The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606


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You might want to read this justifiably well-received literary history multiple times. The title “The Year of Lear” is a slightly misrepresents the scope of the book. It provides an interesting critical analysis of the literary development of the play “King Lear” in historical and cultural context, but it does the same for “Macbeth“, “Antony and Cleopatra” and other Shakespearean plays. The author, James Shapiro, is an expert on Shakespeare. He previously published “A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599”. It spotlighted Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays of that year: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Coincidentally a local theatre company in NYC is staging to mixed reviews, excerpts from all four plays in one four hours plus production, where the actors take on multiple roles. 1606 was the year for Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Some were performed later, and Timon of Athens was a collaborative effort that may have been dated 1605.

What is most interesting about this book is how we are products of our times. The transition from Elizabeth I to James I required flexibility by playwrights and theatre companies. The latter were dependent upon the public largesse of the Crown and the popularity of the actors. Shakespeare’s the King’s Men, was James I’s official company, even though Shakespeare’s Queen’s Men was associated with Elizabeth I. Political and theatrical transitions were smooth for the time. Dramatist wrote for specific actors who could make or break a company.  King Lear was written for Richard Burbage the lead actor of the period. He was curiously also the embodiment for Richard the Third, Hamlet and Othello. The playwright had to be sensitive to the politics of the period. Criticism not masked in the writing could result in time in the Tower or execution. Antony and Cleopatra, written after Elizabeth’s death, may reflect the virgin Queen’s relationship with the Earl of Essex (who she executed), even though it is drawn from Plutarch’s Life of Antony. Shakespeare counterpart Ben Jonson, who wrote Volpone for Burbage, spent time in the Tower for offending King James.

The historical context of this book is current and  compelling. The Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 although unsuccessful in its attempt to kill King James and to blow up Parliament understandably resonated throughout the kingdom, as 9/11 left a cultural impact on the U.S.. Catholics, and in particular Jesuits, were the targeted group. Gowrie Day, the 5th of November, was a day of collective memory. A plot by Catholic English gentry seemed unimaginable given its magnitude. Spain and other Catholic governments were suspected. There even was a conspiracy theory that the Catholic hating Salisbury orchestrated the plot.  Many of the plotters were known or had association with Shakespeare and his family and it was orchestrated from Warwickshire. James’ response was moderate and no worse than Elizabeth’s prosecution of the Jesuits. James’ primary goal was to unify Scotland, England and Wales and he needed moderation to accomplish this. Queen Anne was also a silent Catholic. His kingdom, like Lear’s, was divided. The Union Jack and other trappings of unity were created by James to enlist Parliament in his desire for Great Britain. He was unsuccessful. Parliament held the purse, the Crown was as dependent as a theatre company.

James did not have Elizabeth’s swagger and Antony and Cleopatra may have been a masked dig at James being the less charismatic. As Shapiro would have it, the play was nostalgic for a more heroic period. The Armada was defeated during her reign. James’ legacy was the King James Bible (see my review of the interesting cultural and religious history of this Bible by Alistair McGrath, In the Beginning). He also began the colonization of the New World with the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Over time, perhaps he is the one with the greater legacy.

Communication was relatively slow, but the plague was fast and near constant during this period, particularly in London. It interrupted the theatre schedules, eliminating younger companies that were not subsidized. As Shakespeare was 42 in 1606 this was beneficial to the Kings Men. Shakespeare did not stage masques which were a financial plum. Although some Shakespearean plays incorporated masques (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, the Tempest and Henry VIII), the costly staging (often by Indigo Jones) of dance, pantomime, and song that engaged the Crown and aristocracy in the production were awarded to others.

As is the case with Broadway, plays were often revivals and adaptations of earlier plays that the public knew and would attend. The spectators expected to see a different play every night, so volume restrained creation of original works. King Lear was an adaptation of an earlier, King Leir. Shapiro contrasts the two, with King Lear being substantially the darker. Shakespeare borrowed language for Lear and Edgar from Samuel Harsnett’s treatise on faking demonic possession A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. Often better to be a borrower than a creator be.

The literary references and analysis, the self-censoring of language, the etymology of Shakespearean usage in their historical and cultural context, are a few of the other virtues of this book. If you like history, language, and Shakespeare, this book will be as you like it.


The Blue Between Sky and Water


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An imagined village that historically was on the trade route from Cairo to Damascus. Once ruled by the Mamluks, today is in Gaza.

