Wednesday, 29 August 2001


Listening to:

Oscar Peterson, Sometimes I’m happy.

Just read:

Todd McEwen, Arithmetic.

(Incidentally, if you can’t remember how to spell the word “arithmetic”, you might find the following mnemonic helpful: “a Red Indian thought he might eat turnips in church”. I was told this before I was ten, and it has stuck with me until the age of thirty. Sadly, I’ve never had any trouble spelling the word; it seems to me to be written pretty much as it sounds.)

Anyway, this book is not a guide to adding up. It is a novel about a period of a small boy’s life in California in 1960 (I can date it this precisely because there’s reference to Kennedy’s presidential election campaign). Not a lot happens really. The boy, Joe Lake, has trouble with arithmetic at school, and has to do remedial homework with a horrible book called Arithmetic town. This explains the title, but this facet of the story isn’t really that important. Instead, it’s just one part of the general slice of life.

In this, the presentation of a seven or eight year old’s slice of life, the book is quite convincing. On the other hand, I’ve decided that I don’t believe anything purporting to be the inner life of a child. I remember precious little of what it was like to be that age, and what I do remember has been retrospectively munged by the action of recollection. Joe Lake isn’t Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes (who is definitely not realistic), but there are similarities, and he is occasionally too articulate. I think I will have to have a child of my own, before I will commit to believing that a fictional portrait is accurate or not.

Arithmetic presents a few vignettes of life (dealing with school friends and enemies) that are accurately drawn and quite amusing with it. However, it’s quite a short novel, and nothing happens. There is no plot development. The last chapter is a lyrical reflection on the idealised world of cartoons (Joe earlier complains that his southern Californian suburb has no trees to climb, and that it has none of the neat features that real places should), and is really an unsatisfying way to finish things.

To read next:

Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray.

And as for the move to the new building

Things are still not quite set up properly in the new Computer Lab building. Web-log patchiness will probably continue for a little while.