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Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia)

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The Memoirs of a Survivor
The Memoirs of a Survivor
by Doris May Lessing
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An expression of one of society's perennial fears: children out of control, 20 April 2009
Doris Lessing's sombre dystopian fantasy is less of a visionary fable and more an expression of one of society's perennial fears: children out of control. Latchkey kids, shopping mall kids, kids in the care of transient guardians or the local authorities, victims of aimless, loveless lives, children killing children; the nightmare is alive today in twenty first century Britain and elsewhere. This is a grim novel which expresses similar concerns to those found in A Clockwork Orange (and to a lesser extent Lord of the Flies), yet it is a strangely austere and dispassionate work which offers only a vague hope that a new civilisation can rise from the ashes.
The narrator watches society disintegrate from the windows of her block of flats, a slow fragmentation into tribes and clans, loose alliances without loyalty or trust, formed just as a means of survival and forever on the move, as the city empties and an urban hell looms, similar to South Bronx during the 1970s/1980s. A little girl with a bleak past, Emily, is deposited in her flat without explanation together with her pet, the creepy dog-cat chimera, Hugo, and she is obliged to raise a stranger, and hope that she has enough influence on Emily as she grows and matures to prevent her from leaving the flat and melting into the marauding gangs of children that terrorise the population; a seemingly insurmountable task.
Not all of Doris Lessing's fans were happy when she passed into her science fiction phase (following the political and psychological phases) and not all of her science fiction novels have been literary triumphs though this is very good. However, I constantly had the feeling that I was reading something significant but didn't know why.


The Silent Prophet
The Silent Prophet
by Joseph Roth
Edition: Hardcover

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The loneliness and alienation of an individual who feels no true sense of home, 12 April 2009
This review is from: The Silent Prophet (Hardcover)
Joseph Roth was a Jewish writer born in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is now Ukraine. He emigrated to Paris when the Nazis came to power and died there of alcoholism. His works, of which the Radetzky March is the best known, are concerned with the dislocation felt by rootless, wandering people, especially Jews and former citizens of the Austro-Hungary after the collapse of the monarchy during the First World War. Much of Europe before then had consisted of a mosaic of ethnic groups, nationalities and principalities and the author's works often express nostalgia for the vibrant cosmopolitanism of the old monarchical empires.
The Silent Prophet is the story of Russian born Friedrich Kargan (a pastiche of Trotsky), an individual oppressed by his statelessness and lack of social identity due to his illegitimacy. In search of a place and a cause that will give meaning to his life he moves to Vienna where he encounters revolutionaries and reactionaries alike in a period of intense political uncertainty and upheaval in Europe. While there he falls in love for the only time in his life. However, on his first trip back to Russia he is caught by the authorities and sent to Siberia where he escapes (rather easily) back to Europe. Once again he becomes involved in political agitation and returns to Russia after the Revolution fired with idealism. He quickly becomes disillusioned at what he finds; the betrayal of the cause and the embourgeoisement of the former proletariat.
Although a thinly-veiled critique of the cynical personal ambitions of the leaders of the Russian Revolution The Silent Prophet is also a treatise on the loneliness and alienation of an individual who feels no true sense of home and who discovers that the cause with which he aligns himself with boundless hope and devotion turns out to be merely an illusion.


