Bram Stoker’s Dracula

The tomb in the day-time, and when wreathed with fresh flowers, had looked grim and gruesome enough; but now, some days afterwards, when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns; when the spider and  the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance; when time-discoloured stone, and dust-encrusted mortar, and rusty, dank iron, and tarnished brass, and clouded silverplating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle, the effect was more miserable and sordid than could have been imagined. It conveyed irresistibly the idea that life – and animal life – was not the only thing which could pass away.

The daddy of them all, the originator of a whole genre, a new kind of villain, to challenge even the most steadfast of heroes. I had finally got round to reading a classic. I tend to avoid them, I almost feel like I’m expected to like them, couldn’t possibly argue against the tide of history and longevity, or I’ve already seen the film, and film is almost always the poorer cousin to a good novel, and I feel that I would just be reading it just because it’s a classic, not because I wanted to read it.

But this was a gift, and I haven’t seen the movie so I stocked up on garlic and jumped in.
During Elizabeth Kostova’s introduction I learnt that the novel is told entirely in diary entries, telegrams and letters between the main characters, and I was intrigued to see how this would build up the tension and affect the flow of the story.

It started almost like a travel book, as Jonathan Harker travels out to Transylvania to meet the Count, who is purchasing a house in England.  The descriptions of the journey, along with his observations of local superstitions would read equally well as a travel narrative today. However, as he draws closer to the castle, his diary slowly winds up the tension and I would have loved to have been able to read this when it first came out, as I think Stoker excellently builds the dread of Dracula, which is slightly lost today as you already know the count for what he is. All is not lost though, you feel for Harker, and his discovery of the counts secret and the female vampires still conjures genuine horror.

The switch to the letters between Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray switches the narrative away and allows the scene to be set back in England, however it seems a little slow going after the tension of the diary, although by switching back in time you can see Mina’s concern that her fiancé (Harker) has stopped writing to her and she worries for his safety.
The introduction of the main characters, mostly done through Lucy includes Dr Seward, whose patient Renfield, becomes a key link to Dracula and is brilliant manipulated by the Count.

When Dracula arrives in England, in mysterious circumstances he slowly begins to infect the lives of this small band of people and eventually Dr Seward brings in Professor Van Helsing to help unravel the mystery.
Van Helsing is the ultimate match for the Diabolical Count. An older head against Dracula’s young and unformed mind, not letting science discard the irrevocable truth in front of his face. Slowly, after the fate of Lucy is sealed, the small band piece together the terrible story and realise the horror of what they must face. As the very fate of Mina hangs in the balance Van Helsing leads them on a race against time to put an end to the Count once and for all.

In the end I enjoyed Dracula, the use of the diaries and letters allowed Stoker to wind up the tension, sometimes you knew more than the characters, and were screaming for them to let on what they knew or suspected, and at other times you were as blind as they were. Although I think much of the beginning of the book is lost because you already know what Dracula is, once the characters discover and realise what it is they are facing, Stoker does an excellent job on rolling the narrative along in what is, a classic good vs evil story.

I suppose that nature works on such a hopeful basis that we believe against ourselves that things will be as they ought to be, not as we should know that they will be. Transcendentalism is a beacon to the angels, even if it be a will-o-the-wisp to man.

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Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene

It was typical of Dr Hasslebacher that after fifteen years of friendship he still used the prefix Mr – friendship preceded with the slowness and assurance of a careful diagnosis. On Wormwold’s death-bed, when Dr Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.

‘Wormwold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts’ The opening line of the blurb on the back of Our Man in Havana, probably helped me pick it above the other Greene’s available on the shelf. I followed up travels with my aunt with another one of Greene’s ‘entertainments’ .

When Wormwold is inexplicably offered a regular stipend to do some surveillance he reluctantly agrees, persuaded in no small part by his daughter, Milly, who despite spending his money in buckets, tries to economise by giving up cereals and only eating potatoes. Once established as agent 59200/5, Wormwold’s guilt in taking the money, coupled with the fact that he needs the money, leads him to start hiring non-existent sub agents, and filing fictitious reports back to London, including at one point, plans for a nuclear base drawn from vacuum cleaner parts.  However Greene slowly unwinds Wormworld, placing him in more danger as his fictitious reports start coming true and ‘they’ start out to get him.

In and out of Havana, there is a wonderful cast of characters. Dr Hasslebacher, his ever reliable drinking buddy and good friend, is a classic ex pat abroad. Hawthorne, the operative who hires Wormwold is contrasted superbly with the Chief back in London, in a hilarious view at the secret service, although Greene manages to never let the whole thing descend into farce. Milly, the north of Wormwold’s compass, who he respects and adores but who baffles and who causes him to worry as she is chased after by the cat like Captain Segura. Flown in from the typing pool, Beatrice, comes in and pierces through his weary and worn exterior to provides a practical love interest as well as a caring, reliable assistant.

As the scheming deepens you can’t help but worry for Wormwold, and by extension Milly, the deaths signify an ever closing net that has been bought on by imaginative reports that are seriously considered and acted upon in London along with the local authorities putting a squeeze on him, finally forcing him to return to London after having his compromised ‘post’ closed down.

Even during the intrigue, violence and death (of which there isn’t really much) you are never far from a wry chuckle. Wormwold reminded me of Henry Pulling, from Travels with my Aunt, the most mundane and normal person you can imagine, flailing, but not quite helpless as his life takes an unexpected turn, and his full self is forced out of it’s shell, and by doing so, Greene has crafted a brilliantly comical novel.

