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Scarficus (London, UK)

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Quo Vadis?
Quo Vadis?
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Sex and death in ancient Rome, 30 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Quo Vadis? (Paperback)
Quo Vadis doesn't read like it was written in 1896. It's fast-paced, shocking, gruesome, and chock full of scantily clad slave girls to boot.

It is also thoughtful, evangelical, moving and erudite in its depiction of the Roman world.

Petronius is an unforgettable character: Nero's arbiter of taste who is finally made redundant by Nero's utter lack of taste, his bloodlust and his endless artistic posturing.

The other brilliantly drawn character is the Greek confidence man Chilon whose fate is as terrible as it is ironic.

Reading this, one wonders what Dickens and the like were playing at with their meandering sentences and implausibly angelic heroines.

One is also reminded that the motivating forces of early Christianity are perhaps most clearly seen as a radical reaction to the murderous nature of Roman rule.

by Charles Bukowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Women women everywhere, 17 May 2012
This review is from: Women (Paperback)
Lots of reviewers seem to think that this book gives an unrealistic view of women.

However I think the point with this book is that Chinaksi realises the situation is unrealistic himself - he repeatedly finds himself amazed at his good luck - 'the gods were smiling' etc... He is of course a famous author - maybe women DO behave with unrestrained sexual abandon towards the famous. Certainly, women always go for successful charismatic men, however overweight, alcoholic, or old they are. (HG Wells was an ugly git apparently but a massive hit with the ladies, even strong female icons like Rebecca West).

I enjoyed it anyway. It had a lot of sex and drinking, a dash of literary rumination, too few flashes of true poetry (p236!) and it ripped along like Tammie on uppers.

Something to aspire to!

Empire of the Sun
Empire of the Sun
by J. G. Ballard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heart of darkness, 12 Mar. 2012
This review is from: Empire of the Sun (Paperback)
The quote on the back of this book from a review by Anthony Burgess is true - that it is 'almost intolerably moving'.

This is surprising as there is not a hint of sentiment in this description of the corpse-strewn apocalyptic deathscape of Ballard's Shanghai internment camp before, during and just after the Second World War.

Empire of the Sun moves the reader because, every so often, maybe only two or three times in the book, a character notices that the endlessly suffering but stubbornly cheerful boy rushing around the camp on an exhausting round of errands is a child alone in a world which terrifies, brutalises and finally kills many of the adults around him. And then we notice.

The boy, Jim, feels the closest sympathy to the kamikaze pilots at Lunghua airfield barely older than himself, sent unregarded and unmissed to their deaths. His brief meeting with a lost kamikaze boy is a recognition of their sameness, rather than their difference.

As Jim knows, it is only by accident, or luck, that life chooses to claim him long after he has begun to believe what millions of Chinese know from birth, that we are all already as good as dead.

Black Boy: A Record of Youth and Childhood (Vintage Classics)
Black Boy: A Record of Youth and Childhood (Vintage Classics)
by Richard Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The struggle to survive in the American South, 19 Feb. 2012
Richard Wright's autobiography begins with his setting fire to his own house at age four, the result of a bored and fractious mood. And his troubles don't end there...

This is a great read, full of incident and forensically recorded detail from Wright's life as a black boy struggling with the daily realities of racial segregation in the American South in the 1920s.

It is very different to reading, say, To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, both of which deal with similar issues. Wright is on the inside looking out; he is an articulate victim of the racism of the time - unlike a Harper Lee or a John Steinbeck. As such he creates for the reader a distinct and palpable sense of the unease, terror and mental imprisonment of the banalities of everyday prejudice. In this, the book is most important.

I was also struck not just by how Wright struggles to decipher and function in the white world but how, as a highly individual and intelligent person, he also struggles to fit in with his own people, many of whom are stunted by religious puritanism. Misunderstanding and miscommunication is rife in both the black and white worlds.

For this reason it is all the more remarkable that this unique individual managed to survive and write his way to some measure of success on his own terms - free of the white prejudices which attempt to enslave him and free of the quiescence of the blacks who adapt themselves just to survive.

Essential reading.

Tolstoy: A Biography
Tolstoy: A Biography
by A N Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great beard, great writer, great balls of fire!, 4 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Tolstoy: A Biography (Paperback)
This is a very readable and entertaining journey through the life of a great writer. AN Wilson rarely slackens the pace and all the major novels and stories plus the most important non-fiction works are subjected to his keen critical eye. His analysis of Tolstoy's technique of pouring his own life and that of his family into his fiction is very revealing and Wilson evidently has a great admiration for the old man.

This admiration does not extend to forgiving Tolstoy his occasional lunacies (e.g. his essay on Shakespeare) or submitting to the Tolstoyan version of the Gospels or his doctrines of non-violence, anarchy and non-resistance to evil although Tolstoy's bitter battle with his wife is treated sympathetically and his final flight from home is detailed with mercifully quick strokes.

