In Empire Falls Russo once again writes about small town America. It is 2002, and the shirt factory has moved production to Mexico. There is unemployment and deprivation. It’s Trumpsville really.
The book centres round a small diner in Empire Falls. It focuses on the life of Miles, the manager. But Russo is an omniscient narrator. He steps into the shoes of other characters, and tells different parts of the story from their point of view.
At first it seemed like Russo had taken the characters from Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool and transposed them into this novel. A shiftless working class labourer who refused to take responsibility for anything was the “hero” of the first two books. Here he is the hero’s father. There is a policeman and an estranged wife in those books too. But the way Russo develops these characters is new and different here.
Mrs Whiting, the wife of the deceased owner of the shirt factory is one of the few important characters whose thoughts are hidden from us. She owns most of the town. This allows her to exercise control in a variety of ways that might make her appear truly evil. So it is fitting that she stands apart.
Miles, the protagonist and hero is a working man who manages a cafe for her. His wife has left him for a gym instructor. His daughter is angry and won’t speak to her mother. A series of flashbacks reveal episodes from his own mother’s past which have consequences for him and all his family. (It would spoil the plot to explain more about these.)
The villains are ordinary people too, corrupt policemen and bullying teachers, pupils who flaunt authority and treat others cruelly.
For example the daughter’s art teacher is apathetic and ineffectual. She shows no interest in pupils’ learning, and has favourites. There is mileage here in the portrayal of the school, and we see real poverty and deprivation. There is bullying in class, and in the town itself domestic violence and abuse. Miles has to provide moral guidance to his daughter in this context. He is a catholic, painting the church steeple, and supporting the young priest, who is struggling to manage a wayward, senile older colleague.
I hope that gives you a sense of the variety of interesting characters in this book. Russo has a fantastic imagination. His characters are flawed. They are weak, selfish, impulsive and vengeful. But they are truly human. They make mistakes, they misunderstand things, they lay the blame for their problems at the feet of others. But whilst they see other inhabitants of Empire Falls as evil, Russo focuses only on their humanity.
I realised when I finished this novel how like me so many of the characters are. Like them I stumble through my life, making mistakes over and over again. But reflecting on the book early one morning I also realised that God is there too, patiently encouraging me. He never leaves. He is there when I fail, and there when my failings bring suffering to myself and to others. And when I mess up, that does not change his view of me. He lets me start again, to try again to be more fully what I can and should be.
Asides apart, Empire Falls is a complex story and Russo manages to bring the different elements together very well. It leads to a couple of dramatic and violent climaxes, enough to keep any reader interested. I wanted to keep reading to find out how it would turn out for the different characters, especially Miles and his daughter. Even though this is just a straightforward story of ordinary life, it is life enhancing.
Sunnyside begins in 1916. There is a kind of mass hysteria as Charlie Chaplin’s name is paged simultaneously in hundreds of hotels across the USA. At the same time he is seen by witnesses on a light house, sinking into the ocean off the west coast, and huge crowds wait for him at railway stations across the country. At one station there are riots when he does not turn up. This really happened, according to Gold.
The book finishes in 1919, in Russia, when a US expeditionary force is sent to combat the Bolsheviks. Now I knew nothing about this expedition, or about American history during WW1. But Gold fills this book with fascinating historical details like these, embellishing them with realistic and mythic significance.
We see Charlie Chaplin, lover, son and husband. He’s not that good at any of these things though, and is in the middle of a creative crisis. He’s jealous of the success of Mary Pickford, worried that he will be criticised for not volunteering to enlist, and reconciles himself to his conscience by becoming involved in raising loans to pay for the war.
We meet Leland, illegitimate son of Wild Bill Cody. We witness Cody’s last wild west show, performed in front of Kaiser Bill and his family. But Leland does not even know who his father is. He sets out to be a star, but it is not to be, and he ends up in the European theatre of war.
Finally there is Hugo, in Archangel, north of the Arctic circle, inhabiting a world of cold frosts and dark woods. Gold likens these to the mythical forests of European fairy tales, adding a dimension of mystery and intrigue to the whole endeavour.