“A river, brimming with God’s assortment of fish and flora, can through Beir Daras, bringing blessings and carrying away village waste, dreams, gossip, prayers, and stories, which it emptied into the Mediterranean just north of Gaza. The water flowing over rocks hummed secrets of the earth and time meandered to the rhythms of crawling, hopping, buzzing, and flying lives.”

The author, Susan Abulhawa, is a political activist whose family immigrated to the U.S. after the Six Day war with Israel. Her parents had lived in East Jerusalem, initially moving to Kuwait. She reportedly spent some time in foster care, and the character Nur perhaps reflects some of her experience. The story is a saga of a Palestinian family displaced after Israel’s War of Independence, told through the eyes of women. It is a story of family and traditional Palestinian values, in part, in contrast to American values and those of richer Palestinians. The underlying theme is of unprovoked displacement, occupation, and struggle to regain their freedom and village of Beir Daras. The novel begins with a recitation of the Israel-Arab/Palestinian conflict and the rise of Hamas, who the author supports.

“Declassified documents, obtained years later, revealed the chilling precision with which Israel calculated the calorie intake of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza to make them go hungry, but not starve.” The author’s statement is based on a April 15, 2006 article in the Observer section of The Guardian, and attributable to Dov Weissglass, then an advisor to the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert :

“‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,’ he said. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.”

The authenticity of the quote and its context were later called into question (see ). Without the undercurrent theme I might have been able to enjoy the story more, but its historical inaccuracies and unbalance, seem aimed at propaganda for recruits. Given that the author lives in Pennsylvania and did not bear the suffering that those in Gaza have experienced, this is bothersome to me. She admits that the venue is derivative from Ramzy Baroud’s book My Father Was a Freedom Fighter. To her credit she is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.

The story  never demonstrates the starvation and deprivation that I expected it to. The families do not have all that they want and do suffer from bombings, but no family member is ever without food nor has diet limitations. They have periodic celebrations. It does not feel like a pogrom, if that was the author’s intent. Perhaps this was edited out. Perhaps the intent was not to directly create a political novel, but to do so indirectly. The preface and epilogue only intermittently reflect the novel and might have been omitted.

The more literary writing reflected in the initially quoted paragraph of this review is never repeated. This novel is principally story-telling. The characters are well-developed, particularly the matriarch of one of the family lines, Atiyeh m. Nazmiyeh, and Nur a granddaughter of a related family line, who is American born, and suffers in foster care before emigrating to Gaza. The interplay between these two characters and Nazmiyeh’s daughter, Alwan, is interesting, as Western American women (and Westernized upper class Palestinian women) values are unacceptable to retained traditional values. The atomic, individualized world of Americans, is rejected by the communal, familial orientation of traditional Arab (and Persian) cultures. The author is reflects the values of her characters, and is honest in doing so.

As this is principally a women’s novel, only the stories of a few males by marriage, birth, or relationship, are told. Nazmiyeh’s eleven sons are not part of the tale. Are they part of the resistance or are they merely trying to earn a living to survive? Perhaps the author can write a sequel based on their stories given her political activism.

If you are a supporter of Hamas you may like this novel or may find it too mainstream. Personally I am troubled by an agenda that keeps sending young people and families to their death, rather than to try to coexist and build a better life for those which it purportedly represents (and did at one point).




Fifteen Dogs


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I came across Fifteen Dogs at the Brooklyn Book Fair last year. I had not read anything by Mr. Alexis. It is an apologue. Apollo and Hermes wager whether dogs granted human consciousness and language will die happy or sad. Part of the pack of 15 dogs dominates those who are attracted to their new-found capabilities. They want to remain as dogs. Those who accept their new skills find it disruptive. Communication with humans is not always understood nor accepted. Human males treat them as circus performers. Female humans are drawn closer to them. The dogs presumed genetic pack hierarchy of male dominance makes it hard for these dogs to treat their female human friends as equal. Nature (genetics) is pitted against culture (epigenetics).

The book is anthropocentric. While it recognizes that dogs (and other animals) have their own language, it assumes that they may not be able to understand human language because they cannot speak it. It is known that in their own language birds actually have dialects like humans. The dogs in this novel are multi-linguistic although they prefer English. Whether dogs might have these natural skills is unknown.

There is no deep philosophy nor moralizing in this book. The book contains poems written by the dogs who have accepted their new linguistic skills. The author notes that these are written in the genre invented by Francois Caradec called oulipo. These poems purportedly can be understood by both dogs and human. They may give dogs a reason to hate poetry.

Given the wealth of outstanding literature that goes unread I would suggest you pass up on Fifteen Dogs. For me it wasn’t fetching.