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Coronet Books)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Coronet Books)
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can the means justify the end when the end in itself is of dubious value?, 2 April 2009
The novels of John le Carré, of which The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the best, not only contain blistering plots and precisely crafted characterisation but simultaneously investigate the morality of espionage; often a murky, amoral culture steeped in duplicity and treachery. Can the means justify the end when the end in itself is of dubious value? What happens when the means applied by an organisation become an end merely to justify or self-perpetuate that organisation, when the original moral objectives become forgotten?
British agent Alec Leamas is recalled to London from East Berlin after a messed-up operation results in the death of the last, top-flight British agent in that sector, gunned down while trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Leamas, now 50, washed-up, in debt, and with an increasing alcohol problem, is recruited for one last all-important assignment: to implicate the ruthless, anti-Semitic Mundt - leader of the East German intelligence service and responsible for the deaths of the British agents - as a British double agent and have him killed by his own Communist party. To prepare Leamas for the assignment and to avoid suspicion he is sacked, pensioned off and given a job in a library where he becomes involved with a young, idealistic communist Liz who is innocent of what is happening. Eventually, Leamas is spirited to East Germany where Mundt is already suspected of being a double agent by his second-in-command, the clever, principled Feidler, significantly - like Liz - a Jew. However, Mundt is both astute and murderous, and there follows an intricate, rapidly see-sawing plot as the power struggle between Mundt and Feidler gets under way as. The pace never lets up and the resulting courtroom scene and denouement are absolutely gripping.
Many of the characters have serious qualms about the tactics used by the intelligence service and ironically seek to justify the sacrificing of individuals by the same reasoning as their enemy the Communist Party: sometimes the death of individuals is required for the greater good. Stalin is aptly quoted: "half a million liquidated is a statistic, and one man killed in a traffic accident is a national tragedy." What makes this novel so outstanding is that all the issues arise - moral, philosophical and ideological - and we can appreciate the dilemma faced by individuals who in the end are just pawns in a global game of power-politics. Genre fiction doesn't come any better than this.


The Plague (Essential Penguin)
The Plague (Essential Penguin)
by Albert Camus
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An allegorical tale of aching compassion for the human condition, 27 Mar. 2009
Albert Camus's allegorical tale of a community cut off from the outside world is a work of aching compassion for the human condition. The small Algerian town of Oran is overwhelmed by a catastrophic outbreak of bubonic plague which forces the authorities to isolate and quarantine its population. As the death toll rises, doctor and humanitarian Bernard Rieux, together with volunteers, does his best for the cause of human life within the limits of modern medicine.
This is a story about human beings under siege where death threatens all equally, about their reactions and their different means of dealing with isolation from friends, family and love, of maintaining daily routine in the face of constant, debilitating fear. How do people react under trauma? Why do some individuals grasp for dear life at the piece of driftwood in the ocean after their boat has capsized while others let go meekly straight away and drift into oblivion? In The Plague we see all; those who cope and those who don't, those who sacrifice and those who exploit. It is an existential tale of humanity in all its diversity and demonstrates why social justice can never be realised in a Godless world wracked by arbitrary biological injustice.
Written just after the end of Nazi occupation of France The Plague can be read as an allegory of that occupation but equally of the Holocaust or the Siege of Leningrad. Beautiful, powerful and profoundly moving, this is European literature on a different level.


Injury Time
Injury Time
by Beryl Bainbridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cringe literature par excellence, 20 Mar. 2009
This review is from: Injury Time (Paperback)
Long before cringe comedies began to litter our screens Beryl Bainbridge was writing cringe novels in which foolish individuals dig themselves into awful situations because of their grandiose selfishness or infidelity. Nobody depicts the sheer crassness of human social behaviour and its absurd communication failures in such a hilarious yet terrible way. Injury time is typical of her work. Edward Freeman decides to hold a party at the house of his mistress to placate her niggling jealousy of his wife. He invites a few of his more trusted friends but he has to be away by ten o'clock to avoid suspicion. However, when some uninvited guests arrive it is plain that he is going nowhere. The resultant situation is both excruciatingly funny and excruciatingly horrible. If you enjoy this you will love `Babes in the Wood' and `The Bottle Factory Outing'.