These three stories are almost completely separate, as if they are novels in themselves. There are not many connections. Leland does want to be in films, and is present at a Liberty Loan Tour starring Chaplin and Pickford. There he is tricked by Rebecca and her father, who later apply their dishonest practices to being agents for Chaplin’s stars. Oh, and during the war Leland trains Rin Tin Tin!! Hugo happens to be present at one of the Chaplin riots in 1916. But these are the only connections. The characters never meet. They are like ships that pass in the night.
In a similar way Sunnyside is the name of a Charlie Chaplin film produced in 1919, and the name of the boat on which Rin Tin Tin arrived in the USA (Sonnenseit in the original German). It’s also the name of Washington Irving’s summer house, an idyllic and dreamlike spot which one Hollywood character visited.
But these facts are just coincidences. In each case the name is irrelevant to the plot, it’s a minor adjunct. It’s not central to the story or theme. The name of Chaplin’s film is glossed over in the text, and gets barely a nod. The name of the boat gets a sentence, in passing. The character spends one idyllic day at the summer house, and that incident is described in just a couple of pages.
When names are used in a significant way in books, it is usually much more explicit than that, and much more important. George Orwell chose Manor Farm as the name of a place, and Napoleon as the name of a character, because of the relevance of those names to the themes of Animal Farm. In a similar way, in Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons chooses names that are significant to the theme – Ada Doom obviously.
So there is a disconnect. Gold gives the name importance by making it the title of the novel, but in plot terms it’s an aside. You would not even notice it at all, if it were not the title.
This approach epitomises the whole book. Gold just throws everything at the reader and lets them worry about how it all connects and what it all means – if anything. And that’s the fun of it.
I guess the point is to show the seismic cultural change that took place in the early C20 due to the industrialisation of film production in Hollywood. The distributors exploit the war in Europe to become the dominant international force in moving pictures. This changes the world, of course.
Chaplin and Pickford form United Artists to defy the consortium of distributors. Rin Tin Tin arrives with a future in film. And capitalist America sets out to defeat the workers’ revolution in Russia.
It’s the story of Hollywood, it’s a myth about money and about America. It’s about fame and celebrity.
I loved Sunnyside as a series of cameos and incidents. Gold is amusing, and full of wise insights into people. He takes you to places that you could never visit, and brings them to more than life, imbuing them with fantasy and significance.
And it means – well whatever you want – or nothing. Brilliant! Though Sunnyside – it’s definitely ironical.
I chose The Underground Railroad as a Christmas present for my wife. It had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (2017), and the USA National Book award. That seemed a good recommendation.
The blurb also attracted me, but words like harrowing and brutal put her off. Yes, there are some gruesome moments in the book, but they are nothing compared to what we see on TV most days. Anyone who can stomach 9pm thrillers like Waking the Dead, or Line of Duty could certainly stomach this.
The Underground Railroad is a novel about slavery. The first episode takes place on a slave plantation, and shows the life and experiences of Cora. Later she escapes and goes on the run. The episodes in the rest of the novel show life as it was for black people elsewhere in the USA in the middle of the 19th century.
Cora’s first port of call is a state where slavery has been abolished. Instead, black people, including runaway slaves, are placed in hostels, or farmed out to local families, and given work to do. Cora thinks this is a very benign environment until they encourage her to undergo voluntary sterilisation. The real agenda is control of the growing black population.
Next Cora heads to a state where the desire to eliminate blacks is much more explicit. The dead line the roadsides, hung from trees. She finds herself in the home of a former underground railroad helper, but he is terrified by a new political régime. He is too scared to help her escape. Trapped in an attic, and looking through a tiny window, Cora witnesses the hysterical racism of the townsfolk, and the cruel hanging of innocent blacks. Her helper comes to a gruesome end, but she escapes.
A slave catcher is sent to hunt Cora, and she is captured. She is to be taken back “home” where there will be violent reprisals. Again she escapes, finding herself now in a free community of black people. They live on a shared farm. Many are freed or escaped slaves. Political speakers come here to Saturday night gatherings, and discuss slavery and democracy, and this gives the writer some opportunities to preach and philosophise.
This is not the first fictional account of the underground railroad, an organisation which helped slaves to escape bondage. Slaves were hidden in barns or cellars and smuggled under tarpaulins in wagons, at great risk to themselves and their supporters.