The Bamboo Stalk


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“My name is José. In the Philippines it’s pronounced the English way, with an h sound at the start. In Arabic, rather like in Spanish, it begins with a kh sound. In Portuguese, through it’s written the same way, it opens with a j, as in Joseph. All these versions are completely different from my name here in Kuwait, where I’m known as Isa.”

This novel by Saud Alsanousi started off a little slow for me, but after about sixty pages it caught hold and became compelling. It is an émigré novel:  about cultural displacement and the failure of socio-economic acceptance. José or Isa, is a mulatto. The son of a wealthy Kuwaiti father and his Philippine maid mother, who while in the employ of this leading Kuwati family, unusually, but temporarily, becomes a wife. As the marriage would create a scandal, there is a quick divorce, forced by his father’s mother. His father vows to support Isa and to have him return to Kuwait when he is older. Like the author, Isa’s father was a journalist and activist. He is killed during Iraq’s invasion and temporary conquest of Kuwait.

” I was more like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of that stalk and plant it without roots in any piece of ground. Before long the stalk sprouts new roots and starts to grow again in the new ground, with no past, no memory. It doesn’t notice that people have different names for it – kawayan in the Philippines,  khaizuran in Kuwait, and bamboo in many places.”

At first Isa believes he can find comfort and acceptance through religion. He explores Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. He found that he did not need icons or miracles to find faith.

“Religions are bigger than these adherents. That’s what I’ve concluded. Devotion to tangible things no longer matters as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to be like my mother, who only pray to a cross, as if God lived in it. I don’t want to be like one of the Ifugao and never take a step unless it is sanctioned by anito statues, which help my work prosper, protect my crops and save me from evil spirits at night. I don’t want to be like Inang Choleng, tying my relationship to God to a favourite statue of Buddha. I don’t want to seek baraka from a statue of a white horse with wings and the head of a woman, as some Muslims do in the Philippines.”

The novel is not flattering to Kuwait, particularly its upper social strata. They are trapped more by their maintenance of their social status than by their religion. The author does not paint them with one brush. There are differences, but in the end, the country remains insular. It suffers from passively created wealth. There is a secular shallowness from drilling, in spite of, or compounded by, strong religious beliefs. José ultimately finds his humanity in himself, despite Isa’s disillusionment with his Kuwaiti dream.

This novel was the recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was translated by Jonathan Wright. It is worth your time.












A God in Every Stone


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Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone is a beautifully crafted work of literature that captures the history of conquest, exploration, and colonialism from Darius to Gandhi. The venue is Peshawar, prior to and after the First World War, when it was part of India and under British colonial rule. For Vivian Rose Spencer, an intrepid English young woman who has been taught archaeology by her much older Turkish/Armenian mentor and subsequent surreptitious husband, the holy grail becomes the search for a circlet of figs given by Darius to the ancient Greek explorer Scylax and lost to history since 334 B.C. According to Herodotus, Darius I had Scylax explore the Indus river to determine where it reached the sea. Scylax set out from Caspatyrus, which is now near Peshawar, but then Pactyike. Upon reaching the sea he sailed across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea and then returned to Darius. Southwestern Turkey, called Caria at the time of Scylax, was captured by the Hecatomnids. They treated the Circlet as a prized possession and stamped its image on their coins. In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Caria.

Separated during the First World War, Tahsin Bey, Ms. Spencer’s husband, writes her that the  Circlet might be in Peshawar. She travels there and develops a life-long relationship with a young boy, Najeeb, who becomes her local guide and secret archaeology student. His education by Ms. Spencer becomes problematic for Najeeb’s mother, as a Pathan would not be alone with a woman and Najeeb was ignoring his Islamic teachings. Najeeb’s brother Qayyum, a loyal soldier to the Crown as a member of the 40th Pathans, returns home from England where he learned the prejudice of colonial Britain toward its Pashtun, Dogras and Punjabis soldiers while recovering in an English hospital after a war injury. The drama of the novel is captured by the disintegration of colonial India through the peaceful revolution of the Congress Party under Gandhi, as played out in Peshawar by Ms. Spencer, Najeeb and Qayyum.

The author imparts the cultures, prejudices, and landscape of Peshawar throughout the novel. On his initial guide through Peshawar Najeeb takes Ms. Spencer down all the lanes of the city: the famed Street of Storytellers, the Street of Dentists, The Street of Potters, The Street of Money-Changers, the Street of Partridge Lovers.

“The Street of Englishwomen?’

“They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will try to avoid it”

“Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must”

“He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.”

She learns that he speaks Pashto, but at home they speak Hindko.