Atonement
Atonement
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars `He would never forgive her. That was the lasting damage.', 17 Mar. 2009
This review is from: Atonement (Paperback)
In a Pre-War Home Counties country house, at the age of just thirteen, Briony Tallis commits one of the most serious crimes that a woman could ever commit. As a result her life and that of her sister Cecilia and her childhood friend Robbie Turner are torn apart and she spends the rest of her life trying to atone. Ian McEwan's popular novel is an exploration of human emotions; of shame and guilt and bitterness, and demonstrates how the effects of a seemingly minor misjudgement can amplify and spiral out of control. It also shows how the insidious British class system can feed on pre-conceived beliefs and condemn the innocent.
Although finely and punctiliously crafted as you would expect, all the aspects that I dislike about McEwan's writing are also present: (deliberately) rambling narrative, too many pretentious literary allusions, thin and abstract characterisation, and appalling snobbery on the part of the characters (`Cecilia...considered a man with a degree in Chemistry incomplete as a human being') and the author (`A hexameter. Five iambs and an anapaest was the beat he tramped to now.'). Yet despite these irritations, and the presence of a gratuitous final chapter, there is little doubt that this is a fine, honest and captivating novel.


The Shadow Bride (Flamingo)
The Shadow Bride (Flamingo)
by Roy A.K. Heath
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The cultural dislocation of a transplanted community treated with a rare sympathy, 10 Mar. 2009
When reading this engaging tale of mid-century life in the East Indian community of the then British Guiana it is difficult to avoid making comparisons with the works of V S Naipaul. The Shadow Bride is concerned with same community transplanted under similar circumstances to that in Naipaul's native Trinidad and is written with the same superb simplicity. Yet ironically Roy Heath's saga is more amiable, less cynical and ultimately more sympathetic towards that community; ironical because the author himself was only in part East Indian (he also had African, European and Amerindian heritage). The core of the novel revolves around the complicated relationship between the domineering control-freak Mrs Singh, who has lost her respected husband, and her son Betta who has recently returned from his studies in England. As part of her mini-empire she is also sheltering under the same roof the old house servant Aji, two young friends, Bai and the thuggish Sukrum, and two girls Rani and Lahti.
Her son remains the one individual whom she cannot control. Enlightened, idealistic and deeply concerned about the sorry plight - and even sorrier health - of the religiously fractured Indian community of indentured labourers Betta marries, leaves home against his mother's wishes and takes a government job as a doctor on the sugar estates rather than an easier position in his home town. There, despite his best efforts, he is constantly undermined and threatened by the European estate owners who object to his giving out medical certificates to the workers because of their loss of revenue. Meanwhile in his absence his mother has fallen under the spell of a Hindu mystic-charlatan, Lahti has succumbed to the brutality of Sukrum, Rani is constantly humiliated by the ineffectuality of her servile husband Tipu, and life in the house is slowly falling apart, a metaphor for the community at large.
The central issue of this thoughtful and empathetic work is that of cultural dislocation within a community (Indian) which, as the descendents of African slaves still maintain, was brought to the Caribbean under a system that was effectively quasi-slavery. Having lost the iniquitous caste system, their ability to fluently speak their native tongue and their traditional familial values, the cohesion of community life begins gradually breaking down with nothing to fill the void. Like Naipaul the author lived in London from the early 1950s but he, unlike Naipaul, only ever wrote about his homeland. He once said that he wanted to make a dramatic chronicle of life in Guyana during the twentieth century. On this book alone he has gone some way to achieving that aim. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the cultural history of the Caribbean and who enjoys an absorbing domestic story delivered in impeccable, lucid prose.