But Colson Whitehead treats the term literally. The sections when Cora moves from one episode to the next take place on an actual underground railway! With steam trains!! So this is not a conventional novel. This is not a realism or naturalism.
And the story is not really about Cora’s escape, and the dangers associated with it. Cora is really only an emblem or a type. She is a picaresque heroine in a way, because the writer sends her on a journey through America in order to show us the state of the nation. But it’s not a picaresque novel in the conventional sense – there is no humour, and she is a just a victim, not an amusing rogue like, for example, Tom Jones.
Colson Whitehead writes well. You can imagine the settings, and the characters and dialogue seem real. But it’s all undercut by the treatment of the railroad, which makes the story predictable and formulaic. The first escape is dramatic, but not the rest. It’s obvious that there will just be more, similar episodes until the book ends. So there is little suspense.
The approach made it harder for me to identify with Cora and her sufferings. They were certainly moving, shocking and pitiful, and Whitehead describes them in detail. But it was obvious that she would survive each adventure, because the writer’s prime intention was clearly not to describe the suspense of the journey, but to show the different aspects of American society she encounters.
I suppose it’s not good to criticise a book for being what it is, and not what you want it to be. It’s like criticising a cow for not being a horse. But sending a hero on a journey is a classic way to show a society’s flaws and hypocrisies – Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn are prime examples. It’s a technique often used in American literature – The Grapes of Wrath for example. I enjoyed these books much more.
When Steinbeck places the workers in the government camp in The Grapes of Wrath, and they first encounter the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal, we are made to realise the beneficial impact of socialist reforms in the USA. By this time in the novel the reader feels real commitment to the characters because we have been on their journey with them, every inch of the way from Oklahoma to California. I didn’t feel like that about Cora.
Alex Preston, writing in The Observer claims that this novel opens up thrilling new vistas for the novel itself.
Maybe he’s right. But I see the lack of realism as a weakness. The novel becomes a pamphlet, or a propaganda piece. It’s not really about a person called Cora, who becomes a travelling companion with whom we share joys and fears. It’s about a social evil that we all abhor. It’s about a corrupt and racist society. But Cora isn’t really an interesting person. She’s just a device to show us that society.
I think you could make the same criticism of some of the other characters too. They are really stereotypes or caricatures, in my view – the slave catcher, the helper who is caught, the black politician.
I would want not put anyone off reading this book. It was ok, and certainly had a valuable message. But it didn’t live up to the plaudits it has received.
Spook Street is the next instalment of Herron’s slow horses series of spy novels. They involve a motley group of failed spies left to rot in a neglected corner of London. These bungling spies know too much to be let go, but are too hopeless to go on active missions.
It’s a great concept for a series, allowing Herron to riff on the general themes and characters established in the first book. The story lines are quite clichéd, but each time the bungling failures outwit and outperform their betters. We all love the underdog, so that goes down well.
It also gives Herron opportunities to explore the corrupt world of the British establishment. The top dogs run the Secret Service, and their prime aim is to ensure their own survival. The country comes second. It’s just like the Conservative party. In fact there are oblique references to Boris Johnson and others in this series of novels, though Herron is careful to avoid libel.
These political and satirical elements add a dimension to the stories and make them more than just humdrum tales of mystery and suspense. The novels might be formulaic but Mick Herron is also able to add variety and interest by killing characters off and introducing new ones on a regular basis.
Spook Street begins with a terrorist bomb on the streets of London.It’s a clever opening, written with all the panache and imagination I have come to expect from this author. His characters are always interesting and the events and psychology are always thought through and presented vividly and in detail.
The central plot involves a former chief spy now in his dotage. He is the grandfather of one of the failures. River, the grandson, arrives to visit one day only to find a dead body in the bathroom and his grandfather holding a shotgun. It is the body of a would be assassin. His grandfather’s life is in danger. River decides to sort things out. After all who else can he trust? It could be some foreign agency out to silence the senile old man. But it might be the British Secret Service, trying to stop him giving away the nation’s secrets in his ramblings.
River finds a French railway ticket and a receipt from a cafe in the pockets of the dead assassin. He hides his grandfather with a former colleague, and sets off to France to find the answer.