“We are more Peshawari than Pathan, but we’re also Pathan. Buy everyone here speaks both Hindko and Pashto and many people Urdu and also English and every language of the world someone here can speak. This is Peshawar.”

Ms Shamsie’s novel is a tapestry upon which a page-turning story rests. It was shortlisted for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015, because it has a bevy of strong English and Peshawari  women breaking free from the mores of their time and religion.

I was originally searching for Ms. Shamsie’s previous novel Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. I will look for that novel even more now. This exquisite novel is a very worthwhile read.






Parrot & Olivier in America


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Peter Carey employs Parrot, an orphan boy saved by servitude to French nobility, and Olivier, a fictionalized Alexis de Tocqueville, to recreate his life and to create a vignette from his Democracy in America. It juxtaposes the cultural and religious prejudices of French aristocracy with that of the nascent American mercantile and gentleman farmer class of the 1830s. Olivier, a product of inborn status in France, becomes supplicant to the entrepreneurial Parrot, who ostensibly acts as his Secretary, while being paid to spy on Olivier by Olivier’s mother in France. The overriding theme is that America offers upward mobility, while France can’t evolve from the upheaval of the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Second Revolution. Olivier, like de Tocqueville, came to America on the pretext of examining America’s penal system. This permits a peak at the underbelly of America, through its prisons and Parrot and his painter wife’s climb up the economic ladder.

Carey captures the aristocratic ambivalence of de Tocqueville toward the will of the majority in America. For him, it creates a race to the bottom, both politically and culturely. He feels that Parrot’s wife’s art is plebeian, unworthy of some acclaim she receives in America. Politically, he presages the Age of Jackson. Parrot, on the other hand, sees America, like himself, as a work in progress. America of the 1830s is optimistic, France is not.

“Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theatre gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare.”

There is some truth to Olivier’s soliloquy, but it was too early to for him to witness the impact of immigration on America.

The novel is an entertaining read, that remains as truthful to the portion of de Tocqueville’s life that it captures. Through well-drawn characters it reflects the time and place of the period in France and America. It would be a good companion to Democracy in America.




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In the last book in Robert Harris’ Ancient Rome Trilogy, Dictator, captures the House of Cards that was Rome in the period beginning in the last half of 1 BC. The Dictators are Gaius Julius Caesar, Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian (aka Augustus), following the failures of the  first (Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Crassus) and second (Octavian, Antony and Marcus Lepidus) Triumvirates. The novel is drawn from Cicero’s secretary Tiro imagined biography of Cicero during the final fifteen years of his life. It is principally political fiction, focusing on Cicero as statesman and lawyer and not as philosopher. The focus is on Cicero, the Republican savior. The biography is after Cicero served as Consul and instituted martial law to avert the overthrow of the Republic and his assassination by the Catiline conspirators. In an ironic twist, it is Caesar who argues for life imprisonment of the conspirators, fearing the precedent that Cicero and the Senate would set by instituting the death penalty without any judicial intervention.

History is replete with familiar and political intrigue, so the backdrop for this historical fiction makes the novel a political thriller. The prose is modern prose. This is not literary fiction. The intent is to reveal the history and the politics in a fast paced novel, and in this it succeeds. The historical base for the biography is Plutarch’s Parallel Livers  (*.html

Plutarch drew upon the discovery of Cicero’s letters. Dictator adds imagined dialogue to the history. As with Plutarch’s Lives, this novel is also a study of human characters on a world stage.

The novel is a reminder that hypocrisy is a function of power. It would be an excellent companion to a secondary school course covering ancient history. If you enjoy history or politics, you will find it entertaining.

Falling Man


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This iconic photo by Richard Drew of the Associated Press captured an unidentified man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11. It is estimated that at least 200 people followed suit that day. Even for those who did not witness the event, the image is seared in the mind. That morning as I was walking away from the WTC area on Water Street, there was a woman in near hysterics. She had actually saw these falling people. The terror in her eyes remained with me when I saw the this photo published in the New York Times. The image raises so many questions.

“Falling Man” by Don DeLillo, is part aftermath, part performance art. The latter is a man who unexpectedly turns up in New York City in a reenactment of a man falling from heights as onlookers watch believing he will die. Unseen until the act is done, he is tethered inelastically. He incurs bodily damage by doing so, but he is not in search of notoriety.  His personal history is unknown.

The principal is Keith, an employee who worked in the WTC and survived. He goes to his estranged wife Lianne and his son Keith immediately after leaving the scene.