A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali (Canons)
A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali (Canons)
by Gil Courtemanche
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars AIDS...corruption...massacres: better as reportage than fiction, 2 Mar. 2009
Set in Rwanda during one of the darkest chapters in human history the tone of this novel-reportage is relentlessly sombre. I am not sure what was gained by turning this event into quasi-fiction when the author was an eye-witness reporter plainly intent on spewing forth vitriol against those he felt were part responsible for the genocide by their inaction; namely, the UN, France and Canada, and the expat community, whose cynicism appears here as an ugly form of post-colonial colonialism. Why do I feel that it does not really work as a novel? To begin with it works well as reportage; a bleak, detailed description of the horrors of human evil without constraint set against a background of a sexually transmitted plague already laying low a third of the population and rampant, debilitating corruption. It is a steady description of an escalating descent into the maelstrom of hell. Throughout there is a dark and heavy foreboding as individual murders and rapes turn into multiple incidents and then into mass rapes and massacres, all the while being tolerated with a shrug of the shoulders by European workers and military as something that just happens in Africa. There are too genuine attempts to understand and explain the complicated relationship between the two ethnic groups - the Hutu and the Tutsi - and what led to the level of hatred that saw men butcher each other at a rate unequalled since humans first appeared on the planet.
However, as a novel it loses something, and certainly as a love story. The principal character is Bernard Valcourt, a Canadian journalist who for reasons unclear (other than the usual clichés of beautiful African sunsets and skies) loves the country. He falls in love with Gentille, a Hutu woman who has the misfortune to resemble a Tutsi. But their relationship seems more like lust on his part and despair on hers. I have good grounds for saying that because not only are there endless stereotypical descriptions throughout of the secondary sexual characteristics of African women but of African sexuality in general, every act - whether love or rape - told in lurid, explicit detail. This has the effect of diminishing the sincerity of the central character (and by extension the author) and casting him as yet another prurient expat. I'm afraid that is the tone throughout the book; the exploitation of suffering for almost pornographic entertainment. Maybe I am being a little harsh and no doubt many will disagree.
Perhaps the Rwandan genocide is beyond fictionalisation. In fact, it is beyond words and, like the trenches or the Holocaust, requires an extension of the vocabulary to truly reproduce the magnitude of the horrors and to grasp at unimaginable human motivations. And, despite all the (justified) anger against the inaction of the humanitarian services and the total impotence of Christianity in the face of its greatest challenge, the blame ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. They should be hunted to the ends of the earth.


Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Penguin Popular Classics)
Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Penguin Popular Classics)
by Mary Shelley
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil', 22 Feb. 2009
It is all too easy to say that you should not judge a piece of fiction coming up to two centuries old with the attitudes and values of today but almost by definition that is a difficult task. This tale within a tale though can surely be enjoyed by modern readers with a modicum of imagination despite the high levels of improbability and coincidences. It is best to view it for what it is: an absurd slice of gothic horror fantasy containing all the telltale elements of the high Romantic movement of the time: obsessive pursuit of knowledge, emotional and passionate intensity, a love of poetry, a fascination with Orientalism (bizarrely synonymising `Turk' and `Arab'), and especially an awestruck view of the scale and power of nature. We have Alpine and other vast and remote locations, waterfalls, apocalyptic storms, towering precipices and tumultuous seas.
The story itself is universally well-known, though corrupted by that notorious graveyard of literature, Hollywood. A traveller in the frozen wastes of Russia chances upon a lone emaciated individual (Dr Frankenstein) with a tale to tell: one of him as a student who by experiment finds the means to bring life to matter and thereby to create a living human. Having done so he then displays a dismaying lack of empathy towards his `monster' who, alone in the world and unable to communicate, finally in frustration turns to evil and sets about trying to destroy his creator. I find the best passages are those where the unnamed creature tries to make contact with villagers but is spurned, ridiculed and attacked. It is a moving analogy of those unfortunate human beings outcast as a result of appearance whose innate sense of sociability turns to severe alienation and isolation, and finally to despair. In fact, the whole sorry tale has certainly turned me off the idea of creating a human being out of discarded body parts.