It’s obviously quite an achievement to solve a case involving international espionage, if the only clue is a receipt from a café. So there’s quite a lot of suspension of disbelief needed. But that’s all right. It is fiction after all, and it’s all meant to be good fun.
Lamb, the boss of these failed heroes, takes a more central role in this episode. He’s a kind of comic James Bond, with Bond’s infinite capacity to out-think and outwit his opponents, but the body and attitude of a fat and lazy drunk. Bond might wear aftershave. Lamb just smokes and farts.
I enjoyed this book. It was much better than the previous which I felt descended into violence and derring-do. Spook Street does contain violence, and as always Herron writes about this convincingly, but the focus here is much more on character and psychology, which I find more interesting.
On the Map by Simon Garfield gives an overview of the history of maps and mapping and covers a range of related issues. It is aimed at the general reader.
Garfield begins with the size and shape of the world and shows how the Greeks managed to work this out as early as the pre-Christian era. It involves some simple trigonometry, which Garfield explains, before going on to look at what else the ancients knew about the shape and size of the world, and how they recorded and displayed that information.
He moves on to the Mappa Mundi, describing its place in the cathedral at Hereford, and explaining how it was nearly sold to mend the roof. He shows how this map, and others of the time, were oriented not by the magnetic compass, but towards Jerusalem, the centre of the earth.
There is a chapter on how the Vikings sailed to Greenland and to what is now Canada. Then Garfield goes on to look at the increasingly accurate maps developed in the Renaissance, and describes the explorations that took place at that time.
This is a complex period of map history, and Garfield appears knowledgeable and well informed. He considers different claims about the discovery and subsequent naming of America. He points out that it was the prominence of his name on one particular map that popularised the name of the explorer – America Vespucci – and gave rise to the name we use now, but that his claim to have discovered the continent was in fact quite flimsy.
Garfield moves back to mathematics when he describes the development of the Mercator projection, and looks at other, different projections of the world. It’s always a challenge for me to visualise the way three dimensional objects are resolved onto two dimensional spaces, so I enjoyed this section.
As he summarises the history of map making, Garfield includes chapters on mapping a city, and on the craze for atlases in Holland in the 17th century. He traces the growth of the Ordnance Survey. He looks at some of the errors that found their way onto maps, and persisted into the twentieth century. These included the clearly marked but totally fictitious Kong mountains in West Africa.
Later in the book Garfield is more haphazard in his choice of subject matter. The chapter on the map that stopped cholera in London was interesting. It’s a well known story but I had never come across the details. Chapters on treasure maps and journeys to the South Pole are followed by another on the A-Z and one on Hollywood maps of the stars’ homes.
There is a section on a man who gave up his day job to build globes. Garfield visits his studio in London, and watches him at work. Another looks at the modern day value of historic maps and describes some of the map thefts that have taken place. Want to steal a valuable map? There are suggestions here.
In the final chapters Garfield illustrates the development of SatNav, and looks at maps in games. This was interesting, covering simple games like Monopoly, as well as more complex maps such as those used in Dungeons and Dragons and Grand Theft Auto. Finally Garfield writes about mapping the brain. It’s an eclectic list.
As you can see this is a good book for anyone who enjoys non-fiction, and likes finding out more about things! I don’t want to be sexist, but as a boy I loved books like this because they made learning informal and interesting. I’m in a men’s book group and I guess most of the blokes in that would like it too for the same reason. Many of them are not that keen on fiction and bring along biographies or history books, regarding fiction as a bit of an indulgence.
On the Map is especially good for dipping into if you have particular interests – such as maps in games. Especially in the second half the chapters stand alone, and can be read in isolation from the rest of the book.
Garfield tries manfully to be entertaining throughout, choosing interesting and unusual characters, stories and ways in to the different aspects. He always gives us the human angle, and tries to avoid being dry and boring. But it is a long book and at times he was clearly straining a bit to find amusing things to say, and maintain that cheery tone.
I’d certainly recommend this book to the general reader who wants an informal and entertaining account of the history of maps.
Ten Cities that made an Empire tells the history of the British Empire from a new perspective. Beginning with Boston, which Hunt claims was the first city of Empire, and finishing with Liverpool, a city bound up with the empire’s rise and fall, it examines the stories of these cities to reveal how the British empire began, grew and finally declined.