The one star reviewer on Amazon has it that Wilson fails to appreciate Tolstoy because he does not agree with his version of Christianity. I think it's true that Wilson is a little unfair on Tolstoy when he says that `The Kingdom of God is Within You' "has very little to say to the slain of the trenches...or the countless millions who died" at the hands of Hitler or Stalin. Surely if more soldiers had followed the example that Wilson details of a Christian Russian conscript steadfastly refusing to do military service (despite being sent to a lunatic asylum) and eventually being released, the terrible events referred to could have been averted. The First World War in particular was surely produced by rapacious, propaganda-addicted and warmongering nationalist governments. If so-called Christians had actually followed Christ's laws, the war could not have happened. This was Tolstoy's simple, radical proposal.

One more thing: the subject matter is sometimes (necessarily) heavy but time and again I found myself chuckling at Wilson's jokes or turn of phrase.

Overall a great book which is well worth reading, especially for the Tolstoy enthusiast.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 16, 2011 3:08 PM GMT

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy
The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy
by Sofia Tolstoy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just for Tolstoy fans, 20 Aug. 2011
When I first picked this book up I wasn't sure if I could read it all - what would 100 year old diary of a Russian woman - albeit one situated, literally, at the heart of Russia literature - have to say to me?

However one of the qualities Sofia Tolstoy's diaries share with her husband's writing is their thoroughly modern concerns. In her early marriage she worries about her husband's love for her; later she agonises over the children's health and education; she falls in love with another man, remaining staunchly faithful to her husband all the while; she despairs as her husband is drawn away from her by another man (!). Hardest to read are the descriptions of the deaths of several of her children, especially the beloved Vanechka, her youngest child who died aged 7.

Of course Sofia Tolstoy was also the wife of a literary superhero. What is amazing is that as well as all her duties relating to her family and the running of the Yasnaya Polyana estate where they lived, she was Tolstoy's copyist, editor, proofreader, publisher and defender at the same time, although her vital role here seems to have gone largely unacknowledged by the great man himself. In one entry, Sofia stays up all night till 5am copying out the previous day's writing so the great man can continue reviewing and editing it when he wakes at six.

It is a commonplace that behind every great man there is a great woman but it seems almost certain that Tolstoy would not have achieved his finest works without her influence and support - in the days before word processing she is said to have copied out War and Peace in its entirety seven times!

Well worth reading, and not just for the Tolstoy fan.

Claudius the God (Penguin Modern Classics)
Claudius the God (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Make sure you are born an Emperor... or an idiot!, 28 April 2011
I read this directly after reading I, Claudius.

It is longer and more sedate perhaps and lacks the screw-tightening tension of the earlier book but is no less fascinating.

The various little stories Claudius tells are fantastic, like the Roman knight who woos his lover by pretending to be a God, or the sea battle Claudius sets up to celebrate his draining of the Fucine lake (and his ensuing tantrum); these stories seem to encapsulate the marvellous and terrifying glory of ancient Rome - it occurs to me that Graves is in no small part responsible for the image we carry of the Roman emperors. Graves has imagined and described events so well through Claudius that you remember them almost as if you were there - without the danger of summary execution hanging over your head...

Recommended reading.

I, Claudius (Penguin Modern Classics)
I, Claudius (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Shock and awe in ancient Rome, 28 Feb. 2011
What an amazing book.

Graves' fictionalized history starts almost prosaically with a complex and sometimes digressive exposition of the politics and intrigues of Augustus's reign in Rome, as related by his wife's grandson Claudius.

Claudius is ignored and shunned by the Roman Emperor's family because of his limp, stutter and poor general health.

But his disabilities hide a sharp mind and a keen observer of events as they unfold through the depraved and paranoid reign of his uncle Tiberius and through, ultimately, to the mindbending insanity of nephew Caligula's rapacious tenure as the almighty God of Rome.

The end of this book is one of the most bizarre and masterfully realised climaxes of any I have read.

Read it.

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (Myths)
The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (Myths)
by Philip Pullman
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Try Tolstoy for the 'real' Jesus, 14 Nov. 2010
Pullman's basic suggestion here seems to be that the original message of Jesus has been changed, used and corrupted since his death - in this story the person who begins this process is Jesus' twin brother Christ.

The book is sparsely written, which helps to clarify the arguments, but the style also seems to reduce the weight of Pullman's conviction, giving the book a sense of triviality. That said, it is quite enjoyable though sometimes I thought I may as well just be reading the gospels.

Readers interested in alternative versions of Jesus, especially those who want to get to the core of the message would do better to read Tolstoy's 'The Gospel In Brief'. Tolstoy cuts out the miracles and the magic, even the resurrection, and focuses on the message, which remains powerful.

Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison
Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison
by Dorothy Rowe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.71

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Useful and thought provoking, 13 Sept. 2010
It's clear to me that Dorothy Rowe knows what she is talking about here. The book feels like the distillation of years of clinical experience and is valuable for that reason. The author understands at a profound level the contradictions and intricacies of the depressive mind. The book will appeal to people who are suspicious of the idea that drugs can cure your depression, as your GP would have you believe. Equally it should help those who feel that they can never recover from their depression and need drugs to live a normal life. Despite the comments of one reviewer on this website there are plenty of helpful suggestions for how to help yourself in the later sections of the book.
This is an important and powerful book.

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