‘Vacuum cleaner again. Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.’
‘Is that desirable, sir?’
‘Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.’

Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China – Duncan Hewitt

There were fears of serious civil unrest, and in a number of cases the leaders of such protests were arrested and detained.
Still, millions of people continued to lose their jobs around the country – official figures, though hard to confirm, gave at least some sense of the extraordinary scale of what was happening: Some 21 million people made redundant from state enterprises between 1997 and 2000, 12 million of them in 1998 alone.

A functional, yet completely fascinating look at China’s progression since the 1980’s, Getting Rich First blew my mind with the sheer scale of, well of pretty much everything that is happening in this ancient country hurtling like an express train into modernity, if not quite as an open modernity as might be hoped.  To start with, the numbers are bigger, in England our employment figures hover around one, to two million, or thereabouts, it increases or decreases in the thousands, or tens of thousands.  I couldn’t quite get my head around the quote at the head of this review, 12 million people made redundant from state enterprises in 1998 alone. I couldn’t really put it into context, and these staggering figures are all the way through the book.

It’s not just the figures, Hewitt includes a wealth of personal stories in this, some poignant, some successful, many less so.  What they do is paint a picture of a Government, and society, struggling to keep up with the pace of change it is feverishly trying to expedite.  For a society as ancient and venerable as the Chinese, there is a seeming lack of concern about knocking down old buildings, juxtaposed with their thousands of years of heritage. As home ownership becomes more important, more space is needed to build houses, stretching further from the centre of the cities and razing to the ground old properties (many of which are no longer suitable for inhabiting, but are still called home to a few). Indeed, Jeffrey Wong, in one of my favourite parts, started buying old buildings and relocating them brick by brick to his estates so they can be preserved.

That is just one element, Hewitt covers the first Ikea and the worlds largest B&Q as the middle class China learns how to DIY in their new homes.  It is a society that now has aspirations, has an exploding middle class that expects all the trappings with their status such as consumer rights, an open media and quality educatoin. Meanwhile the country folk, struggling for healthcare and support on their farms, are emigrating to the cities in their millions, where they face exploitation and a lack of rights from a social system struggling to keep up with the pace of change around it.

The young people are more self aware and self interested than the previous generation, they are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to their elders further and further, religion is starting to blossom, in some cases offering crucial social support, don’t mention falun gong though.  As he works through China’s society and culture and how it is changing, it seems, to me anyway, that something of a realisation slowly dawns (it’s a big book, there is no rush).

It seems as if the Government, cautiously taking it’s feet of the brakes, is now struggling to regain control.  Time and again the Government relaxes the laws or rules, but then tries to reign them in, or control them in a different way.  What it seems like it hasn’t realised is that it is seriously going to struggle to have a free market, with free enterprise, without a free society. To me, by rolling down the path it has taken, the leadership in China must adapt or potentially face a long slow decline into irrelevance.  Whether this is right or not is neither here nor there, interestingly there are a few times in the book where people comment that it was better under the Chairman, and certainly, not everyone in China is on this express to riches and for the tales of success, there are many, many tales of struggles.

Getting Rich First has given me an interesting glimpse into what is an incredible moment in history, as China rushes with abandonment into a new stage of it’s life, trying to charge through decades of change in a number of years, and although it offers a snapshot, the problem with this book is this: It was published in 2007, and is probably, already completely out of date.

Such developments are still on a relatively small scale, but they are a sign that wahtever the official ideological reservations about allowing religion a wider role in society, the pressing nature of many social problems means that this is starting to happen anyway. In poor rural areas, too, a lack of funding and the urgent desire for development have encouraged some local governments to accept donations from Christian organisations.

Cain – Jose Saramago

So, let us begin by clearing certain malicious doubts about adam’s ability to make a child when he was one hundred and thirty years old. At first sight, if we stick to the fertility indices of modern times, no, he clearly wouldn’t, but during the worlds infancy, those same one hundred and thirty years would have represented a vigorous adolescence that not even the most precocious of casanovas would have sneered at.

So it has finally arrived, Saramago’s last novel before he died, I have a collection of short stories left to read (The Lives of Things) and, if I can convince myself, The Cave, which never seems to quite grab me.  These are pretty much all that’s left from arguably my favourite author (a Raised from the Ground review still to come).

Cain is, the story of Cain (see what he did there), given in Saramago’s ironic sideways style, his humorous digs at a very fallible and inhumane god once again given reign, following on from the wonderful The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.
For my own part, I was completely ignorant of the story of Cain, and even now, given Saramago’s wonderful storytelling, probably still am.  After killing Abel, Cain is embroiled in a seemingly never ending argument with God, a portion of which is told here.

It is Saramago’s gently digging prose that I love about this, the story doesn’t interest me, more the way Saramago commits it to page, almost a smug, knowing way of pointing out what seem to be, when highlighted, fundamental flaws with religion generally, but Christianity particularly. You can’t help but smile when you read, and how, despite his disdain for the omnipotent one, Saramago always seems to make his humans full of more humanity and compassion than their lord on high.

It’s a short novel, so I’ll allow myself a short review, I preferred his other works, perhaps because this has a base, and I was ignorant of that, more so than The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.  However Saramago is Saramago whatever he is writing about, and his style is always enjoyable to me, and his novels full of richness and texture that makes reading him an immense pleasure.

Yes, you read correctly, the lord ordered Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and he did so as naturally as if he were asking for a glass of water to slake his thirst, which means it was a deep seated habit of his. The logical, natural and simply human response would have been for Abraham to tell the lord to p*** off, but that isn’t what happened.