Hunt arranges the ten cities chronologically, showing the development of British power and prestige. The empire experimented with new forms of government as the old failed and faded, always seeking an identity and form that would be permanent and lasting. In fact this proved impossible, and implicit in Hunt’s argument is the point that the empire was only ever an extemporisation, a reaction to the political realities of its time, and never a successful or coherently organised institution. It never had a plan.
Hunt begins with Boston. The city grew out of a spirit of religious freedom, and as a consequence of the Reformation. However it was not long before it became a significant business hub, benefitting from the trans Atlantic trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton. Later, in the wars with the French, much of the wealth of its prominent citizens came from supplying the British army.
Boston was a patriotic city, celebrating English festivals and traditions such as GuyFawkes. Its wealth was displayed in the form of luxurious imported goods such as china and cloth from the industrial heartlands of Britain. It was loyal and patriotic.
But the English felt that the colony was not paying its way in the wars with France. The consequences are well known, and the first city of Empire was lost to the revolution.
Bridgetown is the second city on the list. It’s a simple story of the slave trade. Bridgetown was never home to the British elite, who poured the wealth they gained into stately homes in England. These included Harewood House outside Leeds, which even today is an extravagant reminder of the wealth plundered from the plantations.
Dublin comes next on Hunt’s list. After the American revolution a different approach was adopted, and Dublin was allowed more independence during the period called the Protestant Ascendancy. Dublin developed a strong identity. The institutions of government brought income and the city became a vibrant cultural centre. However after the 1798 rising, and with fears that the French may invade, direct rule from Whitehall was imposed in the act of union. The institutions of government left for London, and Dublin once again became a backwater. Resentment over English dominance was to some extent mitigated by the project of Empire which gave a sort of unifying purpose, but it never disappeared.
Cape Town was the next step in empire, and a key stepping stone to India. First occupied by British forces in 1797, it became increasingly anglicised and was a key strategic outpost until 1955.
Calcutta developed from a trading post, and from here came Clive to conquer India. Many British in Calcutta adopted Indian customs, and lost their commercial edge, relying instead on land ownership and taxation, and milking the interior for all it was worth. Bombay was a different proposition, cut off from the interior by a range of mountains and so more dependent on trade. Hunt describes the development of both these cities up to the present day.
There are descriptions of the depravities of empire in the section on Hong Kong, which begins with the establishment and development of the port, and the initial commercial fears that investment there would be wasted. It was the opium that made Hong Kong profitable, and the gun boats that enabled the British to trade opium against the wishes of the Chinese government, and the interests of its people. Hong Kong was linked to England, India and Singapore by the profits from opium.
Melbourne was chosen as the Australian city, rather than Sydney. Melbourne developed largely through the Victorian period and the urbanisation of the area mirrors developments in London. Hunt claims the first ashes victory by the Australians marked the beginning of a new independent attitude, though the links with England remained strong through two world wars.
New Delhi and Liverpool focus on the loss of Empire. The idea at Delhi was to build a capital that would last, but Hunt argues that before it was built, and with Gandhi already set on the path to independence, India was lost. Liverpool grew as a slave port, and became the first multicultural city in Britain. It was already in decline before we joined the EU, but that and the loss of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery accelerated that decline. Now Liverpool is expanding its container freight terminal and developing links with China, which will expand with the opening of the new Panama Canal. (This is open now, but was not at the time of publishing.) Hunt claims this will allow Chinese goods to reach the heart of the country, turning Liverpool into a different kind of colonial city, and England itself into a colony of China.
In Ten Cities that made an Empire Hunt returns frequently to the question of trade. After all it was an empire built on trade and for trade. There were tariffs and laws that excluded the Dutch and French from trading with Boston, and the intention was to secure sole rights to the Atlantic trade for the British. Cape Town was seized in order to facilitate trade with India. It provided supplies and shelter.
Later the free trade movement, inspired by the Manchester School is mentioned. This led to the repeal of the Corn Laws, reducing food prices. But one perhaps unforeseen consequence of the emphasis on free trade was that British products were undercut by cheaper goods from India.
Indeed empire seemed to work better under protectionist trading arrangements such as the Commonwealth, rather than under extreme free trade policies. Of course the empire and the gunboat were very good at facilitating these kind of exclusive deals.