On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact
On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact
by Patrick V Kirch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £23.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great synthesis on the use of historical (archaeological) evidence to examine the peopling of the Pacific, 9 Feb. 2009
Patrick Vinton Kirch is renowned for his faith in the multidisciplinary approach to understanding Oceanic and Pacific history and culture before European contact. On the Road of the Winds is his great synthesis on the subject to date based on that holistic perspective, drawing together information from the fields of archaeology, historical linguistics, comparative ethnology and biological anthropology, while emphasising that these disciplines are not bound to co-vary. This is largely a scholarly historical archaeological text (but with numerous photographs and tables listing sites with details replacing tedious description) and arises, as the author explains, as a result of the archaeological aspect largely being ignored until after the war. Anthropologists until then had been constrained by preconceived beliefs of Pacific cultures having been fairly recent and unchanging arrivals; nations without history. The emphasis of research had been placed firmly on ethnology using outdated - even racist - typology mingled with some good and some dubious linguistic analysis. Since then a fascinating narrative of rich historical cultures, some containing extraordinarily elaborate constructions and of complex social structures and hierarchies that we are only now beginning to understand, has been uncovered by archaeological excavations.
It is as well for the reader to familiarise his or herself with some basic concepts at the outset and these are largely outlined in an introduction. Unlike most simplistic nineteenth century anthropological classifications Dumont d'Urville's familiar tripartite categorisation of Pacific peoples into Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian still holds as a useful geographical reference when describing regional differences, though only the Polynesians can be considered a phyletic entity whose languages, cultures and biological similarity point to a common origin. Melanesians in particular are an astonishingly diverse mix of different cultures and linguistic groups. These three groups (Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians) make up the peoples of Oceania but exclude the islands of South-East Asia, notably the Philippines and Indonesia, even though the great Austronesian language family (found as far west as Madagascar) spans both regions. All Oceanic peoples except those on New Guinea and some islands nearby such as New Ireland and Bougainville speak Austronesian languages. There, the non-Austronesian or Papuan languages are more numerous and diverse than their Austronesian counterparts thus demonstrating the deeper time span of occupation of this region which is referred to throughout the book as Near Oceania. Near Oceania is a concept introduced to distinguish those long-settled islands (maybe 40,000 years) from those that were to be reached much later in waves of long distance voyages: Remote Oceania.
Human history is effectively the history of migrations. The author begins this odyssey by reviewing the archaeological evidence for the arrival of the first people into Sahul (Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea merged during higher sea levels) and Near Oceania (the islands around and beyond New Guinea) during the Pleistocene. This is the prehistory of "old" Melanesia and constitutes the first great colonising epoch of the Pacific. However, it was the appearance of a distinct ceramic-making culture known as Lapita about 1,500 BC, a culture that had most likely developed in situ in the region of the Bismarck Archipelago by a branch of the Austronesian peoples, that was to have the most profound effect on the region. The seafaring Lapita began to greatly expand their material culture, transform the cultural landscape of the region and to spread ever further eastward into Remote Oceania. This is archaeology's greatest contribution to Pacific research. The peopling of the islands of the Pacific by this new culture truly required a new vision of the world. These would not have been hunter-gatherers wandering in search of something to eat but horticulturalists, who, as populations challenged ability to supply, needed to seek fresh lands. Some of these lands could be seen from where they were living and, as the Lapita made vessels to transport them there, they would have seen more on arrival. Ultimately, planned voyages of expansion would reach as far afield as Hawai'i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Pitcairn and finally New Zealand.
This book explores the origin and range of cultures throughout the Pacific by examining archaeological, palynological, palaeobotanical and faunal evidence and where appropriate calling upon linguistic and biological co-evidence. (There is some, but little, reference to the molecular genetic analysis of Pacific populations which is increasingly producing powerful new information, much of which backs Kirch's theories based on his archaeological research.) It asks questions about why some cultures built monumental structures, why others degenerated into warfare, and why still others became isolated and excluded from the great grid of trade routes that criss-crossed the ocean. It examines the nature of production and power, considers the pre-European contact demographics of islands and compares the different ecologies and pressures on the different islands, many of which at first glance appear to be very similar. It then puts into context the shaping of different and sometimes distinct cultural differences between these islands without inferring that their must always be an ecological explanation. For me personally, it was most important that the author reiterated throughout that race (human biological variation), language and culture are independent variables (given the sorry history of confusion and subsequent abuse), but he also rightly points out that it has been clear to some anthropologists working in different parts of the world that there is sometimes evidence of some covariance, e.g. in the case of the Polynesians.
This is a large and ambitious work but it was time for such a synthesis. It is a huge task to have brought together all the information and it is greatly aided by over seventy pages of notes and references. However, as the author points out, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding of Pacific human history and an even larger task remains ahead.


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