he does want us to take these characters to heart, even though they're pure cartoons. And the reviewer below who thinks it will make a great film clearly thinks like Barry - it quickly becomes pure Hollywood, with action sequences interspersed with 'character' 'development' and people saying things (I can hardly believe it) like "Goddamnit, Jennifer Government, there may be hope for you yet" with a straight face, and people narrowly escaping death by blazing gunfire then saying quietly to themselves, "Hot damn."
And this is a real shame. Rarely enough, a great conceit comes along and the creator has the intelligence and wit to take it to its logical (or illogical) conclusion - think Being John Malkovich. But Jennifer Government, which could have been a satirical Philip K. Dick, is just a bog-standard thriller with a dystopian front-end. Those who like their books fast-paced and cinematic will probably love it; those of a more literary bent, look away now. There's nothing to see here.


Politics
Politics
by Adam Thirlwell
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Political Deadlock, 19 Feb 2004
This review is from: Politics (Hardcover)
This book deserves rescuing from the ignominy of a 2.5 star average, which derives from a couple of negative reviews below which I think fundmentally misunderstood the book. So I'm giving it five just to bring the average up - really it's a 3.5 or 4 for me.
The invasive author so derided in the one-star reviews is not supposed to be likeable or indeed the real Adam Thirlwell, any more than the 'Martin Amis' who appears as a character in Money is supposed to be the real Martin Amis. I thought the pseudo-cutesy little comments from the narrator were supposed to be funny, but I suppose tastes vary and you can't please everyone.
It's true that Politics shows more promise than achievement, but the author is only 25 for heaven's sake. It's sub-Kundera all right but he has a lightness of touch which is nothing to be ashamed of and I enjoyed his little digressions on Stalin's telephone manner, being the Queen mother's boyfriend, and Hitler's love of being kicked.
I'll look forward to reading whatever he publishes in the future.


Pentax Optio S4i Leather Camera Case incl. Metal Wrist Strap
Pentax Optio S4i Leather Camera Case incl. Metal Wrist Strap

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Did Someone Say "Rip-Off"?, 11 Feb 2004
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This leather case should really be included in the price of the camera itself (which is excellent by the way, and highly recommended: as tiny as can be but as clever as a roomful of brains). It seems a bit cheeky for Pentax to charge the best part of twenty-five quid for a strap which is shinier than the one that comes free with the camera, and a leather case which isn't even a particularly good fit: the camera sits lopsidedly at an angle inside, when the case should really have been much more snug to minimise movement once it's screwed in place.
My advice is just keep the camera in the spongy pouch that it comes in, and spend the money for this on a memory card instead.


Spies
Spies
by Michael Frayn
Edition: Paperback

10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Trick of It is to read it Towards the End of the Morning, 11 May 2003
This review is from: Spies (Paperback)
After never getting around to reading Frayn's last much-acclaimed novel Headlong, I have finally read Spies about 6 months after buying it. (Credit must go to Frayn, first of all, for his impeccable product placement. In the course of Spies - little over 200 pages long - the word "headlong" appears at least three times. Now it's not that common a word, is it? A novel technique for self-advertisement though.) Spies won the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2002 award but missed out on the overall Book of the Year prize to the biography of Pepys by Claire Tomalin - Frayn's wife.

I can see why it won. It's a perfectly controlled and extremely beguiling book, moreishly readable and neat and tidy at the end. If that sounds like I'm damning with faint praise, it's unintentional - I loved it. It seemed to me to convey the mixed feelings of wartime to a child - adventure, fear, uncertainty, excitement, the endless summer-holiday Duration of it all - far more successfully than Mick Jackson's Five Boys did, which attempted broadly the same thing. But Spies picks its two inches of ivory more carefully and sticks to it: the whole book (but for the framing sections) takes place in the space of a few months in suburban England during the Second World War, when the narrator Stephen finds out something remarkable and exciting from his friend Keith. There follows a good deal of the aforesaid adventure, fear, longueurs etc., before a couple of satisfying twists, one of which I got pretty late on and the other of which was almost - but not entirely if you were paying more attention than I - unpredictable. There are also moments of quiet comedy, such as when Stephen and Keith put a sinister spin on Keith's mother's diary and the x's which record her menstrual cycle and the exclamation marks with which she punctuates her declining sex life.

Buy Spies now so that Frayn doesn't feel the need to work lots of references to it into his next book. And so that he can wave his bigger royalties cheque at the wife.


The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time :
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time :
by Mark Haddon
Edition: Hardcover

21 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Bit of a Dog, 1 May 2003
It's only just come out and already The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is being spoken of in hushed tones as the next big thing (the last next big thing, in case you have forgotten, being Life of Pi). Broadsheets wet themselves over it, booksellers "personally recommend" it, and it's odds-on at William Hill for the Man Booker Prize. Although I am not sure it will qualify, as it's being published simultaneously in a children's edition (warning bells ringing yet? That's what we call "foreshadowing"). The last book I read about a dog was Dan Rhodes's staggering masterpiece Timoleon Vieta Come Home, my expectations here were high. But here's where me and my hopes part company. The narrator, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, is mildly autistic, or has Asperger's Syndrome, although this is only spelled out in the blurb and not in the book itself (Haddon said in an interview that he did not want Christopher to carry "an unfair representational weight" in the novel, which sounds to me as though he's trying to have his cake and eat it: yes I want the credit for "doing" the narrator-with-mental-illness schtick, but please don't blame me if it's all inaccurate, after all I didn't literally say he had that illness did I?). I thought Christopher, the emotionally flat and detached teenager with his simple syntax and blank descriptions, was a ringer for normal 9-year-old Paddy Clarke. It is an effective act of ventriloquism, no doubt, but not interesting in itself or beyond that - a bit like Peter Carey's Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang, which was all mouth and no trousers, or more accurately, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was overlong at 276 pages and I genuinely found it boring by halfway through - though there was a spark of interest just before that point as that's when the novel's major plot reversal comes, which is a good one. The trials of life as an autistic child (or adult) are doubtless worthy of study in literature, but I have to admit that after 28 pages of Christopher working out how to take a train journey, and 20 pages of him working out how to get on the London Underground, when he bought an A-Z of London and started trying to work out how to use it I felt like putting down the book, getting in the car and driving him there myself. Here I would compare it to Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, which was only an average detective story but excelled in giving what I thought was a fair insight into suffering from Tourette's syndrome, and indeed made it clear just how close to the surface those obsessive tics lie in all of us. But I didn't get a sense of anything new or *other* with Christopher in Curious Incident... He just seemed like a boy younger than his years, with some fussy habits. There's nothing engaging or original about his voice.
On the bright side, it was easy to read and had some interesting mathematical asides, if you like that sort of thing (which I do). But to me, the double publication is a dead giveaway, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a children's book through and through.


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