It was when trade with the Commonwealth diminished in the 60s and 70s, as more colonies gained independence, that Britain joined the EU, swapping one customs union for another, as industry struggled to thrive in an open market.
One of the most interesting aspects of Hunt’s book is the focus on architecture and town planning. Each section contains a map of the city in question and Hunt considers the way the streets developed, including the significance of street names, and the architecture, which of course often reflected aspects of empire.
The classicism of Bath was recreated in Dublin, whilst Melbourne saw the development of suburban housing: we are shown plans of houses at different price brackets. These types of home exist in British suburbs now. In India the debate about architecture struck at the cultural issues underlying British rule. The buildings were magnificent, but often European rather than Indian styles were used. At times there were odd marriages of the two, and the country was subject to the vagaries of European fashions, as classicism gave way to Gothic styles.
In New Delhi Lutyens was employed to design the whole new town. But this carried the seeds of its own destruction, separating the ruling classes into an enclave that left them out of touch with reality and at odds with the local population. The British were left with nothing but grand displays of power, designed to impress and intimidate, and the end of empire was nigh.
I found The Work of Jesus a really helpful book. It explains the role, or work of Jesus by giving a summary of what the Bible says about Him.
The Work of Jesus begins with Jesus’ earthly ministry. It shows how He is identified as the Messiah by the Holy Spirit during His baptism by John. He hears God confirm His status by calling Him My Son, and there is more confirmation when the Holy Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove. Jesus is then tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Instead of power He chooses humble, devoted service to God.
Jesus goes on to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom – the New Testament in effect. But this is a new kind of kingdom. It does not value pomp and power and wealth, like the kingdoms of Herod and Caesar. Instead it is a kingdom in which the poor, the humble and those who mourn will be blessed. It is not a kingdom whose power is imposed by force, but one which conquers by turning the other cheek.
The world is under the yoke of illness and spiritual oppression. It is controlled by abusive and selfish politicians, including the religious elite. Jesus confronts and defeats the spiritual powers, the forces of darkness that underly human sin, and that create cruelty and chaos. He carries out works of miraculous power which embody, or epitomise the nature of God’s kingdom.
Jesus brings physical and spiritual healing, has control over the elements of nature, and provides moral and spiritual teaching. The ruling powers of this world are thrown into consternation by the challenge He poses to them, and determine to get rid of him. Their opposition is strengthened by the claims he makes about His own divinity.
Finally the disciples who have accompanied Him during the time of His ministry realise the truth and acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.
This opening chapter contains the core of the New Testament, yet its message is very contemporary. Now, as then greed and self interest arise from evil forces that oppose God and His Kingdom of love. But their physical embodiment is in fallen human beings.
Now as then corrupt and self seeking politicians exploit patriotism and nationalism to their own devilish ends. But Jesus rejected the call to be a nationalistic hero, and chose instead God’s path of compassion and care for the oppressed. There is a lesson for our times.
The Work of Jesus goes on to describe Jesus’ journey to the cross, charting His conflict with the authorities of His time. Finally He is condemned to death because of the lie that he was a nationalistic leader claiming to be a King. The penalty for blasphemy was not death, but this offence against Caesar received the death penalty.
The next chapters explore theological issues. They look at the role of the Holy Spirit in continuing Jesus’ work after his death. Though physically we carry out this task, we are doing the work of Christ.
There is a chapter on Christ our Righteousness showing that Jesus’ death did what the law could not do, and reconciled us to God. The idea of Christ’s work as our redeemer is explored in two more chapters – Christ the Conqueror, and Priest and Sacrifice. It is also central to a chapter called Worthy is the Lamb, which focuses on the book of Revelation.
The Work of Jesus concludes by looking at the presence of Jesus in the prophecies and people of the Old Testament, and at His presence in various of the letters, or epistles in the New Testament.
I recommend this book to anyone wanting a clear explanation of Jesus role in salvation and in history. It was published in 1979 as part of the I want to know series, which explores a range of different themes, including Christian Living, Salvation and The Holy Spirit. There are 12 titles in the series. This one is hard to find, so contact me, but the one on the Holy Spirit is still available second hand from Amazon.