“When he appeared at the door it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face. He looked immense, in the doorway, with a gaze that had no focus on it…. She turned off the TV set, not sure why, protecting him from the news he’d just walked out of, that’s why, protecting him from the news he’d just walked out of, that’s why, and then went into the kitchen.”

Life, mortality and God are looked at from different viewpoints. Keith is not resurrected. He revels in his isolation, becoming a semi-professional itinerant poker player. Lianne half-heartedly believes in maintaining the family even in an atomic state. Her mother, Nina, a moral hypocrite, never believed in Keith and warns against him. Justin, still in elementary school, with his peers detach from adults and search the skies. The perspectives of the terrorists are also considered.

“But the system doesn’t justify this. Islam renounces this,” he said.

“If you call it God, then it’s God. God is whatever God allows.”

Lianne looks at pictures of old passports framed on Nina’s wall. Her married boyfriend, an art dealer, gave them to her.

“There was something in the premeditation of these photographs, the bureaucratic intent, the straightforward poses that brought her paradoxically into the lives of the subjects. Maybe what she saw was human ordeal set against the rigor of the state. She saw people fleeing, there to here, with darkest hardship pressing the edges of the frame.”

Lianne, first flails against her arab neighbor. Subsequently she seeks out a mosque.

“She ran early mornings and came home and stripped and showered. God would consume her. God would de-create her and she was too small and tame to resist. That’s why she was resisting now. Because think about it. Because once you believe such a thing, God is, then how can you escape, how survive the power of it, and was and ever shall be.”

Don DeLillo is one of America’s best authors, but this is the first novel by him that I have read. A new novel by him will be released this May.

He is an interesting writer and this is an a good book that realistically describes 9/11 and the period thereafter.


Ways of Going Home


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I had been looking forward to read Alejandro Zambra. He is appreciated by his Latin American peers who have created a beachhead in the U.S. market. I heard a few of them at the Brooklyn Book Fair last Fall. Unlike Valeria Luiselli, whose novel I recently reviewed, Mr. Zambra’s command of English is fairly weak, so “Ways of Going Home” is translated by Megan McDowell.

These young novelists are trying to convince U.S. publishers that magic realism is not what is written nor read by most authors and readers in Latin and South America. What I have noticed about this cadre of writers is that their works often contain references to works by their peers. The few works by them that I have read are also partly autobiographical.

This is the case with “Ways of Going Home”. It is a novel about relationships during and after the Pinochet regime in Chile. The principal relationship is between the narrator, an unnamed boy of 9, and Claudia, a 12-year-old neighbor. She has him spy on her uncle Raul but does not tell him why. The boy remains infatuated with her and when they are adults their relationship is reignited. The boy, now an adult novelist, also tries to rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife and muse, Eme. The back drop of the novel, is the impact that the Dirty War years had on familiar relationships. Although the author claims the novel is not a love story, its stronger elements are his insights about relationships.

His better known novel is “Bonsai”, which earned him the best novel Chilean Critics Award. Part of “Ways of Going Home” had appeared in Granta. I found this surprising as it is a novella in size. The book was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a very reputable publisher. Given this, I was surprised to find an editorial error. Dialogue is repeated nearly verbatim on pages 64 and 109. It is not stylistic.

Although Mr. Zambra is a capable writer, I felt that he was going through the motions in writing this novella. It is not a bad novel, but I felt that he was turning out a product to please his publisher. It is a decent quick read, but I think he should demand more from himself.

Tremor of Intent


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Two young boys from Protestant England are deposited on scholarship at a mostly day Catholic school in Bradcaster on the eve of World Water II. Roper, irreverent in his search for a unified theory of creation, is matched by the socially mature Hillier, in a challenge of Catholic orthodoxy at the school. The first chapter of Anthony Burgess’, parody of spy novels, is unfortunately the best. Roper, to the displeasure of Father Beauchamp, challenges God and breaks down the Eucharist into its molecular structure.

Unfortunately the War intervenes. Hillier making use of his Slavonic language skills joins her Majesty’s intelligence service. Roper is sent off to Germany to fight and develops an affinity for all things teutonic. Reflecting Russian infiltration of England’s spy network, Hillier ultimately defects to Russia during the Cold War. It is up to Hillier, in his last assignment before retirement, to return Roper to England.

The parody is more of Ian Fleming spy novels, then of Le Carre. Written in 1966, the novel feels a bit dated. As one reviewer noted, in writing a satire, Burgess wrote a mediocre spy novel. After the first chapter the humor is flat, and as a satire, there is no suspense.

Read the first chapter for a laugh, then find another book to